The Ravens’ stars took a backseat, but the team dominated all three phases in beating the visiting Los Angeles Chargers, 34-6, at M&T Bank Stadium. Here are five things we learned on Sunday afternoon:
The Ravens were the more grown-up team in a mismatch between AFC contenders.
A week earlier, Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert combined for 840 passing yards, eight touchdowns and 78 points as both their teams moved to 4-1 in thrilling fashion.
So of course fans expected pyrotechnics Sunday when they tuned in for a battle between two of the AFC’s hottest teams and most sensational young quarterbacks. Instead, we saw a perennial contender at ease on center stage and a less established foe that seemed out of sorts from the first drive on.
The Ravens were the more mature team on this day. They understood that with the Chargers focused on cutting off deep throws, they could use multiple ball-carriers to slash through a porous front and pick up first downs with low-risk throws.
“I wasn’t going to force anything,” Jackson said, laying out his ethos for the day.
On defense, the Ravens trusted they would keep the 23-year-old Herbert off balance with their blitzes and disguised coverage schemes. He had been so brilliant on high-stakes downs, but the Ravens batted away a third-down attempt on the Chargers’ first drive and sacked him off a safety blitz the next time he had the ball. After that, Herbert did not seem himself, misfiring on throws that should have been routine for such a gifted passer. He completed just two of seven passes on nine pressured drop-backs, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Chargers converted on three of 12 third-down attempts and one of four fourth-down tries. On paper, they looked like the perfect team to prey on the Ravens’ poor tackling and difficulty covering underneath routes. In practice, the Ravens never let them off the mat after those early stops.
Add in a crushing special teams advantage and the Ravens played a complete game that could warm the heart of the crustiest old-school coach.
“This is definitely the first game all season that we played complementary football in all three phases,” veteran linebacker Josh Bynes said.
The Ravens even processed their most impressive victory of the season like a mature team, eschewing the euphoria we saw after their improbable comeback six days earlier against the Indianapolis Colts.
“There’s a lot of season left,” Jackson said during a surprisingly downbeat postgame interview session.
“I don’t think it says anything long-term,” coach John Harbaugh said when asked what the blowout portended.
The key players and coaches on this team have been through a lot of showcase games together. They’ve dominated when they were expected to roll over and stumbled when they were expected to soar. They were proud to beat a good team decisively, but in the context of where they’re trying to go, they were not going to treat it like that big a deal.
This was a day to appreciate the Ravens’ safeties.
DeShon Elliott did not say anything at first when asked to describe the satisfaction he felt after his first career interception. The fourth-year safety instead pulled down his mask and flashed a toothy smile.
“Long time coming,” he said.
No two Ravens defenders did more to set the tone for a splendid performance than Elliott and his partner on the back end, Chuck Clark.
Clark ended the Chargers’ first drive when he batted away Herbert’s pass to the flat, intended for running back Austin Ekeler. Elliott brought a close to the next drive when he blitzed off the right edge and dropped Herbert.
In the second quarter, Elliott read the trajectory of Herbert’s throw and stepped in front of Chargers tight end Jared Cook for that coveted interception. The turnover was not as impactful as it could have been, because Jackson threw an interception on the next snap. But it was exactly the type of play Elliott and Clark were criticized for not making last season.
To understand why this day was so meaningful for the Ravens’ safeties, you have to understand the context. Both came from powerhouse college programs, but Clark was a sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech in 2017 and Elliott a sixth-round pick out of Texas in 2018. They were no one’s projected stars. Even after they became starters, Clark in 2019 and Elliott last season, they heard a lot of talk about what they could not do, about the turnovers they did not cause. Together, they pledged to change this narrative in 2021.
The Ravens missed Elliott as he nursed a quad injury in Weeks 4 and 5. His return against the Chargers seemed to lift everyone around him.
“I feel like whenever you put a player in a position where he does well, it doesn’t just add … He doesn’t just add what he does,” Harbaugh said. “He puts everybody else kind of on a slot where they do better, too.”
He pointed to the career-best performance of rookie safety Brandon Stephens as proof of this contagious effect.
Rashod Bateman hinted at the impact he will make as an underneath technician.
The Ravens’ first-round pick did not waste any time making meaningful catches after he lost the first five weeks of his career to a groin injury. His 29-yard debut won’t set fantasy football owners on fire, but each of his four catches gave the Ravens a first down, suggesting Bateman knows exactly what he must accomplish with each route. That was his reputation coming out of Minnesota, and it’s what we saw from him in the early days of training camp. He just looks like a pro.
“I liked that he caught it, put it away and got straight upfield,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a simple thing, but in the NFL, it’s not an easy thing to learn, and he did a great job of that.”
Only one mistake tainted Bateman’s first game, and he was fortunate it came when the Ravens were nursing a big lead in the fourth quarter. He tried to pull another would-be first-down pass against his chest but turned upfield before he had it securely. The ball dropped into the arms of Chargers linebacker Kyzir White, saddling Jackson with an interception he did not deserve.
“That’s the one he’ll probably learn the most from,” Harbaugh said.
The Ravens will expand Bateman’s role as the weeks go on and throw to him on more aggressive routes. Even if he’s no more than the player we saw against the Chargers, however, he’ll give them a vital complement to tight end Mark Andrews on third down.
The Ravens were confident they could still run when the opportunity arose.
The Ravens might not finish this season as the NFL’s top running team, which would be a step down from the perch they occupied in 2019 and 2020. They’re still figuring out the optimal times to use the veteran running backs they brought in to patch over the losses of J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. But they did not seem worried that their inefficient running performances in Weeks 3 through 5 represented some irreversible decline.
We saw why against a Chargers defense that came in last in the league against the run. The Ravens knew Los Angeles defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill would not smother the line of scrimmage and dare Jackson to beat him over the top. That’s not the Chargers’ style. They knew they would find gaps to attack, running over the right side against a below-average defensive front.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman got right to it, calling seven runs for four ball carries (including wide receiver Devin Duvernay) on his team’s first drive. The Ravens rumbled for 62 yards on those plays, just 24 fewer than in their entire Week 5 win over the Colts. Latavius Murray punched in a 14-yard touchdown through a parted sea left by the middle of the Chargers defense.
The Ravens attempted 38 runs overall, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Devonta Freeman (nine carries, 53 yards) picked his way to his best performance as a Raven. Murray provided straight-ahead gains in short-yardage situations. Jackson scrambled.
“This game presented more of an opportunity to do it,” Harbaugh said, alluding to previous opponents’ extreme efforts to stop the Ravens’ running game.
The Ravens have said all along they’re not interested in being a run-first team or a pass-first team. They want to have an answer no matter what the defense does. In a six-day span, they beat the Colts by throwing the ball all over M&T Bank Stadium and trampled the Chargers with a lower-flying plan. They’re well on the way to their shape-shifting ideal.
We saw the full import of the Ravens’ special-teams advantages.
Special teams figured to play a significant role in this matchup; the Ravens came in with the league’s second-best unit and the Chargers with the league’s fourth-worst, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA.
If anything, the gap was more obvious than we could have predicted.
Justin Tucker baited the Chargers into five unproductive returns by keeping his kickoffs short, helping to bury Herbert, who was already struggling, with poor field position. The Chargers made matters worse by taking a holding penalty on a kickoff return, which led to a nothing drive from their own 10-yard line and an eventual Ravens field goal.
Kicker Tristan Vizcaino missed an extra-point attempt for the fifth time this season while Tucker made both of his field-goal attempts, including one from 52 yards, and all four of his extra points.
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Duvernay topped off this dominant performance with a 47-yard kickoff return to start the second half, which set up a long touchdown drive that put the Chargers to bed.
The Ravens have spent the last 14 years during Harbaugh’s tenure emphasizing special-teams technique and cultivating potential game-changers in the most overlooked phase of the sport. It’s one of their trademarks. A few times a season, we see a bright, blaring payoff. This was one of those times.
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 6