"They went 'Cover Zero,' said Lamar Jackson. "We've been studying it all week, throughout the bye week."
From the Ravens establishing themselves as legitimate AFC contenders to Nick Boyle’s much-deserved time in the spotlight, here are five things we learned from the Ravens’ 37-20 win over the New England Patriots on Sunday night.
The Ravens have to be taken seriously as an AFC contender.
They did their best to treat victory over the defending Super Bowl champions as routine business, another assignment completed in a 16-part gantlet that will resume next weekend in Cincinnati.
But the wider football world will no longer treat the Ravens as a semi-interesting team with an intriguing oddity at quarterback. You don’t get to carry on in anonymity after you beat the NFL’s standard bearer by 17 points, after Lamar Jackson outdueled Tom Brady to establish himself as a serious Most Valuable Player candidate at age 22.
The Ravens now know their inventive, versatile running attack worked against the best defense in the sport and perhaps the best defensive game-planner in the history of the league. They know their defense — a source of genuine concern after Week 4 — traded big plays with a Patriots defense that came to Baltimore on a historic roll. They know they mustered the resolve to move past mistakes — a muffed punt, a fumble on their own 19-yard-line, a missed extra-point attempt — that would have crippled a lesser team against the Brady-Bill Belichick machine. They know their quarterback faced the most sophisticated countermeasures he’s seen in his young life and came out smelling like a superstar.
The Ravens unleashed an 11-play, 75-yard symphony on their first drive of the game. Over 6:47, they hit the Patriots with everything from a designed power run by Jackson to an option pitch to Mark Ingram II that went for 13 yards to a shovel pass to Marquise Brown that went for 26.
This was offensive coordinator Greg Roman at his finest, expanding the canvas for what’s possible from an NFL running attack.
The football wasn’t always that pretty from there on. But the Ravens came back to finish the game with a pair of touchdown drives just as impressive as the first one. They scored 37 points against an unbeaten opponent that had not previously given up more than 14.
It was the kind of stuff we expect to see from teams that might still be playing come late January. For the first time in seven years, the Ravens have put themselves in that class.
Lamar Jackson’s most inspiring quality is his counter-punching.
The Ravens are a sight to behold in the first quarter, when they’re operating off Roman’s script and defenders are left stumbling by the reality of Jackson’s sublime acceleration.
But the Patriots had answers for that initial blitzkrieg. They kept switching coverages in hopes of disorienting the Ravens’ 22-year-old quarterback, and they assigned spies — usually cornerback Jonathan Jones or linebacker Dont’a Hightower — to account for him as a runner.
From early in the second quarter until midway through the third, Bill Belichick’s rigorously designed defense held the advantage.
Like a great boxing champion, however, Jackson kept his wits. The Ravens could have folded after a pair of fumbles set up easy Patriots scores or after Brady cut through their defense on fast-paced drives of 81 and 75 yards. Instead, Jackson engineered responding touchdown marches of 81 and 68 yards that ate up a combined 17:44 of the second half.
He dashed off a few of the incomparable runs that have become his signature, but he beat the Patriots as much with his arm as with his legs. There was the 18-yard completion he lofted to a well-covered Mark Andrews to convert on third-and-5 at the beginning of that 81-yard scoring drive. And the fourth-down completion to Willie Snead IV a few series later.
Jackson’s overall passing line — 17 of 23 for 163 yards — was hardly one for the ages, but he made the throws he needed to win the game.
He brings two rare qualities to difficult game situations, one mental and one emotional.
“He has an amazing ability to take a lot of factors, a lot of things — play clock, play call, personnel, formation, defense that presents, whatever changes that have to be made — and just process all that in that kind of moment,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
He compared Jackson with Brady in that respect. Beyond that rare processing ability, Jackson buoys teammates because he never seems daunted.
“He has an awesome, great carelessness,” tight end Nick Boyle said. “Not a bad carelessness, a good carelessness. If something bad happens, he can still have a smile on his face, and he still moves on to the next play, which is hard for a lot of guys. I think he does that the best I’ve ever seen.”
Put those qualities together with his otherworldly physical traits and you begin to see why veteran teammates unabashedly rally around Jackson.
“Lamar played MVP-type football,” said Ravens safety Earl Thomas III, not one to toss off an empty compliment. “He’s separating himself.”
Patrick Onwuasor was back to being the free-wheeling playmaker who blossomed in 2018.
Onwuasor was miscast as the direct replacement for C.J. Mosley, a fact that became apparent over the first few weeks of the season as the Ravens’ inside linebackers stumbled through a series of underwhelming performances.
The Ravens responded first by removing signal-calling responsibilities from Onwuasor’s overcrowded plate and then by signing veteran Josh Bynes to solidify their run defense.
Onwuasor missed the previous two games with an ankle injury, but on Sunday, we finally got to see him healthy and playing a full snap load beside Bynes. The results — eight tackles, a forced fumble and a sack — were reminiscent of Onwuasor’s finest performances from last season. He looked like a liberated player.
“He was stalking around, looking at me, and he was proud of the way he played,” Harbaugh said. “He played just like you’d expect him to play.”
The man teammates call “Peanut” made his reputation as a surprisingly effective blitzer who roved the field looking for chances to knock the ball loose. That player, one the Ravens learned to count on at crucial moments, was back against the Patriots.
Harbaugh downplayed the importance of Onwuasor starting on the weak side, noting that the team’s inside linebackers trade responsibilities from play to play. But Onwuasor’s play offered further evidence of how successfully the Ravens have tinkered with their defense over the past month.
Nick Boyle’s first career touchdown put a much-deserved spotlight on one of the Ravens’ building blocks.
Ronnie Stanley was the first player to reach Boyle after he crossed the goal line for the first time in his five-year career. Soon, the crowd around the Ravens tight end was so thick that Jackson couldn’t reach him to celebrate a “dope” moment.
Boyle is generally the guy setting up others for touchdowns, so this was a rare moment for teammates to show their appreciation.
“That was the coolest part,” he said. “It was just an experience of joy to see all of them happy for me.”
Boyle is the ultimate football grunt, a player who takes pride not in gaudy receiving numbers but in the force of his blocks and his ability to handle any assignment thrown his way. Teammates and coaches know how good he is and how much he gives. “One of our best players,” Harbaugh said after the game. “He does a lot of everything really well.”
The Ravens acknowledged as much when they signed Boyle to a three-year, $18 million contract in the offseason — big money for a tight end who’d caught just 75 passes and scored exactly zero touchdowns over his first four seasons.
Not that Boyle ever cared much about filling a box score. He gave a grunt’s answer when asked to describe the essence of his craft.
“It’s just to do what I’m called to do,” he said. “I want to be really consistent, whether run blocking, pass blocking or catching the ball. I think a big part of my game is trying to be physical.”
The entire Boyle experience (aside from his inexplicable affinity for hurdling) was on display in the first quarter against New England. He threw his 6-foot-4, 270-pound frame into defenders on running plays. He caught a seven-yard pass in traffic. He directed teammates to their appropriate places in formations. He even alerted game officials to an offsides violation by the Patriots.
He seemed genuinely embarrassed by the individual attention on him after he finally reached the end zone. “The best part is not that I scored,” he said. “It’s that I don’t have to answer the question anymore.”
Earl Thomas III now seems entirely comfortable as a Raven.
Thomas described how excited he felt to run out of the tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium and see his pal and fellow back-end maestro Ed Reed, along with Ray Lewis in his gold Hall of Fame jacket.
What those players were to their generation of NFL defenders, Thomas is to his. But unlike Reed and Lewis, he built the bulk of his legacy far away from Baltimore. And the six-time Pro Bowl safety has been candid in describing the discomfort he’s sometimes felt acclimating to his new home.
Something in Thomas seemed to unlock after the Ravens traveled to Seattle to beat his former team in Week 7. You hear true belief when he talks about how far Jackson could take the Ravens and a newfound ease when he describes his place in the operation.
Thomas played a vintage game against the Patriots. Late in the second quarter, he showed his world-class instincts when he broke in front of Julian Edelman to knock down a third-down pass at the goal line, forcing New England to settle for a field goal. In the fourth quarter, he intercepted Brady and popped up to return the ball 24 yards, setting up a long touchdown drive that put the game away.