The Ravens were supposed to be in victory formation, but John Harbaugh and his team had some unfinished business. After getting the ball back with three seconds left, quarterback Lamar Jackson took the snap and ran to his left for a 5-yard gain before sliding to the turf. With that, the Ravens topped 100 yards rushing for the 43rd straight game, tying an all-time NFL record, and put the finishing touches on a 23-7 win against the previously undefeated Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver Oct. 3.
The Ravens knocked Broncos starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater out of the game with a concussion late in the second quarter, but both Bridgewater and his backup Drew Lock were thwarted by a Ravens defense that produced a season-best five sacks and held Denver scoreless for the final 44 minutes.
The Ravens’ NFL-leading run game was thwarted by a scheme designed to stop it, but Jackson countered with one of the most prolific passing games of his career. He completed 22 of 37 passes for 316 yards — the second 300-yard game of his career.
The Ravens (3-1) scored the final 23 points and never trailed after Marquise Brown’s highlight-reel 49-yard touchdown grab gave the Ravens a 14-7 lead midway through the second quarter.
The Ravens’ only points of the second half came on two field goals from Justin Tucker, but that proved to be plenty as the Ravens compiled time-consuming drives, and the suffocating defense did the rest against Lock and the Broncos.
As for using the game’s final snap to tie the NFL record set by the Franco Harris-led Pittsburgh Steelers from 1974-77, Harbaugh said it was “100 percent my call. That’s one of those things that’s meaningful. … It’s a very, very tough record to accomplish, and it’s a long-term record. I’m not going to say it’s more important than winning the game, for sure. It’s certainly not. But as a head coach, I think you do that for your players and you do that for your coaches and that’s something they’ll have for the rest of their lives.”
Here are five quick impressions of the win, the Ravens’ last game on the road until Nov. 11:
1. After more bad tackling, the defense reasserted its physical identity.
The Ravens fell behind 7-0 when tight end Noah Fant caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from Bridgewater, and the score was set up by a 31-yard run by Javonte Williams in which he broke several tackles and essentially carried Marlon Humphrey for 10 yards.
The Ravens have been victimized by poor tackling in other games this year, and they opened a fully-padded practice Sept. 29 with tackling drills, so considering that tackling was clearly a point of emphasis this week, it was a discouraging start.
After that play, though, the Ravens reasserted themselves defensively, consistently winning one-on-one battles against a Broncos offensive line that was missing both starting guards. Tyus Bowser had a pair of sacks and hammered Bridgewater more than once. Odafe Oweh had a sack, and Chuck Clark knocked receiver Diontae Spencer out of the game with a clean, thunderous hit after he caught a pass in the flat.
“I think our defense did a phenomenal job, aside from two drives and a couple of plays,” Harbaugh said, “just a phenomenal job.”
The Ravens have ranked among the league’s top 10 defenses in six of the past seven years, and they’ve done it by being tough, physical and wrapping up with fundamental tackling. They hadn’t really looked like that in the first three games, but the Broncos faced a much more typical Ravens defensive effort, and they are going to be feeling that in the training room all week.
2. The Broncos dared Jackson to beat them through the air, and he did.
Since Lamar Jackson became the Ravens starting quarterback in 2018, questions have followed about whether he can win games with his arm. He’s heard them, and famously declared, “Not bad for a running back” after throwing five touchdown passes in the 2019 season opener at Miami.
But he is also the only quarterback in NFL history with two 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and as the anchor of a record-setting ground game, teams are designing defensive game plans against that. Stop the run, the thinking goes, and you stop Jackson.
The Broncos for the most part did stop the run. They crammed the box to deny Jackson and the group of running backs, and the Ravens were held to 3.4 yards a carry. The Ravens needed the final snap to reach 100 yards rushing.
In doing so, the Broncos essentially dared Jackson to beat them through the air, and that’s what he did. He hit Marquise Brown with the remarkable 49-yard touchdown catch, but other, less dramatic throws might have been just as important.
Jackson extended drives with sharp, intermediate throws outside the numbers — the ones critics say he can’t consistently make. James Proche had the best day of his career with five catches for 74 yards, and Sammy Watkins (4-49) made a couple of big sideline catches as well. Jackson picked up a blitz and threaded a throw to Devin Duvernay. Of course he found tight end Mark Andrews (5-67) because he always does.
“I can’t believe people say he can’t throw,” Proche said. “That’s crazy, right? Like, that’s wild. Like barbaric. That’s like saying water is dry.”
Rival defensive coordinators have figured the way to beat the Ravens was to stop the run. With this win, Jackson gives them even more to worry about.
3. The Ravens flipped the calendar back to 2016 with their running game.
Ty’Son Williams, the starting running back in the first three games, was a game day inactive and Le’Veon Bell was elevated from the practice squad to join Latavius Murray and Devonta Freeman in the Ravens’ backfield.
That trio collectively totaled 3,135 rushing yards in 2016, with Bell and Freeman both earning Pro Bowl honors. The yards are harder to come by in 2021, though Murray got to the corner and ran behind a road-grading block from Patrick Ricard for an 11-yard touchdown that tied the game at 7.
Murray led the Ravens with 18 carries for 59 yards, and the three backs totaled 23 carries for 74 yards (3.2 avg.). To be fair, this was against a defensive scheme built to stop the run, and none of these backs were with the team a month ago.
Williams has averaged 6.1 yards a carry, with 27 carries for 164 yards, and he has shown more explosion and burst than the stable of vintage backs the Ravens have alongside him, but offensive coordinator Greg Roman said the evaluation of the backs goes well beyond the stat sheet. He suggested that Williams had left some plays on the field in terms of missing a running lane or a pass block. Williams also had a couple of fumbles, so that could have been a factor in his being a game day inactive as well.
Although the Ravens won through the air at Denver, the offense is built around the ground game, and after losing J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill in a stunning rash of preseason injuries, they are still searching for the right combination. For at least one day, they were hoping a trip back to 2016 could be the answer.
4. Score one for the edge rushers.
Since the start of training camp, the Ravens have faced questions about their pass rush, specifically off the edge. They added Justin Houston to that group, hoping the veteran could make an impact, but they knew they would need to rely on rookie Odafe Oweh and Tyus Bowser, who was rewarded with a new contract this offseason.
Through three games, the edge rush group had totaled just two sacks, with one each from Oweh and Pernell McPhee. In this game, though, Bowser (2), Oweh and Houston all recorded sacks, and they generally made life miserable for Denver quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock and the tackles trying to protect them.
The Ravens pressure got Bridgewater and Lock out of rhythm, to the extent that they ever got in it. Oweh dropped Bridgewater with a tone-setting sack to end the Broncos’ opening possession, and after completing 76 percent of his throws in the first three games, Bridgewater completed two of his first seven passes against the Ravens.
The Ravens recorded 11 quarterback hits, including two each from Bowser and Oweh, and they essentially knocked Bridgewater from the game. Bowser also forced Broncos left tackle Garret Bolles into his first holding call of the season as he had Bolles beat around the corner.
The Ravens let Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue leave as free agents, and they entrusted that the newly minted Bowser and the athletic first-round pick Oweh could be the vanguard of a new edge rush group. In this game, that vision started to come into focus.
5. Marquise Brown leaves the drops behind.
Major League Baseball closers need to have a short memory, with the ability to quickly put failure behind them and prepare for the next day’s challenge. Marquise Brown clearly has that as well.
After dropping two long passes that hit him right in his hands last week, Brown said at practice earlier this week that, “You can’t dwell on the past play. You’ve got to move on and put the best effort forward for the next play.”
Brown indeed did that, igniting the Ravens at Denver with the most spectacular catch of his career. With the Ravens and Broncos tied at 7, Brown slipped through the Broncos two-deep zone, and Jackson unloaded a ball from midfield that looked to be a touch too far for the speedster. Brown, though, found a second gear, then fully extended his 5-foot-9 frame and made a diving grab in the middle of the end zone for a 14-7 lead.
“[Jackson] put it out there, so, I went and got it, kept my eyes on it and made the catch,” Brown said.
Brown finished with four catches for 91 yards, and several times this season he has shown the ability to stretch the defense and gain separation deep in a way that no other receiver on the roster can match.
Brown owned the drops last week, and he went through a spell like that last year too, so the inconsistency has to be a concern. But as he showed on this sensational catch, the potential for an explosive play is there on every snap.
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