Time will reveal whether Thursday Night Football was the turning point for the 2022 Ravens.
We typically don’t treat such an ill-conceived obligation from the NFL as much of a barometer for good or bad, but important lessons from the 27-22 win over Tampa Bay should help Baltimore hit its stride over the second half of the season. Of course, that’s assuming the 5-3 Ravens were paying attention as they’ll now play just one game over the next 23 days, a stretch that should leave them refreshed and mostly healthy counting down to Thanksgiving.
Both sides of the ball remain a work in progress, but they’re seemingly moving in the right direction, which is no different than a number of solid-to-good teams in Week 8. And a win over Tom Brady and the Buccaneers — no matter how bad they’ve looked for weeks now — should raise everyone’s confidence.
Regardless of long-standing questions about how it fares in January, this should remain a run-heavy offense with Greg Roman as its coordinator. After a first half in which Lamar Jackson threw a bewildering 30 passes and averaged just 4.8 yards per attempt, the Ravens got back to who they are, rushing for 204 yards and averaging 7.8 yards per carry in a 24-point second half. Wanting to be aggressive against a depleted Buccaneers secondary was perfectly understandable to a point, but that plan goes out the window when Mark Andrews and Rashod Bateman play a combined 23 snaps due to injuries. And even if the plan all along was to wear Tampa Bay down to run the ball in the second half, managing only three points — gifted by the special teams — over the first 30 minutes was neither acceptable nor by design. Fortunately, the Baltimore defense stepped up after a rough first quarter.
It was just over a year ago in another primetime game when Jackson looked like Dan Marino going 29-for-32 for 335 yards and four touchdowns in the second half and overtime of a 31-25 win over Indianapolis, but that was the result of a 19-point deficit late in the third quarter and he had a healthy Andrews and Marquise Brown at his disposal. That may have been the highlight of an up-and-down 2021 season, but it hasn’t proven to be a significant turning point in Jackson’s career, which is fine. There might be a small collection of quarterbacks for which you’d plan to call 30 passes in a half, but none of them — with the possible exception of Buffalo’s Josh Allen — come close to doing what Jackson does with his legs. And it’s not as though Jackson’s arm was irrelevant in the second half of Thursday’s victory as he went 8-for-8 for 94 yards and two touchdown passes. There’s a wide range between what we witnessed in that first half and the Ravens becoming the Navy ground game.
A shift in tone was apparent on Baltimore’s first offensive play of the third quarter.
Jackson’s athleticism on the 25-yard run is a given, but watching rookie Tyler Linderbaum — who’s increasingly looking the part of a first-round center — take Pro Bowl linebacker Devin White for a 15-yard ride was an example of the offensive line again becoming a major strength after two years of struggles headlined by former All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley’s absence. The ground game has steadily improved since the first couple weeks of the season, mind you, but the offensive line executing zone blocking at such a high level in the second half of Thursday’s game was football art. As right tackle Morgan Moses told reporters after the game, “You know when it’s time for them to tap out,” referencing Tampa Bay’s defeated defensive front.
This offensive line is healthy and coming into its own, which will benefit whoever is carrying the ball in the second half of the season.
A good running game may only get you so far in today’s NFL, but a special one with a special quarterback is a different animal as we witnessed in 2019. And it makes the passing game that much more dangerous when you don’t feel compelled to throw the ball 30 times in a half of football.
That brings us to the final lesson that hopefully both Jackson and Roman took away from the victory.
It’s not a secret that the superstar quarterback has occasionally locked in too much on Andrews. You can hardly blame some tunnel vision for such an elite target, but Thursday afforded a unique opportunity with the two-time Pro Bowl tight end — who was already dealing with a sore knee — playing only 10 snaps before exiting the game with a shoulder injury.
Andrews’ absence forced Jackson to turn elsewhere with tight end Isaiah Likely looking like the exciting rookie we saw in the preseason with six catches for 77 yards and a touchdown — and also contributing as a run blocker. Veteran Demarcus Robinson added six catches for 64 yards while Devin Duvernay continued to make contributions as a receiver and runner, which included the final touchdown to give Baltimore a 24-13 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
Though John Harbaugh indicated after the game that Andrews’ injury wasn’t serious, the head coach said Bateman suffered “a tweak” of the mid-foot sprain from which he had just returned after a two-game absence. That may force general manager Eric DeCosta to take a long look at this pass-catcher group before Tuesday’s trade deadline, regardless of the contributions made by complementary pieces against Tampa Bay or any expectations for a 35-year-old DeSean Jackson currently on the practice squad.
At the very least, Thursday should serve as a confidence boost and a healthy reminder for all parties that the passing game doesn’t have to be — and frankly, can’t be — so Andrews-dependent. Ultimately, Jackson must trust other receivers, and those individuals must make plays in limited opportunities like we saw in Thursday’s second half. That will only make the offense that much more formidable when all are healthy and back on the field.
Of course, that still won’t make throwing the ball 30 times in a half a good idea anytime soon, a lesson Baltimore should feel fortunate to have learned in victory instead of defeat.
After too often starting games so well before falling apart in the fourth quarter, the Ravens flipping the script was encouraging, even on a weird Thursday night.