The Ravens should have several players return from injuries during the second half of the season, but it’s doubtful if they will have a significant impact.
Returning healthy starters like tight end Nick Boyle (knee), offensive tackle Patrick Mekari (ankle), wide receiver Sammy Watkins (thigh), running back Latavius Murray (ankle) and defensive end Derek Wolfe (back/hip) will be an upgrade, but they’re unlikely to cover up the weaknesses displayed so far in 2021.
Let’s just call it wishful thinking, the same optimism team officials had with the rehabilitation of Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle), whose return lasted one game before he was eventually put on injured reserve and shelved for the rest of the season.
It’s a classic case of what head coaches call the unknown versus the known. The known is that the Ravens running game, offensive line play, coverage in the secondary and tackling have ranged anywhere from subpar to atrocious.
If they were getting Stanley, cornerback Marcus Peters, running backs Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins back from knee injuries in the final 10 games, then there would be extreme optimism. But right now, just keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best.
Boyle should help improve the running game. At 6 feet, 4 inches tall and 270 pounds, he was one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL at the start of last season. He’ll help the Ravens run off tackle, but they still don’t have a runner with enough speed and acceleration to even get outside, even though Murray should return soon.
The return of Boyle is intriguing because he suffered damage to his PCL, MCL and hamstring last season when hit by Patriots linebacker Terez Hall in November. Maybe he gets back to 100%, but that won’t happen right away because he isn’t in game shape.
Also, can this be a repeat of Stanley coming back too soon?
Mekari’s return will definitely help because he has been the team’s most technically sound offensive lineman. But high ankle sprains are weird and unpredictable injuries. If an offensive lineman can’t push off on his ankle, then he’ll have major difficulties.
The Ravens had high hopes for rookie guard Ben Cleveland (knee), but he is one-dimensional — a strong run blocker who may get better in time. The lack of playing time has delayed his progress.
“There’s a big man who can move, can helmet adjust, can change direction [and] has speed; he just needs playing time,” said offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris. “Unfortunately, he got hurt in the preseason. We got him back again, and now he got re-injured. But when he’s stepped in, he’s done a nice job, and he’s growing as a pro.”
The return of Watkins is a plus. He has only 18 catches for 292 yards but is the veteran of a young wide receiving corps. His contributions on game day are immeasurable and he fits in as a complement to tight end Mark Andrews and receiver Marquise Brown, quarterback Lamar Jackson’s go-to guys.
“He has been great. Sammy is just steady,” wide receivers coach Tee Martin said. “Sammy understands as a veteran the professional side of mental prep, physical prep, playing at high levels, winning a Super Bowl, playing for a Super Bowl. He’s seen it all, and he’s helped with everybody in a different way. Sammy is not a big talker, but when he does talk, the guys listen.”
The Ravens like teaming Watkins with Brown and rookie receiver Rashod Bateman, the team’s top draft pick in April.
“They obviously have different skill sets, and we’ll definitely try to take advantage of those different skill sets, in terms of game planning,” said Ravens pass specialist Keith Williams.
Wolfe should give the Ravens a similar lift. He isn’t a standout, but capable of an occasional big play and works well with fellow veteran defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams.
At this point, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh will take any help he can get. They are fortunate to be 5-2 after suffering so many injuries. The optimism would be greater if the Ravens were getting back a star player like Tennessee running back Derrick Henry or a defensive tackle such as the Los Angeles Rams Aaron Donald.
But that’s not the case. Harbaugh has always been good at working around injuries, and he knows there are no shortcuts and quick fixes regardless of whom is in the lineup.
The Ravens have to keep grinding and maybe they can reach another level on the field in the upcoming months.
They’ll get better, but probably not enough to cover up their weaknesses.
Keep your fingers crossed.