The Ravens embraced their inner ugly to pull out a surprisingly difficult 13-3 win over the Carolina Panthers and move to 7-3. On a day when they “weren’t real precise” on offense, their defense roared at the line of scrimmage and took the ball away three times with the game hanging in the balance.
With their offense in hibernation, the Ravens rose to their historic standard on defense.
The Ravens entered their locker room with a meager 3-0 lead after 30 minutes of football against an opponent they were favored to beat by 12 1/2. As it dawned on their defenders that this might be one of those harsh, chilly days when the scoring faucet never opens, they exchanged a simple message: “If they don’t score, they can’t win.”
The Ravens did not quite hold the Carolina Panthers to a goose egg, but their mantra spoke to the standard they’re aspiring to now that most of their key defenders are healthy and they’ve added linebacker Roquan Smith as a rampaging centerpiece. Forget those early weeks when they surrendered too many yards and too many points, especially in the fourth quarter. They believe they’re ready to live up to the example set by past Ravens defenses, which won games whether the offense showed up or not.
“We’re really trying to chase past Ravens defenses that have showed elite greatness,” said cornerback Marlon Humphrey, whose interception was one of the Ravens’ three takeaways in the fourth quarter. “If we keep stacking — we obviously had a rough … couple games early — since then, we’ve been showing we can be a really, really elite defense.”
The Panthers could not find any safe harbor.
John Harbaugh said he should have given a game ball to his entire defensive front, which brutalized Carolina quarterback Baker Mayfield and held the Panthers to 36 rushing yards on 17 carries after they ran for 232 in a Week 10 win over the Atlanta Falcons. Inside linebackers Smith and Patrick Queen roved for 19 tackles, two of them for loss. Cornerback Marcus Peters ripped the ball away from Carolina wide receiver Shi Smith in the fourth quarter to set up the Ravens’ lone touchdown.
The Ravens are making this a habit. They have allowed 128 rushing yards — total — over their last three games and have finished with at least three sacks in their last six games, five of those victories.
“We know how good we can be,” said defensive end Calais Campbell, who finished with a sack and two hits on Mayfield. “That confidence is huge.”
Good enough to carry a team when the wind is biting and the touchdowns are scarce? The 2000 Ravens taught several generations of Baltimore fans how far a team can go on great defense. This group has miles to travel before it belongs in such company, but you could hear hints of that historic swagger in the victorious locker room Sunday.
“It felt like Ravens football, honestly,” Queen said.
The offense could not pick up where it left off before the bye.
We started to believe the Ravens had found an offensive identity in wins over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints. Their running game, a familiar combination of creativity and thump, ruled the day against both NFC South opponents, and more of the same seemed likely against a Carolina defense that gave up 241 rushing yards to the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 9 and 167 to the Falcons in Week 8.
But the Ravens never really got to rumbling this time around as they cut out their own legs with penalties and spotty execution. Even in the fourth quarter, after they had built a 10-point lead, they gained zero yards on seven plays when they had a chance to ice the game.
“We just weren’t real precise on offense,” Harbaugh said.
Carolina took a familiar approach to slow the Ravens, cutting off outside running lanes, using their safeties to clog the middle and always remaining alert to potential Jackson scrambles. They dared Jackson to beat them outside the numbers, and though he was successful connecting with wide receiver Demarcus Robinson (nine catches on nine targets for 128 yards), the offense never flowed for long.
Jackson, who had avoided mistakes through the Ravens’ previous three wins, threw a second-quarter interception in Carolina territory when he did not see 330-pound defensive tackle Bravvion Roy standing between him and intended target Mark Andrews. He attempted 21 passes in the first half, while running backs Kenyan Drake and Justice Hill combined for a paltry 6 yards on seven carries as they crashed into the wall of Panthers.
The Ravens then demonstrated a curious lack of urgency in the two-minute game, taking their time to get to the line of scrimmage as they tried to fight their way out of poor field position on their last drive of the first half. They came away with three points anyway thanks to an impressive 31-yard catch-and-run by Robinson.
Their sloppiness continued into the fourth quarter, when they took a delay of game on third-and-8 as they were driving in Carolina territory. Jackson completed a 9-yard pass to Robinson on the next play, but they had to settle for another field goal.
Afterward, Jackson lamented the penalties and credited the Panthers, who came in 25th in defensive DVOA, for sticking to their plan.
“Some of them are going to be ugly, some are going to be pretty, but a win’s a win,” he said.
Roquan Smith is great and all, but check out Patrick Queen.
As we survey the reasons for the Ravens’ defensive improvement, it’s natural to focus on the star they added, Smith, or on grizzled sack fiend Justin Houston. But it’s difficult to overstate how far Queen has come in leaving behind his image as an inconsistent, self-defeating first-round disappointment.
Queen was always capable of flashy plays as a blitzer, and he raised his season sack total to four on Sunday. But the linebacker we saw against Carolina was an out-and-out run obliterator, filling gaps and finishing with bone-rattling hits. According to Pro Football Focus, he made seven of his game-high 12 tackles against the run, and they came an average of one yard past the line of scrimmage.
“Oh, it was just fantastic,” Harbaugh said. “He was all over the field.”
Is Queen’s new partnership with Smith, another young, swift playmaker of Southeastern Conference pedigree, the reason for this free-flowing, violent excellence we’re seeing from him?
“That guy is All-Pro for a reason, and I guess now they have two guys that they have to really account for in the blitzing game and just being an all-around playmaker flying around,” Queen said. “Just all around, the whole defense is helping me do what I do best, honestly.”
Inside linebacker was a weak spot on the Ravens’ roster through four games. Not anymore.
Of course the Ravens’ No. 1 wide receiver is a reclamation project.
Robinson could never climb to the front of a wickedly talented Kansas City Chiefs receiving corps despite his sturdy frame and downfield glide. The Las Vegas Raiders dumped him in their first round of cuts in August. So when the Ravens picked him up, fans hoped he would be a serviceable option behind Rashod Bateman, nothing more. With six catches through the first five games, none of them for more than 12 yards, he seemed to fit that bill precisely.
NFL opportunity arrives when we least expect it, however, and Bateman’s season-ending foot injury shoved the 28-year-old Robinson to the front of an undermanned room. He answered with six catches on eight targets as the Ravens rallied to beat the Buccaneers in Week 8. After a quieter follow-up against the Saints, he was back to being Jackson’s top target against Carolina. As Harbaugh noted, the Panthers’ defensive choices gave the Ravens chances to attack on the outside, and Robinson was the man to take advantage. Not only did he catch all nine balls thrown his way, six went for first downs. Far from a fill-in, he was the most productive cog in a sputtering machine. The team’s other three active wide receivers combined for one catch for 3 yards.
“He played lights out,” Jackson said of Robinson. “We’ve known what he’s capable of though; we just have to keep feeding him the ball.”
The Ravens’ best-laid plans at wide receiver rarely come to fruition. Come playoff time, analysts will scoff at a group led by the twice-discarded Robinson. But he’s making the most of this chance when he was perhaps running out of them. That’s a story to celebrate.
Kyle Hamilton hurt his knee just when his place on the Ravens was becoming clear.
We don’t know how seriously Hamilton hurt his knee in the third quarter, but he struggled to put weight on his leg as he left the field. What an awful turn for the Ravens’ first-round pick, who was coming into his own before our eyes as he played almost every defensive snap at nickel back. Not only was Hamilton moving past an uneven start to his career, he was an elegant answer to one of the few remaining questions on the Ravens’ defense.
He already had four tackles when he left the field Sunday, and he had narrowly missed a sack on Mayfield in addition to playing well in coverage. The 6-foot-4, 221-pound Hamilton set an early tone when he bulled the receiver he was covering into the path of wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr., who fell for a 1-yard loss. The play was a reminder of the unusual force Hamilton brings to a position usually manned by much smaller players. “An unconventional body there,” defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald called him.
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After the Ravens tried Brandon Stephens and Damarion “Pepe” Williams as their primary options for a fifth defensive back, they seemed to have their solution. Yes, they drafted Hamilton as a safety, and he still might become a great one. But in the here and now, he was finally able to unleash his varied talents as a moving chess piece for Macdonald. He was essential in New Orleans and again in the first half against the Panthers.
Ravens at Jaguars
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 13
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 4