After nine games, six wins and countless injuries, the Ravens have crossed the NFL’s midway point atop the AFC North. But as the team prepares for Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears, it’s hard to tell how good they’ve been — or how good they’ll need to be to reach the postseason once again.
According to Football Outsiders, the Ravens have faced the NFL’s fourth-weakest schedule. Their remaining schedule, meanwhile, is only the 21st toughest. With the second half of the season underway, Baltimore Sun reporters Childs Walker and Jonas Shaffer and editor C.J. Doon made their best guesses at what will happen over the Ravens’ final eight weeks.
The Ravens’ second-half schedule is packed with division games and a couple of Super Bowl contenders. Predict their final regular-season record and finish in the AFC North.
Walker: 11-6, first. The Ravens squandered an important chance to pad their record against the Dolphins, but every team in the division has stumbled over the past few weeks. If they can get back on track against the Chicago Bears, they will be fine. Despite their struggles with Miami’s Cover 0 blitzes, the Ravens have more offensive upside than any team in the division because of Lamar Jackson’s versatility and their talented array of pass catchers. Their defense can still be very good when it limits explosive plays. Finally, they will benefit from playing three of their last four games at home.
Shaffer: 11-6, tied for first. The Ravens might lead the division, but their finishing kick — home games against the Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers, and road games against the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals — is brutal. Compare that with the Bengals’, who, on paper, are probably the division’s weakest team: Cincinnati gets a somewhat watered-down AFC West slate, plus home games against the Ravens and Steelers. It’ll be a war of attrition, and the Bengals look healthy enough to catch up to the Ravens.
Doon: 11-6, first. What looked like one of the hardest remaining schedules in the league might not be so difficult after all. According to Football Outsiders, the Ravens’ remaining schedule is much easier than the Steelers’ (seventh hardest) and the Bengals’ (13th). Of course, their stunning loss Thursday night to the lowly Dolphins showed why it’s foolish to pencil in wins based on record alone. But the Ravens are getting healthier, and Jackson, despite a frustrating performance in Miami, is playing at a Most Valuable Player-worthy level. The Ravens are flawed, but they’re still better than the rest of the division.
Lamar Jackson is considered a 10-to-1 long shot to win his second NFL MVP award. Do you see his second half looking more like his breakthrough 2019 or inconsistent 2020 season?
Walker: Jackson probably will not blaze through the competition as he did in 2019, because we are well past the point where he’s going to catch anyone by surprise. We have seen defensive coordinators build their entire plans around containing him, and he has not always adjusted quickly enough (see the Miami game). The Ravens no longer destroy opponents out of the gate. But Jackson will continue to play better than he did in 2020 because he’s a more confident passer with more dynamic targets. When the Ravens are down, he has answers.
Shaffer: If the Ravens can get injured right tackle Patrick Mekari, guard Ben Cleveland and tight end Nick Boyle back in the mix, their pass protection and run blocking should be in better shape. That would give Jackson and offensive coordinator Greg Roman the help they need to keep defenses off balance. If Jackson can limit his interceptions, there’s little stopping him from approaching the efficiency of his 2019 season.
Jackson’s leading receivers that year were two second-year tight ends (Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst) and a rookie wide receiver (Marquise “Hollywood” Brown). Now Andrews and Brown are more mature receivers, rookie Rashod Bateman is off to a flying start, and Sammy Watkins is a steady veteran. Jackson’s improvements as a passer can’t be overlooked, either.
Doon: That’s a tough call. This offensive line doesn’t allow Jackson to be as dominant a rusher on designed runs, but he’s still piling up yards as a scrambler. Jackson might never be as efficient as he was in 2019, when he threw touchdowns on 9% of his throws, but he’s attacking downfield better than ever. He’s closer to his 2020 version than his MVP season, but sustaining that level of efficiency as both a runner and passer was never realistic. He’s good enough to carry the offense on his shoulders most weeks, but without a credible running threat alongside him in the backfield, he’s somewhat limited.
Excluding Lamar Jackson, which player will be the Ravens’ most valuable over their final eight games?
Walker: The Ravens will need cornerback Marlon Humphrey to play like an All-Pro down the stretch given the other players they have lost. Not only will they count on him to neutralize the other team’s top pass catcher, but he will also have to be a leading voice as they try to get everyone in the secondary operating on the same page. The Ravens bet $97.5 million on Humphrey becoming their next defensive centerpiece. He has not always played up to that status in 2021, but he understands his importance to the culture of the team, and the guess here is that he will meet the moment.
Shaffer: Humphrey. Just look at the No. 1 wide receivers the Ravens will probably ask him to cover: Cleveland’s Jarvis Landry, Pittsburgh’s Chase Claypool (or Diontae Johnson), Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase, the Green Bay Packers’ Davante Adams, the Los Angeles Rams’ Cooper Kupp.
Humphrey has looked more and more like himself since the Ravens’ Week 7 debacle against Cincinnati, and he’s taken responsibility for the team’s secondary struggles, even when other players have seemed more deserving of the blame. Physically, Humphrey is built for the rigors of a 17-game season. Mentally, he’ll help the Ravens learn from their early-season struggles. And sooner or later, those punch-out attempts will start connecting.
Doon: Calais Campbell. Derek Wolfe’s season-ending back injury, Brandon Williams’ steady decline and Justin Madubuike not making the second-year leap many expected has left the Ravens thin along the defensive line. Campbell is still playing at a Pro Bowl level at age 35, grading fourth among defensive linemen, according to Pro Football Focus. Where would this defense be without him? Of all the players the Ravens can ill afford to lose, Campbell is near the top of the list.
Which player’s return from injury will prove most consequential?
Walker: We knew Tyre Phillips was not the ideal solution at right tackle, and he did nothing to change that thinking with his performance against the Dolphins. The Ravens’ offense was more functional with Mekari playing beside Kevin Zeitler on the right side. So Mekari’s return, which could come sooner rather than later, will be most welcome.
With Ronnie Stanley out, the Ravens are not going to have their optimal offensive line in 2021, but they can be good enough if they have all their remaining pieces, including Phillips and Cleveland at guard, in the mix.
Shaffer: Mekari’s. At this point in the season, we don’t know yet how much of an improvement Boyle will be over Eric Tomlinson. Cleveland, despite all his obvious physical prowess, is still just a rookie, and first-year linemen rarely set the world on fire. Watkins’ reintegration on offense will help the Ravens’ passing attack, especially if they want to spread defenses out, but there wasn’t too much of a drop-off with Bateman in his place.
Mekari, meanwhile, proved a quick learner at right tackle. Phillips has struggled to string together consistent drives, and his deficiencies as a pass blocker have been exposed when the Ravens have had to play from behind. If Mekari can get his ankle back into good shape and Villanueva can avoid any further knee trouble, the Ravens should have two solid bookend tackles.
Doon: If the Ravens want to get back to their 2019 form running the ball, Boyle should help. One of the league’s best blocking tight ends can help unlock Roman’s rushing attack, giving defenses another body to account for in heavy-personnel packages. Boyle has never been targeted more than six times in a game in his career, but his value doesn’t come in the passing game. The Ravens need Boyle at full strength to get the most out of veteran running backs Latavius Murray and Devonta Freeman.
Which of the Ravens’ recurring problems are they closest to fixing, or at least improving?
Walker: Their defense has been good most of the time, so it’s hard to imagine the Ravens will not find a way to limit the explosive plays that have haunted them. Josh Bynes has already stabilized the middle of the defense with his grasp of coverages and sound play against the run. Now the Ravens must cut down on their communications lapses in the secondary. Rookie safety Brandon Stephens is facing a trial by fire, playing almost every snap beside Chuck Clark on the back end, but his learning curve will accelerate with all this forced experience. A stable lineup, assuming the Ravens avoid more injuries, will lead to more consistent performance.
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Shaffer: The defense’s big-play troubles have got to be unsustainable … right? The Ravens’ secondary is too talented, their coaching is too well regarded, and their bad luck has gone on for too long for the team to keep giving up this many head-scratchers. In nine games, the defense has allowed seven 50-plus-yard plays, the most in the NFL.
Even if the Ravens don’t transform overnight into one of the NFL’s best pass defenses, the law of averages suggests that they’re due a couple of takeaways. A few interceptions might change the way offenses attack them. That would at least buy the Ravens some time to patch their holes.
Doon: The Ravens start turning pressures into sacks. Baltimore ranks second in the league in pressure rate and fourth in pass-rush win rate — the ability to beat blocks within 2.5 seconds — but only have 19 sacks, which ranks 21st in the league. Justin Houston has been coming on strong of late, and fellow outside linebacker Odafe Oweh has more pressures than any rookie in the league through Week 10. The sacks will come eventually.
Offer a bold second-half prediction for the 2021 Ravens.
Walker: The Ravens will sweep the Steelers. This always feels like a dicey proposition given the wild games these teams have played over the years. But with Ben Roethlisberger on his last legs and Pittsburgh’s defense more vulnerable than it has been in years, the Ravens will have a clear upper hand.
Shaffer: Oweh and Houston will combine for 12 sacks over their final eight games. The duo combined for seven over their first nine games, but they’ve been unlucky to not get home more. Houston, especially, should’ve reached 100 career sacks long before Thursday. If the Ravens’ defense can improve its play on first and second down, and get offenses into more obvious passing situations, watch out.
Doon: The Ravens win two playoff games. It hasn’t happened yet in the Jackson era, but a wide-open AFC could lead to a breakthrough. The Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots and Los Angeles Chargers could be tough first-round matchups, but the Ravens have beaten Kansas City and Los Angeles and should be able to take advantage of a rookie quarterback in Mac Jones.
The Tennessee Titans have a clear path to the No. 1 seed, but they’re not as formidable without star running back Derrick Henry. The Bills might be the most talented team in the AFC, but quarterback Josh Allen hasn’t been as effective as he was last season. A healthier Ravens team could be peaking at the right time come January.