Ravens take care of business with tough stretch looming

September 24, 2018 | Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Beating Denver was hardly a headline-grabbing win, but it wasn’t difficult picturing Sunday’s game falling into that dreaded “bad loss” department if the Ravens weren’t careful.

Despite coming off extra rest and facing a 2-0 team that was probably more paper tiger than strong contender — no one really knows in today’s NFL — Baltimore was missing two of its best defensive players (C.J. Mosley and Jimmy Smith) as well as two key defensive linemen (Michael Pierce and Willie Henry) against one of the league’s strongest rushing attacks. No team stays fully healthy all season, of course, but missing that many chess pieces on one side of the ball is going to be problematic against any opponent with talent and a competitive pulse, which the Broncos certainly had.

A blocked punt leading to a 7-0 deficit right off the bat and a blocked field goal later in the first half — even if illegal — provided the weirdness typically witnessed in recent years when a banged-up Ravens team has dropped a home game to an underwhelming opponent such as Washington two years ago (Jamison Crowder’s 85-yard punt return) or Chicago last year (Adrian Amos’ 90-yard interception return). It’s easy to remember the 2016 Christmas loss to Pittsburgh and “fourth-and-12″ last season, but the aforementioned early-season home defeats were nearly as damaging to their playoff hopes.

There was no panic after Sunday’s nightmare start as the defense pressured Broncos quarterback Case Keenum in the pocket and pitched a shutout after the opening quarter and the offense finished the day with 20 unanswered points and was a perfect 3-for-3 inside the red zone.

“It’s early. You have 58 1/2 minutes to get back in the game, and it’s 7-0,” said quarterback Joe Flacco, who completed 25 of 40 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown. “At some point during the course of the 16-game season — obviously we’ve already lost one and we’ve already [been] behind a little bit — there’s nothing you can do about it. You’ve just got to go out there and continue to execute and just let the game come to you, and that’s what we were able to do.”

Perhaps what was so encouraging about Sunday’s 27-14 win was that the Ravens overcame both injuries and some shortcomings to improve to 2-1 in relatively comfortable fashion.

Having two kicks blocked in the same game is often a recipe for disaster and out of character for a special-teams group that’s normally superb. Impressive rookie inside linebacker Kenny Young led the Ravens defense in tackles (10) and Patrick Onwuasor collected a critical interception when Denver was threatening to make it a one-score game with nine minutes remaining, but the Ravens did struggle to stop the run without Mosley and Pierce up the middle, allowing 5.0 yards per carry even as speedy rookie Phillip Lindsay was ejected in the first half. And despite a two-score lead for most of the second half, the offense again struggled to run the ball, averaging only 2.8 yards per carry.

There’s reason to anticipate improvement in each of those areas, however, based on track record and reasonable health. If the offensive line rebounded from its Week 2 struggles in pass protection to hold the Broncos’ vaunted pass rush to just two sacks — none by Von Miller — the Ravens can still figure on improving on the ground in the coming weeks as this group gels.

Improvement in those areas will be needed as the Ravens play four of their next five games on the road with four of those opponents having qualified for the playoffs a year ago. It isn’t difficult envisioning John Harbaugh’s team winning or losing any of these next five games with even a Week 5 trip to Cleveland looking more uncertain than usual after the standout debut of No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield. Anything less than a 3-2 record over this stretch would put the Ravens in the all-too-familiar position of having little margin for error in the second half of the season, which is why stubbing their toe against the Broncos just wasn’t an option for a team desperate to get back to the playoffs after a three-year absence.

No, Sunday won’t be remembered as the season’s biggest win, but it won’t be that bad loss that helps keep the Ravens out of the playoffs, either.

“I’m sure the outside looking in were like, ‘Uh-oh, the same old Ravens,’ right?” said safety Eric Weddle about the rough first quarter. “It ain’t the same Ravens. I’m telling you that right now.”