Five Things We Learned from the Ravens' 21-0 win over the Tennessee Titans

From the Ravens' faith in Michael Crabtree to their emerging defensive identity under coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale, here are five things we learned from a 21-0 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.

This was a pure expression of how the Ravens want to play.

This might not go down as their best or most important performance of the year. But it’s hard to imagine a more potent distillation of the Ravens’ self-image.

When John Harbaugh dreams of football, his favorite visions must look something like this — comfort food for a soul raised on the pounding style of Michigan coach Bo Schembechler.

The Ravens traveled to a difficult road venue and took their opponent’s heart and legs with a 17-play touchdown drive in the first quarter and a 12-play touchdown drive to start the third. Those sequences, highlighted by impeccable third-down play from quarterback Joe Flacco, ate up more than 19 minutes of game clock.

When they weren’t grinding down the field on offense, they were chasing and battering Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota in an overwhelming display of team defense. It’s hard to make history in a franchise defined by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, but this was the first time the Ravens had ever sacked an opponent 11 times.

The Ravens ran 72 total plays compared with 40 for Tennessee, made 23 first downs compared with the Titans’ seven. Tennessee converted just once on 10 third-down attempts. The Ravens were 12-for-17.

We could list numbers all week. The point is that the Ravens controlled an opponent to a degree rarely seen in the modern NFL. They did it on the road against a team that beat them and made the playoffs in 2017.

On this day, a week after their essay in self-defeat against the Cleveland Browns, they were truly mighty.

With Michael Crabtree, the Ravens showed that sometimes, the best approach is to have a little faith.

Crabtree’s performance was a leading plot all week, for reasons the Ravens never anticipated when they signed him to lead their revamped receiving corps.

Fans blamed him for the 12-9 loss to Cleveland in which he failed to snare a potential game-winning touchdown in the back of the end zone. Crabtree was just as hard on himself, saying he needed to “get back in the lab” to sharpen the basic see-and-catch mechanics of his craft.

To their credit, Flacco and the team’s coaches expressed nothing but faith in Crabtree’s talent and doggedness. He’s earned that leeway with his long record of success, and any other approach would have been counterproductive with such a proud athlete.

Flacco refused to attribute any great significance to the fact he targeted Crabtree on his first important throw against the Titans. But that successful connection, backed up by a touchdown catch by Crabtree, sapped any tension that might have lingered.

Late in the second quarter, Crabtree made a terrific catch on third-and-10, stopping the ball with his powerful hands at the same moment he tapped both feet inside the line. The blend of grace and concentration spoke to a man who mastered his trade long ago.

Crabtree finished with six catches for 93 yards, easily his best statistical line as a Raven.

None of this is to say he won’t drop passes going forward. But he’s capable of producing enough world-class plays to avoid being defined by his mistakes. That’s what his supportive teammates saw when they kept their eyes on Crabtree’s big picture.

The Ravens surely enjoyed dominating a battle of defenses with former coordinator Dean Pees.

Lord help a toothless offense against this frightfully deep defense, orchestrated by first-year coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale.

You look at the first six games and how often has the Ravens defense been on its heels? The first half in Cincinnati, a couple drives in the second quarter in Pittsburgh, the last drive of overtime in Cleveland? That’s about it.

On Sunday, the Ravens trampled the Titans to the tune of 11 sacks by eight players — a bravura performance in front of Pees.

“I think our guys wanted to show their best to a guy they respected so much,” said Harbaugh, who retains warm personal feelings for his longtime assistant.

No one, least of all Martindale, seemed eager to discuss Pees in the runup to Sunday’s game. Never mind the strange circumstances of last January, when he retired from the Ravens on New Year’s Day only to accept his current job with the Titans four weeks later. The players haven’t looked back. They love Martindale’s wide-open personality and the flexibility afforded them under his retooled system.

They swarmed him after the final whistle in Nashville, showing off their appreciation for the world.

When Martindale’s defense is humming, it’s a wonderfully fluid Chimera. The same player will morph from a cover man to a pass rusher in a matter of seconds. Or vice versa.

We’ve seen a ton of snaps this year on which the Ravens have used five or even six defensive backs, with no weak-side linebacker beside C.J. Mosley. They can do it in part because safeties Tony Jefferson, Eric Weddle and Anthony Levine Sr. are just as comfortable stalking the line of scrimmage as they are covering in space. Levine and Jefferson were among the eight defenders who sacked Mariota on Sunday.

Beyond the sacks, the Ravens carried out their plan to box Mariota into the pocket and keep him from breaking the game open with his feet.

Those clever rush and coverage looks depend on sturdy play inside by Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce and Willie Henry, who did not put up big numbers but helped limit Titans running backs Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis to a combined 30 yards on 12 carries.

The Ravens won’t always look this good against big-time quarterbacks and playmakers. We might see as much next weekend when the New Orleans Saints come to town. But they have found an impressive defensive identity under Martindale.

The Ravens are still searching for greater efficiency in their run game but not for lack of trying.

Harbaugh seemed fed up when he faced another round of questions about the Ravens’ run-pass balance after Flacco attempted 56 throws in the team’s loss to Cleveland.

It’s one of those issues that never seems to go away for long in Baltimore. But as Harbaugh and his players have pointed out, they’re running plenty compared with most teams in the league. They’re just not running particularly well.

You can’t accuse the Ravens of abandoning the run in Tennessee, where Alex Collins, Gus Edwards and Buck Allen combined for 30 carries. They tried everything to get Collins untracked, from an outside pitch on his first carry to a backward swing pass from Flacco.

But aside from a 13-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, none of their shifting looks produced the desired space for Collins, who averaged just 2.8 yards on 19 carries.

As always, it’s hard on an initial watch to decide how much of the fault lay with the offensive line and how much lay with the team’s featured runner. But the Ravens have not been satisfied with their run blocking all season, and they’ll probably find fault with it again when they watch the Tennessee tape.

On the bright side, a debuting Edwards found success as a power runner with 42 yards on 10 carries. He built on his tough running from the preseason to make a case for a bigger role going forward.

Hey, the 2018 Ravens might be really good.

For a team that made the playoffs in 2017 and came into Week 6 with a winning record, the Titans are underwhelming on both sides of the ball.

But the fact remains that no one else has dominated them this season, and they had won eight of their past 10 games at home.

The Ravens went to Nashville and ate them alive.

The rare road shutout (the Titans had never been blanked at Nissan Stadium) came two weeks after the Ravens thoroughly outplayed the Steelers in Pittsburgh, never an easy task. And Harbaugh’s team has won its two home games by a combined score of 74-17.

Add it all up, and the Ravens have the second-best point differential in the NFL, just two behind the 6-0 Los Angeles Rams.

Sure, those numbers would ring sweeter if the Ravens had managed to win in Cleveland and stood 5-1 instead of 4-2.

But decisive wins are the first thing you look for when separating really good teams from the NFL’s vast, mediocre center. And the Ravens are mauling the teams they should be mauling.

They’ll face a different kind of test next week against a Saints offense that might well be the best in football. If they pass that one, fans might have reason to get really excited.

For now, let’s call this their most promising start since 2014, the last time they made the playoffs.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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