Baltimore Ravens

Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 2021 season

A disappointing finish to the 2021 season left the Ravens with questions about how to rejuvenate their defense and how to get the most out of an offense led by Lamar Jackson. Here are five things we learned from the Ravens’ 8-9 campaign:

Lamar Jackson is one of the most confusing great players in the NFL.

Which part of Jackson’s season tells the story of where he’s headed? Do we focus on the first six games, when he led brilliant comebacks and was perhaps the most prolific deep passer and deadliest runner in the league? Do we dwell on the run of disappointing performances that began with an upset loss to the Miami Dolphins, which highlighted his inability to punish the blitz and seemed to shake his on-field composure? Do we worry about the 5 ½ games he missed because of recurring illnesses and a bone bruise on his ankle?


These are questions the Ravens must ask as they contemplate how to maximize Jackson’s performance in 2022 and how much to invest in him as their franchise centerpiece for the years beyond.

Though fans will wonder if the Ravens should take a wait-and-see approach, using the franchise tag as a hedge against Jackson departing after next season, the bet here is they move forward with a lucrative extension. Jackson is, after all, a former Most Valuable Player and proven winner who played at an elite level for parts of the 2021 season. Quarterbacks who fit that description don’t tend to get less expensive if you put off signing them.


That’s not to say the Ravens should ignore the troubling signs we saw in the second half. This was Jackson’s least satisfying year as a pro. Over his last five full games, the offense averaged 19.2 points (the Ravens averaged 33 in 2019). In just 12 games, he threw four more interceptions and took nine more sacks than he had in 15 games the year before. His QBR and Pro Football Focus grade have slipped each of the past two seasons. Former quarterbacks who watched from the analyst’s booth saw him holding the ball too long and forcing high-risk throws rather than accepting routine ones.

The Ravens can help by fortifying their talent at offensive tackle. Their running game will become more dynamic again with the returns of J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. Rashod Bateman could provide a third trusted target to go with Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown. But will a better context mean a better Jackson? Or does someone, either inside or outside the building, need to help him unlock his confidence as a field commander?

We saw so many contradictory signals in 2021. We also saw the Ravens struggle to win or move the ball in chunks without No. 8 at quarterback. He’s going to be the main character in the story. We just cannot tell what kind of story it’s going to be.

Ravens outside linebacker Justin Houston (50) celebrates with teammate Calais Campbell (93), left, after sacking Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert during a game Oct. 17. A modestly priced one-year extension for Campbell would not be the worst idea, but he might retire.

The defensive front needs fresh legs.

This is going to be an offseason of change for a defense that finished dead last against the pass and 28th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Injuries and COVID-19 played significant parts in that disappointing performance. It’s hard to imagine the Ravens would have given up 941 passing yards in two games against Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow with the secondary we saw in training camp.

They still finished first against the run, a testament to the enduring power of interior defenders Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams and the performance of younger edge setters such as Odafe Oweh and Tyus Bowser.

But the Ravens’ veteran-heavy plan for their defensive line did not pay off with anything resembling a healthy pass rush. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale called fewer blitzes (on 31.1% of dropbacks compared with 44.1% in 2020, per Pro Football Reference), seemingly to avoid placing too much burden on his inexperienced, injury-scrambled secondary. The Ravens, in turn, fell from fourth in pressures per dropback to 24th. They did not have the individual talent to make up for the lack of a schemed pass rush.

This was never Williams’ forte, and Derek Wolfe did not play at all after stabilizing the front through some difficult stretches of 2020. Campbell jumped to a terrific start, especially as a run defender, but after carrying a heavy workload early, he played just two full games in the last five weeks. He was a double-digit sack producer as recently as 2018 but finished with 1½ in 2021, his lowest total since his rookie season. Then there was defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, expected to be the young lion of the group. The talk of Madubuike as a dark-horse candidate for Defensive Player of the Year was ridiculous, but we could have reasonably expected him to finish with more than two sacks and to improve his Pro Football Focus grade rather than slip to below-average.

So what do the Ravens have going forward? A modestly priced one-year extension for Campbell would not be the worst idea, but he might retire. The Ravens cannot save much money by cutting Wolfe before June 1, but they might not want to deal with uncertainty he brought in 2021. They have little incentive to sign Williams, whose performance slipped at age 32. They will have to get Madubuike back on track, hope Broderick Washington builds on some promising moments from his second season and go shopping, both in the draft and free agency.


They cannot run it back for another season.

The Ravens made the wrong bets at offensive tackle.

Ronnie Stanley played just one game but proved to be a pivotal element in the story of this team. The Ravens gambled on the 2019 All-Pro’s recovery from a terrible ankle injury, trading Orlando Brown Jr. in the offseason and making little effort to add a proven swing tackle. They signed former AFC North nemesis Alejandro Villanueva, hoping he could adjust to right tackle and remain an above-average player at age 33.

Stanley tried to go in the season opener against the Las Vegas Raiders but showed none of his previous agility as Jackson took three sacks and eight hits in an overtime loss. Stanley did not play the next week, and we soon learned he would need another season-ending ankle surgery.

This created a domino effect, with Villanueva moving to left tackle, Patrick Mekari stepping in on the right side and Tyre Phillips becoming the primary backup. Though Villanueva produced a few good games, he took a noticeable dip from his previous form with the Pittsburgh Steelers and often needed help to block top edge rushers. Mekari stepped in admirably, especially at first, but he missed four games, and the Ravens probably see him more as an outstanding utility lineman than a long-term starter at tackle. Phillips has yet to show he can hold up on the edge.

Add it up, and the Ravens, without Stanley, could not keep defenders off of Jackson or his fill-in, Tyler Huntley. Pressure disrupted their offense in so many key situations, despite very good performances from right guard Kevin Zeitler and center Bradley Bozeman.

The Ravens could save $6 million by cutting Villanueva. They have Stanley and Ja’Wuan James, who did not play at all in 2021 as he recovered from a torn Achilles, along with Mekari, whom they signed to an extension. So they will face a familiar conundrum going into 2022: How much can they rely on gifted blockers who have missed so many games because of injury over the past few seasons?


Even if Stanley and James play the majority of snaps next season, it would be surprising if general manager Eric DeCosta does not look to the future by drafting a tackle. So much depends on Jackson’s performance, and the Ravens don’t want his line of protection stretched so thin again.

First-round pick Rashod Bateman showed immense promise despite modest production compared with some of the other receivers in his draft class.

For once, a shortage of playmakers is not the problem.

Let’s say it again folks: The receivers were not the problem. That’s a milestone in the history of this franchise.

It’s also a statement that requires a few caveats.

Marquise Brown looked like he was putting everything together through the first half of the season. After eight games, he was on pace for 98 catches, 1449 yards and 13 touchdowns with a career-best average of 14.8 yards per catch. Those are No. 1 wide receiver statistics. Then we look at his last eight games (he missed Week 11). The catches (45) and targets (77) were still there, but the impact was not. Brown averaged 7.2 yards per catch with no touchdowns over that stretch, and he mishandled two important passes in the Ravens’ season-closing loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The obvious change was Jackson’s absence for the last 4½ games. With Huntley and Josh Johnson focused on quicker, shorter throws, Brown became a glorified check-down target. So what do we make of his path forward? The Ravens will probably pick up his fifth-year option, recognizing the promise in his symbiosis with Jackson. We cannot give Brown a complete pass for his inconsistency over three seasons, but we also should not blame him entirely for his latest dip in production. He needs to work with a quarterback like Jackson, who’s always extending plays and looking downfield.

First-round pick Rashod Bateman, meanwhile, showed immense promise despite modest production compared with some of the other receivers in his draft class. We saw his nose for the first-down line, and we saw him snatch balls from the air by methods not available to normal humans. Bateman missed the first five games as he recovered from groin surgery, and the Ravens seemed to forget he was on the field at times, even as he played more snaps than any other wide receiver over the last few weeks. For example, Huntley targeted him just twice the week after his 103-yard breakout in Cleveland and just once in the second half of the season finale. But Bateman will benefit from a full offseason program and training camp with Jackson, and we could see him double his production in year two. All the skills are there.


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Tight end Mark Andrews was sensational by any measure, submitting the best receiving season in Ravens history and one of the best all-around seasons ever at his position. It did not matter who played quarterback; Andrews caught every kind of pass and rumbled to 75 first downs, often carrying defenders on his 6-foot-5, 256-pound frame. He deserved to be first-team All-Pro over great players such as Travis Kelce and George Kittle.

We saw the Ravens win a Super Bowl with Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta. This group, led by Andrews, Brown and Bateman, offers a different blend of skills, but we can no longer say Jackson lacks the targets to help him develop.

Whether John Harbaugh shakes up his staff or not, the Ravens need to avoid growing stale.

There are plenty of Ravens fans who will not be satisfied if the team goes forward with Greg Roman as its offensive coordinator. The criticisms are familiar now: overreliance on power sets that keep players close to the line of scrimmage, a lack of counters to aggressive, box-loading defenses, poorly designed route combinations that create little space for receivers.

Those who would dump Roman argue that he will never change enough to alleviate these concerns. But this is not a cut-and-dry case. In 2019, we thought he had designed the perfect offense to suit Jackson’s skills. In 2020, the Ravens easily led the league in rushing yards and yards per attempt while averaging a healthy 29 points per game. Even in 2021, they moved the ball well enough — including some explosive aerial performances early in the season — to finish sixth in total yards. There’s a glass-half-full argument that if they sort out their offensive line and reunite Jackson with a healthy, dynamic backfield, Roman’s attack will look just fine again.

Harbaugh, in consultation with DeCosta and owner Steve Bisciotti, needs to decide what style of offense he wants going forward. If he believes a league-best running game is still the ideal base, moving on from Roman would be no easy call. But he has to wonder if the Ravens are stuck in a rut, making tweaks every year but governed by a philosophy to which opponents have adjusted.

They slipped from first in offensive DVOA in 2019 to 11th in 2020 to 17th in 2021. No matter what the reasons, it’s a trend they must reverse.


Their defensive performance plummeted more dramatically in 2021, but it’s easier to blame that decline on injuries and personnel decisions that left Martindale’s cupboard bare by the end of the season. The Ravens need to rejuvenate their front, decide on a long-term plan at inside linebacker and perhaps add another ballhawk to a secondary that produced precious few turnovers. It’s difficult to argue they need a new coordinator based on one disappointing season.