Baltimore Ravens

With Lamar Jackson’s ascent, the Ravens have been hard to stop. Just look at their fast starts.

The first play of a very long afternoon for the Cincinnati Bengals defense Sunday should not have ended with the longest play of the afternoon.

On first-and-10 from the Ravens’ 25-yard line, quarterback Lamar Jackson faked a handoff to running back Mark Ingram II, dropped back and surveyed the Bengals secondary. Their two safeties were playing deep. Two cornerbacks were drifting there, too.


When Jackson and wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown met with offensive coordinator Greg Roman last week to review their expectations for this opening play, for what they hoped would be a tone-setting strike, they did not expect quarters coverage. It made a deep completion unlikely.

But the Ravens’ fast starts are seemingly impervious to long odds. With tight end Mark Andrews bracketed over the middle, Jackson pivoted to Brown. The rookie was running past cornerback B.W. Webb. Safety Brandon Wilson, the last line of defense, was caught flat-footed, too. From his 19, Jackson wound up and threw deep. Brown ran underneath the ball at the 30. Four plays after the 47-yard completion, the Ravens were in the end zone.


“I felt something, I did,” Jackson said Wednesday of the Ravens’ start in their eventual 49-13 win. “I just wanted to produce, you know? Just make positive plays. It always starts with the first first down. You get that first first down, I feel our offense is rolling.”

The offense’s first act all season has been one of bravura performances. With their brisk five-play, 75-yard surge Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, the Ravens (7-2) have scored on eight of their nine opening drives this season. Even more impressive, all but two of the eight have been for touchdowns.

The Houston Texans (6-3) have had a bye week to prepare for what awaits Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. On paper, they seem well equipped to absorb the Ravens’ first blows. In their previous nine games, they have allowed just two first-drive scores — touchdowns to the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts in Week 6 and Week 7.

But Jackson and Co. have felled greater opponents. In Week 10, the Ravens held the ball for nearly half of the first quarter as they ground out an 11-play, 72-yard touchdown march against the New England Patriots’ top-ranked defense. A fourth-down penalty turned an easy field-goal opportunity into a touchdown drive, but that good fortune tends to find the Ravens these days.

“We talk about starting sharp,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “We want to be on point. We want to be focused. It’s both sides of the ball. Obviously, anytime you can get the lead, that’s an advantage. We want to get the lead. We want to keep the lead and extend the lead, if we can. So I really think our guys have done a good job of that. It kind of goes [back to] what I said before, with the guys and the preparation, being on point and coming out and being ready to play. That’s really important.”

It is no surprise that this Ravens attack, led by a Most Valuable Player candidate in Jackson, has found a way to score early. Each of the NFL’s top five scoring offenses also ranks among the league’s top nine first-quarter offenses. (Houston, strangely, is No. 8 in points per game but second to last in first-quarter points, with just 2.6 per game.)

With the Ravens’ offseason overhaul of their offense and Jackson’s dual-threat versatility, Harbaugh said that “there’s no play that’s not in our playbook.” There’s also no discernible trends of how Roman might call them.

In Week 6 against Cincinnati, one of the NFL’s worst run defenses, the Ravens covered their first 75 yards with five runs and just one pass. Four weeks later, in their rematch against the Bengals, the Ravens ran four pass plays and just one run play in their opening drive. In their three other games since the Cleveland Browns forced an opening-drive punt in Week 4 — the Ravens’ lone empty first possession of the season — their run-pass ratio has been more even.


Roman, who scripts each game’s first dozen or so offensive plays, called his play-calling a “pretty fluid thing.”

“There's definitely a priority of what we want to do, and it just kind of flows, you know?” he said Thursday. “It definitely does not go in any particular order. Every once in a while, it will. Like, ‘Hey, I want to run these two plays back-to-back,’ that kind of thing. But very rarely does that happen.”

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The Ravens have outscored opponents by a combined 85-24 margin in the first quarter this season, and only the Browns have entered the second quarter with a lead. That’s perhaps in part because the only force more impressive than the Ravens’ opening-drive offense might be their opening-drive defense.

Despite facing the Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots, three of the NFL’s most efficient offenses, the Ravens have not allowed points on a single opening drive in 2019. For eight straight games, the result has been the same: a punt. Only in Week 1, against the Miami Dolphins, did the Ravens not force one. That’s when they came up with an interception.

On Sunday, the Ravens will start over again. That usually means good things.

“Scoring on the first drive is all about the players being ready to go and executing,” Roman said. “It’s a credit to them. It’s something we need to keep building on.”



Sunday, 1 p.m.

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