Are the Ravens the Most Dangerous Team in the AFC Playoff Picture?
I'm sure plenty of members of the Ravens Flock spent some portion of the weekend doing some last-minute Christmas shopping. With all due respect to whatever you had to buy last second for your in-laws, something tells me the early present the Ravens gave Saturday will be the source of the conversation around the Christmas tree tonight and tomorrow.
The Ravens pulled out a massive 22-10 victory against the Los Angeles Chargers this past weekend. Combined with a Pittsburgh Steelers loss (a massive thank you to the New Orleans Saints), Baltimore now sits atop the AFC North. There's no need for the Ravens Flock to look up various playoff scenarios because the team's path is simple: win against the Cleveland Browns next Sunday and they're in the playoffs as AFC North champions.
The impressive win has a lot of pundits, including ESPN’s Dan Graziano, wondering if the Ravens are the most dangerous team in the AFC playoff picture. To Graziano, that assessment is not is not an overreaction.
"[Rookie quarterback Lamar] Jackson needs some time to refine himself as a passer, but he's an absolute wonder to watch and a nightmare to defend," Graziano wrote. "Everybody knows what Baltimore wants to do -- run the ball down your throat all day -- and right now no one is stopping it."
There's no question the offense, despite being very unorthodox in the golden age of passing, is rejuvenated with Jackson under center. NBC Sports’ Peter King is a believer, writing "[The Ravens] have run the ball 63.6 percent of the offensive plays. The 1964 Browns, with steamrolling MVP Jim Brown dominating the ground game, ran it 53.9 percent of the offensive snaps. The 1966 Packers, the first team to win the Super Bowl, ran 57.6 percent of the time. It's Lamar Jackson's world, and we're just living in it."
On Saturday, the Chargers were actually able to limit the Ravens to 159 rushing yards, their lowest total with Jackson starting. Jackson finished with just 39 yards on the ground, 27 of which came on one run.
Jackson still found a way to make an impact with his arm, hitting tight end Mark Andrews on a 68-yard touchdown just after the Chargers had taken the lead in the third quarter. Trailing in a must win road game as a rookie? Most quarterbacks wouldn't do well in that spot, but as NFL.com’s Michael Silver put it, the situation "merely brought out Jackson's inner chill."
As impressive as this change on offense has been for the Ravens, there's no way the team would be as dangerous as they are without "playing defense at a stratospheric level," as Graziano described it. This group absolutely stuffed a Chargers offense that many thought was the most complete in the NFL.
As LFW noted on Friday, most pundits believed the Ravens would not win on Saturday, and one of the main reasons was how dynamic the Chargers are on offense with quarterback Philip Rivers, running back Melvin Gordon, and wide receiver Keenan Allen, all Pro Bowlers. Instead, no Chargers skill player finished Saturday's game with more than 60 yards.
"The Ravens can cause everybody in the AFC a problem, they can be a headache for everybody because of their defense," NFL Network's Shannon Sharpe said. "You're not going to get 30 points against that defense, so you can cancel Christmas on that."
The defense has done well all season, ranking first in scoring (17.5 points allowed per game) and yards allowed per game (284.1). The one area where the group had struggled was in creating turnovers, where they rank No. 29 with 14.
It was a different story on Saturday as the Ravens forced three turnovers – interceptions by Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey, and a forced fumble by inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor that was returned for a touchdown by cornerback Tavon Young – against an offense that usually doesn't make mistakes. Head Coach John Harbaugh referred to the takeaways as "the final piece" of the defense, and Russell Street Report’s Brandon Portney agrees.
"The Ravens defense is very very good…," Portney wrote. "BUT the Ravens defense forcing turnovers is downright unfair and terrifying to potential playoff matchups."
Graziano agrees with Portney. He isn't sure how far this approach will be able to take the Ravens, but he has a lot of confidence that they'll cause a lot of headaches for opponents should they reach to the postseason.
"The Ravens may not be deep or dynamic enough on offense to win the three games they'd need to make it to the Super Bowl… but they're not going to be any fun to play," Graziano wrote. "The win over the Chargers and the near win over the Chiefs prove they can hang with anyone."
John Harbaugh Announcement Is Well-Received
The Ravens made headlines on Friday night as well when it was announced that Head Coach John Harbaugh would remain with the team next season. It was also revealed that the team and Harbaugh are currently working on extending his contract beyond 2019.
That Harbaugh is coming back isn't particularly surprising considering how well thought of he is as a head coach, and Baltimore's turnaround since the bye weekend. Harbaugh and his staff have successfully transitioned to a new starting quarterback and totally altered the offense – which isn't an easy feat. Many analysts believed a plethora of organizations would have called Harbaugh about coaching their teams if he didn't stay in Baltimore.
What was a little odd to some pundits about the announcement was the timing of it. Some pundits believed it was strange to make that news public the night before a big game. It left The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec with a lot of questions.
"Why wouldn't you wait to see how things finish up, especially knowing the late-season disappointments of the last two years?" Zrebiec asked. "Why put out a statement just before 7 p.m. eastern time on a Friday night at a time usually reserved for publicizing information that you hope gets washed up, or at least minimized, by the weekend news cycle? Why not just hold off until you officially reach an extension with Harbaugh, rather than announcing that one is in the works?"
To some, the timing indicated that the front office has been so impressed with the job Harbaugh has done this season, that they wanted to make it clear the 11-year head coach was not going to be available. Silver believes the timing may have been meant to lessen the magnitude of Saturday's game.
"If the goal was to decrease the pressure on Harbaugh and his players before their biggest game of the season -- well, it worked," Silver wrote.
At the end of the day, the end result of the announcement is what matters: Harbaugh is staying in Baltimore. To the Baltimore Sun’s Childs Walker, that means "No matter what happens over the next week, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti made the right choice."
"Harbaugh proved that over the last six months as he managed the transition from Joe Flacco to Jackson without giving up on the short-term ambitions of a veteran team…," Walker wrote. "This season could have turned into an unmitigated disaster when the Ravens lost three straight games and their starting quarterback heading into the Week 10 bye… Instead, the Ravens discovered a new identity on the fly as they kept their tenuous playoff hopes alive. They adapted. After 11 seasons, that's Harbaugh's identity as a coach. He does not let trying circumstances sink his teams."
Pass Rush Makes its Mark Against Chargers
The defense put together an immaculate performance on Saturday, limiting one of the most dynamic offenses in the NFL to just 198 total yards, including 181 passing yards for quarterback Philip Rivers, who many pundits believe could be the league's MVP this season. There are a lot of player groups that performed at a high level, but Pro Football Focus believes the key to the victory was the pass rush.
"We at PFF often say that coverage is more valuable than pass-rushing, but this game was won up front by the pass-rushing unit of the Ravens," PFF wrote. "Yes, the secondary made some great plays on the backend to seal the game, but [outside linebacker] Terrell Suggs and company abused the Chargers' offensive line all game long."
The Ravens registered four sacks for a sizable 34 yards. Onwuasor recorded two, while outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith had 1.5, with defensive end Brent Urban getting the other half.
Though that's a nice sack total, it doesn't tell the story of just how frequently Rivers was under pressure. Rivers took eight quarterback hits, four of which were doled out by Smith, as he spent pretty much the entire game under duress.
"The tipping point for quarterbacks is typically at 40 percent. That is if they are pressured greater than 40 percent of their dropbacks, bad things usually happen for the signal-caller. No QB is immune to it," PFF wrote. "Rivers is no exception, as he was seemingly under pressure from the first snap of the game until the last… This game was decided up front. The Chargers' offensive line had no answers for the Ravens' pass-rush."
Though it was a great team effort, Onwuasor really shined. His effort caught the eye of a lot of pundits, including King, who named him first among his defensive players of the week in his weekly "Football Morning in America" segment.
"The third-year undrafted free-agent continued to make an impact on the Ravens—and on the AFC playoff race—with a great game at the Chargers on Saturday night," King wrote.
PFF Offensive and Defensive Ratings
- Tight end Nick Boyle came away as PFF’s highest-rated offensive player with a 4.2. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley registered a 2.8, while Andrews scored a 1.6.
- Dixon was given a -3.5 score, while wide receiver Michael Crabtree accrued a -1.9. Jackson scored a -1.2.
- Suggs led the way for the defense with a 6.9, while Smith accrued a 3.8. Safety Eric Weddle finished with a 2.7.
- Safety Tony Jefferson registered a -1.8, while safety Anthony Levine Sr. scored a -1.7. Carr was given a -1.1.