During exit interviews Sunday, a lot of the Ravens said the right things about their 17-3 divisional-round loss to the Buffalo Bills.
They talked about the need to finish and a lack of execution. Some explained that the wind was a factor, even though center Patrick Mekari’s theory on how that affected his errant snaps made very little sense. Receiver Marquise Brown was the most practical when he spoke about improving the passing game and the importance of balance on offense.
It was the second straight year the Ravens were eliminated in the divisional round after being knocked out in the wild-card round in 2018. Most of the players suggested some tweaks for next season, but the Ravens need more than some slight fixes.
So, as the Ravens enter the offseason, here are some suggestions to improve the team:
Add help at edge rusher and offensive line
Every offseason there is always a cry from fans about the need to take a receiver in the first round of the draft, but the Ravens have other priorities, such as finding a good pass rusher and some versatile offensive linemen.
The Ravens weren’t able to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks without blitzing and they might lose outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Tyrus Bowser in free agency, so there is some urgency in finding an edge rusher.
The Ravens acquired outside linebacker/defensive end Yannick Ngakoue from the Minnesota Vikings during the season in hopes that he could provide pressure, but the move had little impact and turned out to be as disappointing as the signing of safety Earl Thomas III in March 2019.
So, the draft seems to be a better route than free agency. The Ravens also need to find some quality offensive linemen. In the past couple of years, the Ravens focused on drafting linemen who were primarily run blockers, but that philosophy hasn’t worked out, especially when defenses shut down their running attack in the postseason. Against Buffalo, the Bills’ front seven made the Ravens look slow and unathletic when rushing quarterback Lamar Jackson.
The Ravens could use more speed at cornerback with veterans Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith showing signs of age. Of course there is always a need for a big, fast wide receiver, but that isn’t a top priority unless one falls to the Ravens at the end of the first round.
Pending COVID-19 protocols, the Ravens need a big offseason in the weight room.
It’s not that they got pushed around this season, but they have several rookies who could really benefit from a well-structured program. The team has a strong nucleus in linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison, running back J. K. Dobbins, wide receiver Devin Duvernay, defensive linemen Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington and offensive lineman Tyre Phillips.
They’ll mix in well with second-year players such as wide receiver Miles Boykin, outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson, Mekari and running back Justice Hill. None of those players got a full offseason to train at the team’s facility in Owings Mills because of coronavirus concerns.
Of course, the Ravens have to issue another warning to strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders, who got suspended during the regular season for violation of the league’s virus protocols.
In the words of Gov. Larry Hogan: “Wear the damn mask.”
Fix the passing game
Let’s try this one more time: The Ravens have to upgrade their passing game.
Whether they bring in a new offensive coordinator or add a passing game guru, the Ravens shouldn’t get knocked out of the playoffs a fourth straight time because they can’t throw the ball effectively. Something has to change.
It’s not just about personnel, but concepts as well. If the Ravens had traded for wide receiver Stefon Diggs during the offseason, he wouldn’t have put up impressive statistics like he did in Buffalo. The Ravens’ passing game isn’t very sophisticated and they don’t attack the entire field.
It’s understandable that the offense is built around Jackson and his big-play running ability, but the passing concepts are simple and easy to defend. The Ravens don’t need an entire offensive overhaul, but enough changes in the passing game to make opposing teams back off and not crowd the line of scrimmage.
After three straight similar playoff defeats, maybe coach John Harbaugh will get the message.
Improve Jackson’s mechanics
Jackson needs to start working with a quarterback coach again during the offseason.
There was clearly a difference in his play and mechanics compared with his his Most Valuable Player season. For half of 2020, he reverted back to old throwing form with more of a sidearm motion and didn’t step into or follow through on his delivery. When the Bills shut down his ability to run, Jackson lost his poise and his mechanics began to slip.
Jackson needs to go back to the basics, and that means practicing more outside the team facility. A key to greatness is consistency, and Jackson lacks that with his throwing motion.
If he can take that next step and develop as a passer, he could become a Hall of Fame player. He is the best running quarterback in the history of the NFL.
Maximize the game day roster
The assumption here is that Harbaugh makes the final decision on game day rosters, but how much input do the assistant coaches have?
The Ravens made some puzzling moves this year. It took them almost three-quarters of the season to determine that Dobbins and Gus Edwards should be the top two running backs over former starter Mark Ingram II.
Undrafted rookie Trystan Colon-Castillo was excellent in the two games he started at center. He had good feet, quickness, worked leverage well and could move defenders off the ball. But Harbaugh got locked into Matt Skura and Mekari, who struggled Saturday night against Buffalo.
Well, where is Colon-Castillo? Why was veteran wide receiver Dez Bryant on the roster? He played very little and couldn’t contribute much on special teams. Fifth-year outside linebacker/defensive end Jihad Ward played well but had to share time on the roster with Ferguson.
Maybe Ferguson and Ngakoue got on the field more because of contract obligations, but that doesn’t always translate into victories.