After another poor start and another comeback, it’s hard to say how good the Ravens are. But we know how resilient they are, and that goes a long way in an AFC devoid of a clear favorite.
Here are five things we learned from Sunday’s 34-31 overtime victory over the Minnesota Vikings:
Resilience is the Ravens’ defining trait
In the locker room after another nerve-jangling victory, veteran guard Kevin Zeitler drew a comparison between the 2021 Ravens and the other three teams he’d played for in nine previous NFL seasons. Faced with a 14-point deficit, he said, those other teams assumed they would lose. The Ravens assume they will come back.
“Nobody here bats an eye,” coach John Harbaugh said.
Moments earlier, he had dedicated a game ball not to any individual player but to the abstract concept of faith — the Ravens’ belief in one another and where they are going.
This might sound like hokum after a game that started with the Ravens putting themselves in terrible position through a series of decidedly non-abstract mistakes. They broke down in coverage and failed to get enough tacklers in position on a pair of plays that covered 116 yards and led directly to 14 Minnesota points. They appeared discombobulated on offense, with quarterback Lamar Jackson making odd judgments and misfiring on passes that made him scowl as he reviewed his performance afterward.
They started off the second half taking a “gut punch” as Harbaugh called it, in the form of a 98-yard kickoff return. At that point, down 24-10, the Ravens did not seem destined to end their day with a celebration. Considering how poorly they had played two weeks earlier against the Cincinnati Bengals, their entire season seemed to teeter.
But they did not see it this way. On a tactical level, they perceived adjustments to be made. On a spiritual level, they had come back from worse.
Linebacker Josh Bynes reflected on his difficult origins as an undrafted free agent and told himself and his teammates to slow down. Jackson disciplined himself to take advantage of what the Minnesota defense offered instead of pressing for swift strikes. The Ravens regained control one brutal series at a time, finishing with 36 first downs to 13 for the exhausted Vikings.
“We’ve been there before,” Harbaugh said of the hole from which they climbed.
The Ravens would rather dominate from the jump as they did so often during their 12-game winning streak to close the 2019 season. “I’m not trying to be going to overtime every week,” Jackson said. “Oh my God.”
But this does not feel like that kind of season, and perhaps resilience or faith or whatever you want to call it will be enough in an AFC devoid of a consistently great team.
Big plays remain the bane of the Ravens’ defense
Their nightmare from two weeks earlier picked right up when Justin Jefferson — a former LSU receiver just like Ja’Marr Chase — ran past Marlon Humphrey and Chuck Clark for a 50-yard touchdown on the Vikings’ first drive. It was the eighth play of 40-plus yards against the Ravens this season, four times as many as they surrendered in all of 2020. The Vikings quickly made it nine on their next drive, when running back Dalvin Cook swept untouched around the right end for 66 yards on third-and-1.
The explanations were not obscure.
Harbaugh said the Ravens knew Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins would look deep off the setup for his 50-yard touchdown throw. “We should have been back there waiting for it,” he said.
Cook’s explosive run came off one of the Vikings’ bread-and-butter designs. “We just didn’t get the support there to get the edge on it,” Harbaugh said.
The Ravens have made these fundamental defensive mistakes in almost every game — at least tackling was not their chief failure this time — and they have paid for them with touchdowns. With a few lapses, they have erased so much of their good work in other situations.
To their credit, they rallied to defend well for most of the game, cutting off Cook’s preferred running lanes and keeping Cousins from nicking them to death. Humphrey played well after the initial touchdown to Jefferson and linebacker Patrick Queen continued his improvement beside Bynes.
The Ravens were back on their heels on Minnesota’s game-tying drive late in fourth quarter, allowing Cousins to find fullback C.J. Ham for 27 yards on third down and Cook to churn for 24 yards on the next play.
They will benefit from playing two of the league’s worst offensive teams, the Miami Dolphins and the Chicago Bears, over the next two weeks, but they’re down another trusted starter after safety DeShon Elliott tore his pectoral muscle and biceps against the Vikings. Their path on defense does not seem any straighter or smoother after a bye week filled with hard self-assessments.
Lamar Jackson started as poorly as he has all season, but he is one of the league’s best problem solvers
The Vikings played without their best cornerback in Patrick Peterson, their best safety in Harrison Smith and one of their key interior linemen in former Raven Michael Pierce. They lost another starting cornerback, Bashaud Breeland, midway through the second quarter.
Instead of dicing up the motley crew that remained, Jackson looked lost for most of the first half. He airmailed an attempt to tight end Mark Andrews that could have put the Ravens in easy scoring position on their first drive. He side-armed a check-down over the head of running back Devonta Freeman. He threw an interception when he tried to force a pass to Andrews between two defenders in the two-minute drill.
“I can’t tell you,” he said when asked why the offense started so disjointedly. “We just had to find our rhythm. Little passes — I was missing. I threw one to Marquise [Brown] — like a little out — horrible ball.”
If not for a horse-collar tackle and a 42-yard pass interference called against the Vikings, the Ravens might not have scored at all in the first half.
As we have seen them do multiple times this season, they figured it out as they went along. Jackson got them rolling by looking to an unlikely target in fullback Patrick Ricard, who caught three passes for 35 yards on a single scoring drive. With the Vikings playing well off Brown, Jackson found his most prolific wide receiver with short, quick passes to the perimeter. Brown did the rest, accumulating many of his 116 yards after the catch.
“When they’re playing that type of defense, we’ve got to just take what they give us, if it’s to whoever, and that’s what we started doing,” he said.
As the Vikings tired down the stretch, the Ravens rode running backs Devonta Freeman and Le’Veon Bell, who delivered their best work of the season (127 yards on 24 carries combined). Freeman piled on yards after contact, while Bell fought hard in key short-yardage situations.
“We ran the ball to win the game at the end,” Harbaugh said.
Jackson finished with 266 passing yards, 120 rushing yards and another memorable comeback. This wasn’t one of his pristine afternoons, but he figured it out.
In a rare twist, the Ravens almost lost the game on special teams
Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal aside, this was a season-worst performance for the Ravens’ most consistent phase of play.
They had a chance to build something coming off their touchdown drive at the end of the first half, but the Vikings immediately smothered their momentum when Kene Nwangwu ran through an attempted tackle by Chris Board for a 98-yard kickoff return.
Board is a special-teams stalwart while Nwangwu had not returned a kick all season. The Ravens came in first in special teams DVOA while the Vikings came in 30th. How could these components add up to a Minnesota touchdown?
The Ravens’ special-teams troubles did not end with the return touchdown. After they had cut the lead to 24-17 and stopped the Vikings on third down, Geno Stone failed to bring down Nwangwu on a fake punt that gave Minnesota new life.
In the first half, Brandon Stephens collided with Devin Duvernay on a punt return, leaving the Ravens with poor field position at their own 11-yard line. Sam Koch sent a punt out of bounds for a mere 35 yards when he had a chance to pin the Vikings deep in their own territory.
The subtle positional advantages the Ravens usually build with their coverage and returns went the other way.
As other contenders stumbled, the Ravens kept themselves on an ideal trajectory
Scoreboard watching offered plenty of unexpected treats for Ravens fans. The Buffalo Bills, dubbed by some a clear favorite in the AFC, fell to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars. The Cleveland Browns beat the Bengals by 25, making a further muddle of the AFC North standings. The Kansas City Chiefs won but continued to sputter.
By not faltering, the Ravens climbed, and they’ll have chances to continue climbing over the next two weeks as they travel to face the Dolphins and Bears — losing teams with toothless offenses.
Are the Ravens a Super Bowl contender?
Baltimore Ravens Insider
They have done their best to throw us off every time we think we know the answer. They stumble when expected to dominate and rally when they appear close to circling the drain. Harbaugh would tell us it’s folly to ask the question at this point in the season, and in this case, he’s probably right.
With so much mayhem in the standings, the Ravens just have to keep winning while they tinker. It matters that they’re 6-2, no matter how they got to this point.
Thursday, 8:20 p.m.
TV: Chs. 45, 5, NFL Network Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 6 ½