Five thoughts on the Ravens' 34-6 win over the Los Angeles Chargers Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
No one wondered whether the Ravens' offense would show up for this matchup of first-place teams with 4-1 records; Lamar Jackson is playing so well that points are going to come. But the Ravens' defense hadn't played up to its usual standard in 2021, and the Chargers have a ton of offensive firepower. From the outset, it was clear the Ravens' defense was hellbent on using that challenge to make the statement that it, too, could dominate an opponent as thoroughly as Jackson and the offense. There won't be any more doubts after this performance, as the defense addressed all of the issues that had been in play. Tackling? Solid all day. Pass rush? Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert continually had defenders in his face. Pass coverage? The Chargers' big-play receivers were pretty much taken out by Marlon Humphrey and the secondary. The result was a dominant win few saw coming except, perhaps, the Ravens, who were so superior you almost have to wonder if they knew they could do this. Regardless, they've now won five games in a row. No team in the AFC looks better, quite a development given the injury adversity they've experienced.
After all those close, tense, unpredictable games, this was the opposite, a game whose outcome you could predict after just a few minutes due to one matchup issue in particular. Though they came in hot, the Chargers had the league's lowest-ranked rushing defense. Could the Ravens take advantage and get their ground game going again after several quiet weeks? Yes. On their first possession, they drove 90 yards to a touchdown, with 62 coming on the ground. Latavius Murray was barely touched on a 14-yard run up the middle for a touchdown, a clear sign that, indeed, the Ravens had quite an upper hand. When they got away from it in the second quarter, a run of sacks, penalties and turnovers ensued, giving the Charger hope at halftime. But the Ravens got right back to what they should be doing; nine of their 12 plays were runs on an air-clearing touchdown drive to start the second half. They wound up with 187 rushing yards, and the best part was Jackson only had 51. Running backs Murray, Devonta Freeman and Le'Veon Bell had their best days by far, combining for 115 yards while showcasing levels of playmaking and explosiveness not previously evident.
It would be a mistake to point to just one player as the reason for the defense playing so much better than it did a week earlier. But safety DeShon Elliott was truly a transformational figure as he returned from a quad injury that sidelined him the week before. His stat line indicated the multitude of ways in which he made a difference – three solo tackles, a sack, an interception, two passes defended and two quarterback hits. But he also brought a quality that can't be measured, a fiery intensity that seemingly rubbed off on his teammates. Of course, other factors also contributed to the standout defensive performance, none bigger than completely shutting down the Chargers' ground game, which generated just 26 yards on 12 carries. Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale's plan for slowing down Herbert was to put him in third-and-long and then challenge him with an array of pressures from different places. The plan couldn't have worked better, and it all started with Herbert not having a semblance of a ground game to keep Baltimore's defense off balance.
The Ravens have worked hard to keep expectations for rookie wide receiver Rashod Bateman from soaring too high as he returns from groin surgery and begins his pro career; coaches and teammates alike have said he'll need time to acclimate. But they have high hopes, no question. And now that Sammy Watkins is out with a hamstring injury, the Ravens need Bateman to contribute as a first-round draft pick can. Even if they didn't need him so much Sunday, with their rushing game dominant, they're going to need him going forward. In his debut Sunday, he offered signs that he might be able to deliver. His stat line didn't jump off the page – four catches for 29 yards on six targets. But he ran sharp routes, got open and displayed sure hands (although he did miss one that turned into an interception on a fluke). Bottom line, he didn't look the least bit overmatched, and Jackson looked comfortable throwing to him. In his first NFL game, Bateman looked like a confident, young player capable of producing more. "Making tough catches, getting north; he did great," Jackson said.
Short takes: Something good happened almost every time Devin Duvernay touched the ball, and he touched it in all sorts of ways – one rush, two catches, two kickoff returns and three punt returns … For the record, I wasn't a fan of either of the Chargers' fourth-down gambles that failed, especially the one at their own 18 in the third quarter. But they only gave up a pair of field goals as a result, so I guess they lived to tell about it, in a way… No day in 2021 is complete for the Ravens without more injuries to deal with. This time, center Bradley Bozeman and Murray both left in the second half. Bozeman returned but not for every snap. While neither injury appears serious, Murray is emerging as the No. 1 running back and Bozeman has been the glue of the offensive line. A surprise starter at inside linebacker next to Patrick Queen, veteran Josh Bynes was a forceful tackler.