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Ravens midseason superlatives: Most valuable, most improved, best play and more

The Baltimore Sun hands out its midseason report card for the AFC North leader Baltimore Ravens.

Little about this Ravens season has been easy to predict. On offense, they have traded a run-heavy approach for a more pass-happy attack. On defense, they have given up more big plays than anyone could’ve imagined. From week to week, and sometimes from half to half, they can vacillate from dominant to dormant.

But in the aggregate, the 2021 Ravens have been led by the usual suspects in Baltimore, with only injuries keeping some of the team’s stars from headlines, both good and bad.

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With the Ravens nine games into an expanded 17-game regular-season schedule, Week 11 becomes something of a halfway point. As the team prepares for Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears, here’s who’s worthy of midseason superlatives:

Most valuable Raven: Lamar Jackson

For as long as the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player is healthy and active in Baltimore, don’t expect this answer to change. He’s been the lone bright spot in the Ravens’ running game this season, averaging 7.8 yards per carry on scrambles, according to Sports Info Solutions. He’s also taken a step forward as a passer, matching his 2020 accuracy (64.4%) despite leading the NFL in average intended air yards (10.1).

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No other team asks so much of their quarterback, and no other player in Baltimore shoulders so much responsibility. Jackson’s on pace to set career highs for interceptions thrown and sacks taken, but there’s a reason he’s still in the running for his second league MVP award in three years.

Most improved Raven: Marquise “Hollywood” Brown

Maybe the wide receiver hasn’t improved so much as he’s remained healthy, but the difference between Year 2 and Year 3 has been immense. With 719 receiving yards over nine games, Brown would be on pace for 1,278 yards over a 16-game season, the most in Ravens history. He needs just 50 receiving yards Sunday to match his career-high total, set last year.

Despite the occasional drop, Brown has zoomed past offseason questions about whether he could ever be a top-dog wide receiver on a respectable passing attack. The Los Angeles Rams’ Cooper Kupp, Kansas City Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill and Brown are the NFL’s only players with at least 50 catches, 700 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns this season. The former first-round pick’s elite speed makes him a constant deep threat, and his improved route running has given him more opportunities to stress defenses after the catch, too.

Ravens rookie outside linebacker Odafe Oweh (99) reacts after recovering a fumble by Kansas City Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the fourth quarter on Sept. 19 in Baltimore.
Ravens rookie outside linebacker Odafe Oweh (99) reacts after recovering a fumble by Kansas City Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the fourth quarter on Sept. 19 in Baltimore. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Best rookie: Odafe Oweh

The Ravens’ second first-round pick gets the nod here over their first first-round pick, wide receiver Rashod Bateman, just based on longevity. The outside linebacker from Penn State leads all NFL rookies in quarterback pressures (29), according to Pro Football Focus, and has four sacks in nine games overall. Oweh’s takeaway talents stand out on a defense that has mostly lacked them, and he’s impressed with his ability to set the edge as a run defender.

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Bateman’s no slouch, either. After setting a career high for catches (six) and matching a career high for receiving yards (80) Thursday against Miami, the former Minnesota star has 18 catches for 15 first downs and 241 yards this season. Only one Ravens wide receiver in franchise history racked up more receiving yards over his first four games — his teammate Brown (304), in 2019. All that’s missing from Bateman’s torrid start is a touchdown catch.

Most glaring absence: Marcus Peters

This Ravens defense hasn’t found another ball hawk to replace Peters, who tore his ACL just days before the season opener. He had four interceptions in 14 games last season and three picks in his 10 games with the Ravens in 2019. Coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s defense has just five interceptions this year.

The Ravens miss Peters’ on-field swagger and in-game intelligence, which seemed to permeate the secondary when he was healthy and locked in. They also miss his lockdown ability. While cornerback Anthony Averett has played well opposite Marlon Humphrey, the Ravens’ blitz rates have fallen under 35% this year, according to Pro Football Reference, a significant drop-off that suggests they’re less comfortable with leaving defensive backs on an island.

Ravens offensive tackle Patrick Mekari (65) blocks Broncos linebacker Von Miller in the first half on Oct. 3 in Denver.
Ravens offensive tackle Patrick Mekari (65) blocks Broncos linebacker Von Miller in the first half on Oct. 3 in Denver. (Bart Young/AP)

Most pleasant surprise: Patrick Mekari

The former undrafted free agent seemed destined to be the Ravens’ next James Hurst, a jack-of-all-trades lineman whom the offense could reliably plug in anywhere up front. Athletically, he seemed best suited for the interior. But when Ronnie Stanley (ankle) was shut down after Week 1, leaving right tackle Alejandro Villanueva to return to his more natural left side, the Ravens needed a new bookend.

In stepped Mekari, who’d last started at tackle in college. Until suffering an ankle injury in the Ravens’ Week 7 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Mekari was among the Ravens’ most consistent players, steady in both pass and run blocking. “I couldn’t ask for a better player there right now,” coach John Harbaugh said of the third-year lineman in mid-October.

Biggest disappointment: Injury timetables

The Ravens’ offseason hope was that Stanley (ankle) would be ready to open the season. Their late-August hope was that tight end Nick Boyle (knee) would be ready for Week 1, too. Their late-October hope was that defensive end Derek Wolfe (back/hip) would be able to play this season.

How much gamesmanship might’ve motivated those expectations is unclear. But as the Ravens enter Week 11, only one of those three expected starters, Boyle, has a reasonable chance of playing Sunday in Chicago. Stanley underwent season-ending ankle surgery last month for the second straight year. Harbaugh said Monday that Wolfe’s not expected to return this season. Boyle was limited in practice last week, but he at least has time to ramp up his participation and get in game shape.

Best single-game performance: Lamar Jackson vs. Indianapolis

The Ravens couldn’t run the ball in Week 5. They entered halftime with just a field goal. They trailed the visiting Colts by 19 points in the third quarter and by 16 in the fourth quarter. Ultimately, it didn’t matter, because they had Jackson at quarterback, and that was enough.

In a 31-25 overtime win, Jackson finished 37-for-43 for 442 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions and added 14 carries for a game-high 62 yards. He set a single-game franchise record for passing yards and became the first player in NFL history with at least 400 passing yards and a completion rate above 85% in a game. His 5-yard touchdown pass to Brown in overtime completed the third-biggest comeback in Ravens history.

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Best play: Justin Tucker’s 66-yard field goal

The Ravens kicker was already the most accurate in NFL history. In the dying seconds of a Week 3 comeback win over the Detroit Lions, he also hit the longest field goal in league history. By approaching the attempt as if it were a kickoff and getting what Harbaugh called a “supernatural push,” Tucker knocked the ball far enough to bounce it off the crossbar and over for a 19-17 win.

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The record-breaking kick came just three plays after the Ravens completed a fourth-and-19 deep in their own territory. “When you have a kicker like that, you want to give them an opportunity like that,” Harbaugh said. “For him to come through like that is just historic. Someone came up to me on the sideline and said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that before.’ It came to me right away, because nobody has ever done anything like that before.”

Worst play: Ja’Marr Chase’s 82-yard touchdown

Maybe no play has summed up the Ravens’ defensive struggles this season better than the Bengals wide receiver’s back-breaking catch-and-run last month. With Cincinnati facing third-and-2 from its 18-yard line and the Ravens trailing 20-17, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow looked to his right for Chase, running a quick in-breaking route.

The rookie separated from cornerback Marlon Humphrey, secured the pass and was on his way. First, Chase broke a tackle from safety DeShon Elliott, whose attempt undercut Humphrey. Then safety Chuck Clark couldn’t corral Chase. Outside linebacker Justin Houston didn’t get a hand on him. Chase would finish with a career-high 201 receiving yards in the Bengals’ 41-17 win. Cincinnati rolled up 500-plus yards of total offense, the second opponent in three weeks to do so against the Ravens.

Week 11

RAVENS@BEARS

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 6

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