BALTIMORE — Maybe the Ravens just have Rex Ryan’s number.
The 13-7 home win over Buffalo wasn’t a performance that will propel them up the NFL power rankings in the eyes of observers, but it was the kind of game the Ravens found ways to lose time and time again a year ago. That alone was promising enough to begin the 2016 season.
A 1-0 start shouldn’t be taken for granted as Baltimore won its first season opener since 2012. Even if it came against Ryan, who is now 0-4 against the team with which he spent a decade as a defensive assistant.
“Our guys will go to work and will continue to get better,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “But the point of emphasis is [that] they did what they had to do today to get the job done and make the plays that needed to be made in this game. I’m proud of them for that.”
The encouraging takeaway from Sunday’s win was the speed the Ravens displayed on defense and on the two biggest offensive plays of the game that led to 10 first-half points. More often than not, they simply looked faster than the Bills in the season opener.
The defensive personnel isn’t dramatically different from last year — Pro Bowl outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil didn’t even play on Sunday — but Baltimore played with more confidence and urgency to post the kind of numbers we hadn’t seen since Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were leading the way. Buffalo’s 160 total yards were the fewest allowed by the Ravens since giving up 150 to Ryan’s New York Jets on Oct. 2, 2011.
The defense started and finished sensationally, giving up a total of 12 yards in the first and fourth quarters combined. Buffalo’s top-ranked rushing offense from a year ago averaged just 2.7 yards per carry while Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor threw for only 111 yards on 22 pass attempts.
The Ravens consistently flew to the ball to register eight tackles for a loss with cornerback Shareece Wright leading the way with three of them and 11 total tackles. New starters such as safety Eric Weddle and inside linebacker Zach Orr have improved the speed of the defense, but multiple players also complimented defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ play-calling on Sunday.
“The staff simplified the defense a little bit more, so we were able to go out there and have checks and play fast,” said cornerback Jimmy Smith, who held top Buffalo receiver Sammy Watkins to just four catches for 43 yards. “I think that was evident today. Coach switched it up a lot today and he likes to play certain things sometimes, [but] I think he did a really good job of switching up the defense. It kept them on their heels and not knowing what we were going to do.”
The Ravens offense couldn’t beat its chest like the defense after a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance, but a pair of plays in the first half proved to be the difference in a low-scoring defensive struggle.
Speed was once again the difference.
Quarterback Joe Flacco’s sensational 35-yard completion to Breshad Perriman not only welcomed the 2015 first-round pick to the NFL, but it was the biggest chunk of yardage leading to a 50-yard field goal late in the first quarter for a 3-0 lead. It was the only pass that Perriman caught on Sunday, but he showed off his speed and size with the leaping sideline grab.
The home run came in the second quarter when veteran newcomer Mike Wallace reminded Ravens fans of the receiver who once tormented them as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Matched up against backup safety Duke Williams, Wallace caught a 66-yard touchdown on a post route after Flacco changed out of a third-and-1 play at the line of scrimmage.
“It was extremely big, just because I probably haven’t had a 50-yard-plus touchdown in three years,” said Wallace, whose longest reception with Minnesota last season was just 34 yards. “It felt good just to get back to that, just to let them know that we’re not dead. A lot of people wrote me off. They think I don’t have it, but I’ve got something for them.”
Those two plays aside, the offense struggled for large stretches of Sunday’s game, which wasn’t shocking after the extended absences of several skill players from the practice field this summer. It was ugly for most of the second half as the Ravens managed just 83 total yards over the final 30 minutes, but the offense did just enough and was able to run out the final 4:29 of the game with an eight-play drive.
The pass protection was subpar, the running game inconsistent, and the passing attack out of sync after a good first half, but that element of speed once again brought optimism that wasn’t there a year ago when the Ravens lacked the necessary weapons to stretch the field.
The offense remains a work in progress, but Wallace and Perriman alone provide much room for growth against vulnerable pass defenses.
“I’d like to find a couple more ways to get them involved even a little bit more,” Flacco said. “They didn’t have a ton of catches, but it was a good start. You can see what Mike can do there. They played ‘cover zero’ a handful of times and they really probably got the best of us. We didn’t really do too much damage to it except for that one play.
“That’s what happens when you have guys who can run like that.”
Sunday’s win wasn’t pretty, but improved speed on both sides of the ball is a step in the right direction from last year.