Five Things We Learned from the Ravens' 26-14 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers

Joe Flacco hasn’t thrown to such a varied set of targets since 2012.

Wide receiver John Brown has rightly emerged as the headliner given how quickly his downfield chemistry with Flacco changed the Ravens’ offense.

But Flacco completed passes to 11 receivers Sunday night as he posted the best statistical line in his long history of traveling to Pittsburgh. And that didn’t include rookie tight end Hayden Hurst, who could make his debut next weekend in Cleveland.

For the first time since the Super Bowl season in 2012, Flacco can find an appealing target no matter where he looks on the field.

He trusts slot receiver Willie Snead IV (six catches on seven targets against the Steelers) to catch balls in tight spaces on must-have plays. He knows wideout Michael Crabtree can outfight most defensive backs for a contested ball in the end zone.

Rookie tight end Mark Andrews has made efficient use of his targets. Running backs Buck Allen and Alex Collins have acted as sure-handed safety valves.

Largely forgotten veterans such as tight end Maxx Williams have discovered new life in this many-headed passing offense. Flacco even zipped a throw to return specialist Tim White for a key first down in the second half against Pittsburgh.

When Flacco played the best games of his career, he had Ray Rice catching passes out of the backfield, Anquan Boldin and a young Dennis Pitta working the middle of the field and Torrey Smith streaking deep.

You can sense his enthusiasm now that he’s finally at the helm of another multi-faceted attack. (Flacco was annoyed the Ravens didn’t score more points at Heinz Field.) You can also sense offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s liberation as he dreams up ways to play with his bountiful toy box.

After three dreary seasons, the Ravens are fun to watch on offense.

We also have to credit the offensive line for giving Flacco time to survey his many options. Since a poor Week 2 performance in Cincinnati, that unit has delivered excellent protection against two formidable pass-rushing opponents. Those bombs to Brown wouldn’t look nearly so pretty if Flacco had just a few seconds to fire them off.

The 2018 Ravens learn as they go on defense.

Many Ravens fans felt queasy in the pits of their stomachs as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger rallied his team to a 14-14 tie before halftime. After the Ravens jumped on their nemesis early, Roethlisberger was right back to gashing the middle of the Baltimore defense, much as he had in a 506-yard masterpiece in December.

“Big Ben” is the evil clown in the attic of the Ravens’ recurring nightmares. And it was easy to assume he’d finish his job in the second half.

Instead, the Ravens continued a remarkable trend as they held a fourth straight opponent without a post-halftime touchdown.

A fluke of distribution? Perhaps, but the Ravens genuinely believe they’re more adaptable on defense than they have been in recent seasons. Many players credit first-year defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, who accepted a game ball for the collective effort in Pittsburgh.

“I think Wink was just a step ahead, quite honestly,” safety Eric Weddle said. “We mixed in our fronts, and we brought out some things we hadn’t shown this season with different looks, with different pressure packages and disguises. We just talked about focusing in on that play, each play and doing your job. I kid you not. Wink called a great game.”

We’re simply not used to seeing Roethlisberger flail futilely on third down or leave the field empty-handed on six straight possessions.

But Martindale’s defense sent him to the postgame locker room thoroughly frustrated. “I don’t think I’m on the same page as anybody right now,” he groused.

The Ravens are smart to keep using Lamar Jackson, but his role could create tension.

Mornhinweg did not hesitate to put Jackson at quarterback for several pivotal plays in the tense environment at Heinz Field. The rookie gained a modest 17 yards on four carries, but the Ravens moved the ball on the ground when he stepped in for Flacco.

“Well, he was getting yards,” coach John Harbaugh said when asked about the thinking behind Jackson’s role.

We didn’t see Jackson line up wide and go in motion as a decoy or an end-around threat. He either handed the ball to a running back or ran off tackle himself.

It will be fascinating to see whether and when the Ravens ask Jackson to throw out of these sets. They’ll have to if they want to keep defenses guessing when No. 8 runs onto the field.

It will also be fascinating to monitor Flacco’s mood as the Ravens feature Jackson more prominently. So far, he’s been diplomatic when discussing the issue.

“I just want us to get yards in those situations so that when I’m back under center the next play, we’re in a position to move the ball and get a first down,” he said when asked about the potential frustration of ceding snaps to Jackson. “Tonight, when we did those things, we either got the first downs on third down or we moved the ball 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 yards and set ourselves up to make plays on the next down, and that’s the most important thing.”

Earlier, Flacco stood off to the side as Harbaugh answered a question about Jackson. Harbaugh tried to bring Flacco into the conversation, and Flacco answered by joking that the Ravens just had to showcase their first-round pick on a nationally televised, prime-time game.

He said it with a grin, but it was possible to read some bite into his remark. We’re all familiar with Flacco’s past skepticism about exotic sets in which he’s lined up at wide receiver. With the Ravens moving the ball so well out of more traditional formations, you have to wonder whether he quietly groans each time Mornhinweg calls a play for Jackson.

As long as the Ravens win and the rookie produces first downs, expect Flacco to handle the matter gracefully. But don’t mistake his good manners for complete comfort.

The secondary deserves high marks for its play without Jimmy Smith.

It’s weird to say the impending return of the team’s top cornerback is a luxury. But outside of the first half in Cincinnati, the Ravens have played top-notch pass defense without Smith.

Steelers All-Pro Antonio Brown offered the sternest test to date. He destroyed the Ravens secondary, playing without Smith, for 213 yards in December. After that game, then-defensive coordinator Dean Pees said he regretted not using Marlon Humphrey to shadow Brown all over the field.

Martindale learned from that experience and asked Humphrey to stick with Brown for much of Sunday’s game. Brown made a terrific 26-yard touchdown catch late in the second quarter, despite tight coverage from the second-year cornerback. That’s what great players do. But other than that one flash, Humphrey limited the best receiver in the world to four underneath catches, only one of them in the second half.

It was another chapter in the 2017 first-round pick’s seemingly inevitable ascent.

Fellow cornerback Brandon Carr played an excellent game covering the rest of Pittsburgh’s dangerous receivers. The Ravens’ safeties and linebackers also tightened their coverage in the middle of the field after tight end Vance McDonald and powerfully built receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster gouged them for large chunks of yardage in the second quarter. McDonald didn’t catch a pass after halftime, and Smith-Schuster caught just two for 12 yards.

None of this is to say the Ravens will be unhappy to see Smith when he returns from suspension this week. As we saw when they tried to deal with the Cincinnati Bengals’ big receivers, A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd, they miss their 6-foot-2 cover ace in certain scenarios.

“I can’t wait for my man to get back,” Carr said, disabusing any idea that he might fret about losing his career-long streak of consecutive starts. “I know he’s been training, grinding his butt off. He’s excited to get back with us, and we just add one more dominant player to our bunch.”

But the Ravens have quieted all those who wondered whether they’d falter without Smith.

The Ravens have put themselves into position for an exceptional season.

The Ravens had already held serve on the first quarter of their season by winning decisively at home against the Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos.

A commanding win in Pittsburgh — even against a team sputtering on defense and playing without All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell — expanded their horizon for 2018.

“These ain’t the same old Ravens,” Weddle shouted in the aftermath. The veteran safety was enjoying himself, but there was also a serious message at the heart of his frivolity.

We have not seen the Ravens go to Heinz Field and control a game on both sides of the ball since the 2014 playoffs. This team combines a legitimately interesting, gifted offense with a defense that reacts well to adversity.

That sounds like a postseason contender.

The Ravens still face a difficult stretch over the next five weeks, with a trip to Cleveland to play the frisky Browns and then four straight games against 2017 playoff teams, two of those also on the road. That run will end with a Nov. 4 return date against the Steelers in Baltimore.

If the Ravens go into their bye week 6-3, they’d be in excellent shape. At 5-4, they’d be fine. After the win in Pittsburgh, those goals feel realistic.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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