It wasn't pretty, at least offensively, but the Ravens secured their fourth-straight win Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, 13-3, at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens are now 7-3 and remain in first place in the AFC North.
Here are five thoughts on the Ravens' win:
This dominant defense is here to stay.
The reports of the Ravens defense's death were greatly exaggerated. Cough cough, Rex Ryan.
Think about how far this defense has come since Week 2, when the Miami Dolphins torched it in a shocking fourth-quarter comeback. Baltimore's defense has been improving game by game since then, and we've now reached the point when it's safe to say this unit is not only very much alive, but thriving.
Baltimore's defense gave up season lows in points (3), total yards (205), yards-per-play (3.8), and rushing yards (36), while getting three turnovers and four sacks.
The Ravens are going to face more dangerous offenses and quarterbacks this season, especially if they make it to the postseason, as they're in strong position to do. But the utter domination Baltimore had over Carolina Sunday shows this isn't just a good defense. It's a great defense. The Panthers maybe caught a whiff of the end zone all day, and that was just because it was windy.
The Ravens' inside linebacker duo of Patrick Queen and Roquan Smith has to be the best in the NFL. Marlon Humphrey is having arguably his best season in coverage, and Marcus Peters is his usual feisty self, shown with a clutch strip. The pass rush heat is turning up across the board and second-round rookie David Ojabo is coming soon. The defensive line is mauling in the trenches. Marcus Williams, the biggest offseason addition of all, will return at some point to try to pick up where he left off.
After the game, Humphrey said the Ravens are trying to measure up to classic Baltimore bullies of the past. There's reason to believe this Ravens defense can not only measure up with some of the best units of seasons past, but maybe even surpass them. What would Ryan think of that?
Splash plays close out games on defense.
Once ranked in the NFL cellar in total defense, the Ravens have dug their way out to No. 19 entering this game and will go up from here. We'll see how far up the rankings they get by season's end, but the biggest difference with this year's unit and even good ones of recent seasons is the splash plays.
With the Ravens holding just a three-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, anything could have happened. That's when Peters ripped the ball away from Panthers receiver Shi Smith for the play of the day. That set up the Ravens' lone touchdown and it was pretty much a wrap from there.
The Ravens defense had 15 takeaways all of last season (only two teams had fewer). They have 19 so far this year, the second most in the league. The Ravens have recorded at least one takeaway in every game this season and 12 consecutive games overall, the longest streak in the NFL. Baltimore has 23 sacks in its past six games and 31 on the season, which will put the Ravens in the top 10 by the end of the week.
Offenses mount comebacks all the time in the NFL. The Ravens sure saw that early this season. Splash plays close out games. At halftime of Sunday's win, the defense took the attitude that the game was on its shoulders and it delivered down the stretch. The Panthers' final four possessions: fumble, turnover on downs (via sack), interception, interception.
Without a strong run game, the offense struggled to find an answer.
The Ravens ran over their past three opponents in three straight convincing wins. They had eight games with at least 150 rushing yards – the longest streak in the league. That ended against a strong Panthers defensive front and defensive approach devoted to slowing Baltimore's ground attack.
When the ground game ran into a wall against the Panthers for much of the game, the Ravens didn't have enough answers. This is a problem because Rashod Bateman isn't coming back and as the weather continues to get colder, the passing game probably won't suddenly take off.
Baltimore's rushing attack will be better once Gus Edwards (hamstring) and, eventually, J.K. Dobbins (knee) are back. But there are going to be more days against tough defensive fronts devoted to stopping the run ahead.
With this year's formula, the Ravens have to be efficient in the passing game and they have to play well situationally. The Ravens were pretty efficient in the passing game Sunday, with Jackson completing a season-high 72.7% of his passes (24-of-33) attacking short and on the intermediate edges. But Baltimore was not good situationally, especially when in scoring range.
A dropped pass ended their first drive. With three shots at the end zone at the end of the first half, the Ravens didn't get close on any. A facemask penalty and sack allowed by Morgan Moses pushed the Ravens out of field-goal range late in the third quarter. A high snap and delay of game penalty left them settling for a field goal on the next.
The Panthers defense is better than advertised, but the Ravens were too sloppy when it mattered. If they're going to beat better teams than Carolina down the stretch and/or in the playoffs, they'll have to be better in that regard. Still, not every win is going to be pretty.
Demarcus Robinson steps to the forefront of WR corps.
Without Rashod Bateman, the Ravens' receiving corps is a patchwork outside of Mark Andrews. On this day, Demarcus Robinson stepped to the forefront when it was badly needed, hauling in nine catches for 128 yards – the second 100-yard game of his career.
Only one wide receiver other than Robinson caught a pass and it was Devin Duvernay with one grab for three yards. When Bateman went down, it was assumed that Duvernay, who had gotten off to such a strong start this season, would step into the top wide receiver spot. He had one target in New Orleans and one against the Panthers. The Ravens should find ways to get Duvernay more involved, but regardless, it was good to see Robinson step up.
Robinson was picked up during training camp when he was released by the Las Vegas Raiders and he's operating like the Ravens' WR1 right now. Robinson also led the Ravens receivers with four targets in New Orleans before the bye. Against the Panthers, Robinson showed good chemistry with Jackson, converting several times on out-routes to take what the Panthers defense was giving them with toe-tapping sideline grabs.
The Ravens have many times picked up veteran receivers cast off by other teams, sometimes with success and other times not. Robinson looks like a hit.
The lingering concern from this game is with the health of Ronnie Stanley and rookie Kyle Hamilton, who both exited with injuries and did not return. Stanley told Jackson that he was alright after the game and Hamilton was questionable to return, indicating that it wasn't too serious of a knee problem. Still, both have been playing at a high level and it would be a tough blow if they were to miss time. Their progress will be monitored closely.
While the addition of Smith has garnered plenty of well-deserved acclaim, it should not overshadow how well Queen is playing. Queen tallied a whopping 12 tackles to lead the team, as well as a half-sack and another tackle for loss. This is the best ball Queen has ever played, as his Year 3 breakout premonition is coming true.
Welcome back Mark Andrews. On the first play from scrimmage, he hauled in a catch and dragged the entire Panthers defense for a couple yards. Andrews finished with six catches for 63 yards on eight targets and became the third Raven in franchise history to reach 4,000 receiving yards, following Todd Heap and Derrick Mason.
Jason Pierre-Paul was shut out of the box score the past two games in Tampa Bay and New Orleans. He came roaring back after the bye with a sack, tackle for loss and interception. Fellow veteran outside linebacker Justin Houston upped his season sack total to nine to remain among the league leaders. With another sack, Calais Campbell is now up to 4.5, the most he's had in his three seasons as a Raven. The "old" guys continue to get it done.
Kenyan Drake had -1 rushing yards in the first half. Credit him for hanging in there and continuing to pound away, as his shifty 29-yard run set up Jackson's 1-yard touchdown plunge. Drake finished with 10 carries for 46 yards as the lead back.
Justin Tucker has now made 65 consecutive field goals in the fourth quarter or overtime, marking the longest such streak in NFL history. It looked like a day when the kicker might score all of the Ravens' points. Matt Stover would've been proud.