Qadry Ismail spent 10 years as a receiver in the NFL, including three with the Ravens from 1999 to 2001. He has also been a pro and college football commentator working for Comcast SportsNet, BET Black College Football, ESPN and currently WJZ-TV (Channel 13) in Baltimore.
Like most who have watched the Ravens play this season, Ismail knows the team’s offense is a work in progress, but he isn’t sure they can make all the necessary improvements before the postseason.
But there are two things he is certain of right now: the Ravens' running game or “bully ball” offensive approach isn’t as dominant as a year ago, and they haven’t found an effective passing game to make up for it.
“Last year was historic, [quarterback Lamar Jackson] was the MVP," said Ismail, 49, a starter on the Ravens' Super Bowl-winning team in 2000. “The two tight end offense was nearly invincible. Defenses had to make decisions: Am I going to stack the box or am I going to play an extra safety? You darn sure weren’t bringing in a nickel cornerback and you had to figure what to do against the bully ball element. Teams are more disciplined in their run angles now and they are going to stack the box until Lamar proves he is more accurate in throwing to the outside lanes.
“This year, defenses don’t have that fear without a second tight end in Hayden Hurst [traded to Atlanta] or [retired right guard] Marshal Yanda."
The Ravens are effective running the ball, just not as dominant as they were in 2019 when they had the best rushing attack in NFL history. It was predictable that the rest of the league was going to catch up because NFL games are similar to chess matches, but the Ravens haven’t had a counter, especially in the passing game, averaging only 177.8 yards per game.
Jackson and his struggles to throw outside the numbers are only part of the problem. The Ravens need a legitimate No. 1 receiver.
“When you say No. 1 receiver, I am talking about make a play, are you that dude?” said Ismail, who had 353 career receptions for 5,137 yards and 33 touchdowns. “No matter what, if you are doubled, schemed against, are you going to make a play? I am talking about taking a slant route that goes 40 [yards]. I am talking about a one-on-one outside release, just boom, hit me in stride for a score. I am talking about 1,500 or 1,200 yards, 70-, 80- or 90-catch type of dude with 10 to 12 TD caches a year.
“I see two guys in Mark Andrews and Hollywood Brown who are comfortable in their chemistry with Lamar, and that’s all well and good, but they aren’t No. 1 receivers."
The Ravens were reportedly one of the teams interested in disgruntled free-agent receiver Antonio Brown, but he signed a one-year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the weekend. Without question, Brown would have made the passing game better, but the Ravens don’t have enough strong or proven players yet who could have absorbed Brown’s personality and kept him in check.
All No. 1 receivers are prima donnas, but some are less disruptive than others. Maybe Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta might make a trade later, but until then, their current crop of receivers are only slightly better than average.
“Andrews can eventually be that go-to threat,” Ismail said. “Rob Gronkowski was that dude in New England. He was a game-changer and they couldn’t stop him. Hollywood Brown has the makings of being a game-changer; he has to figure out how to catch over middle and not look to fall down. Instead, use his explosive speed to run by guys and score.”
Ismail likes speedy rookie Devin Duvernay, the third-round draft pick out of Texas, and says he should be used more in the offense. He also thought rookie running back J.K. Dobbins, the second-round pick from Ohio State, would have been used more in both the running and passing game.
“Because they didn’t have a typical offseason, guys like Duvernay have been handcuffed because they didn’t have the time to develop the nuances it takes for a receiver to get in sync with his quarterback," Ismail said. "I thought Dobbins would have had bigger runs and a bigger presence, too, but unfortunately he hasn’t. It’s not a knock on him, just hasn’t happened.”
Ismail was more critical of second-year receiver Miles Boykin. The Notre Dame product has good size at 6 feet 4 and 220 pounds, but there have been times in recent weeks when he and Jackson have had communication problems.
“I’d love to see Lamar in better sync with outside throws,” said Ismail. “Sometimes Miles Boykin seems like an uninterested receiver. It looks like he is saying, ‘I’m just going to run my route and see what happens.’ When the ball does come his way, it seems like he is surprised or something.”
Hurst gave the Ravens more potential because he kept them in their two tight end offense that could outmuscle teams. He also had the ability to work in the middle of the field and run deep patterns. Without a strong running game, few teams respect the Ravens' play-action passing game the way they did last season.
According to Ismail, the Ravens' passing game isn’t as sophisticated as those of other top teams, such as the Green Bay Packers' with quarterback Aaron Rodgers or the Kansas City Chiefs' with Patrick Mahomes. The young group of receivers also missed key time in their development because there was no rookie minicamp, training camp or preseason games.
Also, because of the Ravens' bully ball mentality, they find it hard to rally once they fall behind by 10 or more points.
“Lamar, when dropping back to pass, he’s not getting these clear cut coverages of a year ago where he knew linebackers were going to suck up to stop the run or a safety was going to drop down giving him a clear decision where the defense was going to go,” Ismail said. "Defenses are not rushing up the field and allowing more big runs by Lamar or a running back. Now, the play action doesn’t look as good and zone schemes are making it harder for him to just sit back in the pocket and let it rip to the outside throwing lanes.
“If you play bully ball, and you get those 40-yard runs, now you can do what you want. But if that doesn’t happen, then you better have some outside throws to go to.”
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Right now, the Ravens don’t have the receivers or the quarterback who can make them.