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Consider the Torch Passed

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In a 47-42 victory against the Browns with so many subplots you’d think it was the season finale of Better Call Saul (one of my favorites, so yes, I am biased), it’s hard to keep up with the one involving rookie J.K. Dobbins. He officially took over the backfield last night, with Gus Edwards as his tag-team partner. If you were scoring at home, tailback Mark Ingram didn’t log a single carry in a game where the season was essentially on the line for the Ravens. (Though he was the “starter,” on the field for the Ravens’ first play, the ill-fated flea flicker attempt).

Who could have predicted that outcome just a year ago? 

Dobbins was the go-to back on critical downs, in the critical situations. 

On what will be known as the “Lamar Jackson channels his inner Willis Reed” drive, it was Dobbins and Edwards who helped sustain the drive. Dobbins ran for back-to-back five and eight-yard gains between the tackles to push the pile and churn out a must-have first down. Without those runs, and with Trace McSorley clearly limiting the offense and the Browns knowing that’s the only way Baltimore could move the ball, the Ravens don’t win the game. 

On that same drive, Dobbins won on a “mano-a-mano” two-point conversion where he absorbed a blow from safety Andrew Sendejo, maintained contact balance, and extended into the end zone. It was perhaps his best run yet in a burgeoning career. 

Dobbins ended the night with 13 carries for 53 yards and a touchdown score. Nothing special in the stat sheet. But he powered through some critical first downs in short-yard situations (essentially doing the “dirty work” that Ingram was pegged for) and his explosive ability brought a clear edge to the offense, especially to put the defense in a bind and help Jackson gain space on perimeter keeper runs.

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman caught heat earlier this week for saying he wouldn’t take a “fantasy football” approach when deciding who gets the bulk of the carries going forward; Ingram would remain in the rotation and handle the dirty work. But ultimately, he put that narrative aside and rode with Dobbins. 

Here’s the thing that fans need to understand: Although it’s easy to say, “go with the best back,” coaches don’t trust rookies in critical moments. It’s been that way forever. They tend to miss a block. They tend to miss an assignment. They hit the wrong hole. They fumble.

Rookie RBs aren’t always a sure bet in the most critical moments. Clearly, Dobbins is built differently. Last night was hopefully the start of his rise in Baltimore…

McSorley’s Clutch Completion  

Speaking of McSorley, let’s not forget about how he came through for the offense as well. The drive before “Drive II” (yup, I went there) doesn’t happen without the backup signal-caller completing a 3rd and 10 to receiver Willie Snead for 13 yards to keep the sticks moving. 

The completion to Snead was a wobbler for sure. But it got home and Snead also hung on while bracing for contact. 

If McSorley doesn’t hit that completion, Baltimore has to punt the ball back to Cleveland with about five minutes to go in the game. The game may not have been completely lost at that point, even with another Cleveland touchdown score, but a win certainly would have been even more improbable. The defense was clearly on their last legs, and you could easily envision a scenario where the Browns could have battered them on the ground and milked the clock. 

In a game full of heroes, McSorley’s name shouldn’t be lost, especially when he ultimately sacrificed his body to help win the game…

Defensive Deconstruction  

Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale was dealt a tough hand last night when cornerback Jimmy Smith left the game with a shoulder injury (on top of his preexisting groin injury). The entire complexion of the game changed after that. Up to that point, Wink was winning consistently against Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield, playing press/man against the Cleveland receivers, and forcing the Browns to win against tight man-to-man coverage. He entrusted his corners to play up to their big-money statuses. They delivered. The Browns couldn’t move the ball through the air and were limited on their early-down runs. 

When Smith went out, Wink started backing off and playing more zone. The exotic disguise looks — like the one where Tyus Bowser dropped into zone and Marlon Humphrey came on a corner blitz, leading to a Mayfield pick — started evaporating quickly. Martindale had to rely on cornerback Davontae Harris and he crumbled under the bright lights and the constant barrage of targets. When Harris went down, Wink had to turn to dime back Anthony Levine to pinch hit — it was that bad. 

In one sense, you feel for Wink because he really had one arm tied behind his back last night. No Smith. No Tramon Williams coming into the game. For some odd reason, corner Anthony Averett was also deactivated beforehand (with many fans pointing to the odd decision to have four running backs active in retrospect). And that decision could have easily cost the Ravens the game.

On the other hand, in the big picture, Wink really needs to figure out what’s wrong with this defense when they play with a lead. This could have easily been the third double-digit lead the defense would have blown this season. The Ravens defense was outstanding playing from ahead in 2019, and that was a trend they planned to continue in 2020, with Eric DeCosta signing free agents Derek Wolfe & Calais Campbell in the offseason, and trading for Yannick Ngakoue earlier this year. The improved pass rush was supposed to mesh with an elite secondary to easily stop any comeback attempts in their tracks.

That, obviously, has not come to fruition.

When protecting a lead, the four-man rush just doesn’t get home.

(Last night, it appeared they had at least drawn a hold or two, but alas…)

Couple that problem with the aforementioned thin secondary, and Martindale’s fortress quickly becomes a house of cards.

In this game, Mayfield killed the front by consistently escaping the pocket and breaking through potential sack opportunities. In some of those instances, the linemen, backers, and safeties – all levels of the defense – looked gassed. In other cases, they flat out whiffed. Unacceptable. 

This defense is way too talented and way too expensive to be so unreliable in critical downs and critical moments of truth. They need to tighten up for this team to have any chance for a postseason run.

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