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Mike Preston’s report card: Position-by-position grades for Ravens through the first quarter of 2021 season | COMMENTARY

When the NFL 2021 schedule came out a few months ago, it was hard to predict what the Ravens’ record would be through four games. They had made gradual strides in the postseason over the last three years and made significant improvements to the roster in the offseason, surrounding quarterback Lamar Jackson with some much-needed playmakers.

Once the injuries started to mount, sidelining running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards and cornerback Marcus Peters with torn ACLs and forcing others like defensive end Derek Wolfe (hip/back), offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) and rookie receiver Rashod Bateman (groin) to miss extensive time, a sluggish start was expected.

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But more than a month into the season, the Ravens are 3-1 and in a great position to separate themselves from the pack with three straight home games against the Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Chargers, and the Cincinnati Bengals. A bye and another home contest versus the Minnesota Vikings follows.

The Ravens have seen significant improvement in recent weeks with Jackson opening up the passing game and the defense’s ability to pressure quarterbacks. But coach John Harbaugh knows this team has to improve in other areas, especially tackling, if the Ravens want to advance deeper into the postseason.

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Of the upcoming games, the Chargers should be the toughest test with quarterback Justin Herbert, who has completed 113 of 164 passes for 1,178 yards in Year 2. But the Ravens don’t want to look too far ahead. In fact, we look back at the first four games of the season and give out grades for each position:

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson throws a pass in the second half against the Broncos on Sunday in Denver.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson throws a pass in the second half against the Broncos on Sunday in Denver. (Bart Young/AP)

Quarterback

The fourth year is when a quarterback should grasp all the concepts in development, and Jackson is having his best season. In four games, he has shown consistency and accuracy throwing outside the numbers and throwing more to secondary receivers instead of tucking the ball and running. Jackson has completed 75 of 124 passes for 1,077 yards and four touchdowns and rushed 42 times for 279 yards. He has been the only constant on offense and the team’s top weapon. The goal is for Jackson to sustain this high level of performance late into the season and through the playoffs. So far, so good. Grade: A-

Running backs

The Ravens have a stable of mediocre runners after injuries to Dobbins and Edwards. Fortunately, they have Jackson, who opens up a defense with his outside speed on option and running plays. The Ravens lack the home run threat but that’s OK in a downhill running game. Ty’Son Williams, who was inactive against the Broncos last week, leads the team in rushing with 164 yards on 27 carries and Latavius Murray has 151 yards on 44 carries. Murray fits the style needed in this offense as a one-cut-back who immediately accelerates through the hole. Williams, Murray and Devonta Freeman need to improve on picking up blitzes going into the next four games. Grade: C

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson behind offensive linemen Kevin Zeitler (70), Bradley Bozeman (77) and Ben Powers (72) during a game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sept. 19 in Baltimore.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson behind offensive linemen Kevin Zeitler (70), Bradley Bozeman (77) and Ben Powers (72) during a game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sept. 19 in Baltimore. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Offensive line

This group has been solid despite numerous injuries and a sub-par training camp but will have to improve in pass protection. Center Bradley Bozeman and right guard Kevin Zeitler have played well, though not spectacular. The Ravens use a steady rotation at left guard, and neither rookie Ben Cleveland nor Ben Powers has played well enough to become the full-time reliable starter. Right tackle Patrick Mekari is probably the most technically sound of all the linemen but is small at 6-foot-4 and 308 pounds. He is better suited to physically play guard or center, but the Ravens lack better options. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva’s performance has been up and down and now he’s dealing with a knee injury but still has played better than he did in training camp and preseason. When it comes to pass protection, you never know how this group will perform. That’s worrisome. Grade: C

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Wide receivers

Despite the poor showing against the Lions in Week 3, third-year player Marquise Brown (19 catches, 326 yards, three touchdowns) has performed well overall, especially in his route running and getting his arms away from his body when catching the ball. There are few cornerbacks who can cover him in crossing routes. Veteran Sammy Watkins (16 catches, 257 yards) has been a good complement while tight end Mark Andrews (18 catches, 253 yards) has dominated the short and intermediate areas, as expected. Against Denver, Jackson completed passes to five receivers, including James Proche II and Devin Duvernay, against Denver last week. That’s a sign Jackson is becoming more comfortable and has gained confidence in not just Brown and Andrews. Grade: B

Lions guard Jonah Jackson, left, and center Frank Ragnow (77) block Ravens defensive end Calais Campbell (93) in the first half on Sept. 26 in Detroit.
Lions guard Jonah Jackson, left, and center Frank Ragnow (77) block Ravens defensive end Calais Campbell (93) in the first half on Sept. 26 in Detroit. (Duane Burleson/AP)

Defensive line

The Ravens have played well even though there has been little continuity. Nose tackle Brandon Williams has missed time with a neck injury and because of COVID-19 protocol. End Derek Wolfe has yet to play in a game because of back pain and was recently placed on injured reserve. Regardless, the Ravens have had success because of quality backups and the domination of veteran end Calais Campbell. Second-year player Justin Madubuike has filled in well for Wolfe and gives the Ravens some much-needed pass-rushing pressure inside. Backing up the three starters are Broderick Washington and Justice Ellis, possible starters for some NFL teams. This group hasn’t been an issue. Grade: B

Linebackers

Middle linebacker Patrick Queen leads the team in tackles with 27, four ahead of safety Chuck Clark, but the second-year player out of LSU hasn’t played well this season. He has a sack and two tackles for losses, but a lot of his tackles are several yards off the line of scrimmage. Weakside linebacker Malik Harrison has lacked a strong physical presence as well. Both need to perform much better. Rookie outside linebacker Odafe Oweh has played well and has 10 tackles and two sacks. Strongside linebacker Tyus Bowser has been steady, but the Ravens need more production from outside linebackers Justin Houston and Pernell McPhee. Veteran Josh Bynes might see more action inside if Queen and Harrison continue to struggle. Grade: C-

Ravens defensive back Anthony Averett intercepts a pass intended for Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton in the fourth quarter on Sunday in Denver.
Ravens defensive back Anthony Averett intercepts a pass intended for Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton in the fourth quarter on Sunday in Denver. (Dustin Bradford / Getty Images)

Secondary

Cornerback Anthony Averett has played well filling in for Peters. He is fourth on the team with 16 tackles and has batted away four passes, a sign that the team can’t be picked on. Fellow cornerback Marlon Humphrey has 20 tackles but hasn’t played as well as he did last season, and there are times when he appears to be trying to do too much. Clark, as usual, has been steady, especially in run support, as he’s second on the team with 23 tackles. Opposing teams have to account for him when he is near the line of scrimmage. Safety DeShon Elliott is one of the hardest hitters on the team but has struggled with several injuries. Rookie Brandon Stephens has tried hard to fill in for Elliott, but his inexperience shows. Meanwhile, veteran Jimmy Smith has done a good job tracking tight ends the last two games in nickel and dime packages. Grade: B

Special teams

Justin Tucker has converted on 10 of 11 field goals with two of those from 50 yards or more, including the NFL record 66-yard field goal to beat Detroit. With Sam Koch averaging 46.6 yards on 16 punts, the Ravens have one of the best kicking units in the league. Duvernay is averaging 18.9 yards on punt returns but has trouble deciding when to field them inside his own 20-yard line. He’s just inexperienced; he’ll get better. Meanwhile, the Ravens are allowing only an average of 8 yards per punt return. Grade: A-

Ravens coach John Harbaugh watches his team before they faced the Broncos on Sunday in Denver.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh watches his team before they faced the Broncos on Sunday in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Coaching

The Ravens have been hit hard by injuries but are 3-1 and have played three road games. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has upgraded the passing game and is attacking all areas of the field. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s defense has struggled with tackling, but they’ve still found a way to get consistent pressure on the quarterback despite not having a big-name pass rusher. Jackson has carried this team, but Harbaugh has led them well. The resiliency and teamwork he preaches has paid off. Grade: A-

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