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Mike Preston: In a quick glimpse, Ravens have made strides in passing game | COMMENTARY

Training camp is still about seven weeks away but there are already positive signs from the acquisitions the Ravens made this offseason.

It’s not just about the additions of free agents or draft picks, but also changes in coaching staff as well as concepts and strategies. It is apparent team officials believe they are within striking distance of winning a Super Bowl title, and we’re finally getting a glimpse.

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Have the Ravens made significant enough improvements to climb over the Kansas City Chiefs as favorites in the AFC or knock off the defending world champions in Tampa Bay?

That answer will only come in time. But at this point the Ravens only have one glaring weakness and that’s in pass rushing. Every team, though, has one weak spot but overall team strengths have to overcome those weaknesses.

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As in the past, the outcome of the Ravens season will be determined through the development of quarterback Lamar Jackson, and conceptual improvements in the passing game.

But the Ravens aren’t just paying lip service to having more balance between the NFL’s top rushing and worst passing offenses from a year ago.

"When you have a guy [Lamar Jackson] to win the MVP of the league, you definitely have some special attributes," Watkins said. "He's special."

“I really feel like we need to play with more balance,” said offensive coordinator Greg Roman. " Last year, we were kind of incorporating the strategy, especially early, in the middle part of the year, where we were really trying to improve on game day and really trying to work on things on game day while we tried to win the game.

“So, we really feel the way things are structured this year, we’re going to have a chance to get our preparation done this time of year and during the summer to where we can have a more balanced attack,” he said. “And who knows, there might be some games this year where we are really letting it rip.”

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Oh no, let’s not get silly.

The emphasis, though, can be seen with the addition of coaches Tee Martin and Keith Williams to assist in the passing game. Not since Mike Sheppard was coaching receivers Derrick Alexander and Michael Jackson in 1996, has the route running been so scrutinized and detailed.

The media has been allowed to watch first-round pick and receiver Rashod Bateman practice twice, but the explosion is clearly evident as well as the ability to make yards after the catch. Another rookie having a strong performance has been Tylan Wallace, the fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma State.

How about veteran Sammy Watkins?

In one practice, he dropped two passes and lacked explosiveness but it’s only an OTA. Most veterans don’t care for them. But if you put all of them in the mix with third year receiver Marquise Brown, Devin Duvernay and tight end Mark Andrews, the Ravens might be able to finish in the top 15 through 20 range as far as team-passing production.

“In my opinion, it’s still early to pass judgment,” Martin said. “What I can speak to is we’ve improved on details, fundamentals and techniques of route running all the way down to stance and starts, how we get off the line of scrimmage in terms of releases, top of the routes, being more efficient at the top of the routes, creating more separation, and, ultimately, catching the ball and making plays. That’s pretty much been the focus as we’re installing the bulk of our offense during this time.

“We haven’t gotten to the meat of our offense yet, but we have gotten into some of the basic fundamentals and techniques of how we want to play the position, what we want to look like as the Baltimore Ravens receivers of 2021,” Martin said.

The Ravens also are likely to put Jackson directly under center more, which should cut down on the number of fumbles they had largely operating out of the shotgun formation, and they have expressed an interest in having running back J.K. Dobbins more involved in the passing game.

Dobbins struggled in that area at the end of last season, and that was a criticism of him coming out of Ohio State.

“It’s something we’re working on right now, diligently, every day,” Roman said. “We’d love to really have a threat out of the backfield. J.K. is a very talented athlete. He didn’t do much route running in high school or college, really. He was just toting the rock, getting handoffs. So, I really think last year was a great experience for him. Got thrown into the fire as a rookie. And I think he’s got the skill set and the talent to really include him as a viable weapon in the passing game.”

It will be interesting to see how well the Ravens do in protecting Jackson. During the past three seasons, they have struggled in the postseason when getting behind because of an offensive line that was “top heavy” and run-oriented. They should be better in pass protection in 2021, at least on the right side, with free agent acquisitions Kevin Zeitler at right guard and Alejandro Villanueva at right tackle.

Bradley Bozeman is the likely starting center after spending the past two seasons at left guard, but he is athletic enough to make the switch without much difficulty. But both starting left guard Ben Powers and rookie Ben Cleveland are a bit stiff and could struggle if the Ravens have to pass often. There is also the question about left offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley being 100% after two surgeries on his ankle during the offseason.

But offensive line isn’t a major concern. A bigger one is the pass rush, and the Ravens might have to sign a veteran before the start of the regular season. Of the top returning players, Jaylon Ferguson is stiff and one-dimensional, and veteran Pernell McPhee is basically operating on a play count every game.

Outside linebacker Tyus Bowser is better in coverage than rushing the passer and rookie Odafe Oweh is a project who won’t be ready for prime time for at least a year.

The best way to hide the deficient, though, is through a dominating offense which brings us back to Jackson and Roman. Jackson can make the big plays with his legs, but the Ravens need more accuracy from him with his arm to get the necessary balance.

Roman has to find ways to increase production in the passing offense. The Ravens have upgraded almost everywhere else and that in itself should help, but there has to be an improvement in concepts.

So far, the Ravens have worked hard on fundamentals and installed the basics. We probably won’t see much more until training camp starts in late July.

But at least we’ve gotten a glimpse. They’ve made strides.

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