If it feels like it’s been an eternity since the Ravens beat the Jaguars in Jacksonville—it has been! It’s been 15 years. The last time it happened, the youngest person on our roster, tight end (Mad) Maxx Williams, was in 1st grade, Brian Billick was our head coach, Elvis Grbac was our QB (shudder), and we didn’t even play in the AFC North. We played in the AFC Central, a division most likely unknown to all Ravens fans younger than 20 and which also housed the Jaguars.
That’s what ancient history this weird rivalry is. The last time Baltimore beat Jacksonville on the road, the Steelers and Bengals weren’t even on our hate radar! Can you imagine it? A time before your cold, black heart didn’t leap at the thought of hitting Bill Cowher in the jaw with a sock full of batteries? Before Sunday, there were Ravens fans two years away from going to college who had never seen their team beat Chad Henne, Byron Leftwich, David Garrard, or something called a “Cleo Lemon” in an away game. … My God, man.
Rant 1 – A Brief History of Ravens-Jaguars
Including this Sunday’s win, the Jaguars own the lifetime series against us, 11 to 9. What enables a record like this? When one team has achieved great success in the last 20 years, while the other has been in a constant state of rebuilding? Google Autocomplete supports my confusion:
But in all seriousness, I was curious why we’ve lost on the road to these guys for so long. So I looked up some stats on the Jags as a team, going as far back as 2002 (the extent of ESPN’s database).
In 2002, the first year the AFC Central was disbanded and the Jags moved to the AFC South, their defense was ranked 20th in the NFL. But when Jack Del Rio—a linebackers coach for the Ravens from 1999 to 2001—became head coach in 2003, the Jags’ D became fearsome. Over the next five years their defense averaged 7th in the league, three times finishing in the top 10 and twice just outside. The Ravens and Jags played just once in Florida in those five years, but when they did in 2005, the Jaguars crushed us 30-3. My brain has long since erased memories of this game, but I do know Kyle Boller was involved, and that’s knowing enough.
Aside from the 2005 game, we played the Jags just one other time in Jacksonville before this past Sunday: in 2011, when we lost 7-12 after not picking up a 1st down until late in the 3rd quarter. (Why do Ravens-Jags games always have such ugly scorelines?) That year the Jags once again had a great defense, 6th overall. But a new wrinkle! This was the first (and incidentally last) season Mel Tucker was their D coordinator. Tucker is, to quote Sports Illustrated, “a longtime Cover 2 acolyte.” Hmm, and what defense is Joe Flacco’s kryptonite?!
Yes–nothing turns Flacco into a skittish turnover machine quite like good ol’ Cover 2. The Bengals, for example, know this well and have used it to pull a passer rating of 71 or lower from him in 5 of our last 6 meetings (which is why it’s been three years since we beat them). Oh, and in our loss* to the Jaguars last season, in which Flacco had 3 turnovers, their defensive coordinator was Bob Babich–another documented Cover 2 lover.
Now, this is simplistic. More went into our older losses against the Jags than the fact they had a great defense for a long stretch of time (while we fielded very conservative, unsophisticated offenses). And more has gone into our recent losses than the fact Jacksonville loves Cover 2, which kills Flacco. (To be fair, he’s not helped by the fact we’ve never been good at quick passing or sets with at least 3 WRs, which is Cover 2’s weakness.) But these two factors were probably big.
Rant 2 – Gut Check
That’s what makes this win so impressive. Call the Ravens “the worst 3-0 team” if you want to, and there’s truth to it, but compared to last year’s squad and our defense the last 2 or 3 years, this team is something to be excited about. While the Jags (like the Bills and Browns) are far from playoff contenders, all you can do is beat the teams you play. A blowout win is icing, but a win itself is the first order of business–and the Ravens on Sunday showed they’re trying to get back in the habit.
Last year 14 of our games were decided by a single score, and we won 5 of them. This year, all our games so far have been decided by a single score, and we’re 3 for 3–with 2 of those wins coming on the road. Analysts can pooh-pooh all they want, but that’s real improvement. You have to think the guys who were on this team in 2015, many of whom are still here, remember what they went through and learned how to finish a little better, contribute a little harder with the game on the line. Good play comes from experience, and experience comes from bad play.
It’s also funny that “clutch” would be the best way to describe our 4th quarter performance, since it was our very un-clutch play that forced us to come up big. Three turnovers in the 4th quarter would’ve sunk most teams against most opponents. As the below graph shows, twice the Jaguars’ chances to win spiked to at least 80%. Each time the spike happened after Flacco threw an interception and the Jaguars got the ball back around the Ravens 30, seemingly in good enough position to push the lead to 4 points and need-a-touchdown territory for us.
Our offense, defense, and special teams each did something special to defy the odds and beat a team that’s recently had our number.
Rant 3 – Sizzle’s Back, Baby
Let’s start with the defense, which continues to play inspired ball. Caliber of opponent isn’t lost on me, but there’s a reason Baltimoreans are thrilled right now. This is the fastest, toughest, most focused defense we’ve seen in purple and black for several years. It’s the best defense we’ve seen under Dean Pees, who seems to have navigated away from his preferred art of bending and then absolutely breaking, and it’s better than anything we saw under Greg Mattison (who now works at Michigan with Jim Harbaugh; cush job for producing shit in the NFL, go figure). Guys are flying to tackles, forcing bad throws, stuffing the run, and finding ways to make game-changing turnovers.
There have been a lot of standouts so far: C.J. Mosley with two key picks in back-to-back games, Jimmy Smith quietly suffocating whoever his man is, Eric Weddle with a fire and IQ our defense has frankly lacked since Ray Lewis left. But for this particular game, I want to give shine to Suggs. His rush influenced three of the biggest defensive plays, including both of Bortles’ interceptions.
With us up 7-0 late in the 1st quarter, Suggs–who turns 34 this October and is coming off his season-ending Achilles tear–took on two Jaguars linemen before still getting to Bortles. He took Cann’s chip at the line and bull rushed Parnell to get his arms in Bortles’ face, which forced the QB to throw off his back foot while turning from the hit. This is what led to Mosley’s leaping one-handed pick. The pick made all the headlines (understandably), but the work Suggs put in up front made the play.
Suggs came up big in crunch time, too.
With Jacksonville driving, up 17-16 and in Baltimore territory, Bortles faced 3rd and 10 from the 31 and dropped back to throw; he was looking to convert downfield to eat more clock but was willing to take the checkdown just to make the field goal shorter than 48 yards. Unfortunately for him, Suggs knocked 2013 #2 pick overall Luke Joeckel into the backfield with one push, and was in Bortles’ face ~1.8 seconds later.
This rushed Bortles’ into a checkdown attempt, which sailed when Jernigan tipped it and was caught by Tavon Young (who between this play, a couple open field tackles, and the Cleveland kick-six is having a dream first year).
The last play Suggs made was also a beauty: a 7-yard sack on 2nd & 4 that forced the Jags to use their last timeout and put them in 3rd & 11 (which became 3rd & 21 after an obvious hold on another near-sack by Matt Judon).
On the play Bortles at first evaded Za’Darius Smith and ran hard left from a collapsing pocket, buying time for his receivers to get downfield. (All Ravens fans died a little at that point; we’ve seen QB rollouts on missed sacks, and usually they end with a miracle catch that makes us swear off football for the rest of our salt-shortened lives. But this time was different!) Even though Suggs was guarded by two different linemen at one point, he darted at Bortles after the QB broke contain.
This was huge. Suggs’ pursuit likely saved a big play or a defensive penalty. Besides Suggs, the nearest Ravens defender was 7 yards away from Bortles and had two Jaguars linemen in between him and the QB. Meanwhile, two receivers had broken open, the more dangerous option right in Bortles’ line of sight on the left sideline, in a huge soft spot with a chance to get out of bounds. This is probably the pass Bortles wanted to make so bad that it cost him getting sacked in the first place. If Suggs had been a step slower, Bortles would’ve uncorked it (and it wouldn’t have had to be terribly accurate, either).
And this is to say nothing of the defensive effort outside of Suggs. We tormented Chris Ivory, got to Bortles quickly after play-actions, converged on his checkdowns, and generally hit him out of rhythm. There were three 4th-quarter turnovers in our own territory, and the Jags came away with just 3 points to show for it. That’s a big leap forward for this defense, and would qualify as a great showing by any defense in the NFL.
Cork the champagne, though! Our D is far from perfect. It’s better than before, but truth is it continues to struggle with speedsters and short-yardage situations. Why it’s bad against really fast guys is baffling, given it’s practiced against Torrey, Wallace, and/or Perriman for 5 years in a row now. (I put a lot of that on Pees, though, who like a fool keeps moving Jimmy Smith off the opponent’s best receiver.) Re: short yardage, at one point the Jags were 6 for 6 on 3rd downs of 5 yards or fewer, when they seemed to throw short and mid-routes at will and keep Bortles from being touched despite fair D-line pressure. The elite teams whose company we want to rejoin are experts at converting 3rd and short, so that’s an area we must improve to contend.
Rant 4 – Tucker Bails Out His Coaches (For The 378326th Time)
Speaking of elite aspirations, if there is one man who can hold us back at this point, I’m convinced it’s Marc Trestman. (He doesn’t even use the elite spelling of the name “Mark.” DO NOT trust him.) Now, I’m willing to forgive his love for starting each series with a doomed run. Given Terrance West came in and instantly found holes for big gains, I suspect the offensive line is fine and that Justin Forsett, decent man that he is, is just kind of close to done.
What I can’t forgive is how meekly Trestman called the end of our game-winning drive. (Lots of blame goes on Harbaugh too, because I’m sure Trestman had his approval.) Once our offense crossed the 50 and hit the edge of Tucker’s range, we played not just for a field goal but for a long field goal. We went into a shell, got conservative, and staked the game on Tucker’s ability to hit a 53-yard kick. Yes, Tucker nailed it, because that’s what he does. But that’s not the point.
Pardon the lecture, but that’s how you lose games that matter to much more challenging teams than the Jaguars. Our drive made good on its potential high reward (game-winning kick) but flirted needlessly with high risk, when even 10 more yards would’ve made the kick much easier. Ten more yards also would’ve kept the Jags from getting the ball back with a minute left, one timeout, and 40-50 yards to go for their own game winner… just the sort of chance to be a hero that every QB alive has nocturnal emissions at the thought of getting.
After converting 4th & 2 (clutch a.f. by Joe and Steve Smith, by the way), we ran: a shotgun draw up the middle (with Forsett), a pitch run up the middle (again, with J. Force), and a play-action throw to our fullback in the flat. I get that Forsett gave us veteran ball protection, Joe had just thrown two picks, and you can’t risk a sack that knocks you out of FG range. I get it. But there was no creativity, no deception, no surprise. I’m willing to bet the 5 yards Forsett got on 1st down was his best run of the day.
Again, my gripe isn’t that we had to kick a long FG to win. It’s that we immediately settled for one. Tucker’s brilliance is both a blessing and a curse, because it seems to make our coaches think having an extremely average offense with no killer instinct isn’t a big deal, or won’t eventually come back to bite us. And the worst part is our offense doesn’t have to be that way; it’s loaded with talent! Do better, Marc.
Rant 5 – Odds and Ends
- Mike Wallace is human! After a perfect first two games, he made a couple big mistakes. His first was dropping a very catchable touchdown, delivered perfectly from Flacco into tight coverage. His second was slipping on a short timing route to the left sideline that he probably would’ve been open for and caught. That slip put us in 4th & 2 on our game-winning drive. But Wallace still had a positive impact. He had a great block in the end zone that let Joe run in untouched for his TD.
- 21 straight completions from Flacco! This man looks like a giraffe about to trip over its own hooves half the time in singleback, but put him in shotgun and tell him go to town, and he’ll just casually slip into his best Aaron Rodgers impersonation. Hilarious. Sometimes I think he’s an idiot savant. (Cue Terrell Owens lip quiver: But that’s my idiot savant!)
- I’ve heard some Ravens fans complaining about a pushoff from Allen Robinson on Shareece Wright for one of his two TDs. With all respect, I don’t see that. Frankly it just looks like a sick pivot from a talented receiver and a great, accurate throw from Bortles.
- Justin Tucker went undrafted, folks! Remember this always!
- Another week, another blocked kick. Jerry Rosburg is a mastermind, and Harbaugh needs to buy him a steak dinner. We’d have at least one loss by now without our baller special teams.
- Speaking of: For just the second time in team history, we’re 3-0! Last year’s wreckage gave us a cupcake schedule, so three cheers for parity and let’s get those wins. GET THEM NOW. For the back half of our schedule is dark and full of terrors.
Continue your ritualistic sacrifices for the health of our team! See you next week after the Raiders game.