In 2008, with rookie Joe Flacco starting at quarterback, a strong defense and running game carried the Ravens to an 11-5 season and the AFC championship game.
A decade later, the Ravens are using the same formula, hoping to reach the playoffs and advance even further. Instead of Flacco, the rookie quarterback is Lamar Jackson. The Ravens’ defense, which ranked No. 2 in the NFL in 2008, ranks No. 1 this season.
Meanwhile, the Ravens’ rushing attack is climbing the charts like a new release by Drake. Through nine games, Baltimore ranked 27th in rushing. Three games and three victories later, Baltimore has climbed 20 spots into a tie for seventh in rushing, led by the dynamic speed of Jackson and the bruising physicality of rookie running back Gus Edwards.
Following Sunday’s 26-16 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, cornerback Jimmy Smith was told the Ravens had possessed the football almost 40 minutes (39:39), nearly two-thirds of the game.
“That much?” said Smith, smiling. “I didn’t know we had it that much.”
Asked how much the ball-control offense was helping the defense, Smith smiled again, giving a short answer that spoke volumes.
“That helps us win games,” Smith said.
The Ravens’ modus operandi has become clear. Play keep-away on offense. Play lights-out on defense.
They would love to do it again Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs (9-2), one of the NFL’s most explosive teams. It will be an interesting matchup against the best team the Ravens (7-5) have faced since their winning streak began.
Head Coach John Harbaugh said he expects Flacco to ramp up his practice reps this weeks, but Harbaugh has not committed to a starting quarterback once Flacco is cleared to play following his hip injury. However, the Ravens’ recent commitment to the running game has been clear. They have rushed for more than 200 yards in three straight games for the first time in franchise history. The running threat of Jackson has triggered a domino effect that transformed the Ravens’ offense.
Knowing that Jackson might start again Sunday, the Chiefs must prepare for a quarterback with unusual speed, which makes preparing for the Ravens that much harder. Describing the Ravens’ offense following Sunday’s game, Harbaugh said, “This is an unconventional offense. This is an offense that I don’t know if any of us know where it is going.”
So far, it has gone extremely well. Any team facing Jackson for the first time in this offense can’t be certain exactly what to expect.
“It’s tough when you see something for the first time,” Harbaugh said. “You can go back to the old Air Force offense, or what Navy does down there with Ken [Niumatalolo]. When a team sees that for the first time and doesn’t have a chance to work on it all throughout the year, it’s going to be challenging for them, of course, and all of the coaches in the last three weeks have said that. So yes, I do think that’s a plus.”
The Ravens’ running attack and top-ranked defense takes pressure off Jackson to win games by throwing the football. Does Jackson need to become a more consistent thrower? Yes. Does he have to throw for 300 yards for the Ravens to win? No.
In 2008, Flacco never threw for 300 yards in a game and he had five games in which he threw for fewer than 150 yards. The Ravens’ three leading rushers that year were Le’Ron McClain (902 yards, 10 touchdowns), Willis McGahee (671 yards, seven touchdowns), and rookie Ray Rice (454 yards), who kept the chains moving.
Prolific passing attacks were not as prevalent then as they are now, but the Ravens’ philosophy starting a rookie quarterback remains the same – play to his strengths and help him with a strong running game. Jackson has yet to throw for 200 yards in three starts, but the Ravens have moved the football consistently. Baltimore has scored in 17 straight quarters, a franchise record that dates back to Week 8 against the Panthers.
Most importantly, the Ravens are winning as Jackson gains experience.
“He’s getting better,” Harbaugh said Monday. “Football is like that, especially at that position. You do it in practice, and that’s one thing, but there’s nothing like the game. The game is where you learn the lessons kind of the hard way. He made a few mistakes that are well-documented that he’ll learn from, just like the week before, but there are a lot of things that can happen in football. There’s a lot of crazy scenarios that can come up, and they’re pretty impossible to predict all the different scenarios that can come up.
“So, I just think you learn by experiencing them, whether it’s situational football or understanding where you are on the field, when you’re on the field, when you can take a chance, when you can’t take a chance.”
The next step for Jackson could be completing more long throws when the opportunities are there. He made a beautiful long pass to tight Mark Andrews against the Oakland Raiders, but Jackson badly overthrew John Brown on Sunday. To beat the high-scoring Chiefs, the Ravens may require some explosive plays, even if they win time of possession.
“I think we had one play over 20 yards yesterday,” Harbaugh said. “That’s an area that we’re working on very hard. We had some things set up. Sometimes, they just happen on normal plays, you know, a normal run will pop. I think it’s a disappointment, but it’s also a credit. We rushed for over 200 yards without a big run.”
With four games remaining, the Ravens need to manufacture wins, however they go about it. But in 2008, Flacco proved the Ravens could win with a rookie starting at quarterback. In 2018, Baltimore is doing it again with a solid defense and Jackson leading an offense that is hard to get off the field.
“It’s true the best defense is a good offense,” Harbaugh said. “Whether you’re scoring a lot of points or whether you’re eating up the clock, one or the other. That’s the kind of football we’re playing right now.”