EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Season openers can reveal a lot about a team, or not much at all. Narrow the sample size down to the first half of Week 1, and the findings get even more exaggerated, a test case of sample size variance. In the Ravens’ case Sunday, the first two quarters of a a 24-9 win over the New York Jets seemed to be realizing every worst fear about their offense and every high hope for their defense.
Lamar Jackson was playing like a quarterback bracing himself against the weight of the NFL’s most scrutinized contract situation, and his teammates were playing like he could do it all himself. There were errant passes and dropped passes. There were missed reads and missed blocks. The offense was as dreary as the slate gray sky looming over MetLife Stadium.
The Ravens’ saving grace was a defense that looked more like the units that have held up the franchise, more like the talented group that was envisioned when last season started. The line got after quarterback Joe Flacco. The linebackers flowed from side to side. The secondary was making plays and toying with the Jets’ offense.
By the time Jackson and Flacco embraced near midfield late Sunday afternoon, the Ravens’ comfortable win well in hand, the Week 1 narratives had mellowed out some. The offense had shown an uncommon burst in a breakaway third quarter. The defense had faltered here and there. There were injuries to evaluate and film to study, but at least there was a win to savor, the Ravens’ first since Nov. 28. Even if it was against the Jets.
“I feel like it was just us feeling it out out there,” said Jackson, who missed the final four-plus games of last season with a bone bruise in his ankle, coinciding with the Ravens’ six-game losing streak, and sat out the preseason along with many of the team’s starters. “Yes, we’re just getting back into the swing of things. We played better, we came out better in the second half and started putting points on the board.”
The Ravens’ rainy opener felt in many ways like a sideshow to Jackson’s recently suspended contract negotiations. He awoke Sunday to headlines splashed on every NFL pregame show about the king’s ransom he had passed on and how, in the final year of his rookie contract, he was willing to bet that he could earn more.
After finishing 17-for-30 for 213 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, along with six carries for 17 yards, Jackson was asked whether he’d turned down a contract extension worth $250 million, as ESPN reported. “Guaranteed?” he asked, referring to his desire for a deal similar to Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson’s.
“No, there’s no truth to that,” Jackson said. He later told ESPN that he turned down an extension offer with about $160 million to $180 million fully guaranteed.
In the third quarter, Jackson looked worth every dollar the Ravens have offered him. His first half had been rather forgettable: 10-for-16 for 83 yards and a touchdown, just one carry for 4 yards. The Ravens, still missing starting running back J.K. Dobbins and left tackle Ronnie Stanley, entered halftime with just 11 rushing yards on seven attempts, their lowest yardage with Jackson as starter.
In one eight-minute stretch, however, Jackson transformed into the quarterback who has made season openers his personal playgrounds. On third-and-10 from the Jets’ 17-yard line, Jackson hung patiently in the pocket until wide receiver Devin Duvernay crossed his line of sight. The two had connected in the second quarter on a 25-yard touchdown, Duvernay winning a jump ball around the goal line to extend the Ravens’ lead to 10-3.
Duvernay’s second touchdown was much easier: a 17-yard score he snagged over the middle of the end zone to give the Ravens a 17-3 lead. Duvernay finished with four catches, matching his career high, for a career-high 54 yards.
“Not surprised,” coach John Harbaugh said of Duvernay, who entered the season with two career touchdown catches. “This guy, he’s done so many things for us that really doesn’t always show up in the stat book, but he’s made big plays for us in the past. He works so hard; he’s been doing it in camp every single day. So I don’t think any of the players are surprised, [nor the] coaches. We’re just happy to see it happen in a game.”
Jackson’s dagger came five minutes later. It required some good fortune, which was not always overflowing Sunday. In between losing starting left tackle Ja’Wuan James to a season-ending Achilles tendon injury and later losing starting cornerback Kyle Fuller to a knee injury of unknown severity, the Ravens watched running back Mike Davis lose the ball on a third-quarter, open-field carry.
Somehow, amid a wave of Jets defenders, Davis fell on what he’d dropped. The next play sent Jets fans streaming to the exits. Jackson’s 55-yard bomb hit Rashod Bateman in stride, and the second-year wide receiver stared into the stadium’s lower bowl of seats, packed with purple, as the team’s sideline exploded.
According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, it was Jackson’s third deep touchdown pass (20-plus air yards) of the game, a career high. The ball also traveled 58.5 yards downfield, the second-most air yards on a completion of his career.
“Lamar played outstanding,” Harbaugh said. “He played a patient, veteran quarterback game. He was in control of everything, he did a great job with the line, he handled the clock really well. … He got the guys in the right spots, and then he was poised in the pocket, held the ball, protected the ball, found guys open, moved when he had to, made a couple plays with his legs when he had to here and there. He played a really veteran, winning-quarterback type of a game.”
Asked whether he’d seen any clues Jackson was stressed by the pregame scrutiny, rookie center Tyler Linderbaum chuckled. “No,” he said. “I think we were about beating the Jets.”
If the offense can marry that level of production — in the third quarter, it averaged 8.8 yards per play, compared to 3.5 yards otherwise — with a defense that reintroduced itself to Flacco with a sneer Sunday, the Ravens’ path back to the playoffs will ease considerably.
In coordinator Mike Macdonald’s play-calling debut, the Ravens didn’t have many opening-day jitters. Defensive lineman Justin Madubuike beat Pro Bowl left guard Laken Tomlinson twice on the Jets’ first drive for quarterback pressures. Marcus Williams had an interception in the first quarter. Fellow safety Chuck Clark forced a fumble the Ravens recovered in the fourth. Outside linebacker Justin Houston and defensive lineman Calais Campbell had two of the defense’s three sacks, powering an unrelenting pass rush.
The Jets outgained the Ravens 378-274 but were less efficient on a per-play basis and didn’t convert a third down until midway through the fourth quarter. Flacco, starting for the injured Zach Wilson, finished 37-for-59 for 307 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
But just as the offense was better than it let on early, the defense left room for improvement ahead of Sunday’s showdown against the Miami Dolphins and their arsenal of weapons. There were missed tackles and penalties that wiped out two sacks. There was the occasional blown coverage. A surprisingly leaky run defense (17 carries for 83 yards) opened the door for the Jets’ only first-half score.
Afterward, standing at the lectern, Duvernay and Madubuike leaned on well-worn cliches to explain the win’s significance. After the first week of an 18-week regular season, the classics took on renewed meaning: They’ll take things a day at a time. They’ll not worry about the critics. They’ll control what they can control.
This early in September, their season can go a lot of ways.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get to the ultimate goal,” Houston said. “The goal is the ring. And to get there, we’ve got to play way better than what we played today.”
Next Sunday, 1 p.m.
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