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Preston: Ravens’ strengths might not be enough to overcome weaknesses as they transition to games that count

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about the players that improve their chances of making the 53-man roster.

By most NFL standards, the Ravens are a better team compared with a year ago, when they made their first playoff appearance in four years, but that doesn’t mean they will be as successful.

The Ravens have improved in a lot of areas, but questions remain about quarterback Lamar Jackson becoming a quality passer and whether the Ravens can get enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks, especially in the postseason, when those two factors matter most.

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As their preseason ended Thursday night against the Redskins in Washington, there was little doubt the Ravens had improved since they last played Jan. 6.

“It’s an exciting time,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We’re fired up with where we’re at, and we’re ready to get the regular season started.”

That’s understandable. The Ravens finished 2018 by winning six of their last seven regular-season games before losing to the Los Angeles Chargers, 23-17, in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

The Ravens had a strong running game last season. It got even stronger with the addition of veteran tailback Mark Ingram II and the development of third-year fullback Patrick Ricard. Tight end Mark Andrews might be the best receiver on the team and 2018 first-round draft pick Hayden Hurst should help the offense balance up defenses with the two-tight-end look.

But the success of this offense depends on Jackson, who is entering his second season. The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner has worked hard during the offseason, hiring private consultants and scheduling workouts with NFL receivers. He spent a lot of time at The Castle refining his skills and mechanics.

But was that enough?

During the preseason, he looked more comfortable in the offense and was more precise on passes inside the red zone. But Jackson still has stretches of subpar play, and he still struggles throwing the long ball and with his accuracy on passes outside the numbers.

Hopefully his improvement will override his deficiencies in big games, but the Ravens don’t just have a Jackson problem in the passing game.

They drafted a lot of speed in April, taking Oklahoma receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown in the first round and Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin in the third. But the rookies haven’t played long enough or well enough to settle into the offense. They have speed, but they’ve also had injuries. The Ravens also have questions about the middle of their offensive line.

The Ravens have similar issues on defense.

A lot of progress was made in training camp by young starting linebackers Patrick Onwuasor, Kenny Young and Chris Board. Onwuasor wanted to improve on his communication, and apparently that happened. Board had his second strong camp in as many seasons, and Young gives the Ravens depth at both the middle and weak-side positions.

Strong-side linebacker Matthew Judon has established himself as a team leader and could become one of the best at his position in the league. In some way, this team has journeyed back to 2000, with a group of good, young linebackers.

There is a lot of hype surrounding the secondary and that this group could be the best in the NFL. But that talk is premature. The potential is there, but there are some concerns.

The Ravens brought in safety Earl Thomas III during the offseason and he’ll make a difference in the run defense. But he has yet to show in the preseason that he can play deep center field against the pass. He is physical, professional and a leader, but there is uncertainty about whether he’s 100% healthy less than a year after breaking his leg with the Seattle Seahawks.

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Cornerback Marlon Humphrey could have a breakout season. But veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith had some inconsistent moments in the preseason and has always missed substantial playing time because of injuries. The Ravens have a lot of talent and depth on the back end with cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Cyrus Jones and safeties Tony Jefferson and Anthony Levine Sr.

But it’s not certain the secondary can live up to the expectations, especially with nickel cornerback Tavon Young likely out for the season with a neck injury.

The defensive line is sound, but there is a lack of depth behind starting tackles Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce and starting end Chris Wormley. Rookie tackle Daylon Mack has been impressive, and Ricard can fill in at times. But there isn’t much to work with behind those two.

Wormley, Pierce and Ricard can get some pressure up the middle in passing situations, but the problem is finding a pass rusher or two from the outside. Pernell McPhee has proven to be a better run stopper than pass rusher, and outside linebackers Tim Williams and Shane Ray have been disappointing. Third-year player Tyus Bowser is more of a strong-side player than rusher from the weak side. And rookie Jaylon Ferguson might be good someday, but needs to learn more than just one move.

Overall, the Ravens have improved. They’ve added speed and depth, and play in a division in which others teams such as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns face just as many questions.

But in the end, the Ravens’ strengths might not be able to overcome their weaknesses of throwing the ball downfield and getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. It all depends on some key young players developing.

Some of that has already happened. Now, they just need some more.

Season opener

RAVENS@DOLPHINS

Sept. 8, 1 p.m.

TV: Ch. 13

Radio: 1090 AM; 97.9 FM

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