At Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s season-ending news conference, he said it would take scheme and roster improvements for his team to take another step in the 2020 NFL season. If he was watching Sunday’s championship games, the two teams headed to Super Bowl LIV provided a few ideas the Ravens could try to emulate.
Here are three things the Ravens can learn from the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers after Sunday’s championship games.
A few more playmakers will allow the Ravens offense to reach its full potential.
The Ravens front office, after years of neglecting to invest early draft picks in skill positions, have done well in the past two years to build an offense around quarterback Lamar Jackson. Rookie wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown had a productive rookie season, despite never truly playing at 100%. Tight end Mark Andrews was a steal in the third round and established an instant rapport with Jackson. Fellow tight end Hayden Hurst showed improvement in his second season and rookies Miles Boykin and Justice Hill had their moments.
Take an offense like the Chiefs’. It’s unfair to expect Jackson to ever become as gifted a passer as quarterback Patrick Mahomes, but across Kansas City’s offense, you see skill players who pose extreme matchup problems for opposing defenses, whether it be wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins, tight end Travis Kelce or running back Damien Williams. The mere threat of their speed allows Kansas City to be more creative with their formations and use of motion. We saw aspects of that this season with Brown, where the Ravens would put him in motion or fake a pass to him to free up another target. Pairing Jackson with a few more playmakers would further improve his development as a dropback passer.
No matter how good your secondary is, you have to pressure the quarterback without blitzing.
The Ravens defense blitzed on over 50% of opposing quarterback dropbacks, the only team to bring pressure on more than half of such plays. This was partly because of a lack of bonafide pass rushers and partly because of the faith defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale had in the team’s high-priced secondary. The tactic had mixed results, as the Ravens ranked first in knockdown percentage but in the bottom half of the league in hurries and pressures and 21st in sacks.
The 49ers blitzed at the fourth-lowest rate in the league, but ranked sixth in sacks because of the strength of their front four. San Francisco drafted three of those defensive linemen — Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Nick Bosa — in the first round and acquired another last offseason, via trade, in Dee Ford. The 49ers’ ability to beat offensive linemen one-on-one allows them to drop seven and sometimes eight defenders in coverage. Martindale frequently said he believes the best way to disrupt an offense is to affect the quarterback.
Forcing a quarterback to throw into tight windows between multiple defenders can be just as effective, if not more effective, as bringing the house.
It’s possible to make a Super Bowl run after a tough loss, but it’s going to be a long process.
One can make the argument that the Chiefs were perhaps one offsides penalty and a coin flip away from making two straight trips to the Super Bowl. Instead, Kansas City was knocked out of the playoffs at home last season as a No. 1 seed, just like the Ravens. The Chiefs repeated this season as AFC West champions with a 12-4 record but began the playoffs as the No. 2 seed and went through their own struggles. Mahomes dislocated his kneecap midseason, missed two games and had a slight dropoff in production from his NFL Most Valuable Player year. Kansas City’s much-maligned defense went through its own struggles early in the season. But the Chiefs got hot at the right time and sustained their high level of play through the playoffs, eventually atoning for last year’s disappointing loss.
Chances are the Ravens won’t go 14-2 next season and won’t win 12 straight games in the regular season. Jackson might not replicate a season that will likely earn him MVP honors. That doesn’t mean that the Ravens can’t make another run at and ultimately reach the Super Bowl. As Harbaugh said in his season-ending news conference, the Ravens, with all the turnover they experienced throughout the season, were the best team they could be. They just didn’t play their best football at the most important time.
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Jackson and his teammates will be steadfast in their desire to rectify another playoff burnout, just like the 2012 Ravens avenged their conference championship game loss to the Patriots by winning the Super Bowl the next season. But it won’t happen after one training camp practice. It won’t happen after one regular-season game. And it won’t even happen if they reach the playoffs for a third straight season. Harbaugh was right to say the NFL is a race, and the Ravens must pace themselves, as well as their expectations, throughout the 2020 season.