From the Ravens’ growing status as a Super Bowl contender to the unglamorous contributions of their wide receivers, here are five things we learned from a 41-7 blowout of the Houston Texans.
Every week, the Ravens look more like a Super Bowl contender.
Think back five weeks in this Ravens season. The team stood 4-2, coming off a tighter-than-expected win over the woeful Cincinnati Bengals. All we could talk about was how the Ravens were soon to be tested for real after holding serve against the soft underbelly of their schedule. They were in fine shape, but their destiny felt murky.
Now, after their comprehensive beatdown of the Texans, it’s fair to wonder if they’re the best team in football.
Every week, we come up with a different reason why the Ravens might falter. First came the trip to inhospitable Seattle to face a potential MVP in Russell Wilson. Then came the mighty New England Patriots, led by Bill Belichick, the greatest defensive game-planner in NFL history. Next up was the dreaded “trap” game against the winless Bengals. Finally, the Texans arrived in Baltimore with their well-rounded roster and superstar quarterback, Deshaun Watson.
The cumulative score of those four games? Ravens 157, opponents 56. Which averages out to 39-14 every week.
You could argue the Ravens have not played a better stretch since they rolled through the playoffs after the 2012 season.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson treated the home fans to another chapter in his (potential) MVP show, with a 139.2 passer rating, a 13-pass completion streak, four touchdown passes and 86 rushing yards on nine carries. As usual, the hard numbers captured a mere portion of his artistry; Jackson followed up his spinning masterpiece from the previous week with a 39-year run on which he left at least five would-be tacklers grasping for air. Almost every other quarterback in the league would have been sacked on the play.
Jackson has captured the imagination of his teammates as much as the public. “I would like to introduce you all to the man, the myth, the legend,” running back Mark Ingram II boomed as Jackson made his way to the postgame interview podium. “The MVP front-runner, and if anybody else is going to say something different about that, then come see me.”
But Jackson really was just part of the story against Houston. The Ravens rushed for 263 yards against a defense that entered Sunday third in the NFL against the run. Their own defense, which looked so vulnerable surrendering 1,033 combined yards in Weeks 3 and 4, stuffed the Texans’ fourth-ranked running attack and harassed Watson (63.7 passer rating, six sacks) into one of the worst performances of his career.
Somehow, the Ravens plug in freshly signed defenders almost every week and keep improving on that side of the ball.
You pair this with a unique offense no opponent has stopped, and it’s easy to start dreaming about a trip to Miami on the first weekend in February.
In recent years, we’ve grown used to perusing the schedule for potential landmines as the Ravens scrap to hang in the playoff race. But this team has changed the terms of engagement. The Ravens have become the opponent other teams fear.
Matthew Judon made himself a lot of money against the Texans.
Some weeks, you see how hard Judon rushes early in the game and it becomes obvious he’s going to be one of the best players on the field. It happened last season in Kansas City, when he hit Patrick Mahomes five times. And it happened Sunday, when Judon made himself Watson’s worst nightmare with four quarterback hits, two sacks and an additional tackle for loss.
“The energy he brought to the table, the speed of the power rush, he was pretty explosive,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “I can’t wait to see the tape. It might have been his best game.”
Harbaugh praised Judon and the team’s other edge defenders for keeping Watson bottled up by sticking to their designed rush lanes. They played passionately but also intelligently.
“I think we just created some looks they weren’t used to,” Judon said.
At his best, Judon rushes with power, speed and a visible intensity that becomes contagious for teammates. In other words, he looks like a player who will command tens of millions of dollars on the open market after this season.
He’s up to six sacks on the season and has hit the opposing quarterback at least twice in seven of the Ravens’ 10 games. Those numbers will get you paid in a modern NFL that places a premium on disrupting passing offenses.
Remember, Za’Darius Smith had never accumulated more than 5½ sacks in a season going into last year. With a well-timed breakout, Smith earned himself a $66 million deal (which, to his credit, he has backed up).
The Ravens, who don’t like to break the bank but don’t have another established pass rusher on their roster, will face a tricky business decision with Judon in the offseason.
For now, he’s one of the key performers on a defense that has taken off over the past four weeks. Judon made a point of crediting the team’s pass coverage and the powerhouse play of its interior linemen.
“My first sack, it was definitely not because I just won on my first move,” he said. “It was definitely a coverage sack, and shouts out to those guys.”
Marlon Humphrey becomes the Ravens’ greatest weapon when they need to slow a star receiver.
Before the game got away from Houston, it seemed Watson might pick the Ravens to death with underneath passes to his best receiver, DeAndre Hopkins.
Hopkins jumped to a fast start, with four catches for 41 yards on the Texans’ first two drives. The Ravens countered by asking Humphrey to shadow the two-time All-Pro receiver wherever he went, and the difference was immediately apparent. Hopkins caught just one pass on four targets the rest of the first half.
The Ravens eventually switched back to marking Hopkins with other cornerbacks, including a verbose Marcus Peters, who gleefully talked trash to the superstar receiver after he broke up a downfield attempt.
But it was Humphrey who blunted Hopkins’ momentum and helped shift the tide of the game. We’ve seen the third-year cornerback win one-on-one matchups against gifted receivers such as Odell Beckham Jr. and Tyler Boyd. The Ravens don’t generally use him to shadow the opponent’s top pass catcher, preferring to stick with their zone coverages.
But Humphrey gives defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale a luxury weapon to pull from his pocket when he needs to counter a particular playmaker.
We should not ignore the wide receivers’ efforts as blockers.
Wide receiver is not a glamour position with the 2019 Ravens. No matter what Jackson says about wanting to get his outside targets more involved, the reality is he threw to them 10 times Sunday compared with 14 targets for his tight ends and running backs. It’s a pattern that’s held throughout his tenure as the team’s quarterback.
Rather than complain, however, the team’s receivers have served as willing blockers for the best running attack in the NFL. Their downfield efforts are particularly important in giving Jackson space to make magic once he gets past the line of scrimmage.
All of the Ravens’ wide receivers, including slight rookie Marquise Brown, came into the game with solid run-blocking grades, according to Pro Football Focus. Willie Snead IV’s enthusiasm for blocking was a major reason the team recently signed him to a contract extension. Rookie Miles Boykin sustained several impressive downfield blocks against Houston, even as he went without a catch.
“The blocking from those guys on the perimeter was really outstanding,” Harbaugh said as he doled out postgame plaudits Sunday.
Both Harbaugh and Jackson go out of their way to praise these pass catchers for their unsexy work, knowing the outside world will rarely do so.
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Justin Ellis and Domata Peko Sr. performed ably stepping in for Michael Pierce.
We keep talking about the Ravens repairing their defense on the fly, and they keep coming up with ways to breathe further life into the storyline.
They faced a potentially perilous situation with Pierce sidelined by an ankle injury and the Texans bringing their productive rushing attack to M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens’ run defense had been very good when Pierce and Brandon Williams both played but dodgy when either of the massive defensive tackles was out.
General manager Eric DeCosta addressed the problem head-on by signing a pair of experienced space eaters in Peko and Ellis. Both played extensively against the Texans, joining a parade of Ravens defenders, including Peters and linebacker Josh Bynes, who’ve made key contributions just a few days after joining the team.
Ellis and Peko combined for five tackles playing beside Williams, who turned in another dominant effort as the Ravens held the Texans to 57 rushing yards and 3.8 yards per carry over the first three quarters (Houston padded its statistics with a meaningless touchdown drive in the fourth quarter).
“I really just want to shout out to the new guys,” Judon said. “We got two new guys … and they came out there, and they executed the game plan.”
The Ravens certainly hope to have Pierce back soon. He and Williams form one of the most powerful interior duos in the league. But Peko and Ellis at least give them quality depth at a position where they’d become thin behind their frontline bruisers.