1) The Ravens are doing a remarkable job forcing timely turnovers, but it’s not clear that’s sustainable.
Browns wide receiver Rashard Higgins had raced by Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb for a 35-yard catch, and just like that, Cleveland seemed poised to climb back into the game late in the first quarter.
But four plays later, safety Eric Weddle erased the threat with a terrific catch on a tipped ball at the Ravens’ 26-yard line.
Weddle’s timely interception almost felt like old news, because the 2017 Ravens have demonstrated an uncanny knack for ending potential scoring drives with turnovers. They intercepted four passes and recovered a fumble against the Browns, and those plays obscured an otherwise-inconsistent performance by the highly touted defense. The Ravens gave up far too many 20-plus-yard gains. No one recognized that more clearly than the players.
“We made too many mistakes — too many big plays, too many blown coverages,” Weddle said. “This may look like a great defensive effort, but we made too many mistakes.”
Coach John Harbaugh was pleased to hear such critical talk from his defensive leaders.
“The thing I like is that they’re pretty hacked off they didn’t play as error-free as they should have,” he said. Even a one-turnover advantage is critical in boosting a team’s chance to win. So if the Ravens keep this up, they’ll be difficult to beat.
But here’s the rub: High turnover margins are notoriously unpredictable. So it’s possible that all these interceptions and fumble recoveries are giving us a slightly unrealistic view of how good this defense is.
From the writers at Football Outsiders to researchers at Harvard, many curious souls have studied how much luck plays into a team’s ability to create turnovers. The consensus answer? Quite a lot.
This in no way denigrates what Ravens defenders have done in the first two games. They’ve made some terrific individual plays at opportune moments.
It’s just to say that if history is any guide, even an excellent defense can’t count on doing that every week.
2) Marshal Yanda is irreplaceable.
Any elation the Ravens felt about their 2-0 start was quickly mitigated by the news that Yanda was lost for the season to a fractured ankle.
It’s rare for a guard to contend for honors as a team’s best player, but there’s no more respected figure on the roster than Yanda, a six-time Pro Bowl selection. He’s an impeccable craftsman on the field and a key teacher and role model for the younger linemen around him.
“It’s brutal. Obviously, you can’t replace a guy like that,” said Tony Bergstrom, the man who will, in fact, replace Yanda at right guard. “The toughness he has, the kind of character he brings to the team, it’s rough, but that’s how the game is. It happens everywhere every year. There’s no replacing him, but we still have to move on.”
Bergstrom was pulling on a pair of size-14 cowboy boots he bought in Texas. But he said the boots “don’t even compare to the size shoes you have to fill with him.”
So the Ravens will try to get by replacing a potential Hall of Fame player with a lineman who’s made four career starts. Their offensive line, which sets the table for an all-important rushing attack, is now without both of its projected starting guards.
Harbaugh said Bergstrom has impressed since the Ravens traded for him two weeks ago. But the chances he’ll be as good as Yanda are nonexistent, because no one’s as good as Yanda.
3) Joe Flacco was a whole different player in Week 2.
During the week, Flacco said his back, though fine, still didn’t feel 100-percent healthy. But no one could have guessed that from his performance against the Browns.
Gone was the tentative quarterback we saw in the season opener.
Give offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg credit for calling a creative first half. He had Flacco rolling out of the pocket frequently and used tight ends Benjamin Watson and Nick Boyle more liberally and effectively than in Week 1.
But Flacco still had to make the throws, and he zipped the ball into tight spaces in a way he simply had not against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Harbaugh showed tremendous confidence in his quarterback at the end of the first half, when he allowed him to fire a pass into the end zone rather than attempt an easy field goal. Flacco rewarded his faith with a quick, decisive touchdown throw to Jeremy Maclin.
He didn’t make as many notable throws in the second half but again, he didn’t need to. The Ravens turned to their running game to drain the clock, just as they had the previous week.
If Flacco plays this well most weeks, the Ravens will happily take it.
4) With Danny Woodhead injured, Buck Allen has an excellent chance to break out.
Every Ravens fan cringed when Woodhead pulled up with a hamstring injury early in Week 1. His potential to boost the team’s inconsistent passing game was already plain to see.
But Woodhead’s misfortune has created space for Allen to regain his former place as Flacco’s top target out of the backfield. And he’s backed up an excellent training camp with solid production each of the first two weeks.
Allen was particularly good as a dual threat against the Browns, catching five passes and running 14 times for 66 yards. Particularly noteworthy was his twisting, grinding 37-yard gain off a simple handoff over left guard. Without that effort, the Ravens would not have scored a touchdown at the end of the first half.
As Harbaugh noted, Allen finally looks like the player the Ravens thought they were getting out of Southern California in 2015.
“Buck will laugh about this, but this is exactly what I expected,” the Ravens coach said. “He and I have had these conversations a lot, and to see that come to fulfillment from his hard work is great.”
Allen’s receiving skills were apparent during his rookie year. But he hardly played last season, in part because he was injured and in part because the Ravens were disappointed with his progress.
Now, he looks like a player who can both share the rushing load with Terrance West and make up for some of Woodhead’s production in the passing game. He’s one of the most pleasant surprises of the season to date.
5) It was good to see the Ravens leaning on Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams.
The Ravens invested heavily in their pass rush in the 2017 draft, and that effort is bearing early fruit.
Williams was inactive in Week 1, but with Za’Darius Smith out against the Browns, the rookie linebacker played frequently in passing situations and also spelled Terrell Suggs, who will benefit from having some snaps off.
Williams didn’t fill up the box score in his debut, but the Ravens need to see what they have in him, because he could make a game-defining play off the edge at some point this season.
Bowser, meanwhile, has already become an important cog in the defense, lining up on the other side from Suggs and also dropping into coverage in a way Williams cannot. He had both a sack and an interception against Cleveland, and something tells me that won’t be the only time in his career he pulls off that double.
Between the two outside linebackers and first-round pick Marlon Humphrey, who continues to stand out with his aggressive play at cornerback, this could go down as a memorable defensive draft class.