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Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 23-7 win over the Denver Broncos

The Ravens dominated the previously undefeated Broncos in Denver to win their third straight game. Here are five things we learned from Sunday’s 23-7 victory:

With a big-boy road win, the Ravens gave a hint of their true nature as a team.

Inside and outside Baltimore, the Ravens’ trip to Denver was billed as an opportunity to take stock of two potential AFC contenders. Were the undefeated Broncos a two-way menace or had they simply bullied three of the league’s weakest teams? Could the battered Ravens win a game without prompting any fourth-quarter heart attacks?

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We received a decisive answer as the Ravens beat up a Broncos offense that had purred efficiently against three winless opponents, and Lamar Jackson continued his evolution into one of the NFL’s deadliest deep passers.

This was not a flawless victory but a businesslike pummeling in one of the NFL’s least hospitable venues. The Ravens remain wounded, and they have many questions to answer, about the composition of their backfield, about the health of their tackles, about the stamina of their secondary against top-shelf passing offenses. Even in scarred, dented form, however, they’re no pretenders.

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In dispatching the Broncos, the Ravens gave us a glimpse of the identity they’re developing as they mount a 2021 playoff push — big strikes on offense, big hits on defense.

Again, they faced a defense that was determined to swarm the line of scrimmage to prevent them from smashing their way to victory in a land war. After three unsuccessful drives to start the game, offensive coordinator Greg Roman turned to a pair of play-action passes on first down to open things up. Jackson connected with tight end Mark Andrews in both cases for a total of 36 yards. These throws set up Latavius Murray to punch in the Ravens’ first touchdown.

Coming off the Ravens’ Week 3 victory in Detroit, we talked about how Jackson is aiming downfield more aggressively than any other quarterback in the NFL. He used the same formula to build a lead against a Denver defense that had overwhelmed three lesser quarterbacks. His 49-yard touchdown strike to Marquise Brown in the second quarter traveled more than 60 yards in the air, the longest completion of his career and the longest in the league this year, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

Jackson missed on some of his other downfield attempts, but he doesn’t have to be perfect when there’s so much upside to each throw. He also did a good job adapting to game situations as he took the shorter throws the defense gave him on two second-half scoring drives that, combined, ate up more than 12 minutes.

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If Jackson can control games in this fashion and the defense can prevent chunk plays to the degree it did in Denver, the Ravens are going to claim their customary spot in the middle of the AFC gold rush. Coach John Harbaugh summed up the afternoon’s work when he called it “the type of win you’ve got to stack up to do anything.”

The Ravens finally controlled a game for four quarters on defense.

Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale practically licked his lips Thursday when asked about Denver quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s effectiveness against the blitz. “We’ll see if those numbers hold up,” he said.

There was an element of subterfuge to his words, because Martindale did not attack the Broncos with all-out blitzes on every passing down. Instead, he did a masterful job of mixing up looks, showing off his “brilliant mind” in the words of defensive end Calais Campbell. The Ravens hit Broncos quarterbacks 11 times and sacked them five times without leaving their defensive backs twisting in the wind. They deceived the Broncos with “three-man games,” Harbaugh said. Linebackers Tyus Bowser and Odafe Oweh caused havoc with their quickness off the edge. Campbell ranged the field like a bear descended from the nearby Rocky Mountains as he piled up five tackles and three quarterback hits. Justin Madubuike made an impression as a pass rusher with a sack, two quarterback hits and a pass defended.

We never want to see any player suffer a head injury, but the concussion that drove Bridgewater from the game (after a hit from Oweh) effectively ended Denver’s chances and reflected the punishment unleashed by Martindale’s crew.

The Ravens also played their best coverage game of the season, limiting Denver’s big wide receivers, Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick, to six catches on 14 targets for 86 yards. Cornerback Anthony Averett showed his grit, playing well on an ankle he’d rolled in practice three days earlier. He was targeted seven times and allowed just two catches, according to Pro Football Focus.

Only a few lapses marred this excellent performance.

After a week of talk about tackling, including a Wednesday practice in which the players asked to go in full pads, the Ravens missed several chances to pull down Broncos running back Javonte Williams on a 31-yard run at the end of the first quarter. The play set up Denver’s only touchdown.

Second-year linebacker Patrick Queen again drew the ire of fans as he struggled to shed blocks against the run, missed tackles and let pass catchers get by him. The Ravens expected their 2020 first-round pick to take a significant step forward, and that has not happened.

Marquise Brown could not have responded any better to his disappointing performance in Detroit.

It’s easy to pull for people who take responsibility for their mistakes and double their efforts to prevent future botches.

Brown did exactly these things after he dropped two passes and failed to bring in another that was deflected in the Ravens’ skin-of-their-teeth victory over the Lions.

You could not script a better answer than he gave when pressed by reporters to explain his drops: “The fact of the matter is, it’s just unacceptable. You don’t ever want to go out there and drop a layup, drop an open pass. I’ve been working too hard on my route-running and separation to drop the ball when I’m open. It could be anything. It could be not looking the ball all the way in. It could be a number of things, but the fact of the matter is, it just can’t happen.”

Brown backed up his words with extra work after practice, catching soccer balls from pass game specialist Keith Williams to hone his grip.

So it was easy to understand the elation on Harbaugh’s face after Brown extended his body to snare Jackson’s gorgeous bomb in the end zone. With that highlight in his pocket, Brown was back to the stellar form he flashed in Weeks 1 and 2, accumulating 91 yards on just four catches on five targets. He again did his best work from the slot, where his quickness makes him a devilish matchup and his diminutive stature is less of a hindrance.

Brown has his off weeks, but in the context of his team’s eternal effort to draft a productive wide receiver, he’s a success, plain and simple.

The Ravens are still grasping for solutions at running back.

Eyebrows lifted when the Ravens listed Ty’Son Williams (and his 6.1 yards per carry) as a healthy scratch, instead going with an all-veteran backfield of Murray, Devonta Freeman and Le’Veon Bell.

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Perhaps this should not have been a surprise given Roman’s assessment three days earlier: “I don’t really look at stats; I look at everything. If I’m running the ball and it’s a hole that’s wide-open, you and I could run through it, right? But what do you do when that isn’t the case? That kind of thing, so you take the whole picture into account.”

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In other words, Roman was still searching for greater efficiency from his backfield. But the new alignment did not produce stellar results in Denver; Murray, Bell and Freeman combined for 74 yards on 23 carries.

Murray (18 carries, 59 yards) ran hard as the team’s first option. It wasn’t his fault that he often collided with a wall of flesh as the Broncos packed eight defenders around the line of scrimmage. It’s also not his fault that he lacks the quick-twitch dynamism of J.K. Dobbins or the locomotive burst of Gus Edwards. The Ravens lost two exceptional runners, and they won’t replace their production with backs who peaked four or five years ago. That’s just not the way it works at a position ruled by attrition.

Williams fumbled in Week 2, and perhaps his performance did not hold up under the careful scrutiny coaches apply when they review film. But his production in Weeks 1 and 2 hinted at enough upside that the Ravens should give him more chances.

Harbaugh said his decision to bench Williams wasn’t meant as a rebuke of the second-year back’s performance. Rather, the Ravens are trying various combinations until they find the most productive one. “We had to go some route,” he said.

All the more reason why Jackson’s maturation as a deep passer is the key to this team’s offensive fate.

The Ravens have earned their survival badge. Now, they have their best opportunity to build on a resilient start.

A 3-1 start would not have sounded like a big deal two months ago, not for a team that began training camp with Super Bowl ambitions.

After all the torn ligaments and late-game theatrics we’ve seen since? It’s borderline spectacular. This is not the team we expected to see on Oct. 4, even in a league where players speak in resigned tones of the 100% injury rate. But 3-1 probably is the record many of us would have projected through four weeks. It’s a testament to the Ravens’ resilience with Harbaugh as coach and their resourcefulness with Jackson at quarterback that they found their way through the forest.

“To be 3-1 after playing three games on the road in some really tough environments — very challenging environments — is quite an accomplishment,” Harbaugh said. “Add on the adversity that we have faced, that’s just part of it, but that adversity is still there. We still have got to keep working through that and hopefully, we’ll get some guys back as we go.”

The Ravens won’t play on the road again until Nov. 11, when they travel to Miami. The next month represents their best chance to build a cushion against the brutal schedule challenges to come in December and January.

We can’t call any of the opponents on their four-game homestand a pushover, not even the Cincinnati Bengals, who are feeling their oats at 3-1. But the Ravens will likely be favored every week. They have put themselves in position to build something.

Week 5

COLTS@RAVENS

Monday, 8:15 p.m.

TV: ESPN Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 6 1/2

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