You won’t need to look far this week to find sweeping pronouncements about the Ravens’ prime-time showdown against the New England Patriots. It will be called their biggest game of the season. The greatest test of Lamar Jackson’s career. The most the New England Patriots have had to worry about a game since the Super Bowl. The toughest regular-season ticket at M&T Bank Stadium in years.
The Ravens’ Week 8 bye afforded the team a chance to get ahead of its work for Sunday’s game. It also neatly split the season into halves. The Ravens’ November and December slate features must-see matchups against the NFL’s lone remaining undefeated teams — the 8-0 Patriots and the 7-0 San Francisco 49ers — as well as potential land-mine games against division foes.
By now, though, the Ravens know whom they can rely on. The team’s first two months and 5-2 start shined a spotlight on the players leading the charge to repeat as AFC North champions. Through seven games, here are the Ravens’ most significant midseason superlatives.
Most unlikely Most Valuable Player candidate
Jackson could finish with over 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards this season, something no quarterback has accomplished in NFL history. In a league brimming with prolific passing attacks, he’s emerged as an unlikely MVP candidate, guiding the Ravens to a comfortable AFC North lead and powering their second-ranked offense to 434.9 yards per game.
How unlikely would an MVP campaign for Jackson be? Consider the six previous winners, all quarterbacks. Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning averaged 41.3 passing touchdowns, 8.7 interceptions and 4,718.8 passing yards in their MVP seasons. Take out Newton, a dual-threat quarterback like Jackson who rushed for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns, and the averages are even more impressive.
Ahead of Sunday’s game against maybe the NFL’s best-ever defense, Jackson is on pace to finish with 25 passing touchdowns, 11 interceptions and 3,771 passing yards, along with 1,317 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns. Not a lot of players approach 5,000 total yards with those kind of stats.
Most likely to see a huge payday
Over the season’s first two months, left tackle Ronnie Stanley faced three players with double-digit sack totals last year — the Arizona Cardinals’ Chandler Jones, Kansas City Chiefs’ Frank Clark and Cleveland Browns’ Myles Garrett — and another, Seattle Seahawks star Jadeveon Clowney, with 19½ sacks over the past two years.
But Jackson has barely noticed. According to Pro Football Focus, Stanley has allowed a pressure once every 68.5 pass-block snaps — by far the NFL’s best rate and more than twice as good as the fifth-best rate (33.2 snaps per pressure for Houston Texans left tackle Laremy Tunsil). So far, Stanley’s graded out as PFF’s top pass blocker.
Not bad for someone with just a $6.5 million salary cap hit this season. It’ll cost the Ravens more to keep him in 2020, and a lot more to extend him beyond that. In April, the Ravens picked up the fifth-year option on Stanley’s rookie contract. Because he was a top-10 pick in 2016, he’ll be owed a $12.9 million transition tender in 2020, the average of the 10 highest salaries at a player’s position when the option was exercised. With a Pro Bowl season (or two) and the NFL’s ever-increasing salary cap, Stanley could warrant a multiyear deal close to $20 million in 2021.
Most closely watched extremity
Throughout offseason workouts, only Jackson’s fine-tuned delivery might have been more scrutinized than the condition of rookie wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown’s left foot. The speedster’s recovery from surgery to repair a Lisfranc injury suffered in December delayed his training camp debut until July 31, and he played in just one preseason game.
Now the attention is on the other foot. Brown hurt his right ankle in the Ravens’ Week 5 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and hasn’t practiced or played since. Coach John Harbaugh said last week that he expected Brown to return Sunday against the Patriots, and the bye week should’ve helped the foot and hip injuries he’s had to manage this season.
It’s clear now that Brown’s season-opening showcase — four catches for 147 yards and two touchdowns against the Miami Dolphins — was a taste of his potential, not a preview of his weekly impact. There’s a learning curve for rookie receivers, too. But Jackson had his worst performance of the season at Pittsburgh and hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since. Brown’s speed has a gravitational pull on defenders, whether as a downfield target or as a player in motion before the snap.
Most inconsequential preseason positional battle
Other than maybe left guard, no up-for-grabs position was more closely watched in July and August than weak-side linebacker. With Patrick Onwuasor moving over to middle linebacker, there was a vacancy. And in special teams standout Chris Board and 2018 fourth-round pick Kenny Young, there were two seemingly quality candidates.
Over October, however, Board and Young played a combined two defensive snaps in four total games. Board, once the favorite to start next to Onwuasor, suffered a concussion in mid-August against the Green Bay Packers, and “that probably set him back just a little bit,” linebackers coach Mike Macdonald said last Tuesday. Young was a healthy scratch in Week 5 before being traded away two weeks ago as part of the deal for Los Angeles Rams cornerback Marcus Peters.
Now the Ravens atop the depth chart are late September signing L.J. Fort and Onwuasor, who struggled at middle linebacker and has returned to what Macdonald called his more “natural” weak-side spot.
Most analytically divisive player
With four sacks in seven games, outside linebacker Matthew Judon is on pace for a career-high nine in his walk year. As of Sunday’s games, he’s also tied for fourth in the NFL in quarterback hits (13), behind only the Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt (20), former Ravens standout and Green Bay Packers newcomer Za’Darius Smith (15) and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ T.J. Watt (14).
But analytics sites differ in their assessment of his pass-rush acumen. Judon is Pro Football Focus’ No. 74 edge rusher — behind Pernell McPhee, now out for the season — and has just the 46th-best pass-rush rating. But according to ESPN, Judon entered Week 8 with the fifth-best pass-rush win rate, which measures how often a pass rusher beats his block within 2.5 seconds.
He hasn’t lacked for opportunities this season. After playing 65% of the Ravens’ defensive snaps in 2018, Judon’s up to 82% this year.
Most overlooked greatness
Only two players haven’t missed a kick this season. Only one of them kicked so well in a game that the opposing coach decided he’d rather not get the ball first in overtime.
After ending 2018 with five straight field-goal makes, Justin Tucker is 16-for-16 to start the season, including 6-for-6 on kicks of at least 40 yards. He's also 20-for-20 on extra-point attempts. His only perfect peer is the Pittsburgh Steelers' Chris Boswell, who's 11-for-11 on field-goal attempts and 12-for-12 on extra-point tries.
But there’s an easy tiebreaker between them. In the teams’ lone meeting, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin grew so frustrated by Tucker’s angled kickoffs that he couldn’t handle another one. “Did you see their kickoff team?” Tomlin said after Pittsburgh’s 26-23 overtime loss. “Every time, they put the ball on about the 2-yard line and Tucker hung the ball at about 4.5 seconds, and we couldn’t get back to the 15. Why would I sign up for that?”