Five thoughts on the Ravens' 13-7 win over the Buffalo Bills Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
Old-School Ravens Vibe In First Victory Of Season
Let's call it Throwback Sunday. There was definitely an old-school vibe to the Ravens' first opening-day win since 2012. While the offense sputtered at times and did just enough, the defense dominated a Buffalo offense rich in playmakers. If I didn't know better, I'd say the 2016 defense wanted to prove itself to Rex Ryan and Ed Reed, the Ravens defensive legends who patrolled the visiting sideline Sunday as coaches. Coming off a 2015 season that was rough for Baltimore's signature unit, Sunday's performance conjured vivid memories of the defense's best days. Cornerback Shareece Wright stood the tallest with 11 tackles, but it was a collective effort that showcased the defense's improved speed, discipline and communication. Other than one first-half play when Buffalo's Tyrod Taylor escaped a sack and completed a pass that set up the Bills' only touchdown, the Ravens effectively controlled Taylor, LeSean McCoy and Sammy Watkins. The Bills helped by never unleashing any semblance of a downfield passing game, but credit goes to the Ravens' news safety tandem, Eric Weddle and Lardarius Webb, for tightening up the back end. "If we play like that on the back end, we're going to win some games," Head Coach John Harbaugh said.
Ravens Desperately Needed This Win
I'm sure the Ravens' brass cheered with everyone else when the final gun sounded and the win was official. But I'm also sure the decision-makers sighed with relief. Quite simply, this was a huge game for the organization. Coming off their first losing season under Harbaugh, the Ravens spent the offseason trying to fix what they believed had gone wrong. It was a sweeping effort that included changes in tactics, personnel and training habits, and while the Ravens believed they had given themselves a better chance to win in 2016, they desperately needed to win their opener to validate that opinion. The schedule gods cooperated, providing the Ravens with a home game against an opponent that didn't make the playoffs in 2015 – a game Baltimore SHOULD win. So the pressure was on. A loss would send the wrong message, cast doubts about the Ravens' attempt to better themselves. With so much at stake against an opponent feisty enough to pull the upset, I can't say enough how important it is that the Ravens found a way to win.
Bigger Things Expected From Offense
The smile on his face as he spoke to reporters reflected the fact that the Ravens had won. But
quarterback Joe Flacco was in no mood to sugarcoat what happened to his unit. "They really got the best of us other than the one play," he said of Buffalo's defense, which shut down the Ravens offense for long stretches. The "one play" was Flacco's 66-yard touchdown strike to Mike Wallace in the second quarter, a thing of beauty. The quarterback also made big throws to Breshad Perriman and Dennis Pitta that set up the field goals that provided the margin of difference. But overall, the offensive coaches have plenty of material to work with in terms of teachable moments. The running game was mostly quiet. The pass protection was leaky enough that Flacco was hit hard and put under pressure more than anyone wants. "We have to improve our passing game," Harbaugh said. Yes, Buffalo's defense was fast and fierce, a tough opponent. Still, bigger things are expected and will be needed.
That Said, Offense Also Show Killer Instinct
Now that I've given the offense a hard time, I need to praise it for running out the clock in the fourth quarter and preventing the Bills from having a last-gasp chance. Put in the same position in 2015, the Ravens offense faltered a handful of times and gave the ball back to the other team, which proceeded to find a way to win. I'm sure those bitter memories were burnished in the minds of some fans and players Sunday when the Ravens took possession at their 36 with four minutes, 39 seconds to play and Baltimore up by six. But Offensive Coordinator Marc Trestman perfectly timed his first end-around call, producing a first down when Wallace gained 11 yards. A minute later, on a third-and-1 at the Buffalo 45, Terrance West rushed for 3 yards and a first down that locked up the win because the Bills were out of timeouts. It's called killer instinct, and in a nice change from 2015, the offense had it Sunday.
The Bills were in an especially charitable mood in the third quarter. They dropped a potential pick-6. Their kicker missed a 49-yard field goal (as opposed to the Ravens' Justin Tucker, who converted from 50 and 37). They let the Ravens out of a deep hole with a pair of personal foul penalties. But the Ravens didn't accept the charity. The quarter began and ended with Baltimore up by three … The Ravens deployed Jimmy Smith as a shutdown corner, asking him to shadow Watkins wherever the Bills' star receiver lined up. Watkins ended with four catches for 43 yards so Smith won the battle … The Ravens ran the ball just 15 times in the first three quarters, then called 13 rushes in the fourth quarter. I'm guessing they'll want a steadier diet going forward … The Bills converted just three of 13 third downs into firsts.