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John Harbaugh’s Ravens continue to win in spite of limitations

The Ravens season has been a three-ring circus of parody level circumstances. They stand at second place in the AFC.

The Baltimore Ravens will host the Cleveland Browns at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore this Sunday. Baltimore will enter the game as the sole leader in the AFC North at 7-3, good for second place in the AFC through 11 weeks. The Ravens, despite being held together by duct tape, bubble gum and shoestrings, have continued to win despite vast limitations. Head Coach John Harbaugh and his staff deserve ample credit for bulldozing their way to 7-3 on metaphorically broken ankles.

This season has been a three-ring circus of comedic misfortune for the Ravens. It goes all the way back to the off-season, when it feels like eons ago that budding star offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. requested a trade so that he could switch from right tackle to left tackle.

Brown wanted to fulfill a promise he made to his late father, which is his own journey and deserves no judgment to be passed. This is just the kind of luck that the football Gods have rained down on the Inner Harbor of Baltimore. Ryan Ramczyk, Lane Johnson and Trent Brown have had no qualms playing on the right side.

The Ravens essentially parlayed Brown into budding talent, rookie outside linebacker Odafe Oweh, whom they drafted in the first-round of the 2021 NFL draft with the pick they received for trading Brown to the Kansas City Chiefs. Oweh is currently second among all rookies in pressures (34), fourth in sacks (4) and first in QB hits (8). This situation is a microcosm of how the Ravens have made lemonade out of lemons this season. After the Orlando Brown Jr. saga, the following ridiculousness has occurred:

  • July 28 — Lamar Jackson tests positive for COVID-19 for the second time in nine months as training camp begins, forcing him to miss the first 10 days of camp.
  • August 2 — Harbaugh announces wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown also would miss “quite some time” with a hamstring injury that forces him to miss the majority of training camp.
  • August 10 — Upon Jackson’s return, rookie wide receiver and their first, first-round pick of the 2021 NFL draft, Rashod Bateman suffers a groin injury that required surgery, ultimately sidelining him the first five games on the season.
  • August 22 — Veteran linebacker L.J. Fort suffers a torn ACL in practice.
  • August 29 — Running back J.K Dobbins suffers a torn ACL in a preseason game against the Washington Football Team.
  • September 10 — All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters suffers a torn ACL in a non-contact drill on the Thursday before the Ravens regular season opener. Running back Gus Edwards suffers a torn ACL within 30-minutes of Peters torn ACL in a non-contact drill. Running back Justice Hill suffers a torn Achilles and is placed on season-ending injured reserve. Defensive end Derek Wolfe suffers a back injury and is eventually placed on season ending injured reserve in Week 9.
  • September 14 — Baltimore blows a two-score lead and loses on a walk-off touchdown in overtime to the Las Vegas Raiders. Starting left guard Tyre Phillips and cornerback Chris Westry suffer knee injuries during the game and are placed on injured reserve.
  • September 15 — Following the Ravens’ regular season opener against the Raiders, All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley stops practicing and is eventually placed on season-ending injured reserve due to a lingering ankle injury from last season.
  • September 20 — Oweh forces a game-winning fumble against the defending AFC Champion Chiefs, who had beaten Baltimore in each of the last three regular seasons, overcoming a 28-17 deficit.
  • September 22 — Lamar Jackson misses practice due to illness.
  • September 26 — Baltimore blows a lead to the Detroit Lions, only to escape a 4th-and-19 from their own five-yard line and kick the longest field goal in NFL history as time expires to win the game.
  • October 12 — Baltimore overcomes multiple three-score deficits to defeat the Indianapolis Colts on a walk-off touchdown in overtime. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins is placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury.
  • October 14 — Jackson misses two practices with an illness, the fifth time in his career he’s missed practice or training camp due to COVID-19 or an illness.
  • October 16th. Running back Latavius Murray suffers a high-ankle sprain in practice and misses five weeks.
  • October 24th. The Ravens lose 41-17 at home to the Cincinnati Bengals. UDFA third-year standout right tackle Patrick Mekari suffers a high ankle sprain and misses three weeks.
  • October 31st. Linebacker Malik Harrison is shot in the calf at a gathering during the Ravens bye week. Fortunately, the injury wasn’t critical. Harrison hasn’t been able to return to practice yet, but reports indicate that he could sometime this season.
  • November 2nd. Nose tackle Brandon Williams is listed as questionable with a shoulder injury and hasn’t played since.
  • November 7 — Safety DeShon Elliott suffers a season ending injury to his biceps and triceps in overtime as the Ravens overcome a 17-3 deficit and defeat the Minnesota Vikings.
  • November 16 — Center Bradley Bozeman, wide receiver Rashod Bateman and Jackson missed practice on Tuesday and Wednesday with an illness. The sixth time in his career Jackson missed practice or training camp due to COVID-19 or illness.
  • November 19 — Jackson returns to practice, announces at a press conference that he “feels great” and is “100 percent.”
  • November 20 — Baltimore updates their injury report to include Jackson as questionable due to illness.
  • November 21 — The Ravens announce 90 minutes prior to game time that backup quarterback Tyler Huntley will start in place of Jackson. The Ravens are also without Hollywood, who suffered a thigh injury, cornerbacks Anthony Averett and Jimmy Smith and outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, who was placed on injured reserve. The Ravens and Bears score three times in the final 3:45 of the game, with the Ravens winning 16-13.

This marks the fifth time in 10 games that Baltimore has trailed in the fourth quarter and won, a feat that’s only been accomplished three times prior in NFL history.

Harbaugh’s Ravens have blown coverages, missed tackles, missed blocks and struggled in the first half. Their play calling has been vanilla at times and their defense has remained hyper-aggressive despite using a litany of depth players in crucial moments. They’ve shown complete and total trust in every player to execute their assignment, time and time again. That’s resulted in pendulum swings at the end of games that leave fans begging for oxygen masks.

For example, this past Sunday, the Ravens found themselves with possession and 1:07 remaining in the first half. On the road, in Chicago, with an undrafted backup quarterback making his first start, Baltimore asked Huntley to lead a two-minute drill starting from Baltimore’s own 36-yard-line. The Ravens led 3-0 and were dominating Chicago defensively. Instead of running the ball three times and going into the half with a lead, they asked Huntley to go to work. After a screen to Devin Duvernay on 3rd-and-10 gained nine yards, they sent Huntley back out to do just what they would do with Lamar Jackson. Run QB power on fourth down from Chicago’s 43-yard-line. Baltimore converted and Huntley completed three more passes to move the Ravens all the way down to Chicago’s nine-yard-line. Justin Tucker calmly and accurately netted a short kick despite the Chicago wind and poor field conditions, allowing the Ravens to exit the field with a 6-0 lead. They ended up winning the game by three points.

Two quarters later, as the second half drew shorter, Baltimore’s defense forced the Bears into a fourth-and-long situation. The Bears possessed the ball at the Ravens’ 49-yard-line with 11 yards to gain for a first down. Defensive Coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, a former CDL truck driver who rocks gold chains, a grey mullet and Rickey Henderson blades, pushed all of his chips to the center of the proverbial poker table. Despite missing Peters, Averett, Smith and E1liott, Martindale called an all-out cover-0 blitz. This left former UDFA Westry on an island with the game on the line. The play design appeared to ask third-round safety Brandon Stephens to shoot the A-gap and blitz if the Bears running back didn’t run a route. Westry played off coverage around the first-down marker. Stephens was late to identify if the back was running a route or blocking. Veteran backup and notorious Raven-killer Andy Dalton calmly stood in the pocket as Bears wide receiver Marquise Goodwin got Westry to bite on a double move before scoring a 49-yard go-ahead touchdown with less than a minute remaining.

To look at the result of the play and deem their logic completely flawed is closed-minded. Baltimore sent more than Chicago could block, hit the quarterback (and drew a roughing the passer that might’ve been worse than allowing a touchdown considering how much time was on the clock for Baltimore after the touchdown) and forced Chicago to beat them. Westry played at the sticks, looking to prevent a quick inside gain to move the chains, which could’ve allowed Chicago to run out the clock and kick a field goal (whether they would’ve made it is an entirely different conversation). Regardless, the Ravens chose to try to win the game, then and there. It didn’t work.

They got the ball back with roughly 90 seconds and two timeouts against a defense missing linebacker Khalil Mack, defensive end Akiem Hicks and safety Eddie Jackson.

Prior to this play, Baltimore had held Chicago to 2/11 on third down and 4/13 when blitzing. The pendulum swung, the Ravens failed to execute and Chicago made a play.

Baltimore was then forced to ask Huntley, in his first career NFL start, to drive them the length of the field and score a game-winning touchdown.

Luckily, they’d already entrusted Huntley in the two-minute drill. He drove the Ravens 55-yards and they converted a field goal at the end of the first half. Huntley drove Baltimore 72-yards in five plays, converted a 30-yard completion on 3rd-&-12 before taking a hit, and the Ravens punched the ball in to score a go-ahead touchdown with 22-seconds left in the game. Baltimore trusted a pair of UDFA second-year players with zero combined NFL starts prior to Sunday, Huntley and Westry, to go win them the game.

We can dissect and discuss scheme, in-game coaching decisions, draft picks, free agent additions, speculative circumstances or rumors and whispers until we’re blue in the face. In the end, Harbaugh and his staff showed Westry and Huntley the same trust as Peters and Jackson.

As a player, you can’t ask for more trust or confidence than the Ravens show to every player that steps between the white lines. Baltimore’s coaching staff rides or dies, gets rich or dies trying, and lives or dies by the sword. That trust has inspired confidence from the franchise quarterback to the fifth outside linebacker (Jaylon Ferguson, who tipped a punt to give Baltimore outstanding field position late in the game).

This isn’t to say that Harbaugh’s players don’t underperform, or as the tweeters like to say, “get exposed.” They certainly do! However, to watch a coaching staff refuse to panic when playing down to the wire time and time again speaks volumes about the confidence Harbaugh and his staff have pumped through the veins of their players. They rarely buck. They force their opponents to beat them, and to beat them consistently.

The Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals have beaten the Ravens as of late, making plays late in games to seal their fate. Regardless, Harbaugh’s Ravens aren’t going to sit back and take it on the chin.

Many have praised the Ravens for utilizing “analytics,” or advanced metrics to factor into decision making. However, calling it “decision making” is selling it short. It’s the Ravens moral football code. It’s their philosophy. It’s their way of life.

Fourth down aggression has swung both ways for the Ravens in the last few years. So has the hyper aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme. There are games where the Tennessee Titans stuff the Ravens four times on fourth down and beat the AFC’s No. 1 seed at home in the Divisional Round. There are also games where Jackson knifes through the heart of the Seattle Seahawks defense to score touchdowns on fourth down and releases a guttural war-cry into the atmosphere. We saw that again on Sunday with Westry and Huntley, with polar opposite results. Regardless of who is on the field, Harbaugh is going to keep punching and punching until someone falls. The Ravens will attack victories rather than fear defeats. There is a bloody, violent beauty in it.

Baltimore has dragged a seemingly beaten, broken and damned team to second place in the AFC. Things aren’t always as they seem. The Ravens limited offensive line is going to cut block, hold, punch and claw, as a lackluster group that has found ways to win. Their depleted secondary is going to run to the ball like bats out of hell and overrun plays and make mistakes at 100 miles per hour. The Ravens have shortcomings, faults and weaknesses, but they’re going to keep swinging until they can’t anymore. At the same time, they’re going to trust their methods. They won’t kick when they shouldn’t. They’ll go for it when they should. They’ll capitalize on special teams and beat opponents who don’t. If Harbaugh isn’t on your shortlist for Coach of the Year, I don’t know who is.

The Ravens defense, despite all of their flaws, leads the NFL in third down percentage (opponents are converting only 30.5%) and red zone percentage (opponents are converting only 42.9%). Martindale’s defense is playing, for the most part, situationally sound defensive football, despite the fact that 32 different players have logged a defensive snap and 21 different players have played 100+ defensive snaps (only three teams have more, none of which have had their bye yet).

While it’s quite difficult to see this team making anything close to a Super Bowl run when injures have handicapped them so deeply. . . who wants to play Baltimore? Certainly not Ben Affleck. After all, they’ve won 32 of their last 42 regular season games. Only the Packers and Chiefs have won more games (Packers 34, Chiefs 33). The Ravens are second in the NFL in points scored during that time (1,256, the Buccaneers have scored 1,259) and allowed the second fewest points (815, the Patriots have allowed 755). The Ravens have also converted a league high 67.3% of their fourth down conversion attempts. Only one other team has at least 60% (Cardinals).

Heading into a gauntlet of five divisional games plus the 8-3 Packers and 7-3 Rams in the final three weeks, Harbaugh will need no reminder to carry onward. The Ravens aren’t going to buck. Sit back and enjoy the rollercoaster. It’s just getting started.