The talent discrepancy between the final four teams left in the NFL playoffs and the rest of the league is glaring after the divisional games over the weekend.
Because of the talent on their defensive line, the Philadelphia Eagles were able to hang with New Orleans for a half until the Saints were able to shake off the rust of basically two weeks of inactivity for their first-string units.
There are three tiers in the NFL. The Los Angeles Rams, New England Patriots, Saints and Kansas City Chiefs are in the top group. The second group is by far the largest, including teams such as the Ravens, the Los Angeles Chargers, Philadelphia, the Indianapolis Colts and the Dallas Cowboys.
And then there are the bums, such as the Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets.
The Ravens moved at least a notch closer to the upper echelon after winning the AFC North title in 2018, but it might be another year or two before they get there. Defensively, the Ravens can match up with any team in the NFL.
Offensively, they lack star power, even with rookie Lamar Jackson as their quarterback of the future. The Ravens also don’t have the necessary balance on offense yet.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh can talk all he wants about the “team concept,” and that’s good to a degree, but the remaining four playoff teams have top players at at least two of the three highly skilled positions of quarterback, running back and receiver.
In New England, 41-year-old quarterback Tom Brady still runs the offense and has receivers Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. Kansas City has quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who should be the league’s Most Valuable Player, and receivers Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill.
Of course, New Orleans has its own ageless quarterback wonder in Drew Brees, and the Saints have two top weapons on offense in receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara. The Rams counter with quarterback Jared Goff, running back Todd Gurley and receiver Robert Woods.
And on offense, the Ravens have ...
Well, that’s the problem.
They have a couple of maybes. Jackson has potential, as well as tight ends Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst. Rookie running back Gus Edwards showed some promise, but will never be in the class of Gurley or Kamara.
Basically, the Ravens have several potential players who are works in progress and will take several more years to develop. They might try to go after a big-name wide receiver on the free-agent market, but that’s unlikely to happen with an offense built more around Jackson’s legs than his arm.
That is a concern, too.
The Ravens replaced Marty Mornhinweg with Greg Roman as the offensive coordinator last week in an effort to maximize Jackson’s abilities. The emphasis will be on the running game, but there will be more run-pass options, bootlegs and rollouts in the offense, which will be similar to what Roman used in San Francisco with quarterback Colin Kaepernick and in Buffalo with Tyrod Taylor.
That’s all great in theory and philosophy, but I want to know who is going to teach Jackson the proper throwing techniques and mechanics, which he didn’t have last season.
And, regardless of schemes, formations and trick plays, can this guy win a game throwing the ball downfield from the pocket with accuracy?
A key word for the Ravens to think about is balance. They haven’t had it on offense for years. They turned quarterback Joe Flacco loose for several seasons as they tried to become pass happy with the rest of the league.
Once Flacco got hurt at midseason this past year, they turned to Jackson and stressed running the ball. It’s a good ideal, and the Ravens went 6-1 down the stretch to get into the postseason.
But in the end, offensive balance is needed. There doesn’t have to be a 50/50 ratio as far as run versus pass, but some semblance of balance is needed to make opposing teams respect both.
During the regular season, New England ran the ball 478 times compared with 574 pass attempts. Kansas City was more pass-happy, throwing 583 times compared with 387 rushing attempts, but New Orleans had 471 running plays as opposed to 519 passing. The Rams had 568 pass attempts to 459 rushing.
Somehow, the Ravens have to create their own formula for balance.
It will be an interesting offseason. Roman has to redesign a new offense and Jackson has to learn it. Hurst and Andrews should have more impact simply with a strong season in the weight room, and the same will be true for right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and Edwards.
But unless the Ravens get lucky and things fall their way, they are still a year or two from making the next jump into the top echelon.
On offense, they’re still feeling growing pains.
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