The Ravens have the best record in the AFC at 6-2.
The offense showed what it’s capable of when it put up more than 500 yards and 38 points off four touchdowns from Lamar Jackson last week against the Detroit Lions.
The defense is perhaps the best in the NFL, allowing a league-low in points per game (13.9) and total yards (1,902) through the first seven games. Then came the strange and rocking performance on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.
Baltimore held on for a 31-24 victory at State Farm Stadium in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score suggested, but one that was similar to many other games against weaker opponents this season.
“We didn’t play at our level at the end of the day,” said inside linebacker Roquan Smith, who along with running mate Patrick Queen had a team-high 11 tackles. “But that’s just a credit to those guys that they were ready to play. And honestly, we just have to look in the mirror and know that a strong Seattle team is coming to town next week and we just can’t let the same mistakes happen in this game.
“I feel like it was just basic fundamentals that were taught to us. … If there are mistakes like that, it’s really unacceptable for us.”
There were illegal contact and pass interference penalties against Kyle Hamilton and Marlon Humphrey on the game’s opening drive, each negating a sack by Justin Madubuike on third down and giving the Cardinals first-and-1 on another third down. Goal in 1st place. There were missed tackles, missed sacks and missed opportunities, like Michael Pierce’s failure to recover a fumble after a strip sack deep in Arizona territory in the third quarter.
These are just a few of the reasons why the Cardinals (1-7) were able to march down the field and strike first on the game’s opening drive, and why they scored 17 points in a furious fourth-quarter comeback failed when Nelson Agholor was cornered on an onside kick with 26 seconds left.
However, it should never have come to this.
“You’re just not going to be at full speed every week,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You have to find a way to win these games. I think that the best teams prove over time that they can win games even when they are not at their best. They will find a way to win games late. They will find a way to win a game when they can’t execute, can’t throw, or can’t stop something.
“That’s character. This is also talent, ability [and] confident boys who can play. I felt like our guys did a good job today.”
But for a man, the defense felt like it wasn’t good enough, which ranged from misalignments to missed assignments.
“If they come in and beat us, that’s one thing,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “But if you don’t line up properly, if you have the basics down to the point where I’m bringing out flags. Flags are just poor foundations. Don’t queue, don’t [getting] Checks, the things they did to move the ball. Missed tackles.
“It’s weird. It’s always good to win in the NFL, but today we felt like the standard we’re chasing wasn’t up to par.”
After the Ravens held Cardinals quarterback Joshua Dobbs to 8 of 12 passes for just 55 yards in the first half and Arizona’s offense to 133 total yards, everything swung wildly in the other direction in the second half.
Dobbs connected on 17 of 25 passes for 153 yards and two touchdowns in the final 30 minutes. The Ravens’ secondary also lost some yards, including a 29-yarder to rookie receiver Michael Wilson and a 22-yarder to tight end Trey McBride, who had eight catches for 79 yards and a touchdown in the second half.
Still, there were notable plays from the defense when the Ravens needed them most.
Safety Geno Stone and Brandon Stephens each had an interception. Both happened on the Cardinals’ side and both resulted in touchdowns for an offense that needed all the help it could get.
“These guys have really stepped up and been very important to us,” Humphrey said.
The seventh-year defensive tackle had a very good year, even if the stats don’t necessarily reflect it. He’s been a constant source of trouble, and on Sunday he had a breakthrough when he recorded his first sack of the season. He finished the game with five tackles, defended a fourth-and-1 pass and stuffed a fourth-and-1 run.
“A big relief,” Pierce said of the sack. “You always want to do your part. I approached the quarterback, but I just couldn’t get him down.
“It was an interesting year, but our defense did great. We let a lot go by today, but it’s good to be on the board and hopefully there’s a lot more to come.”
And there is still a lot of work to be done if the Ravens want to get where they ultimately want to be. Against the Cardinals, the fifth team Baltimore has played this season with a backup or rookie quarterback, they can get away with mistakes like this, while incumbent Arizona starter Kyler Murray continues to recover from a torn ACL last year December recovered. They won’t get away with the same mistakes against teams with whom they share the top spot in the conference.
“Outside the Colts [game]“That was probably our worst performance,” Pierce said of their emphatic victory in the desert.
Smith added: “What the offense does is what the offense does. “I never care about anything these guys do. I have a lot of great things and a lot of confidence in Lamar, Todd Monken and all those guys. What I look at is defensively, how we played, and all I know is we didn’t play up to our standards. Ultimately, it is very difficult to win in this league. So I’m very grateful to be on the winning side and to be able to take a nice trip back by plane. But obviously there were mistakes throughout the game that I know we need to improve on. And we can’t allow those mistakes to happen to us again, and we can’t allow them to happen again and again throughout the season.”