With the Ravens coming off their bye week, it’s time to review seven things we’ve learned from their first seven games.
The Ravens are more dependent than ever on Lamar Jackson.
Jackson 4.0 is the quarterback his sharpest critics defied him to become. He’s the NFL’s most aggressive downfield passer, easily leading the league in air yards per attempt and completion, according to the league’s Next Gen Stats. His completion percentage above expectation — a measure of his accuracy relative to the difficulty of his attempts — is better than those of Josh Allen, Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes. He’s fifth in yards per attempt, up from 19th last season.
Jackson is doing all this while carrying the Ravens’ running game to a degree he did not in 2019 or 2020. He has nearly as many rushing yards, 480, as the team’s top three running backs combined, and he again leads the league in yards per carry despite the intense focus defenses place on him. He’s not picking up as many of his yards on designed runs, but he’s such a brilliant scrambler that it does seem to matter.
It’s not just that Jackson is responsible for a huge percentage of the team’s offense. The Ravens have needed every yard, because their defense has surrendered so many chunk plays to opposing quarterbacks and receivers. Aside from wins over the Denver Broncos and the Los Angeles Chargers, every game has felt like an arms race. Without No. 8 at quarterback, it’s fair to wonder if the Ravens would even be mediocre. No player in the league is more deeply entwined in his team’s DNA.
Jackson has to be on any shortlist of Most Valuable Player candidates.
The Ravens have entered problem-solving mode on defense, but their troubles defy easy repair.
It was tempting to shrug and decide the Ravens had finally remembered how to tackle after their 34-6 dismantling of the Chargers. With wise old linebacker Josh Bynes steadying the middle of the defense, defensive end Calais Campbell piling up bodies at the line of scrimmage and starting cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Anthony Averett locking down the edges, the ailments of the first five weeks seemed to recede.
This defensive Pax Romana lasted exactly seven days. The Ravens tackled worse than ever in their 41-17 loss to the upstart Cincinnati Bengals, with almost half of Joe Burrow’s 416 passing yards coming after the catch. Humphrey, the team’s best defensive player, could not keep up with rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. Burrow, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick, brushed right past the Baltimore pass rush after it bothered him in the first quarter. He connected on two long touchdown passes with his tight end, C.J. Uzomah, and another with Chase. He became the third quarterback this year to surpass 400 yards against a pass defense that was supposed to be one of the league’s best.
So the Ravens are back to the drawing board. They seem to have found a workable formula at inside linebacker, where Bynes has played well for two weeks and Patrick Queen has begun to unlock his potential in the less complicated weak-side role. But their most confounding problem is also their simplest: How do you teach remedial tackling to some of the best athletes in the world when contact is no longer a regular part of practice?
“It’s a great question,” linebackers coach Rob Ryan said. “Shoot, back in the day, you could tackle them all the time. I remember live-tackling guys in New England that were having difficulty before the playoffs, even in the open date with full pads. I don’t know if that was legal or not, but we did it. … We have to rep it. They give you the … The equipment that we have are those little tires and things. You can’t exactly tackle things to the ground unless you have the pads on, because you don’t want to risk injury. But it’s definitely a focus of ours.”
The Ravens have not been killed over the top or overpowered at the line of scrimmage, but they will not win consistently if they let opposing skill players turn modest gains into huge ones.
You can’t just plug any back into Greg Roman’s ground attack.
When the Ravens lost J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards to season-ending injuries, we debated how much their league-best rushing attack would suffer. Would Roman’s schemes, which had worked in multiple cities and found their purest expression with Jackson as the orchestrator, transcend the absence of dynamic ball carriers?
The Ravens have not fallen off a cliff. They still rank fourth in rushing and sixth in yards per attempt, and they have trampled the sorry run defenses of the Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs. But they absolutely miss Edwards’ ability to make positive yards out of almost any situation and Dobbins’ gift for popping off double-digit gains. They have not found a commensurate replacement from the trio of former 1,000-yard rushers they signed hastily at the end of the preseason. They cannot fall back on their power game to sustain clock-munching drives against good defenses.
As coach John Harbaugh said last week, it’s a multipronged problem that also encompasses blocking and play calling, but it’s hard to imagine the Ravens would be in this spot if they had their young stars taking handoffs from Jackson.
Latavius Murray has run hard as their No. 1 option, but he’s averaging 3.6 yards per carry; Dobbins averaged 6.0 as a rookie, and Edwards has never averaged below 5.0. Devonta Freeman has averaged 5.5 yards per carry, but the Ravens don’t seem inclined to feed him more than a few times a game. Le’Veon Bell lacks the explosion to make much of the outside runs that were his signature in Pittsburgh. Ty’Son Williams has not earned the trust of coaches despite rushing for 142 yards in Weeks 1 and 2.
Jackson is the one sustaining the Ravens’ ground production, and more than 50% of his yards have come on scrambles.
The Ravens hit with their pick of Odafe Oweh, but they’re facing an extensive reload on defense.
Though Oweh’s production tailed off the past two weeks, he has made as many crucial plays as anyone on the defense, defying the notion that he would need years to develop into a meaningful NFL pass rusher. His size-speed combination remains the headline, but he also impressed coaches and teammates with his serious approach to the craft from Day One.
That said, how many players can be inked in beside Oweh as future building blocks for the defense?
Humphrey is the face of the operation. Chuck Clark is a leader and jack of all trades on the back end. Tyus Bowser’s versatility is quietly essential on the edge. Defensive tackle Justin Madubuike shows promising signs in every game but has not played up to the more aggressive hype he generated in the preseason. Queen had to take a step back and reset at a new position after his early struggles at middle linebacker.
The Ravens will have to make free-agent decisions on safety DeShon Elliott and Averett. Maybe Campbell, easily the team’s best defensive lineman at age 35, will sign on for one more go-round. Maybe not. Top ball hawk Marcus Peters has a year left on his deal after he suffered a season-ending knee injury, but he could be a salary-cap casualty.
We don’t have to go through every defender on the roster; the point is that the near-term future of this franchise will be defined by offense, a state of affairs that would have seemed unimaginable for most of Ravens history.
For once, pass-catchers are the solution, not the problem.
Speaking of Ravens history, how strange is it that none of fans’ major worries this season have centered on the team’s wide receivers? Almost every player in this long-scrutinized position group has met or exceeded expectations.
No matter what Bart Scott says, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown has emerged as a consistent game-breaker who fights for extra yards despite his slight frame. Veteran Sammy Watkins provided a complimentary deep threat before a hamstring injury sidelined him. First-round pick Rashod Bateman missed the first five weeks as he recovered from groin surgery but started picking up first downs as soon as he took the field. Devin Duvernay is not just the league’s best returner; he’s a regular part of the passing game and Roman’s first choice on jet sweeps. James Proche II doesn’t get many opportunities but produced a breakout game in Denver.
And we can’t forget tight end Mark Andrews, who is playing at an All-Pro level after he signed a $56 million contract before the start of the season.
General manager Eric DeCosta invested significant draft and free-agent capital to surround Jackson with players who could help him grow as a passer. It’s working, and with Watkins on his way back and Bateman just getting his feet under him, the future looks brighter still.
The Ravens have found a functional trio in the middle of their offensive line, but tackle might be their greatest trouble spot for the rest of 2021.
DeCosta and Harbaugh were dissatisfied with the performance of their offensive line in the team’s playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills, so no section of the roster received more attention in the offseason. Harbaugh and his staff spoke bullishly of the unit’s depth and dependability going into training camp.
Injuries complicated this upbeat narrative almost immediately.
The Ravens’ plans hinged on left tackle Ronnie Stanley recovering from ankle surgery and resembling the All-Pro he was in 2019. Stanley ramped up throughout camp and gave it a go in Week 1 against the Las Vegas Raiders, but he was a shell of himself, unable to move nimbly enough to impede outside rushes. He did not return to practice, and the vibes around his situation grew ominous as Harbaugh declined to give concrete updates. No one was terribly surprised when Stanley and the team announced he would need another surgery in hopes of being ready for 2022.
Given the difficulty of his recovery, we have to wonder if Stanley will ever again be the player who earned a $98.75 million contract. That’s no comment on his dedication or skill, just a sad reflection of the perils associated with the sport.
The loss of the unit’s best player set off a chain reaction, with veteran Alejandro Villanueva moving to the left side and Swiss Army knife Patrick Mekari stepping in at right tackle. This shift worked surprisingly well, because Mekari stepped up, but now he’s hurt too, coping with a reported high-ankle sprain that could keep him out until December. The Ravens are down to Tyre Phillips, who is probably better suited for guard, and Cedric Ogbuehi, a former first-round pick whom they signed to their practice squad. Villanueva, meanwhile, could not keep up with Bengals pass rusher Trey Hendrickson in Sunday’s blowout loss. Not ideal given the importance of protecting Jackson.
The scramble at tackle has obscured the Ravens’ success in rebuilding the interior of their line. Kevin Zeitler has lived up to his reputation for reliability at right guard. Bradley Bozeman has delivered a hoped-for upgrade at center. And Ben Powers, the man they’re always trying to replace, has held his own, especially as a pass blocker, at left guard.
All the injuries aside, the Ravens have accomplished what they needed to through seven weeks.
Harbaugh hates talking about the big picture of his team’s season, seeing no profit in looking past next week’s problems. But we can take one glance at the Ravens’ schedule in December and January — Santa delivers the Packers and Rams, sandwiched around a trip to Cincinnati the day after Christmas — and say it’s imperative for them to go into that stretch with nine or 10 wins banked.
They’re well on their way, despite the various heart-attack finishes and the setback against the Bengals. There’s much we do not know about how the Ravens will come together for the postseason. They have excelled in every area of football at one time or another, but with the exception of their win over the Chargers, they have not fired on all cylinders in the same game.
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They will have to do so to make a deep run in January. But they have to get there first, and that means piling up wins in any form. Five in the first seven games is a good start — the same record with which they began their two Super Bowl seasons. Now, the Ravens must keep the pedal down as they enter another manageable stretch, with a home date against the Minnesota Vikings followed by trips to Miami and Chicago. If they exit November at 8-3 or 9-2, they will be in good shape.
As Harbaugh would surely tell us, easier said than done.
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 6