Big plays from big names do trick as Ravens still seek best selves

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The Ravens haven’t been the well-oiled machine we witnessed over the second half of 2019.

After a poor showing in what was arguably the only meaningful measuring-stick opportunity of the season against defending champion Kansas City, Baltimore impressing anyone in a meeting with the Washington Football Team was always going to be difficult. After all, this was the kind of opponent the Ravens embarrassed over and over last season.

But it wasn’t that kind of performance on Sunday despite the Ravens never being in danger in a 31-17 win to improve to 3-1 on the season.

Baltimore running backs gained only 23 rushing yards in the first half and averaged an ordinary 4.0 yards per carry for the afternoon. Lamar Jackson completed less than half of his passes in the first half and threw an interception in the final minute of the second quarter that led to a cheap Washington field goal. The Ravens defense took away deep-ball opportunities from second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins, but the group again struggled to contain a running back in the passing game as rookie Antonio Gibson racked up 82 receiving yards, much of that coming in the first half.

However, big plays — five of them, to be exact — from Baltimore’s biggest names made the difference in transforming a bit of a hangover from the Chiefs loss to a comfortable 21-10 halftime lead on the road.

“If you look at most NFL games, that’s what it boils down to,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s always four, five, six, seven, or eight plays. It’s usually in that four-to-eight range that make a difference in the game.”

Unable to overcome poor field position despite collecting a couple first downs on their opening drive, the Ravens got their first big play on defense when All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey forced a fumble to give the ball back to Jackson and the offense in Washington territory. It’s exactly what you expect from the defensive playmaker who was only three days removed from signing a $98.75 million extension.

On the next play, Jackson rolled to his right to find top wide receiver Marquise Brown for a 33-yard completion down to the 1-yard line, setting up an easy Mark Ingram touchdown for the lead. Since his explosive first half in the opener against Cleveland, the 2019 first-round pick had managed just seven catches for 55 yards in 2 1/2 games, but Brown’s ability was on display against a Washington secondary that struggled to keep up.

The Ravens went three-and-out on their next drive that included a couple overthrows of open receivers by Jackson. They then appeared in danger of punting again until Jackson found daylight with his legs, running off right tackle on third-and-4 for a 50-yard touchdown, the longest run of his three-year career.

After Washington answered with a touchdown of its own with Gibson accounting for 52 yards on the 75-yard drive, the Ravens seemingly saw their next drive stall despite Jackson hitting a 31-yard completion to Brown. Leading 14-7 and lining up to punt on fourth-and-9 from the Washington 43 with just over three minutes left in the half, the Ravens leaned on their impeccable special teams for the next big play.

Longtime punter Sam Koch improved to an impressive 7-for-7 as a passer in his career by connecting with Miles Boykin for 15 yards on the fake punt.

The play was as valuable as a turnover for the Ravens, who extended their lead when Jackson scrambled left from pressure and delivered a pretty 25-yard touchdown pass to Mark Andrews on third-and-7. The play was a far cry from last week when the Pro Bowl tight end uncharacteristically dropped three passes.

It wasn’t the total domination up and down the field that we came to expect last season, but the Ravens leaned on big plays from their stars for a two-possession lead at halftime that wouldn’t be relinquished. And that worked just fine as Baltimore continues to try to calibrate its best possible football. In the end, you’re not credited an extra victory if you win by four or five touchdowns rather than two.

The refrain from players after Sunday’s game was that the Ravens can still be better, perhaps a reminder of the near-impossible standard created last year and how difficult that will be to duplicate from a statistical standpoint. In reality, the Ravens can look at the Chiefs for a reminder of what really matters as Kansas City scored 20 fewer offensive touchdowns last season than in 2018 on the way to an identical 12-4 record and a January breakthrough to win the Super Bowl.

Unlike last season, the Ravens offense is no longer sneaking up on anyone.

“Everyone kind of has a bull’s-eye on us, so teams are coming out and playing a bunch of different defenses,” Andrews said. “It’s a unique task just because you never know what they’re going to be playing in. Everyone thinks that they have the formula to stop us, so we see different things every week. That’s only going to make us battle-hardened.”

Considering Jackson went a perfect 8-for-8 for 90 yards and another touchdown to Andrews after intermission, there’s no reason to lament the reigning MVP throwing his first regular-season interception since Week 14 of last season. But the disjointed nature of the running game coming off a record-setting 2019 leaves the Ravens still searching for their offensive identity, a flaw exposed against Kansas City before a national audience.

The absence of future Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda was always going to be a significant challenge, and the Ravens were also without All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley on Sunday, which prompted shuffling against Washington. Repeatedly describing the addition of rookie J.K. Dobbins as a good problem to have, offensive coordinator Greg Roman has been tasked with incorporating the 2020 second-round pick in a ground game with incumbents Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards. The issue has been more about rhythm than individual performance.

Through four games, Baltimore is still on pace to rush for over 2,500 yards and is averaging 5.4 yards per carry, just a hair off last year’s 5.5 yards per attempt clip. Such numbers would very likely keep the rushing attack atop the league at season’s end, but it simply hasn’t felt as dominant or historic.

Perhaps Sunday best serves as a reminder that it’s all about winning rather than piling up as many style points and records as possible. You’d be hard-pressed arguing the Week 4 performance would have been good enough to beat the Chiefs, but the Ravens did more than enough against a lesser opponent.

That’s all that matters as they aim to find their best selves by January.

“Defenses play us a lot differently. We watch film on them. We study teams,” Jackson said. “When we go out there, it’s a totally different ballgame. We’re still pushing. It’s still early in the season. We just have to keep pushing, keep grinding, keep playing Ravens ball.”