A Win on Sunday Indicates Special Season for Ravens
If the Ravens emerge victorious in Cleveland on Sunday, they will have a 4-1 record. Should that happen, history shows they're in store for a special season.
Since the organization's first season in Baltimore in 1996, the Ravens have never managed a 5-0 start, but have gone 4-1 five times: in 2000, 2006, 2010, 2011 and 2012. Among those five times, the Ravens have won their two Super Bowls, as well as three of their four division titles.
Most importantly, the Ravens have never missed the playoffs after going 4-1. The worst regular season record any of those five teams finished with was the most recent one in 2012 that went 10-6 – and we all remember how that season ended. In fact, the Ravens have also never been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs after starting 4-1.
It should be noted that the Ravens have made the playoffs the same amount of times after starting the season with a poorer record than 4-1, which shows they're more than capable of reaching the postseason even if they lose in Cleveland.
However, if history is any indication, a 4-1 start for the Ravens implies that they're primed for a standout year that involves playing football in January.
RavensWire's Matthew Stevens believes the Ravens' postseason chances are improving because of how the team's schedule is shaking out. Initially believed to be a brutal schedule when it was released, Stevens thinks "things don't look nearly as bad as the tough schedule we were predicting months ago."
His reasoning is how Baltimore's future opponents have started their 2018 seasons. The Ravens have 12 games remaining against 11 different opponents, and those teams have a winning percentage of .511. It's a solid mark, but not overwhelming.
"The Ravens are actually in the worst stretch of their remaining schedule," Stevens wrote. "Following their Week 10 bye, the remaining seven games have a combined 14-13-1 record. It could be that Baltimore gets a bit of a cakewalk right as the playoff race heats up."
It is possible that the Ravens are about to enter their toughest string of games, which makes starting the season with a 4-1 mark that much more important.
After Cleveland, the Ravens have four straight games against teams that made the playoffs last season. Three of those teams (Tennessee Titans, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers) all have winning records right now. To The Baltimore Sun's Childs Walker, "If the Ravens go into their bye week 6-3, they'd be in excellent shape. At 5-4, they'd be fine."
However, it's probably too soon to be viewing the games after Baltimore's bye as easy, especially when the team is set to play recent playoff contenders like the Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Chargers after Week 10. It could be true that the initial diagnosis of the schedule being tough throughout is accurate.
What should encourage Ravens fans though is simply how good their team has looked through a quarter of the season. They have the look of a team that can succeed, despite consistently playing tough teams.
"The Ravens had already held serve on the first quarter of their season by winning decisively at home against the Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos," Walker wrote. "A commanding win in Pittsburgh — even against a team sputtering on defense and playing without All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell — expanded their horizon for 2018."
This year's team does seem to have a special look about them, especially after this past Sunday's win against Pittsburgh.
Whenever the Ravens have won in Heinz Field, it's usually been by less than a touchdown. Though Sunday's game was tied at halftime and the Ravens didn't score a touchdown in the second half, they were still able to break away via four field goals from kicker Justin Tucker to make it more than a one-score game. That's only happened one other time in the Ravens' history during the regular season, and it came back in 2006 when the team dominated Pittsburgh, 31-7.
"We have not seen the Ravens go to Heinz Field and control a game on both sides of the ball since the 2014 playoffs," Walker wrote. "This team combines a legitimately interesting, gifted offense with a defense that reacts well to adversity. That sounds like a postseason contender."
Lamar Jackson Has Coaches' Trust
The Ravens put rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson on the field early and often during Sunday's victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Not only was Jackson on the field for nine snaps, but he was given the ball in key situations too.
It was a drastic change from the previous game against Denver, when Jackson was on the field for just two plays.
"Perhaps Pittsburgh suspected the Ravens would phase plays with Jackson out of their game plan, because the packages hadn't been fruitful through three weeks," PennLive's Aaron Kasinitz wrote. "But there Jackson was Sunday, routinely trotting into the huddle, causing murmurs to spread through the crowd and thoughts to race through the minds of Steelers defenders."
Jackson had the ball in his hands on three separate third downs, including twice during critical drives in the second half. It shows how much faith Baltimore's coaching staff has in Jackson – with a big divisional game on the line, they were comfortable giving him the ball.
The first third down that had Jackson on the field, which was on the first drive of the game, looked set to become his first NFL regular-season touchdown. The Ravens added muscle on the play in right tackle Orlando Brown Jr., fullback Patrick Ricard and tight end Nick Boyle along the right side of the offensive line, while also lining up tight end Maxx Williams next to Jackson in the backfield as a running back would.
The play worked, but a whistle was blown as Pittsburgh called a timeout at the last second.
"It was shame to lose a possible touchdown on that play, but that formation and the willingness to insert a fresh five-man package will create some advantages for the Ravens," Russell Street Report's Ken McKusick wrote.
Later, with the score in the third quarter, the Ravens faced a critical third-and-3 from their own 40-yard line. Jackson was brought on and once again, got just enough yardage to continue the drive, despite Pittsburgh challenging the referees' spotting of the ball. Eight plays later, kicker Justin Tucker put the Ravens in the lead for good.
Jackson also tried to convert a third-and-3 in the fourth quarter, but the Steelers stopped his run to the right after gaining just one yard. It was the final time Jackson would touch the ball in the game.
Overall, the plays featuring him were effective, but Walker is hoping to see the Ravens give Jackson more possibilities when he has the ball.
"It will be fascinating to see whether and when the Ravens ask Jackson to throw out of these sets," Walker wrote. "They'll have to if they want to keep defenses guessing when No. 8 runs onto the field."
It's the direction The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec believes the Ravens are heading in.
"I can't help but think that they are setting the stage for the rookie to make a play with his arm before it's all said and done," Zrebiec wrote.
With how much trust the Ravens gave Jackson against the Steelers, it wouldn't be surprising to see that happen sooner rather than later.
"The Ravens' victory showed the team will continue exploring its options with Jackson, even when the stakes are sky-high," Kasinitz wrote.
It Really Helps Having Marshal Yanda Back
Pretty obvious, but it couldn't be truer: The Ravens are really benefitting from the return of right guard Marshal Yanda.
Yanda missed the majority of last season after breaking his ankle in Week 2. The line performed admirably without him last season, but there's no question how crucial he's been for the group this season.
Some pundits feared there would be a drop in his play because of the ankle injury and that he just turned 34. Instead, Yanda has picked up where he left off before getting hurt.
"He's connecting on as high a percentage of blocks as he ever has and doing more in terms of help blocks for [right tackle James] Hurst," McKusick wrote.
Yanda turned in a fantastic game against the Steelers, earning an "A" score during McKusick's film study. By McKusick's count, "he made five blocks in level two, delivered two pancakes, and made four of five pulls."
McKusick wasn't the only one full of praise for Yanda after Sunday's game. NFL Network's Brian Baldinger, who played 11 years in the NFL as an offensive lineman, tweeted out a video analyzing Yanda's play against Pittsburgh (mispronouncing his name the entire time).
"Watch the difference a healthy Marshal Yanda makes on the inside," Baldinger said. "The pocket is just clean. It's flat, and it's wide, and [quarterback] Joe [Flacco] can just concentrate on making the throw. He doesn't have to avoid anybody."
Baldinger highlighted a variety of plays, including a 19-yard completion from Flacco to wide receiver Chris Moore in the first quarter. At the beginning of the play, Yanda is lined up against Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt. However, Steelers linebacker Vince Williams moves forward right before the ball is snapped, and Yanda has to make a quick adjustment. He shifts to his right to take on Williams, while Tuitt is left to center Matt Skura. Yanda effectively blocks Williams, while Skura handles Tuitt, giving Flacco a clean pocket.
"He's [Yanda] got his chest. When he's got his chest, look at what Joe gets to do," Baldinger said. "Joe gets to go back there, and it looks like it's an OTA practice with the red jersey on in June."
Ravens Have Third-Down Edge Against Browns; Defense Will be in Store for Second Half Battle
According to Kasinitz, an underrated part of the Ravens' success this season has been the team's play on both sides of the ball during third downs.
"The Ravens are one of just two teams to rank in the top six in the NFL in third-down offense and defense," Kasinitz wrote. "The Ravens rank sixth in the NFL with a 46 percent third-down conversion rate on offense, while the defense has held opponents to a 27.6 percent conversion rate, the second-best mark in the league."
Kasinitz points to the balanced passing attack for why the offense has done so well. Simply put, therehave been too many playmakers for opposing defenses to keep track of. On defense, the Ravens have done a good job in coverage and pressuring quarterbacks.
While the Ravens have excelled on third downs, the Cleveland Browns have struggled, which could give the Ravens an edge in a key area on Sunday.
"Despite their uptick in talent, the Browns are still in the process of figuring out how to finish off games, and third-down success — or a lack of it — can play a role," Kasinitz wrote. "Cleveland ranks 25th in third-down offense and 11th in third-down defense."
Kasinitz also pointed out that the Ravens defense's streak of not allowing a touchdown in the second half will be put to the test this Sunday. The Browns have been a second half team this season, scoring 12 of their 14 touchdowns after halftime.
"Something has to give this week," Kasinitz wrote. "Will the trend of the Ravens' stingy defense late in games continue or can the Browns extend their streak of lighting up the scoreboard down the stretch?"
- Tucker was the lone Raven to make the Pro Football Focus NFL 2018 First-Quarter All-Pro Team. "The lone blemish on Tucker's scorecard so far this season is a blocked field goal in the game against the Denver Broncos," Michael Renner wrote. "You can't blame him for that miss, and he's been perfect outside of that. He leads the league with three field goals of 50 or more yards, putting him on pace to beat his previous best of 10, which he delivered in 2016."
- Sportsnaut's Rachel Wold is seeing another big game for safety Anthony Levine Sr. this week, naming him as one of her "studs" in her "Predicting Studs and Duds for NFL Week 5" article. "Levine just got done handing the Pittsburgh Steelers the business when he recorded six combined tackles, one interception and three defended passes," Wold wrote. "Surely, he can make things tough for [Cleveland Browns quarterback] Baker Mayfield."
- Fantasy Football players: ESPN's Mike Clay is advising you don't play Browns wide receiver Antonio Callaway against the Ravens this week as he'll be matching up with the cornerback trio of Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr and Jimmy Smith. "Callaway has aligned on the perimeter 94 percent of the time this season, which means he'll see some combination of the trio on nearly all of his Week 5 routes," Clay wrote. "That spells trouble for a receiver who has enjoyed a ton of volume."