The Ravens had the kind of problems that would have doomed most teams in New England on Sunday.
Six offensive snaps into the game, they were down to their fourth-string left tackle, a developmental fourth-round rookie who is supposed to be the right tackle of the future. According to Pro Football Focus, Daniel Faalele never even played a snap at left tackle for the University of Minnesota, but there he was filling in for Patrick Mekari, who was eventually carted to the locker room with a left ankle sprain.
Already leaning on a third-year inside linebacker (Malik Harrison) playing out of position and a 31-year-old journeyman (Brandon Copeland) signed to the practice squad days earlier for outside linebacker depth, Baltimore lost Justin Houston to a groin strain in the first half. The 33-year-old’s short-term status creates even more urgency for the newly signed Jason Pierre-Paul — also 33 and having not been with a team all spring or summer — to be ready for next week’s big clash with Buffalo.
A run defense that’s been shakier than anticipated lost nose tackle Michael Pierce to a left arm injury head coach John Harbaugh described after the game as “not definitive yet, which way, what it is exactly in terms of seriousness.” It was an unsettling update on a significant free-agent signing as the injury hits just keep coming for a team that hoped not to endure a repeat of 2021.
The pass defense remained very messy with Patriots quarterback Mac Jones throwing for 321 yards and averaging just over 10.0 yards per pass attempt even without top wide receiver Jakobi Meyers. After scoring a combined 24 points over its first two games, New England averaged 7.1 yards per play and more than doubled its season point total on Sunday.
However, none of that really mattered because Lamar Jackson was the best player on the field by a wide margin. The superstar quarterback is not only playing at an MVP level to begin the 2022 season, but he continues making what should be legitimate concerns on both sides of the ball feel all but insignificant for the Ravens, who improved to 2-1 with a 37-26 win at Gillette Stadium.
“He’s just special. He’s one of a kind. He’s in an elite division,” said All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews, who caught two touchdowns in Sunday’s victory. “There’s no one who’s really able to do what he can do for a team. For us, just being able to surround him and try to help him out as much as we can, that’s what it’s all about because he’s that special of a player.”
In the process of becoming the third player in NFL history to throw four touchdown passes and rush for 100 yards in a single game, Jackson became the first in the Super Bowl era to throw 10 touchdowns and rush for over 100 yards — 243 to be exact — over the first three games of a season. After an uneven 2021 campaign in which so much went wrong for the Ravens, Jackson is back to rewriting the record book and shining as the early MVP favorite in his fifth season.
How else do you explain someone who’s first in the league in touchdown passes and passer rating also leading the NFL at 9.3 yards per carry and ranking third in the AFC in rushing through Sunday?
As we often noted during his historic 2019 MVP campaign, the record book may need to be named after Jackson when all is said and done. For a second straight week, he also carved up the blitz to put to rest any lingering offseason concerns in that department.
“He plays his way, and he’s kind of determined to play his way, but his way is winning football,” Harbaugh said. “It’s fundamentally sound quarterback play. He’s running the show out there.”
Always quick to praise his teammates, Jackson wasn’t alone Sunday as there were signs of promise accompanying the aforementioned concerns.
The ground game is still a work in progress and again relied heavily on Jackson’s own legs for production, but the return of J.K. Dobbins was an encouraging sight after a 13-month absence due to a serious knee injury. Fourth-year running back Justice Hill also rushed for a career-high 60 yards on six carries, showing more explosiveness than veterans Kenyan Drake and Mike Davis did over the first two weeks.
Not only did Baltimore find more running room, but Jackson wasn’t sacked in the second half after being dropped four times in the opening 30 minutes. Whether Ronnie Stanley is ready to return for Week 4 remains to be seen, but Faalele settled in admirably for someone with so little experience protecting the blind side.
And while the yardage against the run and pass certainly wasn’t pretty, the defense forced turnovers on four of New England’s final five drives, the opposite of what we watched last week when the Ravens allowed four touchdowns in the final period to blow a 21-point lead. None of the takeaways were bigger than cornerback Marlon Humphrey’s end-zone interception to protect a 31-26 lead with just over nine minutes to go, but rookie safety Kyle Hamilton followed that with a forced fumble — recovered by cornerback Marcus Peters — on a 26-yard completion to Nelson Agholor that would have put the Patriots well into Baltimore territory with under six minutes remaining. It was the kind of play you want to see a first-round pick make in a one-score game, especially after a rough Week 2 performance.
Jackson all but put the game away with a 9-yard touchdown run on the ensuing drive.
As Humphrey remarked to Harbaugh at game’s end, the Ravens are “not there yet, but we’re working towards it.” You’d rather not see such concerns on both sides of the ball with the Bills and AFC North rival Cincinnati coming to town these next two weeks, but those teams have to deal with Jackson, who looks better than ever so far in 2022.
“I just want to win,” Jackson said. “By doing that, I just got to do what I do — play ‘Lamar football.'”
That’s a bigger problem for opponents than the issues the Ravens face at the moment.