The Ravens have more paths to victory than all but a few teams in football.
After his virtuoso passing display in Week 1, Lamar Jackson played efficiently more than magically in his ballyhooed rematch with Deshaun Watson and the Texans.
The reigning NFL Most Valuable Player spent too much time ducking Houston defenders to look downfield consistently or spin off video-game runs.
But the Ravens' Week 2 victory reminded us that they don’t always need Jackson to be otherworldly. They’re just as capable of winning because All-Pro cornerbacks, Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, come through with a punch-out and a diving interception, respectively. Or because offensive coordinator Greg Roman dials up a direct snap to Mark Ingram II on fourth down, leading to a back-breaking 30-yard touchdown run. Or because they grind away the clock behind steamrolling fullback Patrick Ricard. Or because kicker Justin Tucker does his job perfectly. Or because they don’t give the ball away.
We probably won’t remember much about this game by the time the playoffs roll around. The Ravens were supposed to win it, and they led from the first quarter on. Only Ingram’s touchdown dash, punctuated with a celebratory spinning back kick, and Peters' interception, combining a remarkable read and an equally remarkable full-extension catch, would be candidates for the permanent highlight reel.
Throughout the first half, CBS analyst Trent Green referred to the Ravens as a run-first team, even as the evidence on the field belied his description. In truth, no one label fits this team. Sometimes, the Ravens take flight on Jackson’s precise passing. Sometimes, they build leads with big-play defense and opportunistic scoring. Sometimes, they really do grind opponents into submission.
With 14 opponents and a wide variety of challenges ahead, it’s an ideal base to start from.
The Ravens have yet to adjust to the absence of Marshal Yanda.
It was easy to overlook because the Ravens put up 38 points in their rout of the Cleveland Browns, but rookie right guard Tyre Phillips and center Matt Skura graded among the worst Week 1 blockers at their positions, according to Pro Football Focus. This was reflected in the team’s pedestrian average of 3.6 yards per carry against the Browns.
The problems grew worse in Houston as the Texans sacked Jackson three times and held Ravens running backs to just 16 yards on five carries in the first half. After Peters put the Ravens in position to drop the hammer with his brilliant interception, a pre-halftime drive stalled because the team’s blockers could not keep Houston defenders from collapsing Jackson’s pocket. Watt maneuvered around right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. for one sack, and linebacker Zach Cunningham blitzed past rookie running back J.K. Dobbins for another.
After the Ravens began the second half with an impressive eight-minute drive, Texans defensive end Charles Omenihu powered past Phillips to sack Jackson and force them to settle for a field goal.
To their credit, the linemen continued bearing down, and the Ravens rode their power game to the finish. Running backs Ingram, Dobbins and Gus Edwards combined for 160 yards in the second half, and they were all smiles in lauding their blockers after the final whistle.
“The offensive line really kind of built into it as the game went along,” coach John Harbaugh said.
Phillips even earned an improved pass-blocking review from Pro Football Focus.
The vulnerabilities exposed earlier in the game were real, however. Watt (two sacks, one pass defended) is an all-time great capable of wrecking any play. But he was not alone; Houston won other individual matchups and hurt the Ravens with consistent penetration up the middle.
With two seconds on the clock in the first quarter and the Ravens leading 3-0, there was no particular reason to think Texans coach Bill O’Brien would make a desperate call. But O’Brien did just that, going for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 34-yard line.
When Watson’s pass fell incomplete, Houston handed the Ravens a tasty chance to go up 10-0, which Jackson and Co. did in four plays.
In Week 1, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski took a similar risk, attempting a fake punt in his own territory with the Ravens up just one score. That attempt also failed and led to easy points for Baltimore.
Taken together, these calls display how opposing coaches fear falling behind this Ravens juggernaut. They’re acting as if hanging with Jackson drive for drive is not a viable option.
In general, NFL coaches should be more aggressive on fourth down. Harbaugh has gained repeated advantages by embracing this attitude and did so again with a fourth-and-inches conversion in his own territory late in the Houston game.
But in our embrace of analytics, we cannot ignore the significant downside that exists on these calls, particularly deep in a team’s own territory. What seems like a gutsy attempt to go punch for punch with the favored Ravens can quickly turn into an accelerated exercise in digging one’s own grave.
If the Ravens' offensive relentlessness pushes teams into such high-risk behavior, it’s yet another advantage for a team already swimming in strengths.
L.J. Fort’s touchdown was a well-deserved reward for overlooked contributions.
Teammates had a grand old time recapping Fort’s mad dash for the pylon after he scooped up the fumble Humphrey had punched free in the second quarter.
“That was sweet,” Ingram said, warming to his analysis with a connoisseur’s eye. “L.J. with the flawless scoop, set up his block, gave a lineman the stiff arm, dove for the pylon, great ball security to get in there and hit the pylon for the score. I think he might have some running back skill to him.”
It was the inside linebacker’s second career touchdown and a glowing moment for teammates to celebrate an underappreciated Raven.
Fort acknowledged a few weeks ago that the Ravens re-signed him because he’s a willing and adept special teams player, one of the least glamorous roles a veteran can hold. He shares time at linebacker with rookie Malik Harrison and if all goes according to plan, he’ll probably stay behind Harrison and first-round pick Patrick Queen in the rotation.
That said, Fort played as well as any Ravens defender on a per-snap basis against the Browns. He forced a fumble on the aforementioned fake punt and made six solo tackles. He’s a capable blitzer and, apparently, the team’s next running back in waiting.
One of the joys of an NFL season is the play that casts unexpected light on a toiler such as Fort. Think back to last year and tight end Nick Boyle’s first career touchdown after a career spent blocking for others. These moments might not mean a lot to the casual viewer, but for those locked in on every play and roster move, they’re golden.
Tavon Young’s knee injury reminded us of the cruelty of this sport.
It will rob the Ravens of secondary depth they were counting on as a key component of their defense, but a nickel cornerback isn’t going to crowd Nick Bosa or Saquon Barkley out of the injury headlines.
Baltimore Ravens Insider Newsletter
Want the inside scoop on the Ravens? Become a Ravens Insider and you'll have access to news, notes and analysis from The Sun.
For those who know Young’s story, however, this was a stomach-turning twist of fate. Few players go at their craft with more enthusiasm than the former fourth-round pick out of Temple. Yet this is the third season-ending injury Young has faced in five seasons as a Raven.
A neck injury kept him away from the team’s thrilling ride through last season.
“It was rough, but as long as my guys were shining, it kept a smile on my face,” he told reporters a few weeks ago. “I came to the games — as many games as I could, home games. … It was all right, but it’s rough at times because you want to be out there. But now that I’m back, I’m just ready to go.”
You could hear the excitement in coaches' voices after they watched him retake the field this summer. They were counting on significant contributions from Young, a dogged playmaker in the middle of the field. But they also just like the guy.
The only good news for Young is that injuries did not prevent him from signing a three-year, $25.8 million extension before last season. Now, he’ll try to work his way back one more time.
The Ravens will probably play Humphrey inside more frequently, as they did last season, and continue to rely on veteran Jimmy Smith as a Swiss army knife. But the sadness here goes beyond tactical concerns.