Youthful contributions offer hope for Ravens in second half and beyond

November 11, 2016 | Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — It may well have been only fool’s gold against the worst team in the NFL, but the Ravens could still feel good about themselves after scoring a season high for points in a 28-7 win over Cleveland.

After an ugly first half in which they managed only two field goals, the second-half explosion was a confidence boost that a struggling offense desperately needed. After weeks of producing so little against mediocre-to-poor units, Baltimore was finally able to make a bad defense look, well, bad.

The first-place Ravens hope they can build off their 22-point output against the Browns in the second half, but it was the contributions of three young offensive players that offered the most excitement in Thursday’s win. Now preparing for a daunting seven-game stretch to conclude the 2016 regular season, the Ravens need more contributions from Breshad Perriman, Kenneth Dixon, and even Darren Waller like they received on Thursday night.

Veterans such as Steve Smith, Mike Wallace, and Dennis Pitta will continue to be the primary options for Joe Flacco in the passing game, but any successful offense needs meaningful contributions from others in any given week, especially against formidable opponents. After a season and a half of frustration primarily stemming from injuries, Perriman made a terrific adjustment on a 27-yard touchdown catch to cap off a 12-play, 90-yard drive in the fourth quarter.

The score was a long time coming for the 2015 first-round pick, who finished with three catches for 64 yards. Two of those receptions came on that scoring drive to put Cleveland away for good.

“For Breshad to go up and get that ball and adjust his body, it was fantastic,” said Smith, who finished with five catches for 60 yards and a touchdown. “That is dramatic. As your first career touchdown, that is as dramatic as you want it to be. That is a keeper.”

The Ravens can only hope that touchdown is a springboard for Perriman to truly become a keeper, but he wasn’t the only young player to impress against the Browns. Dixon, a fourth-round rookie from Louisiana Tech who turned heads in the preseason, finished with a team-high 80 yards from scrimmage on just 11 touches and flashed the ability that prompted some analysts to rate him as high as the second-best running back in this year’s draft behind only fourth overall pick Ezekiel Elliott.

Terrance West has proven himself to be a capable starting back through the first half of the season, but the 212-pound Dixon shows a combination of speed and surprising physicality — he broke at least two tackles on Thursday — that makes you think he can be more of a big-play option in the backfield. Injuries have been his biggest challenge as he is just now starting to look as explosive as he did in a strong preseason before suffering a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee.

Through his first four NFL games, Dixon averaged just 1.5 yards per carry and caught only five passes for six yards, but he looked like a different player against the Browns.

“He got back from the knee about four weeks ago and has steadily looked better,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I told him this week, I said, ‘This is your breakout game. You look like you’re ready.’ He did a great job.”

Waller isn’t someone who was on many people’s radar as the Ravens entered the season with extensive depth at tight end, but injuries have led to an increased role and it was his four-yard touchdown that put Baltimore ahead early in the third quarter. A converted receiver drafted in the sixth round out of Georgia Tech a year ago, Waller has a 6-foot-6, 255-pound frame and the kind of speed that could make him a significant matchup problem as he matures.

Entering the night ranked 24th in red-zone offense, the Ravens would be wise to continue to look his way in that area of the field where they’ve lacked an option to go up and get the ball.

“Darren’s a big guy that runs well, has great hands. He’s a real talented guy,” said Flacco, who shook off two interceptions to throw for 296 yards and three touchdown passes on Thursday. “I think getting him involved and showing himself that he can do it [is important]. He’s another guy that once he gets out there and gets more playing experience, he’ll start to really understand things. I think he’s got a great guy to watch in Dennis, in terms of running routes and stuff like that.”

The Ravens merely did what they were supposed to do against a team that hasn’t yet won a game, so it would be unwise to boldly proclaim Thursday as a turning point for an offense that’s disappointed all year. Nine games into the season, we know this team leans heavily on a strong defense that was once again sensational in limiting the Browns to just one touchdown and 144 total yards.

But seeing Perriman, Dixon, and Waller stand out was not just an encouraging sign for the playoff run over the final seven games. The Ravens need young players such as these to step forward for a brighter future.

“Any time you’re a young guy, and you do those things, it’s good in the long run,” Flacco said. “You feel a part of the team. And when you go out there, in order to really feel part of the team and feel great about it, it’s all about going out there and making plays and showing your teammates that you can do it.”