At the Ravens bye week, emotions were at an absolute low point. The Ravens had lost 3 straight and 4 of their last 5 games. They were 1-3 in the division record, and it looked like the playoffs were going to slip away once again. After the bye week, a hip injury to Joe Flacco led the Ravens to start Lamar Jackson for 3 games, which the Ravens went 3-0 in. John Harbaugh then bucked tradition and went with the hot hand over the veteran, keeping Lamar in the starting QB spot. The Ravens finished the season 2-1 against 3 of the hottest offenses in the league, and with some help from a floundering Steelers team, the Ravens were able to retake the AFC North and find themselves not only in the playoffs, but with a home playoff game for the first time since the Super Bowl year. Festivus is upon us, and fans emotions have swung mightily from despondent in October, to ecstatic in January.
The easy narrative would be to highlight one name from above: Lamar Jackson. Lamar deserves a lion share of the credit for the record after the bye. His dynamic playmaking ability helped spur the offense to 2,700 yards over the final 7 games. The rushing attack went from averaging 92.6 yards per game in the first 9 games, to 229.6 yards per game in the final 7! While Lamar had troubles with fumbling the ball, he was also efficient as a passer in that stretch, not throwing a single interception in the last 5 games and posting a QB Rating of 80 or better in the final 4 games.
But Lamar isn’t the whole story. Looking at the two halves of the season, it’s easy to see a number of trends that flipped in the Ravens favor after the bye. For starters, let’s dig into that run game stat more. The Ravens’ best rushing performance in the first half of the season was 123 yards against the Titans, with most of those rushing yards split between Alex Collins and Gus Edwards. That game was Edwards’ first game action of the year…but after then he was only used sparingly before the bye with just 5 carries over the 3 straight losses. After the bye week, the Ravens decided to give him the bulk of the carries, carrying the ball 122 times over the last 7 games. The results speak for themselves, as Gus Edwards finished the regular season as the rushing yards leader, with Lamar Jackson just 23 yards shy of his total. Another storyline that developed, surprisingly to many of us, was the resurgence of Kenneth Dixon from IR. Dixon has long been a player who struggled to stay on the field, with some suspensions and injury issues. He returned in Week 13 to replace Alex Collins in the RB group. His numbers weren’t eye popping, but he quietly was a big factor in the improved rushing attack, averaging 57.8 yards a game while taking a backseat to Lamar and Gus. The Ravens are clearly headed towards being a more run driven team with Lamar Jackson in the future, so it’s a very promising sign that the stagnant results earlier in the year with different RBs were replaced with dominant numbers by Edwards, Dixon, and Jackson by the end of the year. To be fair, the Ravens also faced some TERRIBLE run defenses during that time (Raiders, Browns, Bengals, Chiefs, Falcons, and Buccaneers all finished bottom 10 in Rushing Yards Allowed), but against a good run defense in the Chargers, the Ravens still produced better than they had in the first half.
Another storyline that emerged is the Ravens defense finishing #1 in the NFL for only the 2nd time in team history. We knew this was a strong defense from game 1 against the Bills, where the Ravens absolutely crushed the team that took our playoff spot last year, limiting them to 153 total yards in the entire game, not allowing the Bills to have a drive over 10 yards until halfway through the 3rd quarter, and nearly shutting them out. The team showed it’s defensive might again by absolutely crushing the Tennessee Titans, shutting them out. But in the 3 games leading up to the bye, the Ravens Defense got a bit punched in the mouth. First, against the Saints, they allowed 134 rushing yards, at the time the highest total they had allowed on the season. The Ravens limited future HOF QB Drew Brees in that game to just 212 passing yards, but they were only able to sack him once, and only forced one turnover, a lost fumble by option QB Taysom Hill. Conspicuously, they allowed 3 4th down conversions on the first drive of the game. Still, one could expect a tough game against a high octane offense, and the Defense kept the Ravens in it to the end. But, then came the Panthers. The Ravens allowed 154 rushing yards, which would end up as their worst performance on the year. They also allowed 232 passing yards. Most importantly, they failed to sack Cam Newton and didn’t force a single turnover. Finally, just ahead of their bye week, they faced the Steelers at home. They gave up 113 rushing yards and 285 passing yards, the 395 total yardage being their worst of the first “half” in regulation time (They gave up 416 yards to the Browns, but that includes OT yardage. The Browns gained 118 yards in OT.) Again, a common issue noted: 0 turnovers, just a single sack.
So what changed in the 2nd half? In their final 7 games, the Ravens didn’t allow any rushing attacks over 100 yards. The Chiefs came closest with 94 yards. Only twice did any opponent have over 300 passing yards against the Ravens in the 2nd half, with the Chiefs having 348 (again, including OT stats) and the Browns in Week 17 having 376. With the exception of the Bengals game though, one stat certainly changed: Turnovers! The Ravens forced at least 1 turnover in the final 6 games, with 3 each in the final 2 games. The Ravens also had 15 sacks in their final 7 games. The offenses the Ravens faced in the final 7 games weren’t bad either. The Chiefs, Falcons, Chargers, and Buccaneers finished in the Top 10 of passing offenses in 2018. The Browns finished 14th in passing offense as well, so most of the offenses faced were above average.
There is one more thing to note about the defensive performance, that should give credit to the offense. The Ravens offense in the 2nd half found ways to grind out Time of Possession and allow the Defense to get rest when they performed well. In all except the Chargers game, the Ravens won the Time of Possession battle in the 2nd half. Three of those games (Falcons, Raiders, and Buccaneers), the Ravens had over 20 minutes of offense in the 2nd half. The stat wasn’t completely of indicative of a win vs loss (The Ravens lost the 2nd half TOP battle vs Chargers, while they won it vs Chiefs), but it shows that the improved rushing attack was able to sustain longer drives at the end of games to help close out a win and keep the defense fresh to disrupt comeback attempts. During the 3 game losing streak leading up to the bye, the Ravens lost the 2nd half TOP battle in each game.
So, with a few tweaks to the offensive game plan incorporated with a change in QB, and a rested defense that finally found it’s way back to the QB and to the ball, the Ravens are AFC North champs. While they certainly celebrated on Sunday, the journey is just beginning, and the games just get tougher from here on out. Because when the Ravens kick off against the Chargers on Sunday, the Chargers will certainly remember that loss from two weeks ago. They know that the Ravens offense will be driven by the run game, and they should have some different schemes to try to limit the Ravens more than they did in Week 16. They also know that if the Ravens can get to Rivers, it will derail their offense. The Ravens are in, and now have to show that they can win games in January like they have in the past, against teams that will be throwing playoff caliber talent back at them.