The Baltimore Ravens kicked off their 2016 campaign on Sunday afternoon with a 13-7 home victory over the visiting Buffalo Bills. It was the kind of game that brought back memories of the early 2000s, when the Ravens would grind out wins behind a dominant defense and opportunistic offense. In their first Week One victory since 2012, the Ravens were far from perfect but still did enough to get the job done and improve to 1-0 on the young season.
What Went Well
- The defense looked like a "Ravens defense." If Ravens fans are going to be honest with ourselves, we know that the Baltimore defenses of the last few seasons have failed to live up to the high standard set by their predecessors. And it makes sense that there would be a drop in quality. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, the heart of the defense for over a decade, both left after the Super Bowl season. Terrell Suggs struggled with injuries. And new Ravens like Jimmy Smith and CJ Mosley dealt with the expected growing pains as they adjusted to life in the NFL. Given all of that, it was thoroughly satisfying to see a traditional Baltimore defensive effort on Sunday. The Ravens held the high-speed Bills offense to a paltry 160 total yards, containing former Baltimore backup Tyrod Taylor and preventing the kind of big play that burned the team over and over again last year. It was a complete team effort, but special recognition goes to cornerback Shareece Wright and defensive end Timmy Jernigan. Wright was the defensive MVP of the game, playing all over the field and pacing the unit with 11 total tackles. And Jernigan was a constant disruptive force in the trenches, notching a sack and just generally causing havoc for Taylor and LeSean McCoy. If the Ravens can maintain this level of defensive play, there is no reason they can't be in the playoff picture come January.
- On offense, there were successful debuts and returns aplenty. While the defense stole the show on Sunday, John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Marc Trestman have to be happy with the number of new and returning players who made contributions to the team's victory. It started with quarterback Joe Flacco, who was efficient in his first regular season game since knee surgery last November. Flacco completed passes to 10 different receivers Sunday, and six of those were either players who weren't on the team last year (Mike Wallace, Chris Moore) or players who ended the season on injured reserve (Steve Smith Sr., Dennis Pitta, Breshad Perriman, Justin Forsett). If nothing else, Sunday's game demonstrated the wealth of options available for the Ravens offense as the season progresses. And one would be remiss to ignore the contributions of rookies Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis, who made team history as the first rookie duo to start on the same side of an offensive line in team history. They played well and should continue to improve.
What Didn't Go Well
- The offense never found a rhythm. I'll preface this bit of criticism by saying that this issue was not unexpected. Sunday was the first time this particular group of players had even been on the same field at the same time, and that includes preseason games. So it would be thoroughly unrealistic to expect them to be running like a well-oiled machine at this point. That being said, there is work to do here. The offense moved the ball well at times but also fell prey to the same lengthy mid-game dry spells that frustrated fans so much in 2015. Flacco was generally efficient but also missed his fair share of reads, most notably on a pass that should have gone the other way for a pick six if the Bills defender hadn't let it bounce off his hands. The running game was successful in spurts, but the inability to sustain drives prevented Justin Forsett and Terrance West from finding their groove. To their credit, the unit came together at the perfect time, constructing a drive at the end of the fourth quarter that ran down the clock and ended Buffalo's chance at a comeback. That kind of clutch effort was sorely lacking in 2015 and cost the team numerous one-possession games.
- The return game continues to be the weak link. If the Ravens hoped the signing of Devin Hester was going to instantly fix their return woes, they were sorely mistaken. Hester did not play well on Sunday, and while it would be wrong to leap to any judgments considering that he's so new to the team, the Ravens will be hoping for timely improvement. Neither of his kickoff returns went further than the 23 yard line (and remember, kickoff touchbacks now go to the 25). The two punts that weren't fair-caught were returned for 8 yards and -7 yards, respectively. The fault wasn't all Hester's, as the return blocking was consistently mediocre. Meanwhile, the kick coverage unit gave up another 20+ yard return, this one to Brandon Tate on a punt. If the return game doesn't start to improve on both sides of the ball, it will be only a matter of time before it costs Baltimore a game.
What's Next? The Ravens travel to Cleveland to face the Browns (0-1) in their first divisional contest of the season. Cleveland has played Baltimore close in recent years, but this is still a game the Ravens should win if they expect to contend this season. The Browns were expected to start Robert Griffin III at quarterback, but the team announced Monday afternoon that the oft-injured RGIII is going on injured reserve after suffering a shoulder injury against the Eagles in Week One. That means the Ravens will face Josh McCown, who throttled them to the tune of 457 yards and two touchdowns when the Browns stunned the home team in Charm City last October. McCown is one of the better backups in the league and the Ravens know from experience that he can take advantage of a suspect defense. The Ravens were able to contain McCown in the rematch in Cleveland last year, and doing so again will result in a 2-0 start.
Prediction: Ravens 24, Browns 17