BALTIMORE — The Ravens needed another win to lift them above .500 and keep ahold of the #6 seed in the AFC playoff race. On Sunday against the Raiders, Terrell Suggs scored a touchdown off a fumble recovery for the first time in his career, the Ravens’ offense combined for 242 total yards on the ground, and Matt Judon registered sacks on three consecutive plays as the Ravens took down the Raiders 34-17 at M&T Bank Stadium.
Here’s five things we learned from the Ravens’ first win over Oakland since 2012.
1. Gus Edwards has earned the starting running back job
Alex Collins missed his first game of the season on Sunday with a foot injury, leaving the door open for undrafted rookie Gus Edwards to start his first NFL game. Edwards was coming off a 115-yard performance in last week’s win over Cincinnati. Edwards, a preseason darling, wasn’t even on the 53-man roster until October 13, but injuries to Kenneth Dixon and De’Lance turner opened the door and now Edwards is a significant part of Baltimore’s offense.
Edwards seized his opportunity against the 31st-ranked run defense, totaling 118 yards on 23 carries (5.1 yards-per-run). The most impressive part of Edwards’ play was his ability to follow his linemen and storm over defenders with his thick legs. His newfound success in the Ravens’ offense has sparked a running game that was almost nonexistent prior to last Sunday’s win over the Bengals.
Along with Edwards, Lamar Jackson racked up 71 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, complimenting his 178 yards of passing with another touchdown. Ty Montgomery saw an increased role in his second game with the Ravens, ending the game with 51 yards on eight carries and 13 receiving yards on three catches.
It’s important to remember that the success of Edwards has come against the two worst run defenses in the league. With that said, both Atlanta’s and Kansas City’s run defenses rank in the bottom quarter of the NFL. No matter who’s the Ravens quarterback in Atlanta next week, Edwards has earned the opportunity to start, or at least receive the majority of the carries against the Falcons. The Ravens’ run attack has not been nearly as successful with Flacco under center. If Flacco starts, it will be intriguing to see if Edwards can sustain the momentum that he has now.
2. Ravens coaching staff can’t force Lamar Jackson into pass-heavy situations
When John Harbaugh and Jackson spoke with the media earlier this week, both men emphasized that Jackson needs to pass more and cannot run the ball 26 times in one game. In Jackson’s second start, his run attempts went down from 26 to 11, and his pass attempts went up from 19 to 25.
Although the Ravens’ usage of Jackson became more balanced against the Raiders as a whole, the coaching staff tried to force the issue in the first half. Trailing 7-3 at the end of the first quarter, the Ravens had a 1st-and-10 from the Oakland 49-yard line. Jackson threw three straight passes, one incomplete and two going just one yard. Rather than stick with the read-option and play to Jackson’s strengths, the Ravens got into the same bad ‘pass-happy’ habits that they’ve gotten in with Flacco on several occasions.
The same happened again in the second quarter. With the ball at their own 30-yard line to start a drive, Jackson threw two incompletions before being intercepted by Reggie Nelson, leading to a Raiders field goal.
Jackson’s arm is a work-in-progress, but the Ravens shouldn’t force their rookie quarterback into pass-heavy situations. Like it or not, the Ravens need to realize that Jackson isn’t ready to make every throw that the average NFL quarterback needs to make. Much of Jackson’s success, at least for this season, should be through the read option and play action. Someday when Jackson establishes himself as a legitimate starting quarterback, putting the weight on him is rational. What the Ravens were calling on offense in the first half with a lead over Oakland was flat out dangerous.
3. For Ravens defense, the good stuff comes in bunches
In 2017, the Ravens defense led the NFL in turnovers. This season, turnovers have not been easy to come by, and the same can be said for sacks.
When Suggs recovered Derek Carr‘s fumble and returned it 43 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, it gave Baltimore’s defense their first turnover since the first quarter of the Ravens’ 24-23 loss to the Saints in week 7.
Judon got to Carr and caused the fumble. Then when the Raiders got the ball back, Judon got into the backfield on the first two plays, giving him three straight sacks in as many plays.
If it had not been for Judon coming alive in the fourth quarter and quickly piling up three sacks, the Ravens would have went the entire game without a sack. That would have continued what has been a puzzling theme for the Ravens as of late. The Ravens came into Sunday with three sacks in their last four games. Judon now has 4.5 sacks in his last three games after a quiet start. His breakout on Sunday gave some life to a pass rush that’s been nonexistent recently.
The Ravens defense has struggled for turnovers all season long. They were able to get away with it against teams like the Bills and the Broncos, but not coming up with turnovers or sacks against teams like the Steelers, Saints and Panthers isn’t good enough. If the Ravens want to stand a chance against the Falcons, Chiefs and Chargers on the road, they can’t keep going full games without registering a single turnover or sack.
4. Ravens finally find answer in the return game
Finding the right guy to return kicks and punts hasn’t been the easiest task for the Ravens this season. Both Janarion Grant and Tim White got their chances early on, but they struggled and were demoted to the practice squad. Cyrus Jones bounced back-and-forth between the Ravens and the Patriots in September and October, but since resigning with the Ravens on Oct. 8 he’s handled the punt return duties.
When the Raiders punted to Jones with less than a minute left in the first quarter, Jones took the ball at the Baltimore 30-yard line and dashed down the right sideline for a 70-yard return touchdown. The score put Baltimore up 10-7, and the Raiders never held another lead.
Jones, a Baltimore native and Gilman School graduate, scored his first NFL touchdown in front of his hometown crowd. It was Baltimore’s first punt return touchdown since Michael Campanero‘s 77-yard punt return touchdown against the Chicago Bears on Oct. 15, 2017. Jones wasn’t in imminent danger of being replaced at punt returner, but it was nice to see him break out for a long score given the lack of production from Ravens returners thus far in 2018.
5. Lamar Jackson is winning over the locker room (or at least his receivers)
Lost in the celebration of the Ravens’ second straight win was what was said in the locker-room after the action wrapped up on the field. Michael Crabtree, who caught three passes for 21 yards and a touchdown on Sunday, sang some high praises for Jackson.
“It’s the Lamar show,” Crabtree said. “You just have to sit back and watch, because he’s electrifying.… Just his attitude. He’s got a winning spirit. Everything he does, he does well. I’m just a witness and a receiver at his disposal.”
That’s quite an endorsement from Mr. Crabtree. It’s no secret that the Ravens have a big decision to make at the quarterback position if Flacco returns to practice this week. Harbaugh, for both personal and competitive purposes, wasn’t ready to answer questions pertaining to who will be the starting quarterback next week in Atlanta.
“Im not going to get into that for a number of reasons,” Harbaugh said. “Whether that decision has been made or not is not important for anybody to know but us. If I decide to do it one way or the other, I don’t want our opponent to know.”
The Athletic‘s Jeff Zrebiec pointed out that Flacco’s hip injury required three or four weeks or rest. Flacco got hurt three weeks ago, meaning that his return to practice is imminent. Do the Ravens stick with their rookie quarterback and officially turn the page on the Joe Flacco era, or will Harbaugh decide to stick to his roots in a playoff race, even if it halts the offense’s momentum and potentially goes against the beliefs of the locker room? For a team trying to hold onto a #6 playoff seed, this makes for an intriguing final five weeks of the season.
Image Credit: Baltimore Sun