With defense and deception, Ravens roll to 33-16 win over Texans

HOUSTON — Lamar Jackson’s arrival as an NFL supernova has turned his audition for the league into something of an afterthought, a footnote in his burgeoning legend. The Ravens' superstar, in becoming maybe the sport’s best quarterback, has made playing the position look natural, as easy as blowing bubbles.

But not everyone saw what the Ravens did, a transcendent talent lifting the team to weekly greatness. During the predraft process two years ago, several teams asked Jackson, a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at Louisville, to work out at wide receiver. Bill Polian, a Pro Football Hall of Fame executive, said Jackson would be better off catching passes, not throwing them.


Jackson refused to consider it. “I’m strictly a quarterback,” he said. Of course, the only thing Jackson loves more than playing the position is winning, so there he was on Sunday afternoon, lining up at wide receiver for the most pivotal play of a 33-16 road win over the Houston Texans (0-2).

When the Ravens (2-0) needed a yard last season, they put the ball in Jackson’s hands and asked him to move the chains. When they needed it in the fourth quarter inside an empty NRG Stadium, they asked him to move as far away from the ball as possible. In his place was running back Mark Ingram II, who took a direct snap, burst through a crease and didn’t slow until he’d reached the end zone 30 yards later.


“Man, that was big," said coach John Harbaugh, whose Ravens have won seven straight road games overall, five of them by double digits. “That was a big play in the game. It was a turning point in the game. It gave us a little breathing space, and I’m proud of them for that.”

Houston had mostly bottled up Jackson all afternoon, holding him to 204 yards and a touchdown on 18-for-24 passing and 54 yards on 16 carries. He was sacked four times and struggled to find top target Mark Andrews (one catch for 29 yards). But when the game’s most dangerous player was out of the picture, the Ravens were, for one play, at their most dangerous.

With their 14th straight regular-season win — and second blowout of the Texans in as many years — the Ravens will head into the NFL’s game of the year atop a lot of league power rankings. Next Monday night, they’ll host the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs (2-0), who struggled in an overtime road win against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Jackson is now 21-3 as as a starter, but two of those losses have come against Kansas City and 2018 Most Valuable Player Patrick Mahomes. With the Ravens' first significant injury of the season, the pressure on him and his offense will be even greater. Slot cornerback Tavon Young, who left the game in the first quarter and did not return, likely has a season-ending knee injury, coach John Harbaugh said afterward.

Young, who tore his ACL before the 2017 season, had been one of the Ravens' top standouts in training camp, equally capable of shadowing towering tight ends (like, say, Travis Kelce) and fleet-footed wide receivers (like, say, Tyreek Hill). With his absence, the defense has lost two Pro Bowl-level talents in a month: Earl Thomas III had his contract terminated in late August after an altercation with fellow safety Chuck Clark.

“We’re just trying to win,” Harbaugh said. “We’re trying to figure out every way we can to win.”

In some ways, the box score Sunday flattered the Ravens' performance. They finished with 407 yards, including 230 on the ground. But the offense’s passing game was muted in the second half, just as its ground game was nullified in the first.

It’s not just the Ravens attack that makes them a Super Bowl contender, though. It’s their special teams; kicker Justin Tucker was 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts and kept the scoreboard ticking upward, even when the offense wasn’t lighting it up.

It’s their coaching, which kept Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (25-for-36 for 275 passing yards, a touchdown and an interception) on the move for a lot of the afternoon and was bold enough to convert two key fourth-down opportunities.

It’s their defense, which limited the Texans to 51 rushing yards, sacked Watson four times and scored a touchdown one season after finding the end zone six times.

But no play Sunday will be remembered as fondly as the one where the NFL’s reigning MVP was a decoy. Early in the fourth quarter, the Ravens led 23-13. On fourth-and-1, offensive coordinator Greg Roman reached into his bag of tricks.

It was something the Ravens had practiced “for many weeks now,” Harbaugh said. Ravens defensive end Calais Campbell, who watched from the sideline, chuckled at the memory of seeing Jackson line up as if he were Miles Boykin. “Honestly, you have to guard him because he’s a special talent,” he said. Running behind fullback Patrick Ricard, tight end Nick Boyle and lineman Patrick Mekari, Ingram had a clear path to the end zone. Teammates raised their hands in celebration when he passed the 20-yard line.


“They just created a big seam for me to run through,” said Ingram (nine carries for 55 yards), one of four Ravens with at least 48 rushing yards. “And I was able to finish the run in the end zone.”

Houston trailed by double digits for more than half of the game, but the Ravens struggled to grab control as they had against the Cleveland Browns in Week 1. Their first half was one of fits and starts. They had just one touchdown drive in five possessions, and their first and last went a combined 12 yards. Houston, which struggled to contain the Chiefs' ground game in its season opener, held Ravens running backs to five carries for 14 yards over the first two quarters.

Jackson was the team’s most dynamic runner early, and he completed his first 11 throws from the pocket. But he left some plays on the field, too. In the second quarter, he missed wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (five catches for a team-high 42 yards) in the corner of the end zone on a would-be 21-yard score just a few plays after he didn’t notice running back J.K. Dobbins leaking out, uncovered, down the left sideline.

“I feel good, but there’s still some passes I want back,” Jackson said.

The Ravens entered halftime up 10 and outgained in yardage 200-172 because their defense made plays their offense could not. With five minutes left in the second quarter, cornerback Marlon Humphrey, whose punch-out in Pittsburgh made him an overtime hero last year, channeled his inner Charles Tillman again.

After Watson found wide receiver Keke Coutee for a short reception over the middle, Humphrey blindsided him, jarring the ball loose with his right hand. Inside linebacker L.J. Fort scooped up the fumble in stride, hurried to the corner of the end zone and stretched just far enough to break the plane for a 22-yard score. His second career defensive touchdown gave the Ravens a 20-7 lead.

The next time the Texans got the ball, the Ravens' other All-Pro cornerback did what he does best: Get both hands on the ball. Marcus Peters broke on a crossing pattern for wide receiver Brandin Cooks before launching himself for a full-extension interception. It was his 28th career pick in 79 games; legendary Ravens safety Ed Reed had 27 in his first 74.

“L.J. and Marlon making that play was really the momentum turner in that game in so many ways,” Harbaugh said. “It kind of got us going, jump-started us.”


The Ravens said they would give themselves the night to enjoy their victory, and then it would be on to the matchup circled on every football obsessive’s calendar since May. The “Monday Night Football” showdown will be overflowing with narratives: a matchup of two young MVPs; of Chiefs coach Andy Reid and Harbaugh, his good friend and former mentee; of the NFL’s champions and their most worthy challenger.


On the flight back from Houston, the Ravens wanted to savor a comfortable, if bittersweet, win that magnified all they can do well. But come Monday, Jackson said, “I’ll be right on it.”

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