After all the COVID absences, after all the dropped passes, after all the missed tackles, the Ravens still had Justin Tucker, and that was enough. By an inch.
Coming off an emotional win against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Ravens slogged through an error-filled game against the Detroit Lions, but they escaped with a 19-17 win when Justin Tucker’s 66-yard field goal kick — the longest in NFL history — bounced off the crossbar and then over it as time expired.
The Ravens (2-1) squandered a 13-point second-half lead, as the Lions (0-3) mounted a pair of 75-yard touchdown drives against an exhausted Ravens defense that had four players on the league’s reserve/COVID-19 list. Then Lions kicker Ryan Santoso — a practice squad callup since regular kicker Austin Seibert was also on the reserve/COVID-19 list — hit a 35-yard field goal with 1:04 left that gave the Lions their first lead at 17-16.
The Ravens’ final possession began disastrously, with quarterback Lamar Jackson sacked twice, leaving the Ravens facing fourth-and-19 with 26 seconds left and no timeouts. The Lions rushed three, and Jackson somehow found Sammy Watkins for a gain of 36. After a spiked incompletion and then a quick incompletion out of bounds — that appeared to have been snapped well after the play clock had expired — with three seconds left, the Ravens trotted out the most accurate kicker in NFL history.
Tucker, who kicked a previous-career-best 61-yarder in his previous trip to Ford Field in 2013, had already hit three field goals in the game but missed one from 49 yards. This time, his kick carried down the middle, hit the crossbar and spun over it.
Here are five quick impressions of the stunning victory, the Ravens’ 11th in a row against an NFC opponent:
1. Justin Tucker does things no one else can.
TV producers like to superimpose a red stripe on the broadcast view of the field to indicate a field-goal kicker’s outer limit. At this point, how could you bother doing that for Tucker? He has the swagger to believe, without a doubt, that he can make a kick from anywhere on the field, and the leg to pretty much back it up.
The 66-yard bomb to beat the Lions is the longest field goal in NFL history, breaking the previous record of 64 yards, by Denver’s Matt Prater in 2013. It is also the 17th game-winning kick of Tucker’s career, and five of those have been hit from 52 yards or longer.
Prater, ironically, attempted a 68-yard field goal for the Arizona Cardinals today, and it was short and returned for a touchdown by the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Lions weren’t worried about any return, but could do nothing but watch as the ball’s topspin carried it over the crossbar for the Ravens win.
“That one was something else,” Tucker told CBS on the field after the game. “I really don’t have the words to do justice to the moment.”
Tucker has been known to run on to the field, even when the Ravens are facing what would be a 65- or 70-yard attempt, only to be waved off by head coach John Harbaugh. But Harbaugh knows that in Tucker, the Ravens have a weapon that the rest of the league doesn’t have, and one that has never really been seen before.
“He’s the best kicker in NFL history,” Harbaugh said.
2. Short-handed or not, flaws in this Ravens defense were exposed.
The Ravens held the Lions scoreless in the first half, but the Lions put together scoring drives of 75, 75 and 62 yards in the second half with a blueprint that other teams will surely try to copy. Get swing passes out to the running backs, and challenge Ravens linebackers to cover and tackle, two things that they have struggled to do.
The Ravens did a good job containing Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson, who is quarterback Jared Goff’s favorite target. Hockenson, who totaled 16 catches for 163 yards in the first two games this year, was held to two catches for 10 yards.
Instead, Goff had big success throwing to his running backs. D’Andre Swift caught all seven of his targets for 60 yards and Jamaal Williams caught two for 25. More concerning, the Ravens for the third straight game suffered from subpar tackling, and plays that should have been contained were extended. That kept a short-handed defense on the field longer, and it nearly cost the Ravens the game.
“We’ve got to become a better tackling team. We know that,” Harbaugh said.
Patrick Queen finished with six tackles but missed others, and Malik Harrison, the starter alongside him, has also had a hard time in coverage. The Ravens at times turned to Chris Board, Kristian Welch and veteran Josh Bynes, promoted from the practice squad Sept. 25, but Goff and the Lions found ways to attack the Ravens with running backs catching passes in space.
Swift had six catches for 56 yards in the second half as the Lions marched down the field three times. The NFL is a copycat league, and teams on the Ravens’ upcoming schedule will surely take note. The Ravens are going to have to find an answer.
3. Marquise Brown is too inconsistent to be a true No. 1 receiver.
The Ravens’ 10-0 halftime lead would have been larger had Brown not dropped a pair of deep passes from Jackson in a span of five plays. On both plays, Brown got behind the Lions’ secondary, Jackson put the ball where it needed to be, and the pass clanked off Brown’s hands. Either play would have gone for a touchdown or for a huge gain, and that drive came up empty.
Those drops came after Brown had a ball go through his hands in the end zone earlier in the game.
The Ravens saw a lot to like from Brown in the first two games this year. After battling through a preseason hamstring injury, he appeared to be stronger and more decisive this year. He said he was making a greater commitment to turning upfield and gaining yards after the catch, and entered this game with 12 catches for 182 yards, both tops on the team.
Several times already this year, Brown has gained the separation to create the explosive plays the Ravens are looking for from him. But like injuries, drops have been a troubling narrative in Brown’s career, and they seem to come in streaks.
Brown had hoped to take the next stop to becoming a bona-fide No. 1 receiver this year, a role that became more vital early with first-round draft pick Rashod Bateman still sidelined by a groin injury, but Brown hasn’t been consistent or reliable enough for that No. 1 tag to be viable.
Harbaugh said he expects Brown to overcome adversity, as he has in the past, and said he told Brown after the game, “You’re writing the rest of this story. Nobody else is.”
4. Lamar Jackson’s passing game was better than the numbers suggest.
So much is said about Jackson’s running game, and the singular way he can take over a game with his legs. He led the Ravens in rushing for the third straight game with seven carries for 58 yards, and his 31-yard run was the longest of the game.
As a passer, Jackson finished 16 of 31 for 287 yards with one touchdown and one interception, and his completion percentage of 51.6 was his lowest in 12 games. But frankly, he deserved better. Brown had a touchdown go through his hands, and dropped two deep balls that were put exactly where they needed to be. Even so, Jackson finished with 17.9 yards a catch, his second-highest total as a starter.
Jackson found a wide-open Devin Duvernay for a 19-yard touchdown, and he connected with James Proche on a nifty sideline catch, his first of the season, for 29 yards.
Jackson had one awful decision, when he tried to force a pass to Brown under pressure in the fourth quarter and it turned into an easy Lions interception. Jackson needs to be willing to take the sack there and live to play another down.
But for all the teeth-gnashing about Jackson’s downfield passing ability, the deep balls were on target for the most part. It’s not his fault Brown didn’t come up with them. Jackson made the game-saving fourth-and-19 throw on target to Sammy Watkins, and he also teamed up with Mark Andrews five times for 109 yards.
When all else fails, when the running game is scuffling and Brown is in a funk, Jackson knows he can go to Andrews, his favorite target since they arrived in Baltimore together in 2018.
5. The Ravens haven’t beaten COVID yet.
After dealing with the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the league last year, the Ravens have already shown this year that they have not put the pandemic behind them.
The Ravens had to face the Lions without defensive linemen Brandon Williams and Justin Madubuike and outside linebackers Justin Houston and Jaylon Ferguson, all of whom were placed on the league’s reserve/COVID-19 list two days before the game. Ferguson reportedly tested positive, and unvaccinated players who are deemed high-risk close contacts must self-isolate for five days.
The defensive line, which was without Derek Wolfe (back/hip) for a third straight game, had to rely on a gritty effort from Calais Campbell, Justin Ellis, Broderick Washington and practice squad callup Khalil McKenzie, who made his NFL debut. Campbell finished with four tackles, including two for losses.
Likewise, the outside linebacker group was down to four players because of the COVID absences, and then lost rookie Daelin Hayes during the game with an ankle injury. The fatigue of that front seven was evident down the stretch as the Lions mounted extended drives with few replacements available on that Ravens sideline.
Harbaugh has said that upwards of 90 percent of Ravens players are vaccinated, but this week showed that a positive test or two, and then high-risk close contacts, have the potential to disrupt the roster. With so many players vaccinated, it should not create the upheaval of last year, but COVID isn’t done with the Ravens, or the NFL yet, and as this season grinds on, more late-week roster surprises can’t be ruled out.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox