Pundits Ponder Whether Ravens Are Best Team in AFC
The Ravens limped into the start of the regular season banged up beyond belief. At one point, they had five season-ending injuries in a 19-day span, which included losing their top two running backs and an All-Pro cornerback.
Then they suffered a gut-wrenching loss to the Las Vegas Raiders in overtime in Week 1, six days before a matchup with Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, aka their kryptonite.
There were a lot of questions being asked about the Ravens at that point. Just a few weeks later, however, a new question is being posed:
Are the Ravens the best team in the AFC?
Former NFL executive Michael Lombardi debated the question on "The GM Shuffle" podcast after the Ravens won their third straight game, 23-7 over the host Denver Broncos.
"If Lamar [Jackson] throws the ball like he did in this game from the pocket, and Hollywood Brown catches the ball like he did in this game … they got a good chance. I mean, they do," Lombardi said. "Because we know that they're going to be well-coached on defense. The fact that [Wink] Martindale's not a head coach in the NFL just blows me away."
Lombardi's co-host, Adnan Virk, said: "Right now the Ravens definitely have everyone's attention. … Kansas City's defense has major issues. The Bills are back on the winning track. OK, fine. Big 40-0 win [over the Texans on Sunday]. But the Bills early in the season, Josh Allen looked shaky the first couple games."
Obviously, there's still plenty of football to be played, but the fact that the Ravens are 3-1 despite all the injuries and playing three road games has silenced the gloom and doom talk. Now they have four consecutive home games, beginning with Monday night's contest against the Indianapolis Colts.
"I just give the Ravens a ton of credit for getting through this first month 3-1," NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal said on "Around the NFL" podcast. "They're going to get healthier and they're 3-1."
Not only have the Ravens proven to be resilient, but they've also shown that they can win games in multiple ways. They had the best rushing attack in the league the past two seasons, but they showed in their past two games that they can beat teams throwing the ball as well.
"The bigger-picture takeaway for the Ravens was their ability to find a way to control a game when their opponent took away what they do best," The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec wrote about the win in Denver. "You don't need to be reminded that they haven't always been able to do that, especially when the stakes are the highest in January.
"Sunday's victory might have not been emphatic enough to get teams to change their defensive game plans and back off the line of scrimmage, but it certainly was a step in the right direction and more affirmation of the Ravens' improvements in the passing game and in Jackson's progress as a downfield thrower."
While the Ravens offense has success throwing, the team's defensive performance was a throwback. After allowing a franchise-worst 92 points through the first three games, the defense held the Broncos to 254 yards and recorded five sacks and 11 quarterback hits.
"This was not a flawless victory but a businesslike pummeling in one of the NFL's least hospitable venues," The Baltimore Sun's Childs Walker wrote. "The Ravens remain wounded, and they have many questions to answer, about the composition of their backfield, about the health of their tackles, about the stamina of their secondary against top-shelf passing offenses. Even in scarred, dented form, however, they're no pretenders.
"In dispatching the Broncos, the Ravens gave us a glimpse of the identity they're developing as they mount a 2021 playoff push — big strikes on offense, big hits on defense."
Broncos Could Learn Important Lesson From Ravens
With the Ravens' resiliency on full display in Denver, their performance could serve as a teaching moment for the Broncos, who have been dealing with their own injury issues.
"They can learn a few things from Baltimore, including insightful tips that go well beyond strategy and execution," NFL.com's Jeffri Chadiha wrote. "The Broncos are struggling with the same type of adversity that was supposed to capsize the Ravens when this season began. The question now is how Denver handles its own problems after such a strong start.
"The Ravens already have proven they're ready for such a challenge. They lost their top three running backs and a Pro Bowl cornerback (Marcus Peters) before the regular season even began. They've responded by winning three straight games after losing the opener in Las Vegas. The statement they've made thus far: They don't give a damn about what they have to go through to reach their goals."
Ravens Doing a Good Job of Utilizing Jimmy Smith
As mentioned above, the Ravens are getting healthier, and one of the players they're happy to have back is defensive back Jimmy Smith, who has played the past two games after missing the first two due to an ankle injury.
The veteran's versatility and experience make him a key player for a defense that is dealing with injuries in the secondary. The Ravens have wisely eased him back into the lineup.
"Defensive coaches are doing a really nice job in utilizing Jimmy Smith," Zrebiec wrote. "The veteran defensive back has matched up with tight ends, played some outside corner and also some deep safety. More importantly, the Ravens have limited his snaps, which is wise to do and can't be easy given the team's injury issues in the secondary.
"The Ravens need to do everything they can to increase the likelihood that the injury-riddled Smith is healthy and fresh in December. In playing him just 24 snaps against the Broncos and 19 against the Lions, the Ravens are doing the best they can."
Smith helped contain Detroit Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson to two catches for 10 yards in Week 3, and did an adequate job against Broncos tight end Noah Fant, who had six catches for 46 yards and a touchdown.
Without Smith in the first two games, Raiders tight end Darren Waller and Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce combined for 17 catches, 214 yards and two touchdowns.
"In his second game back from injury, Jimmy Smith was a part of some big defensive stops early in the game [against Denver]," Russell Street Report's Taylor Lyons wrote. "He had a pass defensed, his second straight game with one, on a third-and-9 covering tight end Noah Fant, and played good, tight coverage on multiple incomplete passes. … Smith coming back and becoming a good rotational piece, which also limits his snap count to keep him healthy, is the ideal way to move forward."