It is not often that two teams of great caliber, like the Saints and Ravens, collide. The number one scoring offense in the league was paired up against the best defense. The collision of two titans on both sides of the ball resulted in one of the most entertaining matches of the season. The two teams, both Super Bowl contenders, traded blows throughout. At one moment, the Saints had the momentum, only to be robbed of it by the Ravens the next. The contest was a classic nail-biter, ultimately being decided in the waning minutes of the game. The Ravens came up empty at the end, but the effort alone proves that the team remains among the best in the league.
The number one defense in the league proved itself as such on Sunday. The group held the top scoring offense in the league, led by arguably the best quarterback in football, to just 24 points, well under the team’s average amount. The defense broke into two main sections on Sunday, each performing well, the secondary and front seven. The secondary worked hard to deflate the Drew Brees-led passing attack, but the unit could only do so much. The future Hall of Famer found his targets on 73.33% of his throws. While this is a very good completion percentage, it is worth noting that the 73.33% mark is actually Drew Brees’ second worst of the season. (He only completed 56.25% of his passes against the New York Giants.) Despite the completion percentage, Brees was held to his lowest passing yardage total on the season, at 212 yards. Brees also overwhelmingly relied on short yardage passes. His average yards per pass attempt was 7.07 yards. For a quarterback that prides himself on his quick scoring ability and deep strikes, this was not a great day.
While the Ravens secondary did well as a unit, it was not without those who lagged behind. Jimmy Smith, the typical lockdown cornerback, was anything but on Sunday. Number 22 constantly flaked when covering New Orleans’ number one wide receiver, Michael Thomas. Smith was seemingly unable to do anything to stop the young and talented receiver. When the veteran cornerback did prevent a catch, it was twice called back for defensive pass interference. One was the correct call, but the other’s legitimacy is debatable. Smith even managed to whiff on an easy sack. Regardless, Smith’s performance was not up to his own standards, and the failure to be productive in the slightest sense against Michael Thomas proved fatal for the Ravens.
The Ravens front seven accomplished a great deal on Sunday. Tasked with neutralizing the threat of Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, and the Swiss army knife Taysom Hill, the group handled the assignment well. Kamara split reps with Mark Ingram but received more touches. On 17 carries, Kamara gained just 64 yards, for a measly average of just 3.76 yards per rush. Mark Ingram had just as much luck as Kamara while running with the football. Ingram ran 12 times, but only found 32 yards. He averaged just 2.67 yards per carry. The third-string quarterback/everything Taysom Hill rushed the most efficiently on Sunday, although only on six attempts. Hill gained 35 yards on the ground, for an average of 5.83 yards per rush. Hill’s great game resulted from the gimmicks and trickery Saints Head Coach Sean Payton featured him in, which could not be a repetitive fixture of the offense.
The unit featured strong performances by Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, and Michael Pierce. Suggs, always applying pressure, came up with the only sack of the game. Mosley and Pierce worked together to shut down strong corps of opposing rushers. Mosley recorded 16 total tackles, 11 solo tackles, and five assists. His presence was felt throughout the game, as the elite middle linebacker commanded the defense. Michael Pierce found himself in the middle of the line before the snap, but often across the field after the snap. Pierce consistently got off blocks, using his body to his advantage. When he was not hunting down unsuspecting running backs, he was busy lurking for the football. On the first defensive drive, Pierce recovered a fumble on fourth down, killing the threatening Saints drive. The three players led the defensive front seven on Sunday and were part of the greater effort to slow the fast-paced Saints offense.
While the defense did its best to keep the Saints from running the score up, the offense did its best to keep the score in favor of the Ravens. Throughout most of the game, the Ravens held the lead. The offense, led by Joe Flacco, employed the help of both the areal assault and ground game. The ground attack, as usual, however, was limited in its scope. Alex Collins started the game well with a nine-yard rush but was unable to consistently generate yards for the Ravens. He finished the day with 11 carries, for just 38 yards, which gives him an average of 3.45 yards per carry. Collins has headed a Ravens ground game that has yet to take off this season.
While Collins continued to be ineffective, the Ravens turned to other, more creative avenues. In the first half, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg dialed up two jet sweep/end-around plays. One was handled by Willie Snead that generated 13 yards, and the other was given to Chris Moore who gained nine yards. Lamar Jackson also saw his fair share of touches. The former Heisman Trophy winner ran with the football three times for nine yards, and his first NFL career touchdown. As conventional running styles have yielded no positive result for the Ravens all season, Baltimore has turned to deception and diversions. So far, it has worked.
While the ground game was playing with strategy, the air attack kept to its usual form. Flacco led the assault, throwing 39 passes, 23 of which were completed. His completion rate (58.97%) was lower than his season average (61.7%), but he still performed admirably. Some of Flacco’s incompletions resulted from dropped passes and throwaways. One such drop came from Willie Snead. Snead was wide open in the middle of the field. Flacco delivered the ball perfectly, right into his hands. Snead, however, dropped it. Another drop came later in the game when Flacco targeted Hayden Hurst. Hurst found the ball in his hands, but could not hold on to it.
Flacco’s connection with his other receivers was as strong as ever. John Brown caught seven passes on seven targets for 134 yards and one touchdown. One catch on a short route, John Brown took for 56 yards and nearly scored. His touchdown came on the last offensive play for Baltimore and was assumed to have tied the game. Michael Crabtree caught five passes for 66 yards. Throughout the game, Crabtree displayed his athletic ability by competing against, and often defeating defensive back challengers. Flacco finished the day with 279 yards, two touchdowns, and a quarterback rating of 98.1. The Ravens, like on defense, played well on offense and seemingly did enough to keep themselves in the game.
The Ravens ultimately lost on a fluke. Justin Tucker missed the point after touchdown, the first stain on his PAT kicking résumé. While Tucker’s failed attempt prevented the Ravens from going to overtime and potentially winning the game, it is important to remember that the Ravens failed in other aspects. If Jimmy Smith had not botched his coverage of Michael Thomas, and the Ravens had not failed to establish a solid running game, the game may have concluded differently. While the Ravens lost to the Saints, the effort and strength the Ravens displayed on Sunday solidified themselves among the league’s best. The game was close and could have gone either way in overtime. The Ravens will have to learn to twin close games in the future, but for now, Baltimore remains playoff contenders and Super Bowl hopefuls.