By the middle of the third quarter of Sunday’s wild-card game in Nashville, Tennessee, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill had the look of sheer frustration, and running back Derrick Henry was in despair.
Neither appeared to want any more of the Ravens defense.
Those types of looks from opposing players haven’t been seen here since 2000, when Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis was making running backs Corey Dillon, Jerome Bettis and Eddie George say “no mas” and quit during games.
If the Ravens are to advance in the playoffs, they need more dominant defensive efforts like they had in a 20-13 win over the Titans.
The Ravens held Henry, the NFL’s top running back, to 40 yards on 18 carries, and Tannehill completed 18 of 26 passes for only 165 yards. The question is, can the Ravens do it again and again?
“If we don’t win that game next week, then we go home, and I’m not ready to go home,” Ravens outside linebacker Pernell McPhee said. “I’m going to tell the boys, ‘I’m not ready to go home.’
“I enjoyed the victory, but like I said, at the end of the day, we’ve got bigger goals and bigger dreams. These moments right here are always going to be remembered, so why not make the most of these moments?”
The Ravens will need to have similar performances. They have one of the top playmakers in the league in quarterback Lamar Jackson, but as the competition gets better, it will be more difficult for Jackson to make big plays. The Ravens offense is unpredictable at times, and they even had problems with Tennessee’s poor defense.
That’s why the Ravens defense needs to step up. Good players become great ones in the postseason, and the Ravens will face bigger challenges. On Saturday night, it’s Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen and wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
If the Ravens beat the Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs defeat the Cleveland Browns, then the Ravens have to play on the road against Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce.
If the Ravens reach the Super Bowl, the challenge could be a future Hall of Fame quarterback, such as the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers or the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees. The Ravens won’t be able to take away their will, but victories are going to require strong efforts.
After the Tennessee win, some of the Ravens players were already giving praise to coach John Harbaugh. Some TV analysts wanted to make Eric DeCosta general manager of the year, and they questioned why defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale wasn’t a candidate to become a head coach.
That kind of talk is so premature.
How about focusing on winning two more playoff games? Strong defense is required.
The Ravens deserve credit because they have stayed true to the winning formula of a physical defense combined with a powerful running game. Other teams in the AFC North, such as the Browns and Cincinnati Bengals, have tried to emulate that style, but without much success.
The Ravens actually copied it from Pittsburgh, but the Steelers have gone away from it, and no one fears them anymore. Just ask the Browns.
The Ravens are healthy on defense again for the first time in more than a month. They have a defensive line led by starters Brandon Williams, Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe, and a rotation that can go six or seven deep.
Against Tennessee, outside linebackers Matthew Judon and McPhee dominated and held the edge, and the front seven was just as overpowering. But it remains to be seen if the Ravens can generate a consistent pass rush, which is a major requirement to beating Buffalo or Kansas City.
The Ravens secondary struggles against speedy receivers, which is why Baltimore lost to the Chiefs in its past two meetings.
But the playoffs are the start of the second season. League rules favor offenses, so it’s important for a team to deliver a strong defensive effort every game, one the Ravens can count on. Harbaugh has a tough assignment this week because he has to get his team ready for the Bills after a tight, physical game against Tennessee.
It would make his job easier if the defense were dominant again. It will never be as good as the group in 2000, but it still could be the driving force of a deep playoff run.
There were signs of it Sunday when the Ravens left Henry and Tannehill with exasperated expressions.