It would be easy to separate the Ravens’ season into two parts: the one with Joe Flacco as starting quarterback and the one with Lamar Jackson. The Ravens were 4-5 before Flacco was sidelined by a right hip injury. Now they are a win from reaching the playoffs.
But that would oversimplify the nuances of the Ravens’ schedule, injuries and game plans. It would also overlook the other decisions coach John Harbaugh and his staff have made over the regular season’s first 16 weeks that have positioned them for a possible AFC North title.
When the Ravens (9-6) face the Cleveland Browns (7-7-1) on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, there will be no more important player on the team than Jackson and no more impressive unit than its cornerbacks. But for all of their contributions to this turnaround season, four other key moves should be just as appreciated.
Insertion and emergence of Orlando Brown Jr.
When right tackle James Hurst suffered a back injury before the Ravens’ Week 7 game against the New Orleans Saints, the Ravens turned to Brown. Even after Hurst returned a month and a half later, the Ravens kept Brown at right tackle, moving Hurst to left guard.
While Ronnie Stanley is by far the team’s top tackle, Brown has played himself into a foundational role along the offensive line. He’s rated among the top rookie offensive tackles all season, according to Pro Football Focus, and has become a reliable source of pancake blocks and play-to-the-whistle nastiness. Playing next to right guard Marshal Yanda, Brown has helped protect Jackson and restore the Ravens’ running game.
“He’s played well,” Harbaugh said earlier this month, when he named Brown the team’s official starter. “He only gets better. I think he can play a lot better. Ask Orlando — he’ll tell you the same thing, because he’s adamant about that, and he works really hard at it.”
Defensive tackle rotation
As the Ravens have worn down defensive fronts late in the season with their run-heavy attack, their own defense has stayed fresh.
The Ravens’ time-of-possession advantage under Jackson has played a part. So has the team’s season-long rotation of its defensive tackles. Even after Willie Henry, who missed the first four games of the season while recovering from umbilical hernia surgery, suffered a season-ending herniated disk injury in Week 7, the Ravens have not become overly reliant on their top two interior forces.
Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce haven’t played more than 64 percent and 58.5 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in a game, respectively, since Week 7. Chris Wormley, No. 3 in the rotation, has averaged about 25 snaps over the past eight games. Despite a pass defense that would seem to encourage rushing, the Ravens haven’t allowed 100 yards on the ground since their Week 10 bye.
With outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith’s versatility as an interior pass rusher, coaches know they can have Williams and Pierce get after it early in drives.
“They’re playing at such a high level that in the right situations, we’re going to put them both out there together,” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said before the team’s win Saturday over the Los Angeles Chargers. “They’re both starters. In my mind, they’re both starters.”
Trusting production over promise
At running back, the Ravens opened the season with Alex Collins, one of the game's highest-rated players at the position. At tight end, all eyes were on top draft pick Hayden Hurst, who had flashed his potential throughout training camp.
But as the Ravens sprint to the season’s finish line, they have come to depend on two players who not long ago were rather anonymous.
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Running back Gus Edwards, an undrafted rookie, supplanted Collins as the Ravens’ top backfield weapon soon after Jackson took the reins of the offense. He has 125 carries for a team-high 642 yards this season, with 100-plus yards in three games and 80-plus in two others.
And tight end Nick Boyle, while not the receiving threat that rookie Mark Andrews is, has become instrumental in the Ravens’ blocking schemes for Jackson and Edwards. Even coming off a concussion in Week 14, he played over 60 percent of the Ravens' offensive snaps against the Chargers and set a single-season career high with 213 receiving yards — nearly 100 more than Hurst has.
Signing Cyrus Jones
The Ravens’ decision to sign Jones in early October after the New England Patriots cut him — again — made for a nice homecoming story, a case of a Baltimore native finding an NFL home back home.
But other than a universally frowned-upon decision to pick up a bouncing ball in Ravens territory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the former Gilman star has been one of the NFL’s best punt returners. He’s averaging 14.4 yards per return, which, if he had enough returns to qualify, would rank second in the league, behind only the New York Jets' Andre Roberts (14.7 yards per return).
Jones has shown a nose for return lanes and a knack for timely big plays. His 70-yard touchdown against the Oakland Raiders gave the Ravens a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter that they would not relinquish. His 55-yard return in the fourth quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs set up wide receiver John Brown’s go-ahead touchdown. Only Patrick Mahomes fourth-down magic on the next drive dimmed its importance in the eventual loss.
“He has certainly improved since he has gotten here, having a better understanding of our returns and how they’re structured and what we want him to do,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said two weeks ago. “But at the same time, our return team is performing better. They’re more efficient in their blocks, and I think those two things have gone hand in hand.”