Wed, 06 Dec 2023

Late for Work: Could the Ravens Run Away with the AFC North

Baltimore Ravens
03 Oct 2023, 04:25 GMT+10

Kyle Barber Pundits Consider Ravens Front-Runners for the AFC North Title

The Ravens exited Browns Stadium back atop the AFC North after a resounding victory over the Cleveland Browns, 28-3.

It was a perfect Week 4 in Baltimore, as the Ravens beat a division rival on the road, the Steelers were thumped by the Texans, 30-6, and the Bengals were blown out by the Titans, 27-3.

All three other quarterbacks are also dealing with injuries. The Browns' Deshaun Watson didn't play because of a shoulder injury. The Bengals' Joe Burrow continues to be hobbled by a calf injury. The Steelers' Kenny Pickett suffered a reported knee injury Sunday.

After the Ravens' win, pundits are now wondering if they can run away with the division.

ESPN's Jamison Hensley: "It's starting to look that way. Baltimore seized control of the division by routing the Deshaun Watson-less Browns while the Bengals and Steelers were upset on the road. The Ravens, who now sit alone atop the AFC North, have a 54% chance of winning the division, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. If Baltimore wins in Pittsburgh next Sunday, the Ravens will sweep all of their AFC North road games for the first time since 2019."

The Athletic's Jeff Howe: "This is the Ravens' division, although their Week 3 loss to the Colts still shows they're vulnerable. The Browns probably have the best defense in the division, but Deshaun Watson will need to be more consistent upon his return from injury if the Browns are going to chase down Baltimore."

CBS Sports' John Breech: "It might only be Week 4, but it feels like the Ravens now have firm control of the AFC North."

However, some are being more level-headed, knowing the uncertainty of what's to come this season.

The Athletic's Dan Pompei: "Week 4 is way too early to crown the division winner. That being said, alarms should be going off in Cincinnati. The Bengals have not been playing the kind of football that wins divisions for a month now, and the problem extends beyond a gimpy quarterback. Aside from the Bengals, every team is about where they should be after four weeks. How each of these teams experiences and responds to the adversities of the next 14 weeks will determine who continues to play beyond the regular season. The smart money probably should be on the Ravens."

The Baltimore Sun's C.J. Doon: "It's foolish to overreact to one week of games, but the Ravens now have a clear path to winning the AFC North. Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett exited with a knee injury in Sunday's huge loss to the Texans. The Bengals, with their offense again looking dreadful, got crushed by the Titans to fall to 1-3. Injuries continue to mount for the Ravens, with four more players exiting Sunday, but they should be just fine if Lamar Jackson and the defense to continue to play this well.

Pressbox's Bo Smolka: "But if the Ravens can win at Pittsburgh, they will be sitting atop the AFC North at 4-1, with a 3-0 divisional mark and all those wins on the road. Yes, it's early, but that represents about as big a divisional edge just five weeks into the season as any team could hope for."

The Baltimore Sun's Childs Walker: "It's impertinent to label any team a clear favorite with 13 games to go, and Harbaugh would surely roll his eyes at any such proclamation. But the Ravens have a real advantage after a week that went as well for them as it did poorly for their closest competitors."

The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec: "This Ravens team also needs to show it can handle prosperity. That proved problematic in Week 3 against the Colts. But a sense of urgency for next Sunday should come in the form of an opportunity to widen the lead in the division and drive a rival into an even bigger hole."

Following the Ravens' loss to the Colts last week, Head Coach John Harbaugh said division champions aren't crowned in Week 3. He would say the same about Week 4.

Lamar Jackson Named Offensive Player of the Week

All week, talk circled around the Ravens facing the Browns' No. 1-ranked defense and if they'd find ways to eliminate the drag. It's safe to say they accomplished such goals, as they found the end zone four times, including two long drives in the second quarter, Zrebiec noted.

"They had an eight-play, 93-yard touchdown drive that ended with Jackson's 2-yard touchdown run," Zrebiec wrote. "They then had a 10-play, 74-yard scoring drive, which culminated with Jackson's gorgeous 7-yard touchdown over three defenders to a leaping Andrews in the back of the end zone. Otherwise, the Ravens offense played good complementary football. That's all they needed to do with how much their defense was controlling the game."

Walker noted the change in demeanor of the offense after they struggled with three and outs in the first quarter before overwhelming the Browns defense.

"The Ravens went from looking helpless on third down against the league's top defense to dominating the confident Browns on their home field," Walker wrote. "Lamar Jackson made a series of brilliant throws in the second quarter after the Ravens broke the dam with their running game."

The Browns did put up a fight, but as CBS Sports' John Breech notes, the Ravens had Jackson, and therefore the difference.

"The Ravens offense wasn't perfect, but it did manage to come up with some big plays against a Browns defense that had shut down nearly everyone this season," Breech wrote. "Most of those big plays came from Lamar Jackson, who totaled four touchdowns (two passing and two rushing)."

Jackson's performance earned him NBC Sports' Peter King's vote for offensive player of the week.

"In the first three games of the season, Cleveland's defense was state of the art, allowing one touchdown in 12 quarters," King wrote. "Jackson accounted for three in the first half Sunday: TD runs of 10 and two yards, then a brilliant throw in the back right corner of the end zone, put so high that only tight end Mark Andrews could catch it."

Though the offense posted four touchdowns, Russell Street Report's Tanner George noted other than the second quarter, the Ravens have more work to do.

"Aside from the second quarter, the offense looked very sluggish," George wrote. "However, I'd argue that quarter gave us our best glimpse yet into what this team can really do. The passing game was electric, with Jackson making sharp throws at every turn and masking the fact that he was missing two of his top pass-catchers."

Ravens Defense "Essentially Pitched a Perfect Game"

The Browns defense got the buzz last week, but it was the Ravens defense that throttled Browns rookie quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson in his first NFL start.

Many took note of the Ravens' unrelenting aggression.

Zrebiec: "They were in attack mode throughout and never let up. Beyond a long pass interference call on Brandon Stephens, the Ravens essentially pitched a perfect game. All week, the Ravens defense showed respect for the Browns defense, but you got the sense that the group was tired of hearing about how great the Browns defense was. On Sunday, the Ravens defense was the group that controlled the game."

Pressbox's Smolka: "Some will dismiss it as a predictable performance against a rookie making his first NFL start. But the Ravens have no need to apologize. They were prepared, and maybe offended at so much buzz about the Browns' defense. They showed, emphatically, that they can play defense, too."

Walker: "Across the line of scrimmage, the rookie saw a pack of fast, furious Ravens, including Jadeveon Clowney, who was eager to put a hurt on his former team, and Roquan Smith, who scoffed at those who would anoint the Cleveland defense based on three weeks' evidence. History was not on the new guy's side. In three previous games against debuting quarterbacks with Harbaugh as their coach, the Ravens had won by a combined score of 106-43."

Jordan Stout Credited for Great Game

In a game featuring two AFC North clubs boasting excellent defenses, special teams was an area the Ravens hoped to have the edge. Second year punter Jordan Stout made it reality with seven punts (which ties a career high) for 334 yards, a career best, and three making it inside the 20-yard line.

Baltimore Beatdown's Josh Reed: "Second-year punter Jordan Stout was also a dangerous weapon on special teams with the way he surgically placed three punts inside the Browns' 20-yard line."

Concern for Injuries Hampers All-Around Domination

Pundits found little to critique on Sunday for the Ravens. The offense, defense, coaching,comma] and special teams all outperformed the Browns. But it came with another injury cost that has [Hensley and Walker concerned after watching tackle Morgan Moses exit the field with an injury needing an MRI.

"Stock down after the win: Baltimore's offensive line, which committed four penalties in the first half; in addition, right tackle Morgan Moses left the game with a shoulder injury," Hensley wrote. "This is just more bad news for Baltimore, which hasn't had left tackle Ronnie Stanley (knee) for the past three games."

"We saw glimpses of a scarier world for the Ravens' franchise player when Garrett spun past Mekari for a sack just before halftime and Ogbo Okoronkwo glided around Faalele's outside shoulder for another in the second half," Walker wrote. "Mekari is a valuable utility lineman, and Faalele flashed improved fitness and technique during training camp, but the Ravens aren't designed to face the world's best pass rushers without the guys who are making a combined $29 million this year to protect Jackson."

All Three Ravens Coordinators Named Future Head Coach Candidates

Each year, Sports Illustrated's Conor Orr devises a list of future NFL head coaching candidates from all 32 organizations. This year, all three Ravens coordinators were named candidates.

Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald

"I spoke with Leslie Frazier, the former Vikings head coach and longtime Bills defensive coordinator about Macdonald," Orr wrote. "Frazier says: 'Mike has the ability to disarm and not make anyone feel uncomfortable. He can handle every situation individually. I can see him being able to stand in front of a team because of his ability to relate.'"

The NFL of late has headed in the direction of offensive coordinators becoming head coaches more frequently due to the desire to, well, score points. According to Frazier (by way of Orr), that shouldn't be a problem for a Macdonald-led team.

"One last nugget: Frazier said when the pair worked together in Baltimore, Macdonald was in charge of suggesting pressures for the team to use on third downs, one of the hallmarks of the chaotic Ravens defense. Through that process, Macdonald exhibited a great knowledge of 'offensive intent,' meaning that, despite his defensive background, he was well versed in what was happening on the other side of the ball."

Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken

His first stint in the NFL produced top-ranked passing units before he went back to college football and devised back-to-back championship title winning offenses. No surprise to see Monken based on those accolades, let alone him helping to concoct an offense around Jackson that's finding touchdowns in the red zone at a superior rate to seasons prior.

"Monken, 57, is a coaching lifer who started his career with Southern Miss back in 1989," Orr wrote. "He has received NFL head coaching interviews in the past and has helped transform Baltimore's offense into a more multifaceted attack. Monken was last in the pro game from 2016 to '19, when Tampa Bay twice led the NFL in passing yards behind Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Monken spent the past three seasons at Georgia, helping lead the school to national titles in '21 and '22."

Special Teams Coordinator Chris Horton

It may be a more challenging path to head coaching for Horton than Monken or Macdonald, notes Orr, who cites most inside the business stating teams are wary of hiring them. However, Orr argues against said thinking.

"My argument against that theory is to look at the Bengals. Both Brian Callahan and Lou Anarumo have remained in Cincinnati due to the ebbs and flows of a coaching cycle years after the Bengals made it to the Super Bowl. Horton's own head coach, John Harbaugh, has had tenured offensive and defensive coordinators throughout his career. One agent who does not rep Horton called him an 'amazing human.' The 38-year-old has been with the Ravens since 2014."

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