With five prime-time showdowns and seven 2020 playoff teams on the schedule, the Ravens’ 2021 slate is one of the NFL’s toughest.
It’s also one of the most interesting. Seemingly every game has a game (or two ... or three ... or four) within the game worthy of top billing. The Ravens aren’t just just facing Super Bowl contenders like the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers. They’re also having to stop playmakers like Nick Chubb and Aaron Donald.
Individual matchups matter only so much, but they could shape the season ahead for several Ravens standouts. Here’s a look at the biggest one-on-one battles on the team’s 2021 schedule.
Lamar Jackson vs. Darius Leonard (Week 5)
A three-time All-Pro selection, Leonard is one of the few inside linebackers powerful enough to shed pulling blockers and fast enough to track down the Ravens’ speedy run-game weapons. In the Colts’ 24-10 loss to the Ravens last season, he had a season-high 15 tackles, including 13 solo stops and one for loss. It wasn’t cleanup duty, either; only two of his 12 tackles came on runs of 6-plus yards. Six stops were for 3 yards or fewer.
“You can’t play to make a play,” Leonard said before the Week 9 matchup. “You just have to play to do your job. As long as everyone does that, that’s the name of the game because once you go out and try to make a play, you want to do something that’s not really your job, that’s when things go south. It’s just basically being patient, doing your job and not trying to do too much extra stuff.”
The final scoreline at Lucas Oil Stadium was somewhat deceiving. The Ravens finished with 266 yards overall, their third fewest all season, and just 2.9 yards per carry. Leonard had a lot to do with that. But he was also picked on in coverage. Of Jackson’s 23 attempts, over a third went after Leonard, who allowed six completions on eight targets for 51 yards, according to Pro-Football-Reference. Even with Jackson all but boycotting outside-the-numbers throws, he still finished 19-for-23 for 170 yards.
Ronnie Stanley vs. Joey Bosa (Week 6)
It’s not as if Stanley, who’s still recovering from a serious ankle injury, has an easy first five weeks. There’s the Raiders’ Yannick Ngakoue in a season-opening trip to Las Vegas. Frank Clark and the Kansas City Chiefs await after that. Then the Detroit Lions’ Romeo Okwara. Then the Denver Broncos’ Bradley Chubb, with maybe a little Von Miller sprinkled in. Of the Ravens’ early-season opponents, only the Colts lack a big-name pass rusher.
Bosa, a three-time Pro Bowl selection for the Los Angeles Chargers, is a cut above those five likely tests. He’s explosive and strong, well schooled and versatile. He’ll ask questions of Stanley on the left side and whomever the Ravens install on the right side. Can they handle his long-arm move? Do they have the length and footwork to keep him from turning the corner? Are they strong enough to displace him as a run blocker? Focused enough to stay engaged until the play ends?
Bosa has 1 ½ sacks in two games against the Ravens, both coming in 2019, both starting on Jackson’s blind side. But Stanley was not responsible for either sack; the blame fell to left guard James Hurst, who was beaten badly on both plays. When healthy, Stanley is one of the NFL’s best tackles, especially in pass protection. He hasn’t allowed a sack over the past two seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. But if Stanley’s ankle is still giving him trouble in mid-October, Bosa will only compound the problem.
Marlon Humphrey vs. Ja’Marr Chase (Weeks 7, 16)
The AFC North’s best cornerback needs a new nemesis. With Humphrey set to return to the outside, his slot battles with receivers Jarvis Landry and JuJu Smith-Schuster will have to be handed off. So whom on the schedule gets circled instead? Odell Beckham Jr.’s star has faded in recent years. Chase Claypool has star potential but not elite efficiency. Tee Higgins would’ve eclipsed 1,000 yards as a rookie with a healthy Joe Burrow.
But he’s not the Bengals’ most talented receiver anymore. There’s perhaps no more compelling matchup for Humphrey than Chase, Cincinnati’s No. 5 overall selection in last month’s draft. The former LSU wide receiver had 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns during the Tigers’ 2019 national championship season — more than Minnesota Vikings star Justin Jefferson, more than Carolina Panthers second-round pick Terrace Marshall Jr.
Few battles in the NFL would promise more grace — or more physicality. On one side is a receiver you don’t want to leave in single coverage; Chase had 24 catches in 2019 on passes that traveled 20-plus yards in the air. On the other is a cornerback who’s comfortable on an island; Humphrey has earned PFF’s highest coverage grade in single coverage since the start of the 2018 season. With Humprey having signed a long-term extension, they might want to get comfortable with each other.
J.K. Dobbins vs. Roquan Smith (Week 11)
Defensive performance tends to fluctuate from year to year more than offensive performance, but the Bears’ defense has consistently been among the NFL’s best since Smith arrived in 2018. They’ve finished in the top 10 in run-stopping efficiency each of the past three seasons, according to Football Outsiders. No opponent on the Ravens’ 2021 schedule finished higher there than Chicago (No. 4) last year.
Smith, a former top-10 pick who earned All-Pro honors last year, is a test for Dobbins not only because of his tackling range (139 stops last season) but also his ability in coverage. Only the Washington Football Team was better than the Bears last season at defending running backs in the passing game, according to Football Outsiders. Smith was instrumental to their success; he had two interceptions and allowed a lowly 59.6 passer rating when targeted in coverage.
With the Ravens’ investment in their offensive line this offseason, Dobbins’ rushing production this year could be Pro Bowl-worthy. But they’ll need more from him as a receiver. He had 120 receiving yards in 15 games last season, and he eclipsed 20 yards just twice. Drops were also a problem, especially in the team’s playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills.
Mark Andrews vs. Minkah Fitzpatrick (Weeks 13, 18)
The Steelers are the one AFC North team that Andrews hasn’t really hurt. In four games against Pittsburgh — he missed one in 2019 with an ankle injury and another last year because of a coronavirus infection — Andrews has 13 catches on 21 targets for 139 yards and no touchdowns. Against the Bengals and Browns, meanwhile, he has a combined nine scores.
Before trading for Fitzpatrick in September 2019, the Steelers “had our issues with tight ends,” coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged. Last season, though, they had the NFL’s most efficient pass defense against the position, according to Football Outsiders. Fitzpatrick was an important piece, playing primarily as a center-field safety with a quick trigger. He’s held opposing quarterbacks to a 51% completion percentage overall in coverage over his two All-Pro seasons in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers don’t ask Fitzpatrick to shadow tight ends, so Andrews figures to see the team’s linebackers mirroring him again near the line of scrimmage. But because Andrews runs deeper routes than most tight ends, he often settles into the sweet spots between a zone coverage’s second and third levels. That’s where Jackson likes to make defenses pay. It’s also where Fitzpatrick does his best work.
Patrick Queen vs. Aaron Jones (Week 15)
Jones isn’t the most talented receiver among the running backs the Ravens will face in 2021, but the Packers star is one of the most well rounded. After watching Jones catch four passes for 68 yards and a touchdown in a Week 2 win over the Detroit Lions last season, wide receiver Davante Adams said his Green Bay teammate has “the ability to just embarrass any linebackers if they’re foolish enough to put a linebacker on him.”
Jones earned Pro Bowl honors and a four-year, $48 million contract extension after rushing for a career-high 1,104 yards and catching 47 passes for 355 yards last season. Queen had his highlights, too, finishing third in NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, but he left considerable room for improvement. The 2020 first-round pick missed 21 tackles in 16 games, according to PFR, the most in the NFL, and had a combined three sacks and quarterback hurries after Week 6.
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Most notable, though, were Queen’s struggles in pass defense, where he’d excelled at LSU. He allowed 366 yards (third most on the team), a 75.9% completion percentage and a 104.4 passer rating when targeted in coverage. Most of Queen’s problems came in zone coverage over the middle, but he also surrendered a few important catches to running backs along the sideline. Quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers have no doubt taken note.