Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 20-10 win over the Los Angeles Chargers

The Ravens again flirted with disaster thanks to a disjointed offense and a shocking 44-yard miss from kicker Justin Tucker, but their defense came up with a pair of critical fourth-quarter stops to secure a road win over the high-scoring Chargers.

Here are five things we learned from the 20-10 win.

This was a win to ease but not erase doubts

We felt the dread.

How could we not after similar leads evaporated, after the Ravens failed to seize similar chances, in defeats to Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Cleveland? How does a team almost never trail, yet keep its fan base in a state of near-constant anxiety? The Ravens seemed prepared to show us again after Tucker, only the most reliable kicker in the history of kicking, yanked a 44-yard attempt outside the left upright, keeping the score 13-10 with rocket-armed Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert eager to drive the other way.

If you did not think the Ravens were in hot water at that juncture, you’re made of sterner (or more blindly optimistic) stuff than most.

They did not falter this time, thanks to a defense that kept pursuing, kept punishing, kept swatting balls to the ground until the job was done.

Throw in a dash of finishing exuberance from rookie Zay Flowers and they sashayed into their bye week with another double-digit victory and the AFC’s best record.

Glass-half-full take? The Ravens can win in a wider variety of ways than any team in the conference and perhaps in the NFL. On a night when their offense lacked a clear identity, their defense provided it. They led the last 40:41 of the game against a doomed but dangerous opponent. They’re 9-3, with five road wins, because they reliably outhit and outgain opponents of every variety.

And hey, just to repeat, they did finish this one off.

“The narrative is not something we really care about. It’s the fact that the guys stepped up and won the game,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We’ve won nine games, and all of those games had to be closed out in the fourth quarter one way or another. A couple of them were closed out in the third quarter. Three of them weren’t. We want the three back, but we got the one tonight, and I’m proud of the guys for that.”

So why does full confidence remain elusive? Probably because this victory followed the same pattern as those previous defeats, with the Ravens struggling to find offensive coherence when it was time for them to press their advantage. Lamar Jackson was the Most Valuable Player candidate in the house, so why couldn’t he find a meaningful connection with any of his receivers after halftime? Why did the Ravens go away from their obvious strengths on third and fourth down?

Now, back to the big picture. No team in the NFL of 2023 has inspired total belief. Not the Philadelphia Eagles with their bucketful of too-close-for-comfort wins. Not the Kansas City Chiefs with their dropped passes. Not the San Francisco 49ers with their wayward October. Not the Miami Dolphins with their road hiccups. Every member of the NFL’s top tier is still striving to cohere.

For all their uneasy fourth quarters, at least the Ravens are keeping the right company.

Give all the game balls to the defense

Jackson cut to the heart of the matter as he clutched a game ball during his post-victory interview with NBC’s Melissa Stark.

“The defense the ones who deserve this ball; they set the tone, and they finished the game,” he said. “We need to regroup. We can’t be coming out here flat like this.”

Give the Ravens’ franchise player points for brutal honesty. On a night when Jackson could not finish drives against suspect Chargers resistance, it was Baltimore’s defense that ruled.

Gnawing anxiety permeated Ravens fandom as the Chargers took 18 plays — so many hunt-and-peck throws to ageless and uncoverable wide receiver Keenan Allen — to move within 16 yards of the end zone early in the fourth quarter. Such moments had gone poorly for the Ravens in a trio of earlier losses, but on the 19th play of the drive, Clowney overpowered his blocker to close in on Herbert and jerk the ball from his grasp.

One threat denied.

That wasn’t the end of our indigestion, however. Tucker’s miss put the Ravens right back on Alka-Seltzer watch. Herbert took the ball at his own 34-yard line with plenty of time to erase a three-point deficit, and a quick 17-yard completion had the Chargers within shouting distance of a field goal. Again, the Ravens said not tonight, combining pressure and stingy coverage to stifle one of the NFL’s most gifted passers at midfield.

The Chargers’ disappointing record and ineptitude in close games obscures their still-potent offense. They came in averaging 25.9 points, with the fewest turnovers in the league. The Ravens held them to 10 points and took the ball away four times. The Chargers had scored touchdowns on two-thirds of their red zone possessions coming in, the league’s second-highest rate. They managed one touchdown on three trips Sunday night.

We have said it all season, but it’s striking how many heroes arise in each Ravens defensive masterpiece. Clowney, certainly one of the most meaningful late-summer additions made by any would-be contender, made that critical strip. He and defensive tackle Justin Madubuike spent much of the evening in Herbert’s personal space.

We’ll talk about safety Kyle Hamilton’s versatility in a moment, but what about the rest of the defensive backs, keeping the Chargers’ playmakers in front of them all night? What about linebacker Patrick Queen, who had been picked on in coverage a week earlier, stepping up to defend a pass with the game hanging in the balance? What about nickel back Arthur Maulet, rattling Herbert with a blitz on the same series?

We can’t situate this group in the annals of great Ravens defenses until we know how the story ends, but they punish ball carriers, get after quarterbacks, don’t allow chunk plays and stand tall on third down and in the red zone. They do it without relying on a single transcendent player, though they have many Pro Bowl candidates. That’s pretty close to the ideal formula for a modern NFL defense.

Kyle Hamilton becomes whatever the Ravens need him to be on each possession

On the Chargers’ second drive, Hamilton discarded a block and torpedoed in to drop Derius Davis for a 2-yard loss. On the next play, he was the primary pass rusher forcing Herbert to throw the ball away.

The next time Los Angeles had the ball, Hamilton stuck step for step with speedy Jalen Guyton to break up a deep attempt from Herbert.

In the third quarter, he shoved through a Guyton block in the flat to pull Keenan Allen down for a 2-yard loss.

Every week now, we see these juxtapositions of wildly different skills from the second-year safety, whom Browns coach Kevin Stefanski aptly compared to NBA wunderkind Victor Wembanyama. Do you want Hamilton to be a third inside linebacker? A streaking edge rusher? An eraser of slot targets? He can do it all, sometimes in the course of a single drive.

Linebacker Roquan Smith is the outspoken leader of the Ravens’ defense. Cornerback Brandon Stephens is the revelation we never saw coming. The pass rushers have blown away expectations. But none of them is more valuable than the 6-foot-4 chameleon who appears headed for his first Pro Bowl.

Hamilton entered the game among the team’s top five in tackles, interceptions, passes defended, tackles for loss and sacks. He had the fifth-highest coverage grade among all starting safeties, according to Pro Football Focus. If one player epitomizes the positionless defense advocated by coordinator Mike Macdonald, he’s it.

The Ravens caught an early break when safety Geno Stone was not penalized for hitting Herbert out of bounds in the red zone and Chargers guard Jamaree Salyer was whistled for a personal foul during the ensuing fracas. That left the Chargers with just a field goal to show for their impressively balanced opening drive.

The Ravens’ offense kept the Chargers in the game

The Chargers came in allowing 5.8 yards per play while the Ravens came in averaging 5.8 per play. When Jackson completed 11 of his first 13 attempts, it seemed the feast was on.

“I have no idea where you begin to defend this guy,” NBC analyst and former Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said as he watched Jackson dance and carve his way through the Chargers.

Except the Ravens kept blowing chances to keep moving.

The Chargers chased them off the field on their first drive when defensive end Morgan Fox beat Tyler Linderbaum to harass Jackson into a throwaway.

They squandered a chance at points late in the second quarter when they tried a direct snap to Gus Edwards on fourth-and-1 deep in Chargers territory. Why remove the threat posed by Jackson on a short-yardage play? Coordinator Todd Monken overthought that one.

They could not block venerable pass rusher Khalil Mack. Ronnie Stanley, back at left tackle after he missed the previous game with a knee injury, was disconcerted enough by Mack that he jumped early when the Ravens were trying to put the game away in the fourth quarter.

Twice Harbaugh failed to throw his challenge flag when suspect spots left the Ravens short of third-down conversions (he said Jackson appeared legitimately short on the first and that coaches did not realize the second play was spotted short until it was too late).

The Ravens’ league-best running game piled up another 197 yards, but they curiously went away from it for stretches of the second half when the Chargers seemed ripe to be pounded into oblivion.

The final numbers — 5.2 yards per play, 20 first downs — look decent, but the Ravens became noticeably less efficient in Chargers territory, and Jackson went cold against pressure. They never scored on two straight drives and converted on just four of 13 third downs.

Isaiah Likely got off to a promising start standing in for Mark Andrews

In the wake of Andrews’ devastating ankle injury, Harbaugh said the Ravens were better equipped than in past years to cover for the loss of Jackson’s “bread and butter” target.

That starts with a more talented wide receiver room, but Likely, their gifted second-year tight end, is the other key hedge against Andrews’ absence. He has not built up the uncanny sixth sense that guides Andrews to open spaces when a play breaks down, but he brings his own unusual talents to the offense.

Witness Likely’s acceleration when he took a screen pass 18 yards on the Ravens’ second drive. Or the sharp cut — a move not available to most 241-pound men — he unleashed to turn a short catch into an 11-yard gain on their next possession.

Recall that Likely’s mobility and fury in adding yards to every catch were the traits that popped our eyes during his brilliant summer of 2022. We saw glimpses when he stood in for Andrews in a pair of games last season, and we saw them again Sunday.

Jackson will have to look for other answers as well, most notably slants to wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Rashod Bateman, both of whom made essential grabs in the first half against the Chargers.

Andrews’ absence was felt when the Ravens’ passing attack sputtered in the second half. Jackson did not always know where to look when the heat was on, and his receivers did not always pick him up when he did make the right read.

The talent is there. It’s the second-nature trust, which Jackson has only ever shared with Andrews, that’s a work in progress.

Week 14

Rams at Ravens

Sunday, Dec. 10, 1 p.m.

TV: Fox

Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM


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