Tempered expectations are for other teams. The Ravens, especially quarterback Lamar Jackson, have made it clear they will measure their success by Super Bowl victories. They’ve entered the past two postseasons confident in their chances only to come up well short.
With another summer of preparations down and the season opener just a few days away, Jackson and Co. again have their sights set on winning the last game on the NFL calendar. But they’ll have to be better in several ways to get there. With that in mind, here are 20 questions the Ravens must answer to win the Super Bowl:
1. Can the offensive line protect Lamar Jackson in a big game?
The Ravens had to scramble last year after losing All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley to a season-ending ankle injury. They were already struggling to fill the shoes of retired right guard Marshal Yanda. Under the circumstances, their offensive line performed well down the stretch, paving the way for huge rushing performances against mediocre opponents.
That all came apart in a divisional round loss to the Buffalo Bills. Center Patrick Mekari could not get the ball cleanly to Jackson, and the right side of the line could not give him a comfortable pocket from which to make correct reads.
General manager Eric DeCosta and coach John Harbaugh clearly saw a fundamental problem, because only Stanley will be back at his familiar spot in 2021. We can’t say right tackle Alejandro Villanueva will offer an upgrade over Orlando Brown Jr. or that right guard Kevin Zeitler will dominate like vintage Yanda, but they’re veterans with long track records of success.
With Bradley Bozeman shifting from left guard to center, the Ravens will aim for greater stability upfront. But this group will have to jell on an accelerated clock after injuries sidelined most of its members for portions of the preseason. Every other attempt to improve on offense will flow from there.
2. Can the safeties produce a few game-changing plays?
We didn’t talk much about the Ravens’ safeties after the team’s abrupt summer breakup with Earl Thomas III. That’s a testament to Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott, who both started all 16 games and delivered above-average play in coverage and against the run.
Clark is an understated but trusted leader, and Elliott brought hard-hitting swagger to the mix. At the same time, they combined for just one interception, which isn’t what we’re used to in the land of Ed Reed. Was this just a fluke or an indication that Clark and Elliott have lower ceilings as playmakers? Is rookie Brandon Stephens, with his background as an offensive player, a potential answer? All three showed flashes in the preseason, and even a few more timely picks could add a win to the Ravens’ record in 2021.
3. Will Nick Moore avoid making news?
Not many long snappers make imprints on NFL franchises, but the Ravens created waves when they moved on from Morgan Cox, a trusted member of the Wolfpack triumvirate with kicker Justin Tucker and punter Sam Koch.
They had a full season to assess Moore on their practice squad, so they’re obviously confident the former Georgia Bulldog can do the job. But if Moore misfires at an inopportune moment or if Tucker goes through a brief funk, the decision to dump Cox will become a story.
Tucker and Koch have always said their success is a product of obsessively tuned teamwork, so Moore will be under pressure to keep the machine purring (or howling, if we’re staying species appropriate).
4. Can the Ravens find another receiving threat at tight end?
Though some analysts overstated the prevalence of three-tight-end sets in the Ravens’ 2019 offense, there’s no question they used them less frequently and less effectively in 2020. Their tight ends were less dynamic in general behind No. 1 option Mark Andrews. Nick Boyle hurt his knee, and the Ravens never found a third tight end with the hands or downfield mobility of Hayden Hurst, who was traded before the season.
Boyle and Hurst combined for 82 targets in 2019; non-Andrews tight ends received just 21 targets in 2020 (33 if we count fullback Patrick Ricard). The Ravens are hoping to get Boyle early in the season, but they’re still searching for an impactful No. 3. Former third-round pick Josh Oliver, who moves well for a 6-foot-5, 249-pound man, will get the first shot. He led the Ravens with 13 catches during the preseason but averaged just seven yards per catch and lost a fumble in the red zone.
5. Will Patrick Queen be a more polished middle linebacker in his second season?
The Ravens threw their first-round pick in the deep end in a year with limited offseason activities and no preseason. Queen did not sink as an immediate starter. He also did not swim every week, looking lost in coverage at times and losing more physical battles than he expected.
He improved; the Tennessee Titans, for example, could not prey on him in the playoffs the way they had in the regular season. But this will be the year for Queen to show us where his career his headed. He has already said he’s in superior shape and reading the game more easily than he did as a rookie, so he’s not ducking high expectations. He backed up his confident words with an excellent preseason.
6. Will they survive a tough late-season schedule?
November was the brutal month in 2020 as the Ravens played their most difficult stretch of opponents at the same time they confronted injuries to essential players and a COVID-19 outbreak. Had they not faced an easier stretch over their last five games, they might not have recovered to make the playoffs.
They won’t have that luxury this time around, with two games against the Cleveland Browns, one against the Pittsburgh Steelers and one against the Green Bay Packers between Weeks 12 and 15. To top it off, they’ll close out with the Los Angeles Rams and the Steelers rematch. That’s quite a run of rough sledding at a time when rosters are generally frayed by injuries, so the Ravens will need luck on top of everything else to compete for a high seed.
7. Can the rushing offense still be the NFL’s best without J.K. Dobbins?
The preseason ended on a gloomy note when Dobbins, one of the team’s top big-play threats, tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) after catching a screen pass from Jackson. He averaged six yards per carry and scored nine touchdowns in his rookie season and was set to take a step forward as an all-around force. The Ravens will have to replace his production with Gus Edwards and surprise training camp star Ty’Son Williams, who spent most of last season on the practice squad.
As good as Dobbins is, Jackson is the one indispensable piece at the heart of offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s running attack. We’ve seen him thrive with a rotating crew of backs over the last three seasons, so don’t be surprised if the ground game rolls on relatively unaffected, with the 6-foot, 220-pound Williams producing more than anyone could have envisioned two months ago.
8. Will Calais Campbell increase his production in Year 14?
The towering defensive end has acknowledged he’s approaching his NFL expiration date. A calf injury and a bout with COVID-19 chipped away at his renowned durability in 2020, but Campbell was the player the Ravens needed him to be in their playoff victory over the Titans. He helped shut the door on Derrick Henry. Can he hit that level more often in 2021, especially as a pass rusher, where his Pro Football Focus grade slipped from elite to merely good last season? Can he reverse a two-year decline in his sack totals?
The Ravens knew Campbell was not a long-term answer when they traded for him, but he could still be a vital engine for this team’s immediate Super Bowl ambitions.
9. Can Tee Martin and Keith Williams unlock a deep receiving corps?
We usually don’t see a lot of hype around assistant coaches below the coordinator level, but Martin and Williams were two of the Ravens’ most celebrated additions this offseason.
Martin’s record of helping college receivers and Williams’ individual work with NFL standouts, including Ravens free-agent addition Sammy Watkins, have made them celebrities in their field. Now, we’ll see how those good vibes translate as the Ravens try to squeeze more production from a receiver room that’s overflowing with interesting players.
Can Williams and Martin help these young pass catchers make the technical tweaks and leaps of confidence they need to grow along with Jackson? All eyes will be on this group once again. It did not help that none of the team’s top three wide receivers, Watkins, Marquise Brown and Rashod Bateman, played a single snap in the preseason.
10. Will Tyus Bowser thrive in the spotlight?
Bowser quietly raised himself from potential bust to important contributor over the past two seasons. The Ravens built their offseason strategy at outside linebacker around him, letting Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue depart without a fight. This made sense on paper, but only if Bowser continues to make the most of his increased snaps.
He’s the rare edge defender who thrives in pass coverage, but he badly wants to prove he can replace Judon’s production as a pass rusher. His continued progress would help cover for an overall lack of depth at outside linebacker as the Ravens wait on the development of first-round pick Odafe Oweh.
11. Will Ben Cleveland be more than a folk hero at left guard?
He dines on squirrel and looks like The Mountain from “Game of Thrones” squeezed into a jersey, but the Ravens hope Cleveland is more than an appealing oddity as they look for Bozeman’s successor at left guard.
John Harbaugh coveted him in the draft. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman called him arguably the best run blocker in college football. Unfortunately for Cleveland, a concussion kept him from truly competing for a starting spot in the preseason.
Ben Powers always seems to be fighting for his job but appears to be the left guard for now. Tyre Phillips struggled at right tackle in the playoffs, but he’s a big, nasty blocker in his own right and pushed his way into the lineup faster than anyone expected last year. So Cleveland will not show up with a clear path to snaps. He’ll have to seize them.
12. Will the secondary depth hold out better than it did in 2020?
It’s amazing how quickly an NFL secondary goes from overstuffed to stretched thin. No Ravens cornerback played all 16 games last season. With Tavon Young injured again, Marlon Humphrey often covered the slot, and Jimmy Smith played more snaps than his body could handle.
The Ravens’ huge investment in the secondary could not protect them from injuries and illness. They’ll enter 2021 with most of their talented crew back on the field (Smith, still rehabilitating an ankle injury, is the exception). If Young can stay off injured reserve and they can use Smith as a versatile luxury, if Anthony Averett takes another step forward and one of the rookies contributes right away, this could be the best secondary in the league. Given the money and picks they’ve spent, the Ravens expect no less.
13. Can the Ravens develop a No. 1 wide receiver in-house?
We probably dwell on this question too intently. Many teams, including the 2012 Ravens, have reached the NFL’s pinnacle without the next Jerry Rice or Randy Moss. But the Ravens do need a greater capacity to open up their offense when Plan A isn’t working.
Eric DeCosta would not have used two of his last four first-round picks on wide receivers if he did not agree. Brown is on the right track. He has worked hard to add armor to his naturally slight physique, and he has showed up big in three career playoff games. He just needs to produce more consistently, a comment on the offense and his tendency to suffer nagging injuries as much as his talent.
Might this year’s top pick, Bateman, a confident technician and a bigger target, be the perfect partner? Ravens fans have learned to be skeptical of the team’s choices at this glamour position, and Bateman’s groin injury in training camp only added to their unease. But it’s not crazy to think the Ravens are getting closer to surrounding Lamar Jackson with the right targets.
14. Will the next generation emerge on the defensive front?
The Ravens trusted in veterans to fortify their defense after Derrick Henry and the Titans trampled them in the 2019 playoffs. Their strategy worked in 2020, so they’re bringing back Campbell, Derek Wolfe and Brandon Williams for another round. Those guys are all 31 or older, so the Ravens need help (and injury insurance) from fresher legs.
Justin Madubuike is the best candidate, coming off a rookie season in which he flashed star potential down the stretch. His elder teammates have predicted a breakout. Could Broderick Washington, who played well this summer, take a leap forward to join him? The Ravens like to rotate their linemen to keep everyone fresh, so they hope so.
15. Can Bradley Bozeman erase bad memories from 2020 at center?
The Ravens never could nail down this position last season. Incumbent starter Matt Skura made a remarkable recovery from knee surgery but lost his confidence as a snapper. Patrick Mekari stepped in well enough until he crumbled as a snapper and pass blocker against the Bills. So the Ravens are turning to a player who earned their trust over two seasons as the team’s starting left guard.
Bozeman has the size, durability and adaptability the Ravens prize in their interior blockers. He played center at Alabama and has embraced his return to the position enthusiastically, surely realizing that he can pump up his market value with a good season. The Ravens didn’t push to sign a starting center, opting to spend their money at guard and tackle, so that tells us they’re feeling confident in the Bozeman plan.
16. Can defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale continue manufacturing pressure without a star pass rusher?
No Raven sacked the quarterback more than six times last year, an incredible statistic for a team that ranked near the top in pressure percentage and quarterback knockdowns. We know Martindale achieves this by blitzing more, and with a wide variety of defenders, than any coordinator in the league. With quarterbacks releasing the ball quicker than ever, it’s not clear the Ravens see any use in spending big dollars on a traditional edge rusher.
Their trade for Yannick Ngakoue, who fits that mold, didn’t work out. Does this mean it’s useless to speculate whether any Raven, including veteran addition Justin Houston, can approach double figures in sacks? Based on three seasons of evidence, we can say such a pass rusher would be a luxury for a roster designed around aggressive corners, versatile linebackers and run-smothering interior linemen.
17. Will Ronnie Stanley regain his All-Pro form at left tackle?
Note the number of questions centering on the offensive line, which faltered more drastically than any other unit in the playoff loss to the Bills. The Ravens came out of that game thinking they at least had a plan moving forward built around a pair of Pro Bowl tackles in Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. Then, Brown turned that thinking on its head by saying he only wanted to play left tackle going forward.
The Ravens traded him to add a first-round pick and didn’t use said pick on a tackle. All of which means they’re betting big on Stanley’s recovery from the ankle injury that ended his 2020 season.
Stanley was perhaps the best pass blocker in football in 2019, and the Ravens need that player back to facilitate all their big plans for a more versatile aerial attack. He ramped up slowly during training camp but played in the preseason finale and has said he’ll be full-go for Week 1.
18. Will the offense look notably different in 2021?
With the same quarterback, the same head coach and the same offensive coordinator, it’s hard to imagine we’ll see radical change. Defenses sat on some of his favorite plays from 2019, so Greg Roman tweaked his vaunted ground attack. The Ravens again led the league in rushing yards, rushing attempts and yards per carry. But they were not as efficient overall or as dominant on fourth down as they had been the year before, and of course, they stagnated in the playoffs.
Roman faced criticism from several prominent analysts who said his passing concepts were too rudimentary to free up the team’s wide receivers. Harbaugh defended his coordinator’s game plans, but pressure will ratchet up if the Ravens run into familiar roadblocks this year. Can Roman adjust, as critics have suggested he did not in previous stints with the San Francisco 49ers and Bills? It’s a question fans will ask from Week 1 until January.
19. Can the Ravens beat the Kansas City Chiefs?
The road to the Super Bowl is more difficult on the AFC side. The Bills are formidable as are the star-studded Browns. The Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Chargers are rising. The Titans will light up the scoreboard while the Indianapolis Colts will play sound all-around football. The Steelers can never be dismissed. All of that said, the Chiefs remain the boss you have to fight at the end of the video game.
Yes, Tampa Bay smacked them around in the Super Bowl, but as long as the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes throwing magical passes to Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill in an offense designed by Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy, they’ll be problem No. 1. Not to mention they’ve beaten the Ravens three years in a row and routed them in 2020.
Though a Week 2 rematch at M&T Bank Stadium won’t give us a final verdict on where the Ravens are headed, a victory would eliminate at least one psychological hurdle on their Super Bowl quest.
20. Will Lamar Jackson play with greater poise in the playoffs?
Here we go, the one question to rule them all. Jackson takes absurd criticism from fans and analysts who overlook his many accomplishments as a passer and forget how much he’s lifted the Ravens in the NFL’s big picture. But he would be the first to say he hasn’t played his best football — 68.3 passer rating, five interceptions, 19 sacks, 1-3 record — in the playoffs. It’s not all his fault; he needs more help from his offensive line and pass catchers. But he also needs to develop greater mastery of his position so he has answers when a defense clogs his running lanes or swarms his favorite targets. In a low-scoring game against the Bills, there were reads he could have made to give the Ravens a better chance. Instead, Buffalo’s pressure ruled the day. Jackson is a 24-year-old wizard who understands his legacy will be measured by Super Bowls. Will this be the year he takes his next major step forward? There aren’t many more interesting stories in the sport.