BALTIMORE – The atmosphere at M&T Bank Stadium Sept. 13 was starkly different than any game ever held at the facility, with no fans in attendance and many Ravens kneeling during the national anthem — a gesture that drew public support from team owner Steve Bisciotti.
Yet once the game began, the Ravens looked much like the team that rolled to a 14-2 record and runaway AFC North title last year, with reigning league Most Valuable Player Lamar Jackson carving up the Cleveland Browns in a 38-6 season-opening victory.
Jackson finished 20-for-25 passing for 275 yards and three touchdowns and ran seven times for a team-high 45 yards.
The Ravens never trailed, jumping to a 10-0 first-quarter lead after forcing turnovers on the Browns’ first two possessions.
Marlon Humphrey intercepted a pass tipped by Calais Campbell on the Browns’ opening drive, which set up a 5-yard touchdown pass from Jackson to tight end Mark Andrews for the season’s first score. The Browns tried a fake punt on their second possession, but L.J. Fort forced a fumble when he hit punter Jamie Gillan. Four plays later Justin Tucker hit a 41-yard field goal.
The Browns put together one second-quarter 75-yard scoring drive, reeling off a pair of 20-plus-yard runs against the Ravens’ revamped defense, but they were thwarted at every turn thereafter. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield finished 21-for-39 for 189 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.
Here are five quick observations about the win, the Ravens 10th season-opening victory in 13 years under head coach John Harbaugh:
1. Jackson’s passing game appeared elevated compared to last year.
The reigning league Most Valuable Player threw 36 touchdowns against six interceptions last year en route to his MVP season, with a completion percentage of 66 percent. If possible, his passing game looked even sharper and more precise in this game, as he completed 20 of 25 passes, often feathering throws just beyond the reach of a defender.
Jackson went 5-for-5, to four different receivers, on a 99-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter, and then closed the first half with a seven-play, 65-yard touchdown drive that took just 35 seconds. His 9-yard touchdown pass to Mark Andrews ended that drive and gave the Ravens a 24-6 halftime lead.
Jackson stressed that he had made deep throws a point of emphasis this offseason, and while he didn’t take many shots downfield, but he hit Marquise Brown in stride with a 47-yard strike for his longest completion of the day.
Brown said, “You can tell [Jackson] is a lot more comfortable and a lot more pinpoint” with his throws.
That will not bode well for opponents.
2. Mark Andrews is the perfect fit for this offense.
Mark Andrews enjoyed a breakout year last season en route to his first Pro Bowl trip, and the tight end starred during training camp, looking all but undefendable. He has been Jackson’s favorite target since the two broke into the league together, and they look primed for another superb season together.
Andrews caught five passes for 58 yards and two touchdowns, including a sensational, one-handed grab for the game’s first score after the Browns somehow lost the Ravens’ best red-zone target and left him wide open in the end zone.
Much has been written about how the Ravens don’t have the prototypical No. 1 wide receiver, but they don’t need one with Andrews in the fold. This offense is built around the run, with multiple tight-end sets, and Jackson is most comfortable with short to intermediate throws in the middle of the field – exactly where Andrews thrives.
The Ravens hope that a healthy Marquise Brown adds another dimension to this offense, and he had a strong game with five catches for 101 yards, but Andrews remains the Ravens’ most valuable offensive player not named Lamar Jackson.
“He makes my job way easier,” Jackson said. “If it’s a DB guarding him, a safety or linebacker, it doesn’t really matter. He’s going to do a great job of getting open. He’s going to score a touchdown nine times out of 10.”
3. J.K. Dobbins makes a record-setting run game better.
The Ravens returned nearly every offensive starter from the most prolific rushing attack in NFL history, and yet the ground game looks even stronger with the addition of second-round draft pick J.K. Dobbins.
Dobbins finished with seven carries for 22 yards, hardly eye-popping numbers, but he scored two touchdowns in his first NFL game and he showed that he will be a potent complement to Mark Ingram, who ran for 1,018 yards a year ago as the Ravens set an NFL record with 3,296 rushing yards.
Ingram started against the Browns and finished with 10 carries for 29 yards, with a long run of 8 yards. The Ravens struggled to get traction running inside, but Dobbins slashed for a 12-yard run inside for his longest of the game, and beat defenders to the edge for a 3-yard touchdown run on his first score.
The Ravens started rookie Tyre Phillips at right guard in place of retired All-Pro Marshal Yanda, and left tackle Ronnie Stanley left the game with an ankle injury. The interior of the line didn’t generate a lot of room, and the Ravens never really turned to their ground-and-pound approach of last year, as they had 30 rushes and 28 pass plays.
But the quick burst of Dobbins, added to a stable of backs that includes the stalwart Ingram, the bulldozing Gus Edwards (four carries, 17 yards) and Justice Hill, who missed this game with a thigh injury, makes this run game even better. And all of these backs will continue to benefit from having Jackson in the backfield keeping defenders guessing.
4. Rookies shine in first pro action.
There was never much doubt that first-round draft pick Patrick Queen would start at inside linebacker, but with no OTAs, no minicamp, a compressed training camp and no preseason games, it was fair to wonder how quickly other rookies might contribute. Several did so immediately.
In addition to Queen, the Ravens started rookie third-round pick Malik Harrison alongside him at the other inside linebacker spot in a mild surprise, and rookie Tyre Phillips started at right guard.
In addition, rookie receiver Devin Duvernay reeled off a 38-yard kickoff return, rookie James Proche handled punt returns and running back J.K. Dobbins scored a pair of touchdowns. General manager Eric DeCosta and his college scouting staff have to be pleased to see such an immediate impact from the 2020 draft class.
Queen was among the most disruptive defenders on the field, finishing with a team-high eight tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in his NFL debut. He stripped Nick Chubb on the final play of the third quarter, with L.J. Fort recovering the fumble for the third turnover of the game created by the Ravens.
5. The league and players deserve credit for getting to this point.
The atmosphere was unlike anything the NFL has ever seen before, with the Ravens and Browns battling in an empty stadium, and coaches masked on the sideline, but the fact that the game was played at all speaks to the planning, effort and execution of the league and its players to maintain safety protocols during the coronavirus pandemic.
The league has established rigorous testing protocols, social distancing mandates and other measures at team facilities to try to operate an NFL season safely in the midst of the pandemic. Reaching Week 1 should be viewed as a victory.
This doesn’t guarantee anything; a COVID outbreak in a locker room could still drastically affect the NFL schedule. Unlike Major League Baseball, which has dealt with several such outbreaks, NFL teams can’t just conveniently schedule shortened doubleheaders. But the league has shown that its protocols and safety measures can succeed, and they deserve credit for that.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said the team gave a game ball to team president Dick Cass, who led the team’s pandemic response.
“We wouldn’t be here without Dick and the entire organization,” Harbaugh said, “[and] every single person that stepped up to bring us to this point so we could play football, and we are very grateful for that.”
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