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Ravens News 1/1: Resilient defense, Jimmy’s appreciation and more

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

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“You know the history,” Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley told me, a half hour after the final gun at M&T Bank Stadium. “The past few years, the defense has been on the field.”

Mosley isn’t lying. And while that fact—that a proud Baltimore defense failed the team in December the last two seasons—didn’t get a lot of play during the lead-up to Week 17, it gnawed at the veterans of that proud unit.

And with everything to play for on the final Sunday of 2018, it looked like it was happening again.

“We’re on the field, and I was like, ‘Oh, here we go again,’” Mosley said. “But we told ourselves, Just stay resilient, man. We got four more downs. That’s all we needed.”

Resilient, they were. And the belief didn’t waver—because in a very specific way, it’s been there all year.

Upon taking his new post in the offseason, Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale pledged aggression and entrusted Mosley and safety Eric Weddle with wide-ranging latitude to check in and out of calls, both individually and for the group, based on what each of the veterans sees out on the field. On the most important series of the year, and then the most important play of the year, that showed up big-time.

Despite holding on for the win, the Ravens need to tighten up their pass defense in the postseason. They allowed Baker Mayfield to complete seven passes that went for 20 yards or more, including three 40 yard gains.

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QB Baker Mayfield

(on the last play that ILB C.J. Mosley intercepted): “We knew they would blitz us on every play that is there M.O. They were giving us one-on-one match ups all over the field. The play that hurt was the pass to [Jarvis] Landry.”

DB Jabrill Peppers

(on the Ravens’ offense with QB Lamar Jackson at quarterback): “It was definitely different. You see the speed on film, but it’s another thing to be out there with him. They hit us on two big plays early on, two quick scores, but we adjusted nicely. We made great second-half adjustments. What they’re doing with him is definitely effective. They run a lot of misdirection plays, zone reads, which mess with defenders’ eyes, so you really have to be disciplined when you play these guys. They got this one. We’ll see them next year.”

Baltimore’s supposedly unsustainable rushing offense delivered a 296 yard output against a Browns unit determined to stop the run. Since Lamar Jackson became the starting quarterback, the ground game has gained 230 yards per game, 70 more than Seattle’s NFL best season-long average.

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No Baltimore Ravens staffer or fan or family member had to tell cornerback Jimmy Smith how long the team went between AFC North titles. He knew. Shortly after the Ravens eked out a 26-24 win over the Browns on Sunday to secure their first division crown since the 2012 Super Bowl-winning squad accomplished the feat, Smith reminded a room full of reporters about the length of time.

“Six years since we won it,” Smith, 30, said at his postgame news conference.

While rookies and young contributors have at times headlined the Ravens’ late-season surge, veterans like Smith seemed to cherish Sunday’s win in a different manner. Smith was a third-year player when the Ravens won the Super Bowl, and the team went to the postseason the two years before that.

He didn’t realize back then the challenge of climbing toward NFL prominence. Baltimore’s three-year postseason drought, which will end Sunday when the team hosts the Chargers in the wildcard round, took a toll on Smith.

“When I first got here, first couple of years, we were really good,” Smith said. “We got there quickly, and I guess kind of took for granted how hard it is to come by wins in this league. To have six years before we win another championship – at least [in the] division, you kind of really appreciate it even more now.”

With two interceptions and another pass break-up, Jimmy Smith saved his best game of the regular season for Week 17.

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Just how dangerous are the Lamar Jackson–led Ravens?

Jackson’s performance on Sunday featured everything the Ravens want to see come playoff time. On Baltimore’s first possession, he completed a long play-action throw to Mark Andrews over the middle of the field that went for 28 yards. On the team’s second drive, Jackson avoided a pair of rushers in the backfield before hitting the turbo button and shaking a safety in the open field for a 24-yard scramble. To cap off that drive, Jackson went untouched for a 25-yard scamper on a perfectly designed power read that was straight from an old-school option playbook. Along with a running game aided by the threat of Jackson keeping the ball, those three elements—play-action chunk throws in the middle of the field, off-schedule scrambles, and well-designed QB runs—will be the keys to Baltimore’s offense moving forward. Defending the Ravens is unlike defending any other offense in the league, and Baltimore has settled into a groove with its approach.

Baltimore will face the Chargers on Sunday afternoon, and it’s been only two weeks since we watched the Ravens dismantle L.A.’s offense in prime time. The Chargers have stumbled a couple of times in recent weeks, but for most of the season, Philip Rivers and Co. have been one of the most efficient units in football.

Baltimore’s dominance in Week 16 shouldn’t be overlooked, both as it applies to next weekend’s game and the team’s possible path through the AFC. The Ravens defense has no defined weaknesses, and the unit presents one of the more complex challenges of any in the league. Coordinator Wink Martindale’s collection of coverages, combined with a talented group that runs them to perfection, will make the Ravens a handful for anyone. If they knock off the Chargers for the second time in less than a month, it’ll likely mean a divisional-round trip to Kansas City, where Baltimore pushed the Chiefs to the brink just three weeks ago. There’s no speculation necessary about the Ravens’ chances against their first two potential playoff opponents—we’ve seen what they can do. And they’ve been playing well enough to beat any team they come across.

The defense and run game provide a playoff floor. Lamar Jackson’s passing will ultimately determine the ceiling of the 2018 Ravens.