HIGH STEPS

Ravens, with their iden­tity al­ready es­tab­lished, could be on the verge of big things On­wua­sor em­bod­ies the Ravens’ de­fen­sive re­vival

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Daniel Oye­fusi

The Ravens’ im­me­di­ate fo­cus is on the Cincin­nati Ben­gals, but gain­ing mo­men­tum go­ing into the post­sea­son has to be a pri­or­ity as well.

The Ravens proved Sun­day night that they are one of the best teams in the NFL with a 37-20 vic­tory against the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots, and they’ll face even more stiff com­pe­ti­tion in the se­cond half of the sea­son when they play the Hous­ton Tex­ans, San Francisco 49ers, Buf­falo Bills, Los An­ge­les Rams and their archri­val, the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers.

In re­cent years, the Ravens had to strug­gle in the se­cond half to find an iden­tity and pos­si­bly work their way into the play­offs. They’ve al­ready ar­rived in 2019. The past eight games are about ex­pand­ing the of­fense, de­fense and spe­cial teams.

“What we re­ally need to do is go to work and con­tinue to im­prove,” Ravens coach John Har­baugh said. “I feel like we’ve been do­ing that, and that’s part of the process. We have to con­tinue to do that to have a chance to be suc­cess­ful go­ing for­ward. We have eight games left in the reg­u­lar sea­son.

“The se­cond half of the sea­son be­gins in Cincin­nati,

Ravens in­side line­backer Patrick On­wua­sor’s per­for­mance Sun­day night against the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots mir­rored many of the games he had last sea­son, play­ing a part-time de­fen­sive role next to mid­dle line­backer C.J. Mosley.

A con­stant around the ball. An ef­fi­cient blitzer. A turnover-forc­ing “Peanut Punch.”

In the Ravens’ 37-20 win, On­wua­sor recorded a sea­son-high eight com­bined tack­les, one sack and forced the fum­ble that led to cor­ner­back Mar­lon Humphrey’s 70-yard re­turn for a touch­down.

“[It was] prob­a­bly [On­wua­sor’s] best game, I would say, for the year so far,” coach John Har­baugh said af­ter the game.

Eight games into the sea­son, On­wua­sor’s year hasn’t fol­lowed the tra­jec­tory many ex­pected when he was viewed as next in line to take over as the de­fense’s start­ing mid­dle line­backer.

On­wua­sor was given the hel­met with com­mu­ni­ca­tion abil­i­ties and be­gan the sea­son at the cen­ter of the de­fense. How­ever, be­fore the team’s Week 4 game against the Cleve­land Browns, the Ravens

and we have to be ready to go and be our best, the best team we can be.”

It sounds like coach-speak, but those words are true now more than in re­cent sea­sons. The Ravens know they are a run­ning team built around quar­ter­back La­mar Jack­son and they can stop the run on de­fense, but they still strug­gle in the pass­ing game on both of­fense and de­fense.

They have got­ten bet­ter. They are go­ing to need a stronger de­fense to face Hous­ton quar­ter­back De­shaun Wat­son and the Rams’ Jared Goff. They are go­ing to need more bal­ance on of­fense when the 49ers bring their No. 1 ranked de­fense to M&T Bank Sta­dium or when Pitts­burgh comes to town for the last game of the reg­u­lar sea­son Dec. 29.

The Ravens have de­vel­oped well. They were still con­ser­va­tive with Jack­son at the be­gin­ning of the sea­son, but his com­fort level has been more no­tice­able in the past two to three games.

He is more pa­tient and puts play­ers in the proper po­si­tion while at the line of scrim­mage with­out all the gy­ra­tions of a Pey­ton Man­ning. Jack­son is chang­ing more plays at the line of scrim­mage.

“I think La­mar is a lot more com­fort­able, we’re a lot more com­fort­able with the things we’re do­ing,” right tackle Or­lando Brown Jr. said. “We’ve been run­ning the same things since train­ing camp but G-Ro [of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Greg Ro­man] is just putting more trust in La­mar. There were some things he didn’t call early in the sea­son be­cause La­mar wasn’t com­fort­able run­ning yet.

“Now La­mar is run­ning a lot of stuff on Sun­day. G-Ro puts a good amount of pres­sure on him and La­mar does a good job with every­thing they put in his hands. He calls a lot more of his own stuff now and is mak­ing changes at the line of scrim­mage.”

Maybe even more im­pres­sive is that Jack­son is start­ing to win games with his arm and within the sys­tem. He can make plays with his legs through im­pro­vi­sa­tion, but against New Eng­land on Sun­day night, he con­verted on sev­eral third-down sit­u­a­tions with timely throws.

That’s what the Ravens have been wait­ing for. A quar­ter­back with Jack­son’s skill set can’t be one-di­men­sional, es­pe­cially in the post­sea­son.

And there have been other im­prove­ments. In­stead of us­ing two tight ends, the Ravens run with four, in­clud­ing Mark An­drews, Hay­den Hurst, Nick Boyle and Patrick Ri­card, who also plays full­back and de­fen­sive end. Ideally, though, the Ravens will need to get more pro­duc­tion out of their wide re­ceivers.

“We change a lot ev­ery game,” Har­baugh said. “I feel like we have a sys­tem. It’s a re­ally well-built sys­tem, and we’re very flex­i­ble within it. We do a lot of dif­fer­ent things that some peo­ple might no­tice of what we’re do­ing dif­fer­ently from one game to the next. But we change up a lot each game.”

The of­fen­sive line has been a pleasant sur­prise. The ma­jor key is that all five starters have been on the field for all eight games so far.

De­fen­sively, though, the Ravens are still a work in progress but get­ting bet­ter. Led by tack­les Michael Pierce and Bran­don Wil­liams, the Ravens have the No. 2 run de­fense. They need to im­prove their pass rush, but that won’t come from Pierce or Wil­liams, who are run-stop­pers.

The Ravens’ front of­fice and as­sis­tant coaches are draw­ing praise for adding free-agent lineback­ers Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort, but at the same time de­serve crit­i­cism for start­ing the sea­son with Tim Wil­liams and Kenny Young.

The most in­trigu­ing unit go­ing into the se­cond half of the sea­son is the sec­ondary. The group was ham­pered by in­juries and had mul­ti­ple lapses in the first quar­ter of the sea­son but has shown mod­est im­prove­ment in the past two games with the ad­di­tion of Mar­cus Peters via trade and Jimmy Smith’s re­turn from in­jury at cor­ner­back.

The Ravens have a lot of ver­sa­til­ity. Against New Eng­land, start­ing safety Chuck Clark played dime and start­ing cor­ner­backs Mar­lon Humphrey, Smith and Bran­don Carr went in­side to play nick­el­back over the slot re­ceiver.

It’s a ma­jor ad­just­ment be­cause out­side cor­ner­backs have rou­tine routes to cover. Slot re­ceivers, like the Pa­tri­ots’ Ju­lian Edel­man, have more space to run and they can free­lance based on a cor­ner­back’s lever­age. The Ravens ad­justed well, es­pe­cially when the Pa­tri­ots went to a no-hud­dle of­fense and they couldn’t sub­sti­tute per­son­nel.

“De­fen­sively, well, we’ve rushed the quar­ter­back the way we’ve needed to in each of the last few games, the last two weeks es­pe­cially,” Har­baugh said. “They were two com­pletely dif­fer­ent types of quar­ter­backs. Both, in their own way, are re­ally good in the pocket. We rushed them dif­fer­ently but well, and that takes a lot of ef­fort for those guys that do that. It re­ally does. It gasses you to rush those cer­tain, dif­fer­ent kind of ways. You re­ally kind of [go] through line­men.

“I think just the com­mu­ni­ca­tion …

We’ve been able prob­a­bly to start hit­ting our stride just a lit­tle bit with scheme and do­ing some dif­fer­ent things and chang­ing up from week to week and get­ting it right,” he said. “That’s prob­a­bly helped us. We’re get­ting some ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing to­gether. [That’s] prob­a­bly a big part of it, and it’s just week to week. We have to play well. We have to cover peo­ple. We have to stop the run. We have to be con­sis­tent with every­thing we do, and we’re prob­a­bly more con­sis­tent than we were early, I would say.”

It’s not even close. Now, it’s just a mat­ter of ex­pand­ing. The Ravens aren’t in the defining mode like the past cou­ple of years. Se­ri­ous con­tenders get even bet­ter in the se­cond half of the sea­son.

Then they make their run.

NICK WASS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

La­mar Jack­son scores a touch­down Sun­day against the Pa­tri­ots.

Sun­day, 1 p.m. TV: Chs. 13. 9 Ra­dio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

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