Five thoughts on the Ravens' 41-7 victory over the Houston Texans Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
The Ravens have sent plenty of messages recently with their soaring offense and their big wins over contenders such as the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots. But more than any other, this decisive win sends the clearest signal yet that something big, possibly very big, is happening in Baltimore. Lamar Jackson and the offense have led the Ravens all season while the defense has ridden a roller coaster and been rebuilt on the fly. But on Sunday, the defense was just as dominant as the offense. The Texans and quarterback Deshaun Watson came in with such gaudy statistics that some people (blush) predicted a shootout, but the Ravens' defense shut that idea down, conjuring the heyday of Ray Lewis with a suffocating performance that included seven sacks. You could almost hear the response of the AFC's other contenders: "Wait, now they've got the defense figured out, too? On top of that offense?" It's the inevitable conclusion, and it suggests a second straight AFC North title, now all but assured, might be where the expectations need to start for this team.
We've been talking about the pass rush since Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith departed. How would the Ravens get a decent rush going without them? Possible solutions such as Shane Ray and Tim Williams didn't pan out. Pernell McPhee helped, but then he was lost for the season with an injury. Somehow, the rush showed enough life to rank high in quarterback hits, but it still wasn't finishing plays, i.e., generating sacks. The players and coaches insisted those sacks would come, and now it can be told: They were right. The Ravens' plan for handling Watson started with the pass rushers holding their lanes to keep Watson from escaping, and then pursuing like crazy wherever he went. It was a disciplined approach and it worked perfectly. There was push from the edges, push from the middle, blitzes from everywhere. Steadily harassed, Watson spent the day backpedaling, instead of scrambling, as he searched for open receivers and eventually was swallowed up. Strong pass coverage and a mix of looks also obviously helped, but the rush was on fire. I'm hesitant to single anyone out on a day when six guys contributed quarterback hits and five had sacks, but no doubt, Matthew Judon led the way with an outing reminiscent of, I'll say it, Suggs in his prime – seven tackles, four quarterback hits, two sacks.
It sounds crazy now, but the first quarter was a bummer. The Ravens lost a gamble with a fake field goal attempt, failed to generate points from a turnover in Houston's end of the field and watched Justin Tucker miss a field goal attempt for the first time in 2019. You couldn't help wondering if this was just going to be one of those days. But Jackson and the offense made sure it wasn't. On three straight possessions from early in the second quarter to early in the third quarter, they drove 90, 70 and 78 yards to touchdowns. As usual, Jackson dazzled with both his legs and arm, completing 13 straight passes at one point and making five defenders miss on one of his video-game sprints down the field. Also as usual, he was at his best on third downs. The Ravens entered the game with the league's second-best conversion rate on third down (48.6 percent) and they were even better Sunday, converting five of nine thirds into firsts, in the process extending those drives that eventually produced points. It's an underrated aspect of Jackson's success: he is rising to all challenges, starting with third-down situations.
If I recall correctly, one of the Ravens' biggest concerns coming in was that nose tackle Michael Pierce would miss the game with a foot/ankle injury, possibly opening the door for Houston's high-ranked rushing offense to have a big day. Well, that never happened because, yet again, General Manager Eric DeCosta found replacements who could step in and play immediately. Josh Bynes, Marcus Peters and others did so earlier in the season, and this time, veteran defensive tackles Justin Ellis and Domata Peko took over Pierce's load without a beat being missed. Carlos Hyde's late touchdown run made the Texans' stats look decent, but they didn't do anything on the ground when the game was up for grabs. Head Coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens' blueprint for winning began with dominating the rushing game on both sides of the ball. Their offensive line made it happen when they had the ball (Houston Head Coach Bill O'Brien credited the Baltimore O-line with being the difference in the game) and with Peko and Ellis assisting Brandon Williams, the Ravens' defensive line was just as effective.
Short takes: The Ravens caught a break when Marlon Humphrey wasn't flagged for pass interference on a deep throw in the end zone in the first quarter. The no-call was upheld on a replay challenge, but it was close. The Texans likely would have taken an early lead if that sequence had gone in their favor … How dominant have the Ravens been? They haven't trailed in a game in almost a month, since the second quarter of their win in Seattle on Oct. 20. They've either been tied or ahead for more than 14 straight quarters … Another example of their dominance: The Texans hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 25 straight games and they almost allowed two Sunday. Gus Edwards gained 112 yards on the ground and Jackson fell just short with 86 … The Ravens' six-game winning streak is their longest since their seven-game streak in 2000, their first Super Bowl season.