The Ravens move the ball so easily with Jackson at quarterback that their margin for error is huge.
The only fans in M&T Bank Stadium were cardboard cutouts. The Cardinal Shehan School choir sang the national anthem from a remote location, with many Ravens kneeling in recognition of their ongoing battle against racism. Once the actual football began, however, Jackson made 2020 feel a lot like 2019.
The Ravens hardly played a perfect game in routing their AFC North rival. They settled for a field goal after the Browns set them up on the Cleveland 26-yard-line with a colossally ill-advised fake-punt attempt. Fullback Patrick Ricard fumbled at the Browns' 7-yard-line when the game was still hanging in the balance.
But the Ravens live on the short list of NFL teams that roll past such flubs without a hitch, and Jackson is the reason, much like Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City.
Start on your own 1-yard-line? No problem. Jackson will flick five perfect passes to four different receivers and put you in the end zone. Receive the ball with 69 yards to go and 41 seconds until halftime? Again, he takes you to pay dirt with five quick flicks of his right wrist — some on the run, some outside the numbers, some zipped into tight spaces over the middle.
For anyone clinging to the antiquated notion of Jackson as an unpolished passer, he did far more damage with his arm than his legs Sunday. Earlier in the game, he stepped into a 47-yard strike to Marquise Brown, keeping his cleats planted on the ground, as he and personal coach Joshua Harris worked on in the offseason. In the third quarter, he showed off his touch with a prefect floater to Willie Snead IV for another touchdown.
“Lamar Jackson just played a phenomenal game,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He just played a top-level game in every single way.”
Over the past two seasons, we’ve watched the Ravens buy into Jackson fully. They roll past disappointing moments because they believe, absolutely, that they’re lining up with the best player on the field.
“It’s just a blessing to be able to play with him,” said tight end Mark Andrews, who caught two touchdown passes from Jackson. “He says I make his job easy, but it’s the other way around.”
The rebuilt front seven made an up-and-down debut.
The Ravens might have felt they’d stumbled into a recurring nightmare when the Browns galloped down the field on a 29-yard run by Nick Chubb and a 22-yard run by Kareem Hunt to bring the score to 10-6 in the first quarter. Both plays evoked memories of the outside runs that wrecked them in a 40-25 home loss to Cleveland in Week 4 last fall.
The Ravens traded for Calais Campbell and signed Derek Wolfe in hopes of eliminating such lapses on the edge. But they looked downright disoriented against Chubb and Hunt, two of the most talented open-field runners in the league.
“We gave up more rushing yards than we wanted to,” Harbaugh acknowledged. “I know our guys aren’t going to be happy about that.”
Rookie middle linebacker Patrick Queen said he and his teammates failed to line up correctly or execute their assignments on those two plays. “It was all on us, all stuff that we could fix,” he noted.
The Ravens played more disciplined defense from that point on, and the Browns turned away from Chubb and Hunt as they tried to rally from a big deficit. But Campbell and Wolfe won’t be pleased that they allowed Cleveland’s top two backs to average 5.7 yards per carry. They’ll probably also wish they got to Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield more consistently.
That said, Campbell turned in a remarkable sequence early in the game, stonewalling Chubb on first down, batting down a pass on second down and deflecting another pass into the arms of Marlon Humphrey on third down. He reminded us that even when he doesn’t record a sack, he can alter games in a way no Ravens lineman did last season. That’s why Harbaugh awarded him a game ball.
The Ravens' secondary remains the essential strength of their defense.
Mayfield completed a dreadful 2-of-10 passes when pressured, according to Pro Football Focus. But he also was not effective when he had time to throw.
Plenty of the credit for his frustration should go to Ravens cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, who seemed to rattle Mayfield’s top big-play target, Odell Beckham Jr., with their aggressive coverage. Beckham caught just three passes on 10 targets and dropped one that could have extended a Browns drive (and kept the ball out of Jackson’s hands) just before halftime.
In addition to Humphrey and Peters, nickel cornerback Tavon Young stood out in his return from the neck injury that cost him all of last season. Safeties Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott held up well on the back end as Cleveland connected on just two passes of 20 yards or more.
The Ravens will not play an out-of-sync passing offense every week, but it’s not as if stellar performances are new for this group, which carried the defense down the stretch last season.
Every rookie who was active helped the Ravens on Sunday.
No preseason games, no problem for Ravens veterans. But coaches and teammates wondered if the lack of live action would hold back a deep draft class, at least early in the season.
That was certainly not the case against Cleveland as seven rookies made tangible contributions to the winning effort.
Queen, who made a sack, forced a fumble and wore a custom-made Ray Lewis T-shirt to his postgame podium session, garnered the most attention, followed by second-round pick J.K. Dobbins, who showed his between-tackles toughness and nose for the end zone.
But the breadth of rookie input stood out just as much as the headline plays. Third-round pick Tyre Phillips won Marshal Yanda’s old right guard job and held his own against a talented defensive line. Fellow third rounder Malik Harrison started beside Queen at linebacker and made an important deflection in coverage. James Proche II and Devin Duvernay handled the punt and kickoff return duties, respectively. Even defensive tackle Broderick Washington, an afterthought for much of training camp, made a nice stop.
“They were composed, and they didn’t get too carried away,” Harbaugh said. “The moment wasn’t too big for them.”
He pointed to Proche, who let a punt roll past him but did not compound the mistake by chasing the ball on the ground, as an example of such professionalism.
Mark Andrews looked ready to make good on his best-in-the-league ambitions.
Coming off his first Pro Bowl season, Andrews looked sensational in training camp — faster, fitter and more convinced than ever that he should be Jackson’s target in tight spots.
He told reporters that he aspires to join Travis Kelce and George Kittle in the tippy-top tier of NFL tight ends. Then, he carried that form into the opener, bailing Jackson out with a one-handed snare in the end zone and making two contested catches.
The Ravens quarterback already rates his favorite target as a “top two” tight end.
“He makes my job way easier,” Jackson said. “If it’s a DB guarding him, a safety or linebacker, it doesn’t really matter. He’s going to do a great job of getting open. He’s going to score a touchdown nine times out of 10.”
With Andrews' former Oklahoma teammate, Brown, also in exceptional form to start the season, the Ravens have a pair of targets worthy of their quarterback’s sublime talent. A historically great ground offense didn’t run the ball that well and still ran over the Browns.