After the first three games of the 2021 season, the best way to describe the Ravens is competitive.
That’s usually a description for .500 teams, but it puts the Ravens in the same position as a lot of other top teams in the AFC except for the Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos, the only undefeated teams in the conference.
The best news is that the Kansas City Chiefs, who have played in the past two Super Bowls and won one, are 1-2 and in last place in the AFC West. That’s meaningless at this point, but no one fears the Chiefs anymore.
The key for the Ravens is if their two top masking agents, kicker Justin Tucker and quarterback Lamar Jackson, can cover up enough weaknesses until cornerback Jimmy Smith can get into top playing shape and starters like tight end Nick Boyle, offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and receiver Rashod Bateman return from the injured reserve list.
Like the Chiefs, no team fears the Ravens right now, either. There was a time when the mention of middle linebacker Ray Lewis’ name alarmed offensive players, but those days are gone, lost in the Jackson phenomenon. The Ravens also have to find an offensive identity to help out Jackson, whose improvising has become more of a factor than Baltimore’s once-vaunted running game.
But at least they are competitive and capable in this current model.
The best team in the AFC North right now appears to be the 2-1 Cleveland Browns, who have talent at the skilled positions in running back Nick Chubb and receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Losing seasons have allowed them to stockpile draft picks and build talented and physical interior lines, highlighted by Myles Garrett, who had 4 ½ sacks against the Chicago Bears on Sunday. The X-factor is quarterback Baker Mayfield, who still needs to show he can win big games consistently.
Las Vegas appears to be for real and balanced, while the Buffalo Bills (2-1) seem to have straightened things out after a Week 1 loss to Pittsburgh. It’s almost a guarantee that Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel, with his background, will improve the Titans’ (2-1) defense. It’s too early to jump on the bandwagons of Denver and the Los Angeles Chargers (2-1), especially the Broncos who have only beaten the New York Jets, New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars, all winless in their first three games.
Kansas City? The Chiefs play no defense, but they still have quarterback Patrick Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce and receiver Tyreek Hill. They’ll be in the playoff hunt.
So, that leaves the Ravens.
It’s hard to get a feel for this team, especially since every game so far has been decided in the final seconds, but there are glaring holes everywhere.
The Ravens don’t get a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks unless they blitz, and the tackling from the starting linebackers has been atrocious, to put it politely. They don’t have a dominant running back and their offensive tackles have been beaten regularly in pass protection in two of three games.
The question is if Jackson and Tucker can hold out. Tucker is the best placekicker in NFL history. Jackson has improved in every game as a thrower, and Sunday’s 19-17 win against the Lions might have been his best. He showed poise in the pocket and stepped up when pressured. He threw well on the run and showed good touch on long passes. He threw well outside the numbers, which he hasn’t done consistently since arriving in Baltimore nearly four years ago.
All of this is prefaced by saying he was playing against the winless Lions, but Jackson’s game against Detroit was well-rounded as both a runner and more so as a passer. For the season, Jackson has completed 53 of 84 passes for 761 yards and three touchdowns and been sacked only five times behind an offensive line that has struggled.
It’s a great situation for both him and the team since they are locked in contract negotiations. Both are dangling the proverbial carrot.
So, if he and Tucker can keep carrying them, the Ravens might be able to get on a roll into late November and December when the schedule gets tougher.
It’s hard to predict which of the 15 Ravens will return off injured reserve. Bateman and fellow receiver Miles Boykin are set to practice this week, coach John Harbaugh said Monday, but there is no clear timetable for the return of Stanley, Boyle and defensive end Derek Wolfe. Regardless, Baltimore should get some sort of a lift if and when any of them return.
But when you watch the Ravens play, there seems to be something missing. You can’t always blame the injuries. Maybe there’s a flaw that even when some of the wounded return can’t be overcome, even with consistent heroics from Tucker and Jackson.
Calais Campbell, one of the few Ravens who have played with some consistency through three weeks, summarized things well: “This team, we’re so much better than what we’ve played, in my opinion, so far.”
It’s time they start showing it.