Hello, Ravens flock and welcome back to The Crow's Nest, your Baltimore Ravens virtual sports bar. We closed down this past Sunday as yours truly took the family to the game on Sunday and man, was it good to be back at M&T Stadium. It's been two solid years since I attended a game at "The Bank" and to everyone in Section 515, you guys were awesome. For all the viral videos that go around the internet of NFL fans drunk, fighting, and generally acting like jerks, the fans around us couldn't have been nicer with a very PG-13 atmosphere. Ravens fans are the best fans in the world and on a sunny fall Sunday, where else would you rather be than right here?
On top of the great gameday experience, the Ravens dominated the Chargers in what we all thought would be a tough game against a potent offense. What we saw instead was a balanced team effort that kept Justin Herbert on his heels on defense and an offense that went back to the run game and exposed the Chargers poor run defense. Lamar Jackson marched Baltimore down the field methodically all game and kept Herbert and the Chargers on the bench as the Ravens won definitively, 34-6. With the Bills losing to the Titans on Monday night, Baltimore now sits atop of the AFC with a 5-1 record and a one game lead in the AFC North. With the 4-2 Bengals coming to Baltimore next week, there's optimism in Charm City after this past Sunday that the Ravens have established themselves as Super Bowl contenders. After all, the last two times the Ravens started the season at 5-1 (2000, 2012) they went on to win the Lombardi Trophy.
Here's a few reasons why we should stay optimistic regardless of the outcome on Sunday. I know, it's early and to be a Ravens fan we know there's peaks and valleys in every season. Still, there's something special coming together this season. You don't set NFL records ( Justin Tucker's field goal over Lions) or come from 19 down in the 4th quarter (last Monday against the Colts) and win without some luck and a whole lot of skill in what could be the most memorable season in Ravens history.
Reason 1: Jackson's MVP Play
I think it's fair to compare this team to the 2019-2020 Ravens team that went 14-2 but ultimately lost to the Titans at home as the #1 seed in the divisional playoffs. Through the first six games of that season the Ravens were 4-2 and didn't lose again in the regular season. There's not much difference in how each of the seasons began as Jackson and the Ravens had more passing yards than rushing yards in 4 out of the first 6 games in both seasons. Jackson has completed 67% of his passes with 9 touchdowns and 5 interceptions so far this season but his yards per attempt and yards after catch have improved modestly from 2019. The difference I'm seeing in Jackson this season is his maturity in staying in the pocket and making reads. Part of this is experience but it's also Jackson's trust in his receivers when a play breaks down to improvise and find themselves a space for Jackson to deliver the ball. The overtime win against the Colts is a prime example of this. Look at this pass data from Next Generation Stats
See how many passes are completed in the middle of the field? If Lamar is scrambling to the right or left, he's throwing against his body to make those throws to the middle. As much as a weapon it is when Jackson can scramble in the open field, he's development in the pocket shows the maturity of trusting his line and not risking a big hit while running. His quick run-pass options and slants to tight-end Mark Andrews can turn into big gains and when he needs to throw a bomb Jackson has shown his accuracy with Hollywood Brown
While Jackson might not eclipse his MVP numbers from 2019 (36 TD's, 6 INT's) his willingness to stay in the pocket will pay dividends down the line. This team needs Jackson to be completely healthy through divisional play. There's no player on any team in the NFL that's as valuable as Jackson is to the Ravens.
Reason 2: The 2018 Draft Class
This is going to sound like a bar trivia question in 20 years but who did the Ravens draft ahead of Lamar Jackson in the first round in 2018? That's right, now departed Atlanta Falcons tight-end Hayden Hurst. While Hurst may have not panned out as the Ravens hoped, the 2018 draft class has paved the way for the success this team has had over the past three seasons. In that class alone, you have an MVP in Jackson, a starting center in sixth round pick Bradley Bozeman, fellow 2018 sixth round pick safety DeShon Elliot who was the star on Sunday against the Chargers with three tackles, a sack and an interception, Pro-Bowl caliber tight end Mark Andrews (4th round) who is Jackson's most reliable receiver and a great blocker for the run game, fellow 4th rounder cornerback Anthony Averett who helped keep the Cheifs and Chargers receivers in check (don't watch the Colts game tape about him) and this past off-season they traded their third round pick in 2018 Pro-Bowler tackle Orlando Brown Jr. to the Chiefs for the 31st pick in the 2021 draft. The Ravens selected Odafe Oweh with that pick who has already won the NFL defensive player of the week in the Ravens win in week 3 over Kansas City. That is one hell of a haul and Baltimore's current and future success can be tied into that draft class.
Reason 3: Adaptablilty and Intangibles
There's only one other team in the NFL with more players on injured reserved than the Ravens. That team? The winless Detroit Lions. What the Ravens do better than most is the ability to adapt to injury and to find the right players to plug the holes and keep moving forward. After losing their top two running backs before the first snap of the 2021-22 season, the Ravens signed veterans Latavius Murray, DeVonta Freeman and Le'Veon Bell. While these three running backs may not be in the prime of their careers, they fit into the Ravens system almost seamlessly. While the Ravens won games against the Lions, Colts and Broncos with passing, the gameplan against the Chargers on Sunday was to get back to smashmouth, time consuming run-oriented drives. Murray, Freeman and Bell all scored touchdowns on Sunday in Baltimore's rout. Look at this scheme as it's a speed option as the fullback Patrick Ricard goes in motion to set the end block, Jackson freezes the defensive end with his feet and then quick flips it to Freeman for the easy score. This is textbook Ravens football here.
On defense, the Ravens brought in Josh Bynes from the practice squad this week at linebacker to take some of the pressure off of starting middle linebacker Patrick Queen. Bynes' veteran leadership and pointing out which gaps to fill took Los Angeles running back Austin Eckler out of the game and made him a non-factor. Bynes has bounced around the league since getting released from the Ravens in 2014 but he seems to play his best games when putting on a Ravens jersey. It's the championship culture of this team and this organization that attracts veterans to sign with them. Players buy into John Harbaugh's system and do what's asked of them. It's really something as fans we should never take for granted (again, look at the Lions).
As Al Pacino says in the movie Any Given Sunday "You find out as you get older, life's this game of inches. So is football." The intangible of having a kicker like Justin Tucker, who if his kick against the Lions is one inch shorter, the Ravens are tied with the Bengals at 4-2 in the AFC North, cannot be discounted. As rough and tumble as the AFC is, with two games against the Bengals, Browns and Steelers in the division yet to be played, there's very little room for error. Having a kicker as reliable as Tucker is that one extra inch that could give the Ravens a home game or a bye in the playoffs. That one inch in Detroit maybe cost another team a playoff spot or if things get rougher for the Ravens, a chance at a wildcard. If things keep going well, that inch could get them a bye or a playoff home game. How many field goals and extra points have we seen missed the last few weeks that cost their teams games? It's happening way more than usual but not in Baltimore.
Well, that's some of the reasons why this old barkeep is flying high with the Ravens season. We will be back soon but until then Baltimore fans, keep the faith. There's nowhere I rather be on a football Sunday than Charm City. Until then, the virtual bar will have to do. Hey, at least the beers are cheaper here.