Five thoughts on the Ravens' 23-7 win over the Denver Broncos Sunday at Empower Field at Mile High:
You can't call it a throwback performance, not when the Ravens moved the ball almost exclusively through the air and Lamar Jackson surpassed 300 passing yards in a game for just the second time in his NFL career. But absent that departure from the Ravens' recent norms, it was an important win with many markings that felt oh-so familiar. The defense was dominant, especially as the game wore on. The offensive line set a physical tone. The Ravens went into a hostile environment and battered a previously unbeaten opponent by being tough and sound. Stop me if you've heard this before. They didn't lose a turnover. They piled up five sacks and 11 quarterbacks hits, one of which sidelined the Broncos' starter. The Ravens weren't lacking for excuses if they'd lost. This was their third road game in four weeks to start the season. They've dealt with significant injuries, inconsistent performances and major changes to their original blueprint. Jackson barely practiced during the week. But by winning Sunday instead of succumbing to all that, they sent the clear signal that they've handled the adversity quite well, thank you, and still belong in the top rank of contenders. It's a big deal.
Now you know why the Ravens felt it was important to upgrade their passing attack in 2021. Like the Lions the week before, the Broncos stacked the interior box with defenders, making it clear that they were determined to slow the Ravens' ground game. It's what happens when you run the ball as effectively as the Ravens have run it in recent years. It put pressure on Jackson and the passing game to carry the load, but that wound up being a losing proposition for the Broncos. The passing attack featured a slew of winning characteristics. The protection was great. Pay no attention to the fact that the Broncos had three sacks. Jackson had all the time he needed to find open receivers downfield. And he hit them. And it was an array of receivers, not just Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews, who comprised so much (too much) of the receiving load a year ago. Brown and Andrews still made big catches Sunday, but in a drastic departure, James Proche II, Devin Duvernay and Sammy Watkins combined for 12 receptions worth 154 yards. That's a major league passing game. The organization put a ton into making it a reality, and here it is.
When Denver running back Javonte Williams broke tackles and dragged Baltimore defenders on a 31-yard run that set up the game's first touchdown early in the second quarter, it appeared the Ravens' defense might be in for another long day. But Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale oversees a proud and tough unit unaccustomed to bad reviews. Things changed quickly. It was as if there was an invisible presiding judge who banged a gavel and shouted, "Order in the court!" The rest of the game constituted order as only the Ravens' defense knows it. It stopped missing tackles, slowed Denver's running game and started pounding the Broncos' quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater. Put simply, Martindale unleashed his playbook of blitzes and the Broncos' crumpled. Three-and-outs piled up. The crowd fell quiet. After the Ravens took the lead, it suddenly was clear the Broncos' passing game wasn't explosive enough to do much harm. Game over. The headliners were Tyus Bowser, who had two sacks; Calais Campbell, who had three quarterback hits; and Odafe Oweh, who knocked Bridgewater out of the game before halftime and got a sack (nearly two). But this was a team effort, for sure, with 15 different players registering at least one solo tackle. Order in the court, indeed.
I had suggested in print that it might be a good idea to give Marquise Brown a couple of early touches, just to help him move past the narrative he was shouldering coming into the game. The whole football world had watched him drop several passes in Detroit the week before. Brown's teammates and coaches and Brown himself insisted he'd have no trouble moving on, but would anyone know for sure until that happened? Sure enough, Jackson targeted Brown with his first pass attempt Sunday. It fell incomplete, but a few minutes later, Brown reeled in a short pass in the flat. He was off and running. And that was all a prelude to what might be the Ravens' catch of the year – Brown's headlong, horizontal-to-the-ground grab that completed a 49-yard scoring play and gave Baltimore the lead for good in the second quarter. The Broncos were never the same, and when Brown spoke to reporters after the game, he didn't say, "I told you so." In fact, he smiled and told a joke on himself about his week of drops. In the end, it all constitutes a step forward for a young receiver who, let's face it, is getting open and giving himself a chance to make plays every week. You need a tough hide at his position, and Brown, it seems, has one.
Short takes: It's still hard to figure out what the Ravens are doing at running back. Sunday, they deactivated Ty'Son Williams, who is averaging a team-high 6.1 yards per carry, and gave Latavius Murray more carries (18) than they've given any back in any game in 2021. Murray ran hard and scored a touchdown while averaging 3.3 yards per carry. It appears the coaches are still trying to sort out what they've got at the position other than Murray being a tough inside runner… From the Dept. of Longshots: The top tacklers on defense were safety Chuck Clark, a former sixth-round pick, and linebacker Chris Board, a former undrafted free agent. Both had five solo tackles. No other Raven had more than three … You can't overstate the value of having a Jimmy Smith to plug into the defensive plan when a DeShon Elliott (hamstring) is unavailable. Smith is playing well in a variety of roles … You know you're a legend when an opposing crowd cheers you in pregame warmups, as Denver's fans did Sunday when Justin Tucker banged through a 70-yard field goal attempt. This story just keeps getting better.