The Imperfect Baltimore Ravens Are Still Alive And Running

This image is a derivative of Baltimore Ravens Lamar Jackson - Cincinnati Bengals Michael Johnson by Jack Kurzenknabe (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

In the final minutes of Baltimore and Cleveland's Monday Night Football epic, already the best spectacle of the season, the game decided that it would find another gear.

Lamar Jackson had already disappeared by this stage. Jackson had cramped up and the Baltimore season was now in Trace McSorley's hands. It didn't start off well, with Marquise Brown dropping a simple third down pass. Then things got better, and then they veered towards catastrophe. Down one, late in the fourth quarter on third down at the edge of field goal range, McSorley was sacked and sprained his knee. He writhed on the ground and the Ravens had no more quarterbacks. But as the two-minute warning kicked in, the camera panned to the MVP on the sideline, gingerly running and limping towards the field and putting his helmet on. Cut to commercial and fade to black.

After the break, during which the cinema and tension of everything marinated, on 4th and 5, Jackson found Brown for a 44-yard touchdown. Brown didn't drop this one and the Ravens led again, after the season seemed lost. But they left to much time for Cleveland, who marched down the field and tied it up almost immediately. But Cleveland then left too much time for the Ravens. Jackson still clearly wasn't right and was reduced to a pocket passer - supposedly, famously, precisely what he can't be. But Jackson completed four passes, three to Mark Andrews, to get the Ravens within 55 yards. Justin Tucker's kick was never in doubt.

Baltimore won to go to 8-5 and with their remaining games against Jacksonville, the Giants and Cincinnati, they will surely return to the playoffs. On paper, they should enter the playoffs as the proverbial team that nobody wants to play - last year's juggernaut, with much of the same characters, including the MVP quarterback, finding its way at the right time. But this Baltimore team isn't the same, and the win over Cleveland felt like perhaps it was destined to be the season highlight for an imperfect team.

The Ravens defence is sound, but has lost its edge from last season, particularly the pass defence, which has dropped from 4th in DVOA to 11th this year. Cleveland repeatedly picked apart the Ravens secondary, which lost Earl Thomas in the offseason. Baltimore couldn't generate any pressure either, beaten by Cleveland's offensive line and unable to sack Baker Mayfield once. Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue have been brought in, giving the Ravens’ defensive line more star power than last season, but neither - while solid - has been dominant.

The defence would be good enough to make Baltimore a Super Bowl favourite again if the offence could maintain at last season's league-best level. But the offence has lost most of its efficiency and almost all of its magic. Last year the Ravens were unfair and unsolvable. Jackson was impossible - he toyed with defenders, an extra-terrestrial who just had more information, time and physical ability than the bodies trying to catch him. It was cruel, uncomfortable and marvellous to watch. Jackson being so much faster than everyone around him created an absurd and powerful aesthetic - seemingly whenever he wanted, he could flick the switch and just run into the end-zone.

Keeping him trapped in the pocket didn't help. Jackson's 36-6 TD-Interception ratio and 1.5% interception rate spoke to his efficiency. When teams committed to stopping the run, Jackson shredded them in the air and the Ravens had the top passing offence in the league by DVOA as well as the top rushing defence. They were unstoppable, until it all collapsed against the Titans in the playoffs - a quintessential game where everything simply burns. Going 0-4 on fourth downs and committing multiple turnovers in dreadful positions doomed Baltimore and the 14-2 season was suddenly just gone.

Since the Tennessee disaster kicked off, everything has been harder for the Ravens, even outside of the COVID-19 outbreak in the team that ruined them on the field for their visit to Pittsburgh. Marshal Yanda retired after 2019 and Ronnie Staley fractured his ankle, decimating the offensive line. Jackson has been under siege more often, already having been sacked 28 times this season after just 23 sacks last season. As a passer he just hasn't been as good - his interception rate has climbed to 2.3% from 1.5%, and he's sailed passes repeatedly, including missing multiple wide-open touchdowns through the air against Cleveland. As a runner, and overall, he is still devastating, though. He still inspires the thought that he can burst for a first down whenever he wants, there's just a little more angst infecting everything at the moment.

But Monday Night's cinema should ensure that Jackson gets back to the playoffs this year and has a chance to start correcting his post-season resume, blotted by two early catastrophes both plagued by turnovers and failures in key moments. His supporting cast perhaps isn't good enough this year - but outside of the Chiefs, there is no team in the AFC that the Ravens should feel outmatched against. As long as Jackson is still running, there's always the chance that no one will be able to bring him down.

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Jay Croucher

Based in Denver, Colorado, Jay splits time between worshiping Nikola Jokic and waking up at 3am to hazily watch AFL games. He has been writing about AFL, NBA and other US sports since 2014, and has suckered himself into thinking Port Adelaide was the real deal each year since.

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