Traditionally built on guts and brawn to win football games, the Baltimore Ravens are going much more cerebral to win these days.
The Baltimore Ravens have long been known as a physical, punch-you-in-the-mouth kind of team, suited for the rough-and-tumble AFC North, and not afraid of any challenge that came their way. It was a reputation built on brawling rivalries with the Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Pittsburgh Steelers, and refined on clashes with the New England Patriots and, of course, still those Steelers from Pittsburgh.
Coaches Brian Billick and John Harbaugh both embraced their roles as leaders of bullies, and the Ravens won a ton of games — and two world championships — by fielding physical defenses, good run games and big plays from all three phases of the game. Ozzie Newsome loaded the roster with players who could physically overwhelm opponents, and the players and coaches obviously looked forward to taking on the best teams the league had to offer, as opposed to curling up and quitting like some other teams we’ve seen over the years.
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But things have changed with this edition of the Ravens. Oh, they still play tough and gritty. Just look at these past two wins against San Francisco and Buffalo, if you need affirmation of that. But there is also a very clear effort to get more cerebral with their approach.
Eric DeCosta has brought more analytics to the team in terms of personnel, and Harbaugh has embraced it — as evidenced by his willingness to consider the mathematics and probabilities of major decisions each game. Defensive Coordinator Don Martindale and his offensive counterpart, Greg Roman, both use misdirection, personnel experiments and clever deception to give the Ravens advantages on a play-by-play basis.
Losing safety Tony Jefferson to an injury certainly affected the Ravens from a leadership perspective, but replacement Chuck Clark has stepped in as the defense has improved dramatically. And what do players and coaches compliment Clark about the most? His intelligence. Remember the trade to pick up Marcus Peters? Again, he is another player lauded for his smarts and ability to out-think opposing quarterbacks.
Though certainly not perfect, undrafted rookie center Patrick Mekari has stepped into the injured Matt Skura‘s role, and performed admirably. Mekari, by the way, went to college at Cal-Berkeley, an institution more praised for its scholastics than football over the years. Quarterback Lamar Jackson, universally celebrated for his amazing physical skills, is a bright player who rarely makes the same mistake twice and shows a clear understanding of what it takes to lead a team. His intelligence is his most undervalued trait, in my opinion.
This team is loaded with smart people, from the front office to the coaching staff to the guys mucking it up along the line of scrimmage. Sure, they’ll fight you if that’s necessary, and Harbaugh will probably be the first guy in line. But they can out-think you now, too. And that makes them even more dangerous.