All week you’ll hear about the Ravens becoming that wild-card team nobody wants to face. You might even be reminded that John Harbaugh’s 2012 club entered the playoffs at 10-6 before winning Super Bowl XLVII.
That’s fine, but if we’re going to have this conversation, we need answer only one question: Do we believe Baltimore’s offense can play as well in the final quarter of the season as it did Sunday against Detroit? We finally—finally!—saw a respectable output from this group, thanks to an approach that fit its personnel. It featured a successful first- and second-down passing game, with selective downfield shots out of running formations. The highlight was a 66-yard play-action completion to Mike Wallace, where the speed-burning receiver aligned in the slot (which meant no press coverage) and ran a deep post against zone (which meant he faced safety Glover Quin instead of a corner). Joe Flacco, who has failed on more than a few of these throws in 2017, threw a beautiful, pinpointed deep ball.
Flacco also completed some bootleg throws, a tight end screen to Nick Boyle, and a few red-zone, play-action balls in the flats. All are passes that come on running downs and out of running formations. That’s how you help an ailing aerial attack.
Playing with the lead that these tactics established, Baltimore in the second half lined up in those same run looks and actually did run the ball, with increasing success. Ex-Seahawks tailback Alex Collins might be a tad stiff above the knees, but he has the light, agile feet to create space in traffic. Plus, he reminded us several times down the stretch that he can get around the corner. His outside running was punctuated by a victory-cementing six-yard touchdown in the fourth.
Overall, it was a textbook showing from a Ravens offense that must scheme ways to overcome a line that’s playing with backup guards (James Hurst on the left side, Matt Skura on the right) and a receiving corps that lacks dimension (2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman was a healthy scratch again). This formula is replicable on a weekly basis, which is why we’ve been wondering all season: Where the hell has it been?
But back to the question: Do we believe the Ravens can sustain this? Entering Sunday, Flacco was averaging 5.3 yards an attempt, the lowest in the NFL. His 8.2 yards per completion would be the lowest in the NFL . . . ever. The running game ranked 17th in yards per attempt, as it shuffled between zone-blocking and man-blocking, trying to find an identity. If watching good offense on film is like reading a novel with a rich motif, watching Baltimore’s offense has been like reading a string of unrelated tweets. Was Sunday’s game against the Lions—who, it should be noted, have allowed the second-most yards per rush (4.84) in the league since losing Haloti Ngata in Week 5—the first chapter in the story of a strong finish? Or was it just a rare, sensible blip?
Even if Baltimore’s offense has found itself, any playoff run will be on the strength of a stingy defense. That defense allowed 20 points on Sunday, three more than its season average, which ranks second in the NFL. Can that continue? The secondary lost stud cornerback Jimmy Smith to a torn Achilles. Smith’s replacement, first-rounder Marlon Humphrey, has been rotating in for much of the season, but he looked like a wide-eyed rookie in Smith’s spot on the right side. Matthew Stafford targeted Humphrey mercilessly downfield with Marvin Jones, and even once with third-string tight end Michael Roberts. Humphrey starting on the right side means Brandon Carr will now stay in fulltime on the left. With increased reps, we could see more of the highs and lows that Carr typically endures.
Up front, grossly underrated star defensive tackle Brandon Williams and, remarkably, 35-year-old Terrell Suggs, are playing the best football of their careers. However, they’re about all defensive coordinator Dean Pees has for a consistent pass-rushing presence, which is why you can expect Pees to expand his third-down pressure packages even more. Pees knows that without Smith, the Ravens are less capable of surviving in “react” mode. They’ll go on the attack. Pees has been diverse out of double-A-gap concepts, with linebackers C.J. Mosley and Patrick Onwuasor, safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson and, most recently, slot corner Maurice Canady all being featured blitzers. He’s also willing to disguise coverage, too, though Humphrey’s youth might make this more challenging.
The Ravens face the Steelers next week and then finish up with the Colts, Bengals and Browns. On paper, with a defense like this, they should finish at least 10-6. But whether that can (a) actually happen, and (b) even matter when this team makes the postseason depends on Flacco and the other side of the ball.
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