Za'Darius Smith Quietly Become a Really Good Pass Rusher
Ravens outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith has had the pass-rush production; he just hasn't had the sacks to show for it.
Smith made the impact he's been long yearning for Sunday in Cleveland when he sack/stripped Browns rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer in the end zone. Defensive tackle Brandon Williams fell on the ball for a touchdown, giving the Ravens a 14-point lead in the third quarter.
It was just the second full sack of the year for Smith, and he now has 3.5 over the past two seasons, but it's one that could be a launching pad for the third-year player.
"You like to see guys succeed, and see where the hard work is put in to make a play like that," Head Coach John Harbaugh said.
According to Pro Football Focus, Smith has the fourth-most quarterback hits in the NFL among outside linebackers (12). He's had many near misses and close calls, but just not the numbers.
"I think Za'Darius has become, quietly or not, maybe not in Baltimore as much, but nationally, a really good pass rusher – one of the better pass rushers in football, an ascending pass rusher," Harbaugh said.
Smith's move to get the end zone sack was an impressive one. He faked an inside bull rush, then darted to the outside for a speed move. It's the kind of move that's set up in advance, and it caught Browns left tackle Spencer Drango off-balance.
"He just had a tremendous out-in-and-out move. He kind of faked it – he was going to go to a power move, bull rushed the tackle back, and he slipped outside and got around clean before the quarterback could even think he could be there. That's why thestrip-sack happened. It was just a great play."
Now in his third season, Smith has consistently played behind excellent veteran outside linebackers: Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Courtney Upshaw. He's also contended with good young talents such as Matthew Judon and now rookies Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams.
Smith registered 5.5 sacks as a rookie and has been looking to take the next step in his career. Sunday's performance in Cleveland may be the precursor to something bigger.
"I personally love his work ethic, love his attitude, love being around him every day, the kind of guy he is," Harbaugh said. "We want to see more of that."
Mike Wallace's Production Has Spiked
This season didn't start out like wide receiver Mike Wallace, or really any offensive playmakers, would've liked it to.
But over the last three games, Wallace has been one of the major reasons why Baltimore's offense has broken out. With Jeremy Maclin (knee) banged up, Wallace is clearly the Ravens' most reliable receiving threat.
In the Ravens' first three games, Wallace made three catches for 21 yards. Before the Week 10 bye, he had 20 receptions for 267 yards (33 yards per game).
In Baltimore's last three contests, Wallace has caught 14 passes for 277 yards (92 yards per game).
Wallace put up 1,017 receiving yards last year on 72 catches. He likely won't eclipse that this season, but with the way he's playing recently, he could help boost Baltimore's offense into the playoffs.
Harbaugh said part of the ability to improve after a slow start is tuning out the outside noise that can comes with low production. There are also many reasons why receivers stats may fluctuate week-to-week.
"You've just got to keep fighting through it," Harbaugh said. "A guy like Mike Wallace is always confident, as you know, and he always works hard. So opportunities are going to come his way and he's going to make those plays. He had a couple of really great catches for us."
Buck Allen Showing Consistency Pays Off
Electric running back Alex Collins, his Irish dancing and tug-of-war celebration have garnered the headlines, but Javorius Allen's consistency this season has been impressive.
Collins struggled to crack the Browns' strong run defense Sunday, running for 19 yards on 12 carries. Allen found more success, especially late in the game, and finished with 13 rushes for 70 yards.
Collins is still the Ravens' lead tailback, and he came out of Sunday's game fine after appearing to be shaken up, but Allen's rock-solid running is an asset.
"Buck Allen is an all-around consistent player, an all-around really good player, everything he does," Harbaugh said. "Runs the ball, pass protection, catches the ball out of the backfield, always knows what to do … four-phase guy on special teams and really gets the job done."
On the season, Allen now has 517 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns on 140 carries (3.7 yards per run). He's also caught 45 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns.
They are almost identical stats to Allen's rookie year, when the fourth-round pick out of USC displayed his talent in a tough season full of injuries. Last year, Allen had just nine carries and was active for eight games, but he's reemerged this year.
"He's really progressed into what we all hoped he would be when we drafted him," Harbaugh said. "And I'd say with him, it's not over yet. He continues to improve. I think his best football is still in front of him."
Harbaugh Impressed With His Team's Character, Resiliency
Entering the bye, the Ravens were 4-5 (below .500) and on the brink of the playoff chase. They were banged up and coming off a frustrating 23-20 loss in Tennessee.
That loss could have sent the Ravens' season into a downward slide. Instead, Baltimore has rallied by winning four of its past five games.
The Ravens' chances of reaching the playoffs now sit above 90 percent, per ESPN.
Baltimore has overcome an onslaught of early-season injuries, including to some of its biggest stars such as Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda and multiple offensive weapons. They struck again in the middle of the season.
But it's runs like this that show the character of a team. And while Harbaugh and his players have all their focus on the Indianapolis Colts, Harbaugh did stop and appreciate what his group has proven.
"I do appreciate the character of our team, and the resilience of our team, and the mental toughness and the focus and the ability to get right the task at hand and push aside the stuff that is not important and get right at what is important and deal with adversity when it happens," Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh then borrowed an expression derived from legendary American writer Mark Twain.
"The reports of our demise, I guess, were greatly exaggerated," Harbaugh said with a smile.