The Ravens survived another ragged offensive performance thanks to a heroic effort from their defense in a 16-10 win over the Browns. Here are five things we learned Sunday night.
An undermanned Ravens defense delivered its most heroic performance of the season.
The Browns brought the league’s No. 1 rushing attack to Baltimore, bolstered by the return of third-down wiz Kareem Hunt. The Ravens lined up without the stout centerpiece of their defensive front, Calais Campbell. It did not take a pessimist to envision a long, brutal evening for coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s crew.
Instead, it was the Ravens who unleashed hell, holding Hunt and Nick Chubb to a combined 36 yards on 15 carries and harassing Baker Mayfield into an inefficient 18-for-37 passing performance. Edge defenders Tyus Bowser, Justin Houston and Odafe Oweh earned postgame plaudits from coach John Harbaugh. Second-year linebacker Patrick Queen — written off by too many fans early in the season — raced to the ball for eight tackles and gritted his teeth through a rib injury to stay on the field for a crucial late-game stand. Little-tested defensive backs Brandon Stephens and Geno Stone held their own in those same tense moments. Justin Madubuike, Justin Ellis and Brandon Williams stepped into the ample void left by Campbell.
“Our defense was just off the charts,” Harbaugh said.
This has not been an easy season for this proud group, diminished by injuries and 25th in the league in total defense entering Sunday’s game. Every week, they have heard the same, exhausting questions about the tackles they’ve missed, the coverages they’ve blown, the explosive plays they’ve surrendered. On Sunday, in a crucial divisional game, they had to be great to balance out another sub-par performance by Lamar Jackson and the offense.
In the aftermath, it was Browns coach Kevin Stefanski who had to answer questions about why his offense could not score, why his running game stopped working.
The Ravens might not have looked like the best team in the AFC, but they have embraced their warts-and-all narrative.
We might run out of ways to say the Ravens did not play a complete game but found a way to win. Every week, they seem to discover a new, disjointed formula to get to the desired result. Logic says they cannot keep it up, that a team with a mediocre point differential and an ever-mounting list of injuries cannot really be the best in the AFC. Yet that’s what the Ravens are after 12 weeks, the No. 1 seed in their conference.
Harbaugh has steered hard into this identity, and so have his best players.
“Harbs said it best in the team meeting,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “He said, ‘We’re not perfect, but the good thing is, we’re winning.’”
Can a team actually fetishize its imperfections? Wear them as badges of honor? The Ravens are doing their best.
When we analyzed the schedule before the season, this date with the Browns looked like a potential bellwether for an epic tug of war over the AFC North throne. In practice, it was a misshapen affair full of odd calls, mental misfires and underwhelming star turns. It was a battle not for supremacy but for survival. As it turns out, the Ravens feel most at home in such an environment.
The last 41 times a quarterback had thrown four or more interceptions, his team lost. On this night, Jackson threw four and won. Of course he did. Of course the Ravens won the previous week on a rally led by their backup quarterback, Tyler Huntley. Of course they have come back five times in the fourth quarter.
This isn’t 2019. They aren’t crushing everybody. But it’s a weird year all around the NFL. Let’s get nuts.
The Ravens remain stuck in the mud on offense, and this time, Lamar Jackson dragged them deeper.
The Ravens have scored 42 points over their past three games. Jackson has thrown more interceptions over his past three games than he did in his entire 2019 MVP campaign. This from an offense and a quarterback that seemed headed for new heights as a big-strike threat in the early weeks of this season.
Jackson tweeted a trio of nauseated faces after the game. He knew that on this night, he had not held up his end of the bargain.
Everything seems hard for the Ravens right now, especially early in games. They averaged 3.4 yards per carry against a defense that had been gouged for 7.3 yards per carry the previous week against the winless Detroit Lions. They averaged 2.3 yards per play on their first two drives, though they still managed to build a 3-0 lead thanks to some truly dumbfounding penalties by the Browns. They would lead by the same margin at halftime, despite converting just two of seven third-down attempts and giving the ball away three times on Jackson interceptions.
With the Ravens up three, knowing they would get the ball to start the second half, Jackson tried to force a throw through two defenders to tight end Mark Andrews. Safety Grant Delpit’s interception was almost too easy and should have cost the Ravens points. Mayfield did his fellow 2018 first-round draft pick a favor when he lost his grip on the ball two plays later, giving it right back to the Ravens. Jackson drove them to the Cleveland 30-yard line only to misfire on another attempt to Andrews, this one settling into the arms of Browns safety Ronnie Harrison Jr.
It was a ghastly stretch of quarterback play from two guys, Jackson and Mayfield, who were supposed to own the AFC North in the 2020s.
Jackson’s gift for conjuring miracles did not vanish entirely. With the Ravens in the red zone on their first drive of the second half, he fled more than 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage to escape the fury of Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, and still lofted a pass to Andrews in the end zone.
If Jackson flipped a switch on that play, it did not stay flipped. With the Ravens driving early in the fourth quarter, he underthrew Andrews on a deep pattern, and safety John Johnson III made a contested catch for Cleveland’s fourth interception of the night. Jackson had never thrown four picks before, not when he was a knuckle-balling rookie, not on the worst night of his checkered postseason career. His radar, and his judgment, seemed off, even on a night when the Ravens offensive line did a decent job protecting him from the terrifying Garrett.
“I’m ticked off,” he said in his postgame news conference, turning to the phrase he often uses after a turnover-heavy performance. He also said he believes the Ravens are “almost there.”
Is that generic confidence from an athlete who is used to winning or does Jackson really perceive a ready path to a breakthrough? We have learned not to bet on him staying down, but this was a performance worthy of those sickly green emojis.
This Tyus Bowser star thing is becoming routine.
Bowser had never played better than he did in Week 11 against the Bears, and he was nearly as good against the Browns. Matthew Judon might win Defensive Player of the Year honors in his new home in New England, but his former understudy is making his own case for the Pro Bowl.
Not many players can rush the passer with real ferocity on one down and hang step for step with a world-class slot receiver on the next. That’s Bowser on his best nights.
“He got the game ball in there for that,” Harbaugh said. “The guy was all over the field. And that’s what he does — he just does everything. He covers receivers. He does everything. I’m proud of him.”
Humphrey came into the league with Bowser, once a shy figure who seemed briefly in danger of not sticking on the roster to the end of his rookie contract.
“It seems like these past two years he just all of a sudden went kind of crazy — kind of turned into that household name that we all kind of wanted to be when you first get drafted,” the Pro Bowl cornerback said. “He was covering Jarvis Landry like a safety, so I was like … he’s kind of one of those guys that’s showing he can do it all, wherever.”
Bowser finished with four tackles, a sack, three quarterback hits and a pass defended. What will he do next week? At this point in his career, it’s an exciting question, not a nervous one.
The Ravens have Justin Tucker and you don’t.
We do this item at least once a season, but “Hey Jude” and “Respect” are still brilliant songs, even if you’ve heard them a dozen times a year for the last 50.
It was the obvious thing to celebrate Tucker after his freakish 66-yard make to snatch victory from the abyss in Detroit. His performance against the Browns was more reflective of the week-in, week-out advantages he provides.
Tucker made all three of his field-goal attempts in a game decided by six points. He split the uprights from 52 yards in the first half, his fourth make in four tries from beyond 50 yards this season. He hit another one dead-solid-perfect from 49 yards with the Ravens clinging to a three-point lead with 70 seconds left in the game. He submitted these displays of impeccable technique on the same night when Browns kicker Chase McLaughlin missed a 46-yard attempt and was lucky that another bounced the correct direction off the goal post.
When former Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg scouted Tucker at the University of Texas a decade ago, he admired the purity with which this confident young man struck every ball. Tucker wasn’t the most lauded kicker in his conference, much less the nation, but Rosburg knew what he saw.
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Tucker justified that faith hundreds of pressure-packed kicks ago. Still, he hunts perfection every week. It’s why Browns special teams coordinator Mike Priefer called him a first-ballot Hall of Famer in the run-up to Sunday’s game. It’s why seasoned analysts acted as if they’d seen a ghost when Tucker actually missed from 48 yards in Miami.
We only have so many chances in this life to observe a true master in any field. As a messy game unfolded around him, Tucker spent another night painting indelibly with his right foot.
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 3 ½