In October the Baltimore Ravens were mired in 3-4 mediocrity, with coach John Harbaugh on an uncomfortably warm seat and quarterback Joe Flacco assailed as the most overpaid player in pro football.
Season-ending injuries had scratched All-Pro right guard Marshal Yanda as well as seven other starters: running back Kenneth Dixon, center John Urschel, left guard Alex Lewis, tight end Dennis Pitta, defensive end Brent Urban and linebackers Albert McClellan and Kamalei Correa.
Even at full strength the Ravens had not looked especially threatening, off an 8-8 season in 2016 that put them in the worst place you can be: not good enough for postseason, not bad enough to earn a high draft pick.
But Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome did find one very useful player in the draft, 16th pick Marlon Humphrey out of Alabama. He’s become a stalwart at the nickel corner, ready to step in if one of the veteran starters goes down.
Now he must do exactly that, with Jimmy Smith’s season terminated by a torn Achilles at the same time, conveniently enough, that he draws a 4-game suspension for performance enhancement. He’s the eighth Raven in five years to be suspended for banned substances. The team is tied with the New York Giants for the NFL lead in that dubious stat.
The timing on Smith’s exit is hardly ideal, as the Ravens on Sunday night (7:30, NBC) play Pittsburgh, their traditional rival for dominance in the AFC North.
Smith was drawing Pro Bowl attention as his team’s lock-down corner. He would have been assigned coverage on Pittsburgh’s All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown. Still, the Steelers cannot afford to take the Ravens lightly, which is how they’ve taken most of their opponents this year.
The Steelers are surprisingly unrespected at 10-2, with a habit of playing just hard enough to win barely, as they did in the recent Monday nighter, a 23-20 come-from-behind squeak by Cincinnati.
But Ravens being something the Steelers hate almost as much as Bengals, I expect max effort by the homeboys, who won 26-9 two months ago in Baltimore.
This time it should be closer, because the Ravens are much improved, winning three in a row to boost their record to 7-5. Second-year players Willie Henry, Matt Judon and Patrick Onwuasor have blossomed on the defensive front. ESPN computers give the Ravens 88% probability of making the playoffs.
Their coach, John Harbaugh, insisted after last Sunday’s 44-20 stomping of Detroit, that his team is far more resilient than the one that wilted against Pittsburgh in October. “It’s different now. . . . We have a lot of depth. We have a lot of good young players. We’ll step up, and we will still play at a very high level in the secondary.”
Humphrey stepped up when Smith went out. At first, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford took advantage of Humphrey for a touchdown that closed the score to 27-20. But that’s when the Ravens’ veteran leadership took over.
Terrell Suggs, a linebacker who’s 35 and has 10.5 sacks, 3 pass breakups and 4 forced fumbles, called for a huddle of the defense.
“I’ve won games every way you can win them, and I’ve lost games every way you can lose them,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure this wasn’t one we dropped.”
With Suggs encouraging him, Humphrey rallied. He intercepted a pass and knocked down another.
The Ravens also had leadership from their often laconic quarterback, Flacco, he of the unjustified $22 million salary. The Super Bowl winner of the 2012 season has seemed a ghost of himself this year, whether because of a sore back or inept receivers.
Flacco is averaging an NFL-worst 5.5 yards per pass. But he showed he still has arm strength by linking with Mike Wallace for a 66-yard play against a respected Detroit secondary.
“We threw for 270 and it feels like 600 yards to us,” Flacco said. “We’re getting better at the right time.”
He may be right. Flacco is not a take-charge leader, but if he’s given a smart scheme and support by blockers who block and receivers who catch, he can drive a team to the end zone. And when he falls short, Justin Tucker is a can’t-miss kicker from 60 yards or closer.
Flacco showed a rare sense of humor Sunday, impersonating Jameis Winston eating a W as formed by his hand. Perhaps this is a sign of Flacco loosening up, as Harbaugh had hoped he would do.
With a pass defense ranked third in the NFL (198.6 yards allowed per game), the Ravens limit big plays and control the ball. Alex Collins, who learned his best moves in dance class, has rushed for 705 yards, averaging 4.9 per carry. He was discarded by run-down Seattle for fumbling too much, but with the Ravens he hasn’t fumbled since Oct. 1.
The Ravens, depending on how you feel about drugs, are a likable underdog – getting 5 points at Pittsburgh. After Monday night’s violence the Steelers pointed out the difference between the wildness of the Bengals (penalized 173 yards on that horrendous Monday night) and the discipline of the Ravens.
‘There’s definitely been some hard hits,” linebacker C.J. Mosley said, “but not people trying to hurt each other.”
The Ravens’ coach is my favorite Harbaugh. Like his brother Jim, John Harbaugh coaches teams that are well prepared, well disciplined. But John Harbaugh has self-discipline. He rarely embarrasses himself or his employer, and he gets along with people, even his fellow coaches and the professional media.
I am rooting for the Ravens because of their steady professionalism and dogged determination. I have no special Baltimore connection, though I admire this historical and architectural treasure trove of a city, its outer harbor having given birth to our national anthem.
The Ravens’ own history is a bit checkered, having abandoned Cleveland for economic opportunism on the eastern seaboard. But hey, that was twenty years ago. Water under the bridge of every one of them that burned.