The Ravens’ past three weeks have been an exercise in guarded optimism. When they win, fellow wild-card contenders also win. When they get players back, they don’t always stay healthy. When their star quarterback heads to the locker room with a double-digit lead, there’s a chance he might have to jog back out, still cramping, to save their season.
Even the Ravens offense’s resurgence, long-awaited and hugely important, is fraught with uncertainty. There is good news — since Week 13, few offenses have been better — and there is maybe bad news — since Week 13, few offenses have faced a more forgiving schedule. How much can you make of the Ravens’ results when their process has been so atypical?
With two weeks left in the regular season and a playoff berth still to be secured, Sunday’s game against the visiting New York Giants (5-9) could be a pothole. It could be a speed bump. It could be no impediment at all. But it is better to be cruising than stuck in the mud.
“When you look at what an offense is supposed to do, our guys have been doing it recently,” Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Thursday. “It’s something we need to keep building on and understand that it’s a week-in and week-out thing. Consistency is what really breeds greatness this time of year.”
And since quarterback Lamar Jackson returned from the reserve/COVID-19 list three weeks ago, the offense has been great. Even greater than great, really.
In wins over the Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars, the Ravens (9-5) scored 121 points, nine more than any other team in that span. Their expected points added — a statistic that quantifies the value of individual plays in terms of points — was an NFL-high 0.356 per play, far ahead of their runners-up. They averaged 6.8 yards per play, just behind the first-place Tennessee Titans.
But the defenses the Ravens ripped up were already somewhat in tatters. The Cowboys rank No. 25 in the NFL in run defense, according to Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics; the Ravens ran for a season-high 294 yards.
The Browns defense is No. 26 in overall efficiency and was without top cornerback Denzel Ward; the Ravens averaged 7.2 yards per carry and 8.4 yards per pass attempt.
The Jaguars have the NFL’s second-worst pass defense, fifth-worst run defense and least efficient defense overall; the Ravens scored a touchdown or attempted a field goal on seven straight drives Sunday.
There was no change in offensive philosophy, no wholesale re-imagining of the run-first approach that’s guided Roman to a record-breaking 2019 and up-and-down 2020. The Ravens just executed.
“We definitely have a plan,” coach John Harbaugh said Sunday. “I commend our offensive coaches and our players. We have a clear vision of what we want to try to do; the key is executing it, doing things the right way at a high level. So we’ve had a chance to practice. We just have to keep getting better. We have to keep improving on the path that we’re at, and hopefully, we can do well next week. Every game stands on its own two feet, and we have to focus on our next challenge.”
It helps to have Jackson, the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player who has looked the part. In the four games before he tested positive for COVID-19, the Ravens went 1-3. Against two upper-tier defenses (the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts) and two lower-tier defenses (the New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans), Jackson completed 64% of his passes, threw five touchdown passes and four interceptions, and averaged 4.3 yards per carry.
As he recovered from the virus at home, Jackson said he spent much of his time sleeping. Since his Week 13 return, he’s looked reinvigorated as both a passer and runner: third in the NFL in passer rating (102.6), seventh in completion percentage (.714) and second in yards per carry (7.9) among qualifying players.
“I think since Lamar’s come back from his bout with COVID, I think he probably is playing better than anybody in the league, really, when you really look at it,” Roman said. “So I think he’s a huge catalyst for that. But getting back to it, it’s all 11 people doing their job.”
“I feel like I should play like that all the time,” Jackson said Wednesday. “It’s nothing more, nothing less. I’ve just got to keep doing what I’m doing, and the whole team, we’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing.”
After enduring one of the NFL’s most disruptive coronavirus outbreaks, the Ravens have finally stabilized up front. Ben Powers has emerged as the team’s most reliable right guard. Center Patrick Mekari has cut down on some of the mistakes that undercut Matt Skura’s season. D.J. Fluker has returned to health at right tackle.
With Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and guard Bradley Bozeman protecting Jackson’s blind side, and often paving the way on his inside runs, the Ravens’ offensive line is no longer a pressing concern. Excluding a pressure-filled first half against Cleveland, Jackson has been sacked just once over the past three games. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, he’s taken at least 2.9 seconds to throw, on average, in each game, one of the league’s top marks.
Now the Ravens are running the way they used to, and Jackson is connecting with receivers the way he planned to. Running back Gus Edwards has averaged an NFL-high 8.4 yards per carry over the past three games, and rookie J.K. Dobbins has a rushing touchdown in each. Wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and tight end Mark Andrews combined for 164 receiving yards Sunday. Even wide receiver Dez Bryant scored his first touchdown since 2017 against Jacksonville.
“In terms of what [the Ravens] are doing differently, they’ve obviously had a lot more success with the pass game as of late,” Giants coach Joe Judge said in a conference call Wednesday. “But I don’t see that as being anything different with what they’re doing schematically. I think it’s just something that’s been a strength for this team all along, and now they’re healthy again.”
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The Giants defense will be the Ravens’ toughest challenge since the Steelers’, ranked No. 19 in overall efficiency and No. 15 in run defense, according to Football Outsiders. Up front, they have two former first-round picks in tackle Dexter Lawrence and end Leonard Williams. Pro Bowl cornerback James Bradberry leads the secondary.
With a lowly Cincinnati Bengals defense awaiting in Week 17, this is the kind of test the Ravens need ahead of a potential playoff run. The offense has improved, but by how much? Enough to get the team into the postseason? Enough to win a couple of playoff games?
“I don’t think we’ve arrived at an identity yet or our final outcome,” Roman said. “There’s more chapters in this book, so we’re trying to chase it, chase getting better all the time.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 11