Late for Work 12/24: Ravens Making Strong Case They're the Best Team in AFC North

122420-LFW
Left: QB Lamar Jackson; Right: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger

Ravens Making Strong Case They're the Best Team in AFC North

With two weeks remaining in the regular season, the Ravens are looking like who we thought they were.

The Ravens entered the season as prohibitive favorites to win their third consecutive AFC North title. That won't happen, but despite sitting in third place with a 9-5 record, there is growing sentiment that they are indeed the best team in the division right now.

The first-place Pittsburgh Steelers have dropped three games in a row after an 11-0 start, including a stunning 27-17 loss to the three-win Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night. The second-place Cleveland Browns (10-4) are playing well and have won five of their past six games, but their lone loss during that stretch was to the Ravens, who also beat them in Week 1.

"Earlier this month, Baltimore was scrambling to fill its game-day roster after enduring one of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks in professional sports," ESPN's Jamison Hensley wrote. "In the wake of that, suddenly the Ravens have become the most dangerous team in the AFC North during the playoff homestretch."

Pro Football Focus' Steve Palazzolo said: "I'm starting to buy into the Ravens. They're my team. They're the team I think is the best [in the AFC North]. They're starting to look more like 2019. … I just think that the Ravens have all of the pieces.

"Their last game [against the Steelers] was with [Robert Griffin III]. If they're playing at full strength, I don't think it's a contest right now. The Ravens are trending in the right direction, Steelers are going the wrong way. But I can see the argument also for the Browns the way Baker Mayfield is playing right now."

Unfortunately, the Ravens cannot win the division title even if they are victorious in their final two games, and they might not even make the seven-team AFC playoff field. They're currently the eighth seed and will need help.

If the Ravens do make it to the postseason, they might be the team no one wants to play. NFL Network's Michael Robinson said Baltimore is the biggest threat among the wild-card contenders to make a Super Bowl run.

"You got a running quarterback in Lamar Jackson who forces defenses to play 11-on-11 football. If he gets hot down the stretch, the defense already only allows 20 points [per game], I like the Baltimore Ravens," Robinson said.

CBS Sports NFL analyst Charles Davis said the Ravens could be even more dangerous than last year's team that went 14-2.

"They're the one that you're kind of hoping, 'If they get left home, I'm good,'" Davis said. "Not that you don't respect the others, because you do, but Baltimore is just a whole different animal trying to run around chasing Lamar, and it feels to me like they're getting their mojo back. … Their record won't be nearly as good as it was last year. But if they get in, it almost feels like they could be more dangerous."

To illustrate how the Ravens and Steelers are headed in opposite directions, Hensley noted that Baltimore is averaging an NFL-best 40.3 points per game during its three-game winning streak, while Pittsburgh is averaging just 16.7 points during its three-game losing streak.

Ironically, Ravens fans have to hope the Steelers get their act together, pronto. Assuming the Ravens win out, one of the scenarios that will get them into the playoffs is Pittsburgh either beating the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday or the Browns in Week 17.

Ravens Played Their Best Half This Season Against Jaguars

The way the Ravens played in the first half of last Sunday's 40-14 rout of the Jacksonville Jaguars should frighten any potential playoff opponent, wrote The Baltimore Sun's Jonas Shaffer, who contended that it was their best half of the season.

"They entered halftime leading 26-0 and averaging 6.8 yards per play on offense (224 total) and 2.1 yards per play allowed (61 total) on defense," Shaffer wrote. "According to Pro-Football-Reference, no team since the 2002 Kansas City Chiefs has ended a game averaging 6.8 yards per play or more and 2.2 yards per play allowed or less in a game. Only 14 teams have ever done it since 1940.

"Yes, the Ravens were playing a team that will probably have the top overall pick in next year's draft, and a defense that's perhaps the NFL's worst. Yes, there was a second-half regression for both the Ravens offense (6.4 yards per play overall) and defense (4.6 yards per play allowed). But they mostly put on a clinic."

Shaffer identified four things the Ravens did in the first half to dominate the Jaguars:

First-down success

"The only significant blemish on the Ravens' first half — Jackson's interception on a late-to-arrive, somewhat-underthrown deep shot to wide receiver Marquise 'Hollywood' Brown on the team's opening drive — came on first down," Shaffer wrote. "Otherwise, the Ravens mostly got what they wanted early. On the 17 other first-down scenarios for the offense, they averaged 7.8 yards per play."

Shaffer noted that Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman broke from his tendency to call running plays on first down.

"Entering Week 15, the Ravens had passed on 34.4% of their first-down plays. That often got the team into trouble early in the season, with defenses keying on run plays and keeping the Ravens off schedule," Shaffer wrote. "In the first half Sunday, though, Jackson dropped back 10 times, while the Ravens had eight carries. On nine pass attempts, including the interception — one drop-back turned into a scramble — the offense averaged 9.8 yards per play."

Play-action boost

The Ravens used play-action fakes on their first seven passes against the Jaguars. Six were completions, including gains of 28, 27, 18, 11 and 10 yards.

"With their ground game finally in gear, the Ravens should have the leverage to punish defenses intent on stopping the run," Shaffer wrote.

Evolving offense

"In recent weeks, the Ravens have tortured opposing defenses with their 'bash' counter concept, in which a running back becomes the outside option in a read-option play and Jackson the inside threat. On Sunday, the Ravens added another wrinkle that took advantage of Dobbins' breakaway speed," Shaffer wrote. "On third-and-3 on the Ravens' opening drive, Dobbins lined up wide, a tactic that can help quarterbacks determine before the snap whether the defense is in man-to-man or zone coverage. When Jackson motioned him over, Dobbins jogged as if he were returning to the backfield.

"Then he accelerated, a quick burst that would take him across Jackson's face. The ball was snapped, and when the Jaguars' unblocked edge defender crashed on Jackson, Dobbins took the handoff and cruised to the edge, turning upfield for an easy 11-yard gain. Early in the second quarter, the Ravens used the same kind of motion for Dobbins near the goal line, and the rookie all but walked in, untouched, for a 2-yard score."

Stout run defense

"The Jaguars' running game, led by rookie running back James Robinson, wasn't supposed to be a dud Sunday. Jacksonville has been solid on the ground all year, and the Ravens entered kickoff with Pro Bowl selection Calais Campbell unavailable and another starting defensive end, Derek Wolfe, banged up," Shaffer wrote. "But in the first half, the Jaguars had just 28 rushing yards and 2 yards per carry. They finished with 62 yards total, their second fewest this season, and just 2.8 per carry."

Wink Martindale Keeps Opposing Coaches Guessing

It was noted in Tuesday's Late for Work that several teams reportedly are looking at Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale as a head coach candidate. One of the reasons Martindale is held in such high regard is that his schemes are so creative and unpredictable that opposing coaches never know what to expect, which makes devising an offensive game plan a difficult task.

"In Martindale's three-year tenure as coordinator, the Ravens' defense has been one of the NFL's best, but a more apt description is that it's been perhaps the most creative in the league," Penn Live's Aaron Kasinitz wrote. "And while Baltimore's opponents each week must scramble to prepare for the uniqueness of quarterback Lamar Jackson, several coaches have said it's also an immense challenge to guess what tricks Martindale will unveil."

New York Giants Head Coach Joe Judge, whose team faces the Ravens on Sunday, talked about the challenge of facing Martindale's defense. (Incidentally, Martindale interviewed for the Giants head coach job in January.)

"Wink does a great job of spinning the dial," Judge said. "He manages to have a lot of combinations of blitzes and pressures throughout the game. Everyone gets a swing of the bat, as we say, with them. It's corners, it's safeties, it's nickels, it's linebackers. It's one at a time, it's two at a time, it's all of them coming. They'll play cover zero, and they'll drop into max coverage and change it up on you."

Kasinitz gave several examples of Martindale using his personnel in unconventional ways this season.

"This year, Baltimore outside linebacker Tyus Bowser, once a situational pass rusher, is tied for the team lead with three interceptions," Kasinitz wrote. "Conversely, in a blowout win over the Bengals in October, an NFL record five Ravens defensive backs recorded sacks, as their typical responsibilities as cover players for blitzing duties.

"Defensive end Calais Campbell, a 13th-year veteran, totaled three pass deflections over 32 games in the 2018 and '19 seasons while playing for the Jaguars. During Campbell's Ravens debut in September, Martindale decided to have the 6-foot-8 Pro Bowler sink back into coverage on several occasions as a part of a plan to baffle Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. Baltimore earned a 38-6 win and Campbell deflected three passes in one afternoon alone."

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