Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 31-24 win over the Arizona Cardinals

The Ravens made life more difficult than it needed to be but came away from Arizona with an unsightly 31-24 win thanks to red zone efficiency, a pair of interceptions and a dominant performance by nose tackle Michael Pierce.

Here are five things we learned from the game.

The Ravens reverted to sloppier ways, but they’re in the top tier of a messy league

The Ravens began their day with an illegal contact penalty that kept the Cardinals moving toward an opening touchdown. They ended it with their guts churning thanks to Nelson Agholor’s unsuccessful effort to pull in an onside kick.

In between those anxious moments, they did plenty to nurture a 1-6 foe’s hopes for an upset. An offense that moved freely a week earlier in demolishing the Detroit Lions, 38-6, spent much of the afternoon driving tentatively.

It would be overstating to say the Ravens courted disaster. Their defense — well, Pierce the one-man wall to be more precise — smothered the Cardinals on a pair of fourth downs and intercepted backup quarterback Joshua Dobbs when his ambitions exceeded his reach. Each time their offense sniffed the goal line, they converted thanks to Lamar Jackson’s vision and Gus Edwards’ tenacity. They ran the ball with verve in the fourth quarter. It was enough to maintain a working margin over a team that had not truly played well since it upset the Dallas Cowboys in the third game of the season.

But any vision we had of the Ravens continuing into the stratosphere after their rocket boosters fired against Detroit quickly evaporated. We were back to the work in progress, with Jackson holding the ball as he struggled to find open targets, with uneven offensive line play, with special teams snafus creating unnecessary discomfort.

The Ravens almost seemed to anticipate this as they declined to overreact to their smashing performance a week earlier. There’s no place in NFL 2023 for every-week conquerors.

A month ago, the Buffalo Bills were the class of the league, running away from the Miami Dolphins, 48-20. They lost the next week and had to scrape by the lowly New York Giants a week after that.

Three weeks ago, the San Francisco 49ers looked ascendant coming off their 42-10 dismantling of the Cowboys. They have not won since and lost by two touchdowns at home Sunday to the suddenly warming Cincinnati Bengals.

Two weeks ago, we were ready to crown the 5-1 Lions. Then, they traveled to Baltimore.

The old reliable Kansas City Chiefs just fell by 15 to lowly Denver.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh likes to say the story of the league resets every Sunday. In this treacherous landscape for favorites, a messy win is better than the alternative.

The Ravens lead the AFC North by 1 1/2 games and are tied with the other three division leaders for the best record in the conference. Their defense plays at a championship level every week, and their offense just scored 31 on an off day.

They have kinks to work out over the next 10 weeks, but so does everyone else. “The season is long for a reason, and it does weed out the best,” Harbaugh said.

Michael Pierce taught a clinic in interior line play

This was classic big boy flexing from the Ravens’ sturdiest interior defender.

In the second quarter, with the Cardinals facing fourth-and-1 in Ravens territory, Pierce overpowered his blocker to stuff running back Emari Demercado for no gain. A few moments earlier, he had bulled through a double team to make another stop at the line of scrimmage. On the drive before that, he’d shoved his way into Dobbs’ pocket to bat down a pass on fourth-and-1.

It turned out he was just getting started. Pierce opened the second half with a tackle for loss and his first sack of the season.

“He just took over the game inside,” Harbaugh said.

“Yes, ‘The Juggernaut.’ That’s what we call him,” linebacker Roquan Smith said. “The big fella up front; I love playing behind him, and it takes two to block him.”

Pierce’s job requires unselfishness. He’s usually the guy who swallows blockers so others might swoop in to finish off ball carriers. When Mike Macdonald answered a recent question about Justin Madubuike’s pass rushing production, he made a point of saying it wouldn’t be possible without Pierce, who was sackless at that point. Coaches and teammates understand how much the whole operation depends on the grunts and thumps delivered by Pierce, Travis Jones and Broderick Washington.

Outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney said he’s never played with a better defensive front.

After he played just eight games over the 2020 and 2021 seasons, Pierce returned to Baltimore in hopes of bringing his career to a happy conclusion. His hard work went for naught when he tore his biceps three games into last season. With his 31st birthday coming next month, however, he’s back where he wanted to be, anchoring the middle of one of the league’s best defenses.

Call it a bit of justice for an engaging character who has devoted himself to lifting others.

The Cardinals frustrated Lamar Jackson with conservatism

Arizona didn’t give Jackson many blitzes to attack, instead dropping seven or eight defenders into coverage to muddy the picture in front of him. The Cardinals forced him to hold the ball, and he did not see receivers popping open left and right the way he did a week earlier against the Lions.

Too often, the Ravens’ offensive line failed to win against those three- and four-man fronts. They started drive after drive with paltry gains on first down.

“When they would drop back in coverage, we had longer-developing routes, and their defensive line was causing havoc,” Jackson said.

The Ravens’ red zone efficiency obscured these sins. Both times their secondary handed them short fields with interceptions, they punched the ball over the goal line. After a tepid start on the ground — Jackson said they weren’t committed enough to the run in the first half — they came to life on a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives.

There were a few other flashes. Rashod Bateman turned rotten eggs into an omelet when he snatched a potential interception away from cornerback Marco Wilson for a 29-yard gain to put the Ravens deep in Arizona territory on their first drive. Instead of depending on Jackson to conjure magic, Bateman waved the wand to help his quarterback. He also glided for 18 yards as a ball carrier in the fourth quarter to help put the game away. Perhaps the Ravens’ 2021 first-round pick is ready to cast off his frustrating start now that he’s stringing together healthy weeks.

Odell Beckham Jr., meanwhile, flashed his mastery of subtler arts, drawing three important penalties that made up for his zero catches on four targets.

The Ravens’ secondary keeps proving us wrong

Geno Stone and Brandon Stephens came into the season with one career interception between them. Both were projected to play reserve roles in a secondary viewed by analysts as the Ravens’ greatest weakness.

That narrative seemed all the more ominous when foot surgery sidelined Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey, and safety Marcus Williams trudged off the field in the season opener, wincing at a pectoral injury.

How would a crew of lightly tested draft picks and emergency additions hold together?

Beautifully, thanks. The Ravens traveled to Arizona with the most efficient pass defense in the league by DVOA, and their secondary was directly responsible for squelching the Cardinals’ upset hopes. Stephens’ acrobatic interception late in the second quarter gave Jackson the short field he needed to drive for a go-ahead touchdown. Stone then did his part late in the third quarter, giving Jackson an even shorter field with his league-leading fifth interception of the season.

Dobbs made ill-advised throws in each case, but an elite defense has to pounce on such miscues. Stone and Stephens have done just that, establishing themselves as no-doubt NFL starters over the past two months. Stone is the breakout star because of the picks, but Stephens might be the more pleasant surprise. He had demonstrated plenty of fight sparring with receivers in his first two seasons but struggled to finish off plays. Now, coaches want him on the field for every snap at one of the most perilous positions in the sport. They trust him.

Stephens and Stone aren’t the only heroes of the unit. Safety Kyle Hamilton made tackles at every level of the field against the Cardinals. Cornerbacks Ronald Darby, Rock Ya-Sin and Arthur Maulet have contributed when called upon.

The Ravens will face many greater threats than Dobbs over the second half of the season, but they have good reason to believe they’re prepared.

The Bengals are back as the Ravens’ scariest division rival

The AFC North is the only division with four winning teams. What to make of the trio, all 4-3, chasing the Ravens?

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat them, of course, in a game defined by the home team’s resilience and by the Ravens’ staggering inability to catch the ball or manage clutch possessions. Pittsburgh’s offense is remarkably unthreatening, however, exiting the field three-and-out on a higher percentage of possessions than any other in the league. We saw this again Sunday in the Steelers’ home loss to Jacksonville.

The Cleveland Browns, meanwhile, blew a late lead at Seattle, the opponent the Ravens will host next weekend. Cleveland’s defense has been the best in the league many weeks, but the Browns are living with a destabilizing mystery at quarterback, where they’re still waiting on Deshaun Watson to make good on the $230 million guaranteed they paid him. They don’t have running back Nick Chubb to bail them out.

Which leaves the Bengals, who seemed in danger of falling impossibly far behind as Joe Burrow hobbled through the early weeks of the season on an injured calf. Don’t look now, but Burrow beat the 49ers with a vintage performance, completing 28 of 32 passes for three touchdowns and no interceptions. His receiving corps is healthy and thriving. The Bengals who lost 27-3 to the Tennessee Titans on the first weekend of October are no more. Cincinnati is coming, just like it did after a sluggish start a year ago.

The Ravens, with road victories over the Bengals and Browns, have put themselves in pole position. They’re the most balanced team in the division. No one has peaked higher than they did in their win over Detroit. But they know how slight their advantage really is with Cleveland and Cincinnati on their way to town in November.

Week 9

Seahawks at Ravens

Sunday, 1 p.m.


Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 4 1/2


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous post Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 31-24 win over the Arizona Cardinals
Next post Bill Belichick would like to see equal protection for Patriots players