Just a couple of weeks ago the Baltimore Ravens were given around a 4% chance of making the NFL playoffs, and lo and behold now here they are on the doorstep of not only getting in by beating the Cleveland Browns, but also in great position to win the division and earn a home playoff game.
One of the funny things – and believe you me, there’s no shortage of funny things surrounding this team right now – is the notion locally and nationally that this team can’t win with this “gimmicky” offense. It reminds me of back in the day when Ray Lewis and the Ravens faced Miami with their version of a gimmicky offense which came in the form of the Wildcat formation. After easily disposing of the Dolphins, Lewis quipped “that no matter what, it’s still football.”
What the 1st ballot Hall of Famer was talking about is that no matter how you scheme it up, it still comes down to blocking and tackling. It still comes down to one on one matchups. It’s a simple game. Win those matchups, win the game. And that is exactly what the Ravens are doing, right now.
Chargers’ coach Anthony Lynn said as much after the post game rubble he was standing in that the Ravens had left. He said they got outplayed and got outcoached. The most noteworthy thing he said was that the Chargers didn’t see anything from the Ravens that they hadn’t seen before, and that they hadn’t seen anything that they weren’t expecting. It was all right there, on film, on the field, right in front of them. They simply couldn’t stop them.
That’s the beauty of the current edition of the Baltimore Ravens. They run a very simple offense, and they execute the heck out of it. It’s just a handful of plays, disguised by different sets and multiple players in motion. It causes linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks to pause and look to see where the ball is, often confused by where the ball is going.
Defenses are built on read and react principles, and they are having a hard time of doing just that against the Ravens. Much has been made that mercurial rookie QB Lamar Jackson forces defenses to play 11 on 10 football, versus the traditional 11 on 11. It puts a tremendous amount of pressure on them. If they key in on Jackson too much, then bruising backs Gus Edwards and Ken Dixon gain chunk yards between the tackles. Focus on the backs, and they risk Jackson going around the end for big gains.
And then there’s the play action passes, when Jackson pulls the ball out and surveys the field. It is truly rare to see a rookie QB with his eyes downfield, but Jackson has done this since day one. That’s a skill that takes some time to develop, and lots of QBs never develop it. In terms of Jackson’s future and continued growth, the fact that he has this skill in spades bodes well for him as well as the organization.
Jackson has developed good rapport with all of the receivers, particularly Willie Snead and Mark Andrews. He’s also shown the ability to deliver crisp, on target passes across the middle. That’s where most interceptions in the NFL occur. It’s usually late throws across the middle, and Jackson thus far has excelled in that area.
Of course pundits are quick to point out that Jackson is prone to put the ball on the ground, but he also recovers about 70% of those fumbles. He’s also shown a penchant for shaking off not only fumbles and interceptions, coming back to make big plays. His short term memory in regards to making mistakes also serves him well.
The Ravens have a big time game coming up against the Browns, who are also on a hot streak right now. I watched their last game, in which they disposed the Jeff Driskell led Bengals in a workman like fashion. It wasn’t much of a game, as the Browns dominated in every phase. It looked to me like the Bengals had packed it in for the season.
It was also a home game for the Browns, and they had that going for them. Baker Mayfield looked good at times and like a rookie QB at others. He made some gains with his feet, buying some time to find open receivers as well as tucking the ball in and taking off with it downfield. He is barely 6 feet tall and he had a couple of passes batted down.
His frequent targets were WR Rashard Higgins and TE David Njoku. Jarvis Landry and Breshad Perriman also contributed but to a lesser extent. Nick Chubb is a handful at running back, and that’s the one player I am sure that the Ravens defense will focus on taking away. Chubb and Njoku are the keys to that offense, and who the Ravens defense needs to pay particular attention to.
Much of the credit for the Browns’ dramatic turnaround this season not only goes to their interim head coach Gregg Williams, but to their offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens. His offense has been very creative, productive and overall fun to watch. Kitchens has done such a good job, that his name is emerging as a head coach candidate for many of the jobs that are going to be open at the end of the season.
He uses RB Duke Johnson very creatively in the run and pass game, as well as Jarvis Landry and Breshad Perriman. In fact, Landry threw a bomb to Perriman on a double reverse. But going back to what Ray Lewis had said, it’s still football. The Ravens have to stay discipline, the ends have to stay at home and set the edge, and they will be fine.
As far as the Browns’ defense is concerned, the Bengals had some success running between the tackles with Joe Mixon. The Browns are 24th in the league against the run, so the Ravens should have continued success running the ball against them.
Back to Baker Mayfield. At the end of the game versus the Bengals, as he was running off of the field he stared down Hue Jackson for what seemed like an eternity. It wasn’t exactly a good look for him, and it showed that he still has some immaturity issues that have haunted him throughout his college career.
It’s still early but it looks to me that not only have the Ravens selected the better quarterback, but more importantly the better person. These two have some history going back to 2016, as Jackson beat Mayfield and Deshaun Watson for the Heisman Trophy. That one still burns Mayfield for sure, and you can bet he’s going to be fired up to end the Ravens’ season this Sunday.
I would be remiss if I didn’t address coach John Harbaugh and his status with the Ravens. I thought that Friday’s 7:00 p.m. announcement by the team that he is going to coach the Ravens through 2019 while they mutually worked on a contract extension was brilliant. Whether they do or not at this point is irrelevant. Lots of people questioned the timing of the announcement, but I thought it was great.
It accomplished two things. First, I thought it was a good way to double focus the team the day before a big away game with the Chargers. It told them that if they had any doubt about Harbaugh and his coaching staff to just get it out of their minds. More importantly it sent a message to the veteran players that they – not Harbaugh – were playing for their jobs. They didn’t have to worry about the incoming coach – they had to worry about the current one, not only for this year but the next and even well into the future.
Respected sports journalist Peter King – among others – is still skeptical in regards to Harbaugh’s return to Baltimore as head coach in 2020. He is of the opinion that Harbaugh – who gets a raise in 2019 and will make in the $8 million range – will play out his contract and see what his options are in 2020.
I certainly don’t share King’s opinion. John Harbaugh is a smart man, but the Ravens are also a smart organization. I cannot imagine a scenario where Harbaugh is a lame duck coach next year. The Ravens will make it a boy or a girl. It will be one or the other. Either he signs a long term contract, or they will trade him to a team and receive as much compensation for him as possible.
Harbaugh will agree to that for a number of reasons. For starters he would be the hottest head coach on the market. He would be clearly the number 1 candidate on almost any teams’ wish list – this year. Who knows what the market will be next year and who’ll be available? Coach will strike while the iron is hot, and he should.
I believe that Harbaugh wants to stay in Baltimore and I believe the owner and front office want to keep him. The only reason I can see stopping it from happening is if there is additional power that Harbaugh would demand over personnel decisions. That could end negotiations. And if that happens, I believe the Ravens would leak out word to the rest of the league that Harbaugh is available, and would seek to trade him to a team they would receive maximum compensation from in the form of draft picks.
That aside, here’s to a victory over the Browns and a long playoff run. The Ravens have a shot to write history. It is a long shot, but winning a Super Bowl with a rookie quarterback would be one for the ages. They have experience, defense, special teams, running game, coaching and momentum to get there.
I don’t know if truly any teams fear them and don’t want to face them, but I do know that they are going to be an awfully tough out. If in fact they beat the Browns and get into the Super Bowl tournament, history tells us that anything can happen.