Three thoughts following Lamar Jackson’s first NFL start

The Baltimore Ravens picked up one of their biggest wins of the season on Sunday by taking down the Cincinnati Bengals 24-21. The win snapped a three-game losing streak and kept the Ravens’ playoff hopes alive as they prepare to enter the final stretch of the season.

Here are three key takeaways from the Ravens fifth win of the year: 

1 Jackson runs wild in first NFL start

You know I had to start with Lamar Jackson. After two weeks of quarterback uncertainty, the Ravens’ first-round rookie was given the opportunity to start his first NFL game. The circumstances were not ideal with Joe Flacco suffering a hip injury, but Jackson made the most of his first real opportunity by leading the offense to a 24-point afternoon and a victory.

Jackson has been involved in the Ravens’ offense throughout the season as a secret weapon of sorts but very rarely has he come through with a big play. That changed on Sunday as Jackson consistently fooled the Bengals defense with the read option. Marty Mornhinweg played to his young quarterback’s strengths and let him carry the ball 27 times. The result was a 117-yard afternoon on the ground for Jackson. Even with a handful of mobile quarterbacks finding a home in the NFL in recent years, none of them have carried the ball this many times in a game.

The former Louisville Cardinal added 150 yards through the air to cap off a solid debut. It would have been an even better afternoon for the rookie had he not thrown an ugly interception at the beginning of the second half but he still rebounded and led the offense to a comeback win.

One of the biggest differences I saw with Jackson under center was the length of drives. It’s no secret that if you run the ball well, you are going to eat up a lot of clock. The Ravens offense ended up running the ball over 50 times this week so it’s no surprise that they won the time of possession battle pretty easily. However, this should not be brushed off as an meaningless stat. By holding the ball for 38 minutes, the Ravens took the ball out of Andy Dalton’s hands and gave the Bengals offense fewer opportunities to go on the attack.

Jackson’s future as a starter this season is still up in the air, but if he does get the chance to start in big games against Kansas City the Los Angeles Chargers, an overwhelming run attack could be the key. It’s hard enough to play defense in today’s NFL so you have to do whatever you can to keep the ball away from guys like Patrick Mahomes and Phillip Rivers.

2. All aboard the Gus bus

The Ravens went into Sunday’s matchup with four active running backs as Ty Montgomery made his debut in purple and black. To the surprise of many fans, Gus Edwards emerged from this group as the leading rusher. The undrafted rookie made his debut off the practice squad earlier this season but made a name for himself this week with 115 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries to help lead the Ravens’ offense.

Marty Mornhinweg has had trouble getting the run game going all year but you wouldn’t be able to tell by watching Sunday’s game. Edwards’ 100+ yard afternoon was accompanied by 117 yards from Jackson, marking the first time since 2012 (Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce) that the Ravens have had two 100-yard rushers in one game.

While Edwards is certainly an unlikely hero, his success alongside Jackson is not a big surprise. While playing for Rutgers as a graduate transfer in 2017, Edwards was utilized heavily in a read option offense similar to the one being used here with Jackson. With that in mind, it makes sense why John Harbaugh and Mornhinweg would give him the majority of snaps.

Both Buck Allen and Montgomery are better utilized in the pass attack, making Alex Collins the only other running back on the depth chart that can carry the ball on a consistent basis. However, Collins’ fumbling troubles make him a liability in the read option where the quarterback and running back have to decide who will carry the ball in a matter of seconds.

3. Defense exorcises their Dalton demons

With all the focus on Jackson and his exciting debut as a starter, the Ravens defense will get lost in the media storm. You would bee a fool to ignore this defensive performance considering it was one of the best for the Ravens all season. With the Bengals’ offense seeking revenge after getting embarrassed at home by the New Orleans Saints, this looked like it could be a rough afternoon for the Ravens who have been slipping on defense in recent games. 

However, the Ravens defense was stout all afternoon and managed to hold a Bengals offense that has given them a lot of trouble to just 255 yards. Wink Martindale’s crew has allowed fewer yards in just two other games this season (Buffalo & Tennessee). In addition to this, the pass rush saw a return to form in Sunday’s win. Only two sacks were recorded but Dalton was rushed into a handful of bad throws after getting heavily pressured.

Overall, it was a rough afternoon for the Bengals quarterback as he completed just 19 of his 36 pass attempts. The absence of A.J. Green certainly had an impact but Dalton failed to deliver the ball to his other receivers on a consistent basis. The Ravens secondary and middle linebackers had good coverage all afternoon and got their hands on a few of Dalton’s off-target throws.

The biggest defensive play came on the final drive of the game when Marlon Humphrey broke up what would have been a huge fourth down conversion for the Bengals. Up until this play, things were feeling eerily similar to the heartbreaking loss in week 17 last year, but Humphrey and the rest of Martindale’s crew avenged that painful loss with a game-winning defensive stand.

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Image credit: Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun

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Five thoughts from Ravens frustrating 12-9 loss in Cleveland

After picking up their biggest win of the season this past Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Baltimore Ravens played their ugliest game of the season in Cleveland and lost to the Browns for the first time since 2015.

A lot if crazy and questionable stuff happened leading up the Browns’ 12-9 win, but here are my five key takeaways.

1. Worst game of the year for Ravens offense

There was nothing good about the offense’s performance on Sunday and it all starts with Joe Flacco. The veteran quarterback threw the ball 56 times and failed to reach the 300-yard threshold. Throw in an ugly interception and it was easily the worst game of the year for Flacco. I don’t care if the interception was tipped by a defender. The ball should have never been thrown in the first place since Flacco’s intended target was double covered.

While Flacco did not have his best game, the blame is not entirely on him. The rest of the offense was just as unreliable, resulting in an ugly afternoon all around. Michael Crabtree led the team in receptions and receiving yards but those are deceptive stats considering he also dropped three catchable passes, including the potential game-winner late in the fourth quarter.

I also have to regretfully call out the run game. Alex Collins excited us early on by picking up 42 yards on his first six carries but he quickly became less involved in the game. Even when he did see action Collins was not very productive, picking up just 17 yards on his final six carries. To make things worse, Buck Allen was not on his game either. Allen finished the game with 34 yards and had a crucial fumble that stifled the Ravens first drive of the second half.

2. Third down efficiency one of many issues for offense

Coming into Sunday’s game the Ravens offense had done a good job of converting in third down situations with a 46% success rate (29/63) on the season. That changed pretty quickly this week when the Ravens went 0-for-6 on third down in the first half. Baltimore would end up finishing the game 4-for-16 on third down.

3. Pass rush gets more involved

The Ravens defense found a lot of success last week against Pittsburgh despite only picking up one sack in garbage time. This week Baltimore made their life a little easier by bringing Baker Mayfield down five times. The return of the pass rush helped force the Browns rookie quarterback into some long yardage situations.

In some instances coach Martindale drew up some more creative blitz packages to get his defense rolling. Eric Weddle’s first quarter sack stands out as a good example of this. The veteran safety was able to hide behind a pair of edge rushers at the line and get to Mayfield untouched for the easy blind side sack.

4. Ravens avoid a few injury scares

After getting some key players back from injury this week the Ravens were looking stronger than ever. However, throughout the course of Sunday’s game there were some plays that made you hold your breath. Both Tavon Young and Mark Andrews had to exit the game for concussion protocol but neither one was permanently sidelined.

Young was shaken up after diving for an incredible interception in the first quarter. The third-year cornerback was quickly tackled by a pair of Browns players but was hit in the head in the process. Getting Young back was a huge relief for the defense since the Ravens only had four cornerbacks activated for the game.

5. Same old Ravens

There is no other way for me to sum this game up. The offense was given an insane amount of opportunities throughout the game, especially in the fourth quarter and overtime, but failed to get into the end zone just once. Between the Ravens defense picking up six stops in the last two quarters and the Browns shooting themselves in the foot with ten penalties, there is just no excuse for the Ravens offense.

At the end of the day this was the same old Ravens that Weddle has been joking about in his recent post game press conferences. I give the team all the credit in the world for making the necessary adjustments against Denver and Pittsburgh but they disappointed this week. Nothing screams same old Ravens more than playing down to your competition a week after a big win.

Image credit: John Kuntz / Cleveland.com

Five thoughts following the Ravens 34-23 loss in Cincinnati

The Ravens entered Cincinnati on Thursday night trying to keep their success rolling after a blowout win over Buffalo just four days prior. As expected, the Bengals proved to be a much tougher opponent and the Ravens looked unprepared early on.

Baltimore managed to erase most of the Bengals early 21-0 lead and make it a one possession game in the second half. However, in the end the Bengals would come out with a 34-23 win thanks to a pair of Ravens turnovers late in the game.

1. A tale of two halves

The Cincinnati Bengals came out strong in Thursday night’s game and took an early 21-0 lead thanks to a strong offensive attack and some Ravens struggles. A.J. Green presented a huge challenge for the Ravens secondary and they failed to answer the call as the Bengals No. 1 receiver hauled in the teams first three touchdowns and finished the night with five receptions for 69 yards.

To make things worse, the Ravens offense was sleep walking in the early goings and could not match Cincinnati’s start. Joe Flacco and company managed to get some momentum going before the half and cut the Bengals lead to 14 but the first half was certainly controlled by the home team.

The second half was a different story. The Bengals opened up with the ball but this time the Ravens defense had an answer. The Baltimore defense forced the Bengals to punt on their first four possessions of the second half. This gave the offense a chance to slowly crawl back into the game with a 55-yard field goal by Justin Tucker and an 87-yard drive, capped off by a beautiful 21-yard touchdown pass to John Brown.

The Ravens defense would end up surrendering just two field goals in the second half, giving Flacco and the offense a legitimate chance to come back. However, some costly turnovers would end up being to difference maker as Flacco threw a second interception and later fumbled with under three minutes to play in the game.

2. C.J Mosley injury

The Ravens defense took a huge hit in the first quarter when C.J. Mosley went down with a knee injury. The middle linebacker had to be carted off after tweaking his knee and everyone in the Ravens fan base collectively held their breath. The injury is currently being reported as a bone bruise which is significantly less detrimental than what many feared when they saw Mosley being carted into the locker room.

The injury did leave the Ravens shorthanded on defense for the majority of Thursdays game. Rookie Kenny Young had to step into a starting role alongside Patrick Onwuasor and performed pretty well after being forced into the spotlight. His presence was best felt while stopping the run but he did have issues cover some of the Bengals tight ends.

The timetable for Mosley is unknown right now but it might be safe to say that Young is going to be called upon to start in the coming weeks. The Ravens were shorthanded at the middle linebacker position coming into the season and losing Mosley is a worst case scenario.

3. Life without Jimmy Smith

Losing Mosley is rough on its own, but it makes things even worse for the next two weeks as the Ravens continue to wait for Jimmy Smith’s suspension to end. Smith’s presence could have certainly been used on Thursday as A.J. Green dominated the first half and helped put the Bengals up 21-0.

Green has given the Ravens plenty of trouble in the past, even with Smith on the field, but everyone knows that the defense fares much better when Smith is able to cover the opponents No. 1 receiver.

Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr and Tavon Young all struggled to stop Green. They will have no time to rest though with the Broncos and Steelers on the horizon. Both Denver’s Demaryius Thomas and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown will pose a similar threat to the Ravens as Green. Don Martindale hasn’t been dealt the best hand with this Smith suspension and now the Mosley injury, but he will have to figure something out quickly if the Ravens want to avoid another outing like this one.

4. Offensive play calling

The Ravens had to dig themselves out of a hole after the Bengals hot start but after they made it a close game in the second half, the offensive play calling was still unbalanced. Marty Mornhinweg continued to call passing plays and ignore the run game despite both Alex Collins finding some success on the ground. Collins was only given nine carries but dazzled in a handful of them by breaking tackles and fighting for extra yards. I know the Ravens want to mix things up with Collins and Buck Allen but your starting running back needs to carry the ball more than nine times, even if he is involved with the pass game.

My main gripe is with the momentum though. In the second half the Ravens were putting together good drives with short, quick passes and some well designed runs. However, just when things started to get going, the momentum was halted by either bringing Lamar Jackson in or calling on Flacco to air it out.

I saw the team find a good amount of success by being patient and slowly chipping away at the Bengals defense. I just don’t understand why the coaching staff would call these plays in such a pivotal point in the game. It led to at least one of the second half  turnovers as Flacco got picked off while trying to go deep late in the third quarter.

5. Early standings implications

After Thursday the Bengals are the current leaders in the AFC north with a 2-0 record. With the Steelers and Browns tying in week one, the Bengals should be happy with their status this early in the year. They were pushed to the side all offseason as pundits focused on the Ravens and Steelers, but Cincinnati has the upper hand after a pair of nice wins to start their season.

The Ravens will have plenty of chances to make waves in the division standings early this season as they prepare to play road games against both Pittsburgh and Cleveland in the next three weeks.

Image credit: Sam Greene