After a 3-4 start, the Baltimore Ravens are in the thick of the AFC wild-card chase, with a hatefest showdown on tap for Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers.* But the Ravens are so perfectly ordinary this season, when I pitched an analysis of them to two of my editors, these were their responses:
i don’t know if i personally care that much about them. what’s really changed?
I haven’t been paying much attention, what are they doing better?
Yep. That’s the stuff. Who else is excited for Ravens football?!
In all seriousness, the 7-5 Ravens have positioned themselves for the No. 6 seed by winning four of their last five games. They’ve done it with a combination of stifling defense, excellent special teams, and a solid ground game. They’ve also not beaten a team with a winning record while teeing off on a bunch of backup quarterbacks. The best that can be said about their own quarterback, the maybe-once-elite Super Bowl winner Joe Flacco, is that he had a very good game last week against the Detroit Lions. That’s the 2017 Ravens: You’ll just barely notice.
That defense is pretty great, though. The Ravens are first in defensive DVOA, and they lead the league with 29 takeaways, including 20 interceptions. Baltimore’s D has even been historically good. The Ravens are second-best in pass defense DVOA, but they and the only team ahead of them—the truly terrific Jaguars’ pass defense—are both among the most efficient per-play pass defenses dating back to 1986, per Football Outsiders. Among the biggest reasons for this success was cornerback Jimmy Smith, who allowed just 23 catches on 40 targets, with five passes defensed, and three interceptions, according to Pro Football Focus. PFF also ranked Smith third in passer rating when in coverage (49.2) and fifth in contested catch-rate allowed (23.1 percent). He was clearly one of the league’s best corners.
Again, was—Smith’s out for the season after injuring his Achilles last week, after which he got popped with a four-game suspension for violating the league’s PED policy. Smith’s replacement, rookie first-round pick Marlon Humphrey, came up with a huge interception in the fourth quarter after Smith went down. But Humphrey also got picked on quite a bit by Marvin Jones Jr., who had burned him for a 46-yard catch a few minutes earlier.
The Ravens’ defense has 33 sacks, which ranks tied for ninth in the league. But as Robert Mays noted for The Ringer, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees is a terrific play-caller, and last week he dialed up a pair of blitzes from his secondary off the edge that both led to Lions turnovers:
On special teams, the Ravens are the league’s only team to return a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown. Punter Sam Koch has been outstanding at flipping field position. Though Koch ranks 15th in the NFL with a pedestrian average of 45.8 yards per punt, he leads the league in punts out of bounds (14) and punts inside the 20-yard line (31). Just three of Koch’s punts have gone for touchbacks. And Koch has executed two successful fake punts by throwing for first downs. In addition, placekicker Justin Tucker has made 22 of 23 field goals in the last eight games. Special teams play often gets recognition when there’s a screw-up, but the Ravens are a testament to how much they matter when things actually go well.
On offense, running back Alex Collins has rushed for 100 yards in a game only once, but he’s averaging a robust 4.9 yards per carry, and the Ravens as a team have rushed for 240 yards combined in their last two games. This has helped to comb over Flacco’s transformation into a checkdown artist. Against the Lions last week, Flacco completed 23-of-36 passes for 269 yards, two touchdowns, and a 105.0 passer rating. But for the season, he ranks 29th in Total QBR, and he’s averaging just 8.5 yards per completion and an adjusted net yards per attempt of only 4.16. Pretty much everything Flacco is doing is dumping the ball off: Per PFF, his passer rating on intermediate throws (10-19 yards through the pair) is just 65.1, which ranks 28th; and on deep throws (20 or more air yards), his rating is a mere 47.5, which ranks 30th.
Now for some more caveats: The Ravens and their eye-popping defense have feasted on quarterbacks including E.J. Manuel, Matt Moore, Brett Hundley, and Tom Savage. They’re also 0-4 against teams with winning records. But they have just one game remaining against a winning team, and that comes Sunday night against the Steelers, who handed them a 26-9 loss in Baltimore back in Week 4. If the Ravens can win in Pittsburgh—a big if, considering they won’t have Smith to match up against the otherworldly Antonio Brown—the shitty Browns, Colts, and Bengals will be all that might keep them from going 11-5. Who knew?
* An earlier version of this post incorrectly said the Ravens started the season 2-4.