The Ravens are tied for the best record in the AFC at 6-2.
The offense has shown what it is capable of when clicking, rolling up more than 500 yards and 38 points behind four touchdowns from Lamar Jackson last week against the Detroit Lions.
The defense is perhaps the best in the NFL, having allowed a league low in points per game (13.9) and total yards (1,902) through its first seven games. Then came Sunday’s weird and rocky performance against the Arizona Cardinals.
Baltimore held on for a 31-24 win at State Farm Stadium in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated, but one that played out similarly to how a lot of other games against lesser opponents have this season.
“We didn’t play to our standard at the end of the day,” said inside linebacker Roquan Smith, who tied for a team-high 11 tackles with running mate Patrick Queen. “But that’s just a credit to those guys for coming out ready to play. And honestly, we’ve just got to look ourselves in the mirror, knowing that there’s going to be a tough Seattle team coming into town next week, and we just can’t let the same mistakes throughout this game.
“It was just basic fundamentals that I feel like got to us. … When you have those types of errors, it’s really unacceptable on our end.”
There were the illegal contact and pass interference penalties on Kyle Hamilton and Marlon Humphrey on the game’s opening drive that, respectively, negated a sack by Justin Madubuike on third down and gave the Cardinals first-and-goal at the 1 on another third-down play. There were missed tackles, missed sacks and missed opportunities, like failing to recover a fumble from a strip-sack by Michael Pierce in the third quarter deep in Arizona territory.
These are just some 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 fourth quarter points in a furious comeback that fell short when Nelson Agholor corralled an onside kick with 26 seconds remaining.
It should have never even come down to that, though.
“You’re just not going to be hitting on every cylinder every single week,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You have to find a way to win those games. I think the best teams, over time, prove that they’ll win games even when they’re not at their best. They’ll find a way to win games late. They’ll find a way to win a game when they can’t run it, when they can’t throw it, or when they can’t stop something.
“That’s character. That’s also talent, ability [and] confident guys who can make plays. I felt like our guys did a good job of that today.”
Yet, to a man, the defense didn’t feel it did good enough, from misalignments to missed assignments.
“If they line up and beat us, it’s one thing,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “But when you’re not getting lined up right, when you’re having fundamentals as far as me getting flags out there. Flags are just poor fundamentals. Not lining up, not [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 the standard we’re kind of chasing, we felt like it was not that today.”
After the Ravens held Cardinals quarterback Joshua Dobbs to 8 of 12 passing for just 55 yards in the first half, and Arizona’s offense to 133 total yards, things swung wildly the other direction in the second half.
Dobbs connected on 17 of 25 passes for 153 yards and two touchdowns over the final 30 minutes. The Ravens’ secondary also gave up chunks of yardage, 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 occurred on the Cardinals’ side of the field and both led to touchdowns for an offense that needed all the help it could get.
“Those guys have really stepped up and they’ve been very big for us,” Humphrey said.
So was Pierce.
The seventh-year defensive tackle has been having a very good year, even if the stat sheet doesn’t necessarily reflective it. He’s been consistently disruptive, and Sunday he broke out, recording his first sack of the season. He finished with five tackles, batted down one fourth-and-1 pass and stuffed a fourth-and-1 run.
“Big, big relief,” Pierce said of the sack. “You always want to do your part. I’ve been getting to the quarterback, I just haven’t been getting him down.
“It’s been an interesting year, but our defense has been doing great. We let a lot of stuff slide today, but it’s good to be on the board and hopefully a lot more to come.”
And more work to do if the Ravens are going to get to where they ultimately believe they can go. They can get away with these kinds of mistakes against the Cardinals, the fifth team Baltimore has played this season with a backup or rookie quarterback as incumbent Arizona starter Kyler Murray continues to work his way back from a torn ACL suffered last December. They won’t get away with the same mistakes against teams they share the top spot in the conference with.
“Outside of the Colts [game], that was probably our worst performance,” Pierce said of their jagged victory in the desert.
Added Smith: “What the offense do is what the offense do. I never concern myself with anything those guys do. Got a lot of great, a lot of faith in Lamar, Todd Monken, all those guys. What I look at is defensively, how we played, and I just know we didn’t play to our standards. At the end of the day, a win is very hard to come by in this league, so very grateful to be on the winning side, being able to take a nice plane ride back. But obviously there were mistakes throughout the game that I know we need to get better. And we can’t allow those mistakes to beat us again, and we can’t allow them to happen over and over throughout the season.”