Lamar Jackson was a little anxious. The confession hid a smile that had radiated through the Ravens quarterback’s Wednesday news conference and across his summer in Baltimore. It had been so long since he’d played, 280 days when Sunday arrived, and look at all that had happened since. New contract. New offensive coordinator. New weapons. New expectations.
“Don’t peak too soon,” Jackson recalled coach John Harbaugh telling him in a meeting. “So I’m not trying to peak too soon.”
The Ravens did not have to reach an especially daunting summit in Sunday’s season opener. There are Mount Everests in the AFC, and then there are the Houston Texans, still building up to something substantial. The Ravens got out of M&T Bank Stadium with a 25-9 win, and they did so without having to venture too far from base camp.
Their peak was somewhere beyond the horizon. Sunday’s showing made clear that they still have a ways to go to reach it. It also made clear that the heights this Ravens team might one day reach are not the heights they were when the season was new and flush with possibility.
The offense lost starting running back J.K Dobbins to a torn Achilles tendon after just eight carries, his second season-ending injury in three years. The defense reportedly lost starting safety Marcus Williams to a second-quarter pectoral injury. Team officials are holding their breath as center Tyler Linderbaum (ankle) and left tackle Ronnie Stanley (knee) undergo MRIs.
It was the result the Ravens wanted, a comfortable victory on a day when the AFC North’s other favorites flopped. It was not an enviable process, though — one injury after another, one iffy drive after another, fresh reminders of the franchise’s recent scars.
“I feel like we had our up-and-down moments,” said Jackson, who finished 17-for-22 for 169 yards and an interception, and added six carries for 38 yards and a fumble. “You can see where my ceiling would be, and then some moments, it’s like, ‘What were we just doing? What are we doing questioning ourselves out there?’ Like I said, it’s the first game — a little hiccup [the] first time we’re with each other on that field. I feel like the sky’s the limit, though.”
The Texans, young and talented on defense but missing a few key contributors, mostly kept the Ravens grounded. Their first drive under first-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken was a three-and-out. Their second ended with an interception, Jackson forcing a pass to wide receiver Zay Flowers that cornerback Steven Nelson picked off. They entered halftime with a 7-6 lead.
The Ravens opened the second half with back-to-back touchdowns, a pair of 2-yard runs by running back Justice Hill, but little else came easily. The offense didn’t have a drive longer than 21 yards over the rest of the half. The Ravens’ only other points came on a field goal made possible by a short field. They finished the game with 265 yards and just 4.6 yards per play. “Rusty,” right guard Kevin Zeitler called it afterward.
“Week 1 is always an absolute wonder in the NFL,” added Zeitler, who, like most of the team’s starters, did not play in the preseason. “You never know what’s going to happen in Week 1, and I think all of us have talked about it. We got a win today. That’s great. We have soooo far to go. I mean, that wasn’t pretty, by any standard, but we got it done, and sometimes that’s just how you have to get it done. A lot to improve on. Finally have actual film to watch, and we got to get it going moving forward.”
“You never know what’s going to happen in Week 1, and I think all of us have talked about it. We got a win today. That’s great. We have soooo far to go.”— Ravens right guard Kevin Zeitler
The Ravens’ old reliables were mostly missing and their new wrinkles were not much fun. Monken’s sped-up tempo kept the Texans on their heels at points in the first half, creating advantages in short-yardage scenarios. But the run-pass options and screens that Monken’s Georgia offenses had used to wreck defenses for the past two seasons were either ineffective or invisible Sunday.
The Ravens’ ground game, which had rolled late last season, even without Jackson, was perhaps more disappointing (3.4 yards per carry on 32 carries). Jackson led the team with six carries for 38 yards, but five of those attempts were scrambles and the other a quarterback sneak. Texans defenders didn’t seem preoccupied by the threat of Jackson keeping the ball on read-option plays or escaping their blitz packages on obvious passing downs.
“We know he just got paid,” Houston defensive end Jonathan Greenard said of Jackson, who was 4-for-9 when pressured Sunday, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, and 13-for-13 when kept clean. “So he wanted to sit in the pocket as much as he could, more than he wanted to run. He was trying to stay in the pocket. It kind of worked to our advantage at times. We wanted to attack him going into the game, and him staying in the pocket, it made our job easier.”
With the Ravens’ defense holding strong (268 yards and 3.7 yards per play allowed), Jackson did enough. He made tight-window throws, found Flowers in space (game-high nine catches for 78 yards), and established early-season connections with wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. (two catches for 37 yards, plus two pass interference penalties drawn) and Rashod Bateman (three catches for 35 yards).
The challenge will come when the margins get tighter, when the opponent is, say, the Bengals, who face the Ravens in Cincinnati next Sunday, and not the Texans. What will the Ravens’ offense do if they don’t have Linderbaum or Stanley, two potential All-Pro candidates? How will Jackson respond if the Ravens’ banged-up secondary can’t contain Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins as efficiently as it did Houston’s Nico Collins and Robert Woods? How much will the likely return of tight end Mark Andrews (quadriceps) and another week of practice help?
The Ravens’ season is long. Their record is unblemished. But one week — Week 1 — can change a lot about how to feel about both. More anxiety, more nervousness.
“We’re off and running,” Harbaugh said. “We have an opportunity to kind of see where we’re at, and we get an opportunity also to do it with a win. So we’re very happy about that. That’s the way you want to open the season. With that, we know there’s so many things we need to work on to get better at, and that’s what we’ll do starting on Monday. … I thought the whole team played as hard as they could, played as fast as they could, played as well as they could, and now our goal is just to keep getting better.”
Biggest (good) surprise
Jadeveon Clowney tied fellow outside linebacker Odafe Oweh for a team-high four quarterback pressures, according to NGS, on 30 pass-rush snaps. He had a quarterback hit and a tackle on 43 snaps, holding up well in his Ravens debut.
“He’s good, man,” Oweh said. “He was a little down on himself for missing those two [sacks], but I tried to tell him, ‘Bro, you’re good, man. Short memory. You’re going to do good. We got 16 more games. Just keep your head up.’ He did good out there.”
Biggest (bad) surprise
The offensive line struggled to keep Jackson unbothered. He was pressured on 42.3% of his drop-backs and was sacked four times despite having an average time to throw of 2.61 seconds, according to NGS, a quick-trigger day for him.
“I think the guys on the team and in this organization, I think we have a high standard and I think we know that standard probably wasn’t lived up to,” Zeitler said. “Got the win, but I think everyone knows what we want to be.”
In their first game under Monken, the Ravens lined up in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) on 44.8% of their plays, averaging 5.6 yards per play, according to NGS. Their next-most-popular grouping was 20 personnel (two backs, no tight ends and three wide receivers), a Patrick Ricard-reliant set that averaged 4.9 yards per play.
The Ravens lined up in the shotgun on 75.9% of their plays, including all three touchdowns. They used the pistol formation, a variant of the shotgun, and under-center looks equally on the remaining 24.1% of their plays.
The Ravens’ injury uncertainty looms large entering Week 2. Bengals nose tackle D.J. Reader would be a load for center Sam Mustipher if Linderbaum is unavailable. He could single-handedly gum up the Ravens’ running game. Stanley, meanwhile, is the Ravens’ best hope to contain Pro Bowl defensive end Trey Hendrickson, a strong pass rusher and run defender.
On defense, with Williams sidelined, fellow safety Kyle Hamilton could be more limited in his snap-to-snap responsibilities. He was an important chess piece for defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald in last year’s late-season matchups, but Cincinnati’s vertical passing attack could force him into more traditional alignments.