BALTIMORE — The Ravens didn’t finish as much as they survived the 23-20 win over Cleveland on Sunday.
Staked to a 10-point lead early in the fourth quarter for the second straight week, the Baltimore defense again allowed its opponent to march right down the field as the Browns needed just seven plays and 2:24 to score a touchdown to shrink the deficit to three points. And while Greg Roman’s offense was able to drain the clock and move the ball on the ensuing drive, the Ravens once again turned the ball over at a critical time when Justice Hill fumbled with just over three minutes to go.
A 37-yard completion from Jacoby Brissett to Donovan Peoples-Jones a few plays later put Cleveland on the fringe of field-goal range at the Baltimore 42-yard line with 2:38 to go. However, the Browns seemed more determined to “Brown” than the Ravens were to “Raven” in the end.
Instead of using the clock and giving the ball to Nick Chubb after the All-Pro running back had gashed Baltimore for 51 yards on his previous four carries, Cleveland kept passing and nearly took the lead when Amari Cooper was flagged for offensive pass interference on a 34-yard touchdown catch against Marcus Peters on a third-and-2. The critical 10-yard penalty set the stage for Baltimore to prevail using its biggest advantage throughout the day.
Yes, the third phase saved the day for the Ravens as a false start call went their way when Browns kicker Cade York — who made a 58-yard game-winner in Week 1 — lined up to try a 55-yard field goal. Moments later, linebacker Malik Harrison blocked a 60-yard try before the two-minute warning, and the Ravens were able to drain all but the final 16 seconds to hold on for the narrow win.
It was far from perfect, but they’ll gladly take the victory with a quick trip to Tampa looming.
“I’d rather it not be close, so we’re not around here biting our nails at the end of the game,” said quarterback Lamar Jackson, who went just 9-for-16 for 120 passing yards and was held without a touchdown. “But I feel like it just builds momentum, especially [since] we’ve got this quick turnaround Thursday night playing against a tough team. We’ve just got to keep stacking though — keep stacking.
“Hopefully, these games aren’t so close.”
But they often are in the NFL, and the special teams edge was not only the difference in the final minutes, but it jump-started the Ravens after a lackluster first quarter that ended with Cleveland holding a 10-3 advantage. With the defense having surrendered points on Cleveland’s first two drives and the offense having just gone three-and-out, punter Jordan Stout jogged onto the field and punted from the 25 as Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski threw a late challenge flag on the previous play’s spot, blowing dead a kick that went an ordinary 44 yards.
The curious challenge was unsuccessful and served as the catalyst for Stout to boom one a season-long 69 yards, sending the Browns back to their own 12-yard line and putting what had been a reeling Ravens defense into attack mode. It proved to be a game-changing moment for the fourth-round pick out of Penn State, whose rookie campaign hasn’t gotten off to the most impressive start if we’re being honest.
“We were kind of fighting for field position there,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “We’ve been on Stout a little bit in practice. We had some fun with him. He has a great attitude, and he’s just a pretty confident guy. You just knew he was going to have a game like that, but it was huge in this game.”
The defense responded with a three-and-out that included back-to-back tackles for a loss by inside linebacker Patrick Queen, and the Browns punted to Pro Bowl return specialist Devin Duvernay, who returned the ball 46 yards to set up an easy Justin Tucker field goal.
Thanks in large part to those two special-teams plays, the Ravens mostly outplayed the Browns from that point until Tucker booted a 55-yard field goal with 11:24 to go in the game, another reminder of how massive an edge Baltimore enjoys in the kicking game.
Of course, special teams weren’t the only positive of the day with no development more encouraging than the healthy return of running back Gus Edwards, who rushed for two touchdowns and 66 yards in his first game since suffering a torn ACL, LCL, and hamstring just days before the 2021 season opener. Returning after a three-game absence due to a groin injury, edge rusher Justin Houston collected two sacks to lead a pass rush that made life difficult for Brissett, who played respectably in defeat. And the Ravens were excellent on third down on both sides of the ball, allowing them to sustain their own drives and contain a Cleveland offense that averaged 6.0 yards per play.
It certainly didn’t hurt that a pair of late calls went Baltimore’s way.
But the special teams saved the day after the offense and defense remained too willing to work off that same late-game script that’s become so maddening. As Jackson put it, the Ravens breathed a sigh of relief when York’s field goal try deflected off Harrison’s face mask.
“We had faith in them to go out there and do that on the long field goal,” Queen said. “We knew the guys that we have up front could get a push and make things like that happen.
“Special teams is what we preach over here. That’s what it starts off with, and they went out there and did their job.”