Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Opinion: In winning when Lamar Jackson wasn't at his best, Ravens show they have something special


BALTIMORE — John Harbaugh didn’t hesitate for a second. 
The down and distance markers, the ball placement and time remaining all represented the dire situation in which the coach and his players found themselves: fourth-and-1 from their own 44-yard line. Four minutes, 39 seconds left. Tie score and a seven-game winning streak on the line.
The Baltimore Ravens coach needed no debate about the right call.
“We knew we were going to go for it on fourth-and-1 at that point, if we got to that situation,” Harbaugh said. "That was already decided.”
Of course, Lamar Jackson got the call.
And of course, the player dubbed by teammates and opponents alike as the most electrifying player in the league delivered.
He took the snap, ducked in behind right guard Marshal Yanda and picked up the yard needed for the first down, plus two more. In so doing, he preserved the Ravens’ chances for a game-winning drive.
Nine plays later, Justin Tucker nailed a 49-yard field goal, and delivered Baltimore to a 20-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
“We have a good offensive line,” Harbaugh said. “We have a quarterback that can handle it, and the offensive line again, as much as anything.”
The Ravens picked up their franchise-record eighth consecutive victory and improved to 10-2 on the season. And so continues the campaign that could build toward a championship-level climax. 
Jackson delivered late-game heroics, but for once, Baltimore needed more than his world class athleticism throughout the game. The second-year pro needed his teammates to help compensate for his mid-game struggles. And they obliged. 
On a cold December day when the 49ers' vaunted defense and torrential downpours hampered Jackson’s efforts, the Ravens showed why they see themselves as special.  Meanwhile, the 49ers join a growing list of playoff squads that have fallen prey to the Baltimore, joining the New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Houston Texans and Los Angeles Rams. Next?
“Gosh, this is special,” Yanda told USA TODAY Sports with the home locker room emptying out but still abuzz. “Every game is different and you take it one game at a time. … It’s tough to win back-to-back-to-back, and we’ve won eight in a row now and that’s just special. You’re grateful, and everybody works hard and you want to do your best, and we’re playing winning football on Sunday. I’m just having a blast being a part of it.”
This is Year 13 for Yanda, a seven-time Pro Bowl lineman and two-time All-Pro selection. He's played on seven playoff teams, including the Super Bowl XLVII-winning squad in 2012.
But he also has experienced some lean years, like the 5-11 campaigns in 2007 and 2015. And he endured that five-season stretch from 2013-17, where Baltimore reached the postseason just once.
So he said he knows “special” when he sees it. And this Ravens team has that quality, he insists. 
He points to the way players have pulled together with a shared vision. He notes the complementary football the Ravens have played. The offense picks up the slack for the defense, and then the defense returns the favor by erasing rare transgressions. Then, the special teams units top it off.
“In all three phases, you’ve got to have everybody’s back,” Yanda said. “You’ve got to have stops on defense, and we need to stay on the field.”
Sunday represented the kind of all-hands-on-deck performance of which Yanda spoke. 
An offense that entered the game leading the NFL in scoring struggled against a San Francisco defense that ranked second only to New England in points allowed. 
Until Sunday, when the Ravens had to punt on their first possession of the game, Baltimore had enjoyed 21 straight Jackson-led possessions (four games) without a punt. In another rarity, Jackson was stripped of the ball at the end of a 14-yard third-quarter run, for his first lost fumble of the season. 
Jackson also struggled throwing the water-logged ball. Passes sailed high at times, and behind receivers other times. 
“Horrible,” Jackson said after the game. “Oh, man. I was throwing passes behind receivers. … It was ticking me off. A lot of passes were getting away from me. A lot of those, we would’ve had a lot more success if I was converting completions. It messed with me a lot.”
But the fumble angered Jackson even more.
“I was mad since the fumble. I was mad the whole time,” said Jackson, who finished with 206 total yards (105 passing, 101 rushing). “I put our defense back out there and that was a great offense. I didn’t want to give Jimmy (Garoppolo) the ball. They were going to score, and I was hot.”
Baltimore’s defense did hold the 49ers to a field goal after that turnover. But the unit also had its struggles, especially in surrendering 146 yards and a touchdown to running back Raheem Mostert on 19 carries.
The defense did, however, further redeem itself with a defining stand when defensive end Chris Wormley batted down a Garoppolo pass on fourth-and-1 from the Baltimore 35-yard line with 6:33 left. 
Two minutes later, the Ravens faced their own fourth-and-1 call, from only 9 yards further upfield, and everyone on offense relished Harbaugh’s call to go for it. 
“You want the game on your back,” Yanda said. “You get the call and it starts with Lamar, but we all want it. It’s a confidence thing, and we understand we have to do our jobs at a high level and give our offense a chance to stay on the field."
LIke the defense before it, Baltimore’s offense delivered and then made way for the field goal unit after running the clock down to three seconds. Then, all of the Ravens' groups emerged victorious.
“That’s a winning football team. We’re not going to blow them out the way they’ve been playing,” Yanda said of the 10-2 49ers. “We knew it was going to be a championship-level fight pretty much.”
That it was. 
Four regular season games remain before the postseason, where the Ravens hope they find themselves on the winning end of more well-rounded, championship-level fights.
“Having this success, it’s special and doesn’t happen a lot of times,” Yanda said. “I’m living it up. This opportunity … I’m grateful to be a part of it.”
Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

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