The Ravens jumped on the New Orleans Saints early thanks to a dominant defense led by ageless pass rusher Justin Houston and debuting linebacker Roquan Smith. Quarterback Lamar Jackson missed on a few potential touchdown throws but carried the day with his maturity and clutch runs in a 27-13 road win that put the Ravens on track to be a serious contender.
Here are five things we learned:
The Ravens have found their formula as they accelerate toward a potentially lustrous stretch run.
Remember when they were underachievers with a .500 record tainted by the double-digit leads they could not hold? “Our own biggest enemy,” left tackle Ronnie Stanley said, an honest epitaph after they tossed away another advantage in Week 6 against the New York Giants.
We cannot say the Ravens were on the verge of falling apart, but we can say they seemed stuck in a cycle of self-recrimination. They played like a contender so much of the time. The cold math of the standings said maybe not.
They started their climb with a tense win over the Cleveland Browns that smacked of relief more than exaltation. They regressed in the first half of their next game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but found a more commanding posture after halftime — a brutal blend of defense and resourceful running that seemed like it might just carry forward.
The Ravens traveled to New Orleans with a grand opportunity to assert themselves in an AFC that felt less top-heavy after the Buffalo Bills fell to the New York Jets and the Kansas City Chiefs struggled to subdue the Tennessee Titans. As usual, they had to cope with significant health handicaps, this week the absence of their second most important offensive player, tight end Mark Andrews, and their battering ram, running back Gus Edwards. Are they so used to playing without their full team that such holes no longer faze them?
That was certainly the case in the first half against a Saints team that had shut out the Las Vegas Raiders eight days earlier and was egged on by a roaring throng inside the Caesars Superdome. All the pieces fit for a fast, punishing defense bolstered by the addition of Smith and the return of outside linebacker Tyus Bowser. On offense, Jackson completed passes to eight receivers (that total would grow to 10 by game’s end), striking quickly rather than trying to force home runs.
The Ravens picked up where they left off in the second half against the Buccaneers, thoroughly controlling an opponent more dangerous than their 3-5 record suggested. Even after they slopped away a few opportunities to seal the victory, they continued to grind down the Saints, who had not been so overmatched in any of their previous games.
So they’re 6-3, with a lead in the AFC North and almost two weeks to rest and heal for a string of games they will be favored to win. Are they poised for a run akin to what we saw in 2019, when Jackson was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player and they won 12 straight? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves; they have yet to consistently pile drive opponents like that team did once it hit its stride. But the idea isn’t ludicrous.
“I feel like it puts us in a very good, comfortable position right now,” Jackson said. “We just have to keep doing what we’re doing, stay locked in, keep cleaning up the little details here and there. I feel like the sky’s the limit for us.”
Justin Houston’s remarkable production speaks to how well a healthy Ravens defense fits together.
Houston stuffed 2 1/2 sacks, five pressures and an interception into 32 snaps, continuing his freakish rate of production since he returned from a groin injury in Week 7. It’s no coincidence that the Ravens have won all three games during this stretch.
We’re watching the 33-year-old linebacker defy time with each explosive move toward the opposing quarterback. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Houston came within 3.38 yards of Andy Dalton on his average rush Monday night; the NFL mean is 4.53 yards. He pushed deeper into the pocket than any other pass rusher on the field.
It’s a testament to the player, who’s proving to be the greatest bargain on the roster, but also to the fact Houston is filling his ideal role for a defense that purrs like a Porsche now that most of its key components are in place.
“He said it to the team, [it’s] not just him; all those other guys are setting [it] up,” coach John Harbaugh noted.
Houston played 54 and 49 snaps the first two weeks of the season, when he and Odafe Oweh were the only viable edge rushers on the team. He gave everything he had to cover a hole in the roster, but the load was too great. With Jason Pierre-Paul eating up snaps, Houston played just 16 and 24 snaps in his first two games back from injury. He took on more work against the Saints but still far less than in those early games. We’re seeing the value of this selective approach, with a fresher Houston squeezing the most out of every snap.
His burst of sacks — 6 1/2 in 72 snaps over the last three games — is one of many signs that the entire defense has found its footing under first-year coordinator Mike Macdonald. The Ravens roll out more defensive talent than they did at any point last season, and Macdonald’s feel for when to attack and when to fake one seems to grow defter by the week. We saw this on a tricky third-down blitz from cornerback Marlon Humphrey that kept the Saints out of the end zone in the third quarter.
If not for a goofy play in the fourth quarter, when Marcus Peters and Chuck Clark let Saints tight end Juwan Johnson sashay 41 yards down the sideline because they thought he’d already stepped out of bounds, this would have been a truly crushing defensive performance. That 28-point fourth quarter the Miami Dolphins hung on them in Week 2 feels like it happened in a different season.
Lamar Jackson cannot leave so many touchdown chances unfulfilled, but his maturity carried the day.
Jackson missed throws, sailing a potential touchdown over an open Demarcus Robinson in the second quarter and firing behind a pair of free targets in the red zone on the first drive of the third quarter. These blown chances were the first plays he mentioned during his postgame interview with ESPN’s Lisa Salters. He knew he could have put the Saints away sooner.
We also saw him grow agitated in the fourth quarter, when the Ravens blew a timeout and took a delay-of-game penalty because they could not set up or snap the ball in time.
But the Ravens would not have built their lead if Jackson had not played like a grown-up quarterback in the first half. He did an excellent job using his feet to create extra time in the pocket and taking easy throws when they were available.
The Saints had blitzed less frequently than all but seven teams coming into the game, but they tried to rattle Jackson with heat, sending extra rushers on nearly half his drop-backs in the first half, according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats. He completed his first six throws against the blitz and avoided turnovers all night.
We know Jackson’s elusive, determined running is the Ravens’ ace in the hole when they need to extend a drive. He gained 82 yards on 11 carries against the Saints, and seven of his runs produced first downs. He was easily the most impactful runner in a game that featured Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill on the other side.
Harbaugh often pulls back to the big picture when discussing his quarterback, saying Jackson did what was needed to win the game. That was the case again in New Orleans.
Roquan Smith wasted no time showing the predatory dimension he will bring to Baltimore.
Smith started his Ravens career with a pair of thunder claps, stepping into gaps on consecutive plays to drop Kamara short of a first down on the Saints’ second drive of the game. Macdonald’s defense lacked a hunt-and-stick player of Smith’s caliber — there aren’t many in all of football — and he wasted no time showing what general manager Eric DeCosta bought with second- and fifth-round picks.
Smith added a terrific open-field tackle to prevent a big gain as the Saints moved downfield in the two-minute drill before halftime. He finished with five stops while playing less — 75.5% of the team’s defensive snaps — than he probably will after he has taken the next two weeks to nail down the particulars of the Macdonald’s defense.
“I’m going to get accustomed, and it’s going to be scary after I get it all down pat, so I’m excited,” he said afterward. “I love the way Mike calls the game, so I think there’s going to be so many great things in store for us.”
Many of us focused on what DeCosta did not do at the trade deadline, namely find a wide receiver to step in for Rashod Bateman, who was about to opt for season-ending foot surgery. But there wasn’t a receiver on the market who rated with Smith as a blue-chip talent, and it’s understandable that DeCosta thought an All-Pro linebacker would do more for his defense than a second-tier pass catcher would for his run-first offense. Both would have been nice, of course, but the Ravens could not afford such a shopping spree. At the very least, fans reared on Ray Lewis will delight in watching Smith for the next few months.
“We needed a guy like that, and I am so happy we were able to get him,” Houston said. “I think that was crazy for them [Chicago] to let him go. I think he is one of the best linebackers in the game and to add him to this defense, that’s scary.”
Morgan Moses has quietly given the Ravens exactly what they paid for.
A good, solid deal for a good, solid player. This was the general reaction when the Ravens signed Moses to a three-year, $15 million deal that was overshadowed by their splashier commitment to safety Marcus Williams and their disintegrating pursuit of edge rusher Za’Darius Smith.
Moses took some lumps early in the season, particularly for his role in the Ravens’ failed drive near the end of their loss to the Bills. But of late, he has reminded us just how valuable it is for the Ravens to have a trustworthy tackle to pair with Ronnie Stanley.
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Though Moses cannot match the preternaturally smooth Stanley as a pass protector, he has dominated as a run blocker the last two weeks, hauling his 6-foot-6, 320-pound frame in front of Jackson and running back Kenyan Drake as they’ve probed the edges. He has played a major role as the Ravens have used their ground attack to put games away — they’ve rushed for 150 yards in eight straight games, tied for the third-longest streak in the NFL over the last 40 seasons. He’s an above-average right tackle over the long haul, better than that on his best days.
The Ravens never sorted out their offensive line after Stanley proved unable to go last season, and Jackson gradually lost confidence as a result. They turned to Moses, who has not missed a game since 2014, for peace of mind. You get what you pay for.
Panthers at Ravens
Sunday, Nov. 20, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 45
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM