Cornerback Jimmy Smith had missed six straight games, but he performed Sunday like he had never been away.
The return of Smith and inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor makes Baltimore’s defense deeper and more versatile, while Marquise Brown’s return at wide receiver does the same for the offense.
Smith hadn’t played since Week 1 due to a knee injury, but he promised to be ready for full duty and backed that up by playing 54 of the 67 possible snaps. Smith covered well and was a physical presence, finishing with three tackles and a pass breakup.
Onwuasor played 28 snaps, returning after a two-game absence with an ankle injury. His forced fumble led to the recovery and 70-yard scoop-and-score by Marlon Humphrey that gave Baltimore a 24-13 lead in the third quarter.
“He made some huge plays, very productive,” Harbaugh said of Onwuasor. “He plays very hard. Probably his best game for the year so far.”
The "Peanut Punch" helped send the Ravens to the playoffs last year, as Onwuasor forced three fumbles down the stretch, including a critical one late in the regular-season win over the Chargers. Now it seems that Onwuasor is getting back to his old ways back in his old WILL linebacker position.
“You have to be around the football to do it, so that’s my goal," Onwuasor said. "Try to get around the football as much as I can, and when you get there, just take your shot.”
Brown’s stat line wasn’t spectacular (three catches, 46 yards) but his first target of the game was critical. On the Ravens’ opening drive, they faced third-and-5 and were in danger of punting after a three-and-out. However, Brown made a diving catch for a 6-yard gain and a first down. The Ravens eventually scored on that opening drive and never trailed in the game.
“That first drive doesn’t happen without him and Lamar [Jackson] making that play,” Harbaugh said. “We don’t get those seven points, and that could be a different ball game from that point on forward.”
Brown had missed the past two games with a high ankle sprain, and he missed time during training camp recovery from offseason foot surgery. But Brown hasn’t complained, giving the Ravens as much as he can whenever he can.
“He’s worked hard,” Harbaugh said. “He’s coming off an injury, it was a major injury his senior year. He missed most of training camp with that. I feel like he’s worked really hard, then he had something else happen, a high ankle sprain. He’s nowhere near where he’s going to be. But he contributed last night right where he’s at. That’s the thing you appreciate.”
Special Teams Seeks More Consistency
While winning Sunday, the Ravens were not at their best on special teams.
Cyrus Jones muffed a punt that led to New England’s first touchdown. It was a critical mistake with the Ravens ahead 17-0 and dominating the game to that point. Jones’ miscue helped the Patriots find their equilibrium, and by halftime they had closed the deficit to 17-13.
Harbaugh, who was a longtime special teams coach in Philadelphia, is looking for special teams to improve in all phases.
“I think special teams generally is inconsistent right now,” Harbaugh said. “We were really doing a good job early in the year and it’s not as good right now. We’re going to play if not the best special teams, one of the top two or three special teams in the league next week in Cincinnati. Kickoff coverage wasn’t good enough. Kickoff return and punt return weren’t good enough. And we missed an extra point, too. It’s just the facts. We have to play better.”
In addition to Jones’ fumble, Justin Tucker also missed his first kick of the season, pulling his fourth-quarter extra point attempt wide left. It’s always a stunner when Tucker misses an extra point. He is the most accurate kicker in NFL history, but the precision of Tucker, snapper Morgan Cox and holder Sam Koch should never be taken for granted.
“I think his plant foot wasn’t quite where he wanted to be and just pulled the ball,” Harbaugh said. “You talk about what he's done – and they've done – it's so remarkable. It is such a surprise, and then you watch it and it's a little thing that leads to a miss. And that's why they chase those details so hard.”
Brady Felt the Presence of Baltimore’s Pass Rush
With two sacks and 10 quarterback hits against Tom Brady, the Ravens’ pass rush was a major factor in a situation when they really needed it. They hope that trend continues during the second half of the season.
Matthew Judon continued his strong play with four quarterback hits, but six other players made hits on Brady. Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale dialed up effective blitzes, the secondary covered well, and the pass rushers finished the game strong, even though the Patriots tried to fatigue the Ravens’ defense by relying on a no huddle offense.
“Our guys did a good job,” Harbaugh said. “It's really hard to rush the way we rushed him – very direct rushes in front of him. I thought we impacted him as much as we could. Our guys gave a lot of effort. It took a lot of effort, and then they went into the no-huddle.
“Very smart on their part, and you're going to get tired rushing the way we were rushing and also defending the run. They were mixing the run and the pass. He's just one of the toughest quarterbacks to go against. Their scheme is really good. I thought our guys did a really good job of getting pressure as much as we could.”