Opinion: More than the Lamar Jackson Show, are the Ravens now NFL’s team to beat?
Save your bouquets.
That was part of John Harbaugh’s message the other day after his team issued yet another statement by smashing the Texans. The Baltimore Ravens coach meant well. He knows it’s a week-to-week cycle in the NFL. Nothing is automatic.
“If there are going to be any bouquets that are going to be thrown, they’re not going to be accepting them,” Harbaugh said after a 41-7 romp. “We have too much in front of us.”
Yet when Harbaugh’s team continues to add layers of momentum to a six-game winning streak that's tops in the NFL, keeping the praise in check while eyeing the biggest prize must be a welcomed problem to have.
The Ravens (8-2) are the most dangerous team in the NFL. That doesn’t ensure any trophies. Not yet. A couple weeks ago, the 49ers may have been that most dangerous team. Before that, the Patriots might have been that, smothering opponents with their defense. The Ravens will be challenged to keep proving it, beginning on Monday night in L.A. against the defending NFC champion Rams desperate to stay in the hunt. After that, the 49ers (9-1) will come calling.
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Baltimore Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon (left) celebrates after a sack in the third quarter against the Houston Texans at M&T Bank Stadium. (Photo: Evan Habeeb, USA TODAY Sports)
But one thing is for certain: It’s not just The Lamar Jackson Show, as brilliant as that is.
Of course, Jackson, or “New Era 8,” as Mark Ingram called him, is still that guy. The second-year phenom has gone from “projected running back” to the lethal quarterback projected as perhaps the league’s MVP. And before it’s all over with, he might wind up as a championship quarterback.
It’s always taken, however, way more than one superstar to win big. That’s why Baltimore, with an emerging defense, has such a special vibe. This is a complete team being built before our very eyes.
“Anytime you’re 8-2, you’ve got a special group of guys,” said Ingram, who turned short passes into two impressive touchdown finishes against Houston. “Guys who understand each other. Guys who believe in each other. Guys who want to fight for each other.
“We have a goal of being champions, so we don’t have time to rest,” Ingram said.
Some sage named Bill Parcells used to say that you are what your record says you are. Fair enough. Yet that’s only part of the equation for the Ravens.
It’s the quality of the W’s that adds the emphasis.
The Texans, fueled by Deshaun Watson, were leading the AFC South when they came to The Charm City. New England, with Tom Brady, was undefeated when it was pummeled. Last month, Russell Wilson was the hands-down MVP favorite before Jackson & Co. went to Seattle and won in convincing style.
Sure, they’ve blasted the lightweight Bengals and Dolphins. But they’ve been rolling over the type of opponents they will see in January. During the winning streak, they have dominated the opposition by a combined tally of 206-94.
“We’re just going to keep balling,” defensive tackle Brandon Williams said. “Whoever we play, whatever anybody says, it doesn’t matter.”
If you saw them in September, you had to wonder about the defense. It gave up more than 500 yards in back-to-back losses. Yet on Sunday, it looked like a vintage Ravens defense with seven sacks. Before that, it produced touchdowns on returns of takeaways in three consecutive games. All this, with so many new parts.
Who loses five starters off a defense that ranked No. 1 in the NFL last season to get to this?
“Not only was it the guys that left from last year, but guys coming in every week,” said linebacker Matthew Judon, whose barrage of big plays against Houston included two sacks and a forced fumble.
Four of the defensive starters who helped put the clamps on Watson joined the Ravens in the past six weeks. Corner Marcus Peters came from the Rams in a mid-October trade. He’s had two of the defensive scores. Inside linebacker Josh Bynes, who had an interception on Sunday, came as a street free agent. Same with weakside linebacker L.J. Fort and nose tackle Domata Peko, who came aboard last week after originally turning down a Ravens offer.
Judon insists that he still had faith during the unit’s struggles early in the season.
“Y’all were questioning us,” he said. “We just focused and locked in, and we knew what we had in the room. It was not like we were going to war inside our defensive rooms.”
No, there’s some serious chemistry flowing with a unit that thrives (or not) with D-coordinator Wink Martindale’s heavy use of blitz packages. Judon gave a shout-out to the secondary for allowing him to collect a “coverage sack” on Watson. “It was definitely not because I won on my first move,” he said.
Yet the chemistry is all-encompassing while the Ravens steadily improve. Judon was quick to declare, rightfully, that the roll starts with Jackson, who added to his exploits by throwing for four TDs and running for 86 yards.
“We know what ‘8’ can do,” Judon said.
The Ravens are feeding off Jackson’s energy. Even better, they seem well-equipped to complement their leader with a balanced act. And that’s a dangerous combination.
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