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Ravens roundtable: Answering questions about Lamar Jackson, the defense’s ceiling and the AFC North race

A month into the season, the 2021 Ravens have already seen a lot, from a new rash of injuries to a record-setting field goal to an accusation that “player safety is secondary” in Baltimore.

With the 3-1 Ravens preparing for Monday’s prime-time game against the Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Sun reporters Childs Walker and Jonas Shaffer and editor C.J. Doon addressed some of this season’s biggest questions, including early surprises, where the offense is trending and whether the Cleveland Browns are the AFC North’s early favorites.

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Who or what has been the biggest surprise and biggest disappointment of the Ravens’ season?

Walker: Many draft analysts regarded Odafe Oweh as a high-variance prospect who might need several years to mature into a productive NFL player. Instead, he was an essential contributor from the jump, making the two biggest defensive plays in the Ravens’ breakout win over the Kansas City Chiefs. With two sacks through four games, he has erased concerns about his pass-rush production, but it’s his versatility that truly stands out. He could go down as a draft coup for general manager Eric DeCosta.

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The biggest disappointment has to be the condition of Ronnie Stanley’s surgically repaired ankle. The Ravens traded Orlando Brown Jr. in part because they were confident Stanley would be back to his Pro Bowl form at left tackle. Instead, he looked like a shell of himself in Week 1 and immediately went back to rehabilitating his injury. This is no knock on Stanley, who’s doing his best with a difficult injury, but his absence has exposed a critical lack of depth at tackle.

Shaffer: The biggest revelation of the Ravens’ first month — besides, of course, Justin Tucker’s rocket-powered right leg — has been cornerback Anthony Averett. His first three years were unremarkable for a fourth-round pick with his Alabama pedigree. He was buried on the depth chart at times and out with an injury at others. His special teams contributions were minimal. When defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said in August that Averett had “All-Pro talent,” it was easy to be skeptical. But he’s lived up to the hype, allowing a passer rating of just 42.6 in coverage, according to Pro Football Reference.

The biggest disappointment has been all the injuries. We still don’t know how a fully healthy Stanley might look as the lead blocker on Lamar Jackson’s inverted option runs. Or whether Rashod Bateman is good enough as a rookie to add another dimension to the Ravens’ passing game. Or how much J.K. Dobbins could’ve developed as a receiver. Or what a secondary with Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith, Tavon Young, Chris Westry and Averett might’ve looked like. I could go on and on.

Doon: The Ravens are ... a passing team now? That’s a bit of an overreaction, but consider this: According to The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin, the Ravens are passing 1% more often than expected on early downs this season based on down, distance, field position, time, score differential and win probability. That might not sound like much, but it’s a clear departure for a team that’s been more than content to hand it off on first and second down with Lamar Jackson at quarterback.

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It’s hard to argue with the results, either. With top running backs Dobbins and Gus Edwards out for the season, Jackson has taken his downfield passing game to the next level, averaging a league-high 14.4 yards per completion. If a healthy Bateman can live up to his first-round promise, this offense is going to be tough to stop come January.

As far as disappointments, look no further than middle linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison, who have not taken the step forward in Year 2 many expected.

The Ravens host the Colts, Los Angeles Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals before hitting their Week 8 bye. How likely are another three wins?

Walker: The Ravens will be favored in each game, but that doesn’t mean they’re likely to win all three. The Colts are battered but coming off a solid win in Miami over the Dolphins. The Chargers have started to resemble the breakout team their supporters predicted. And the Ravens cannot sleep on the Bengals, who have Joe Burrow back at quarterback and are playing stingy defense. The Ravens have a golden opportunity to build on their 3-1 start, but they’d be just fine at 5-2 going into their bye week.

Shaffer: This might be where we find out how real the Ravens’ home-field advantage is. They ended last season with more losses in Baltimore (three) than they did on the road (two), including late-game collapses against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans. Four weeks into this season, road teams are 33-31 overall. On paper, the Ravens should win at least two of their next three, and their toughest opponent, the Chargers, will be coming off a game against a physical Cleveland Browns defense. But nothing about this Ravens season has been easy to predict, so why bother?

Doon: Put me down for 2-1. The Ravens should be able to handle the Colts and the surprisingly frisky Bengals, but that Week 6 game against the Chargers looks dicey. There’s no longer any projection needed for Justin Herbert. He’s already one of the best quarterbacks in the league. When it comes to delivering passes with accuracy, touch and velocity, only Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers might be better. Not to mention, first-year coach Brandon Staley is one of the most innovative defensive minds in football. He’s going to have something up his sleeve to try and stop Jackson.

Should Lamar Jackson’s improvements as a passer outweigh any concerns about the Ravens’ running game?

Walker: In the big picture, yes. The knock on the Ravens was that they had no dependable answer when opponents crowded the line of scrimmage. We’ve seen the Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos try it over the past two weeks only for Jackson to attack over the top with absolute confidence. The point is not that we should expect Jackson to play like a young Dan Marino for the rest of the season. It’s that he and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have a deeper bag of counters for whatever they see from opposing defenses. They’ll still employ Roman’s “medieval” ground attack in some games; that’s how they beat the Chiefs.

Shaffer: If Jackson is healthy, it’s hard to imagine a Ravens rushing attack that’s merely average. He’s explosive enough to exert a gravitational pull on defenses, even when he doesn’t have the ball. There’s room for improvement across the whole operation — especially along the offensive line and at running backs — but Roman’s rushing attacks are rarely shut down for long. And even if the Ravens lack a reliable option in the backfield next to Jackson, his arm strength, field vision and improved accuracy should be enough to carry the team’s passing attack. Not a lot of quarterbacks can handle the Broncos’ talented secondary as easily as Jackson did.

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Doon: Yes. I trust Roman to scheme an effective running game, no matter who’s carrying the ball. And as long as Jackson is healthy, it’s hard to see the Ravens’ NFL-record 100-yard rushing game streak coming to an end anytime soon. Jackson’s development as a downfield passer might be the final piece of the puzzle when it comes to assembling a truly unstoppable offense. If you can’t fit the run or turn your back to Jackson to play man coverage, the Ravens will gash you on the ground. If you try to take away the underneath throws and the middle of the field, Jackson will beat you over the top.

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The real answers won’t come until the postseason, but for now, the Ravens seem to be building an offense capable of going toe-to-toe with the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills in the AFC.

Was the Ravens’ defensive performance Sunday an aberration, or do they still have elite potential?

Walker: “Elite” might be pushing it, given the injuries the Ravens are dealing with in the secondary. If Averett had not been able to play on his sore ankle in Denver, for example, they would have faced a scary picture at cornerback. Their margin for error is reduced, and they miss Peters’ big-play verve. They’re also dealing with growing pains in the middle, where Queen has not moved past his rookie difficulties with coverage and shedding blocks.

On the plus side, Oweh has exceeded all expectations, Averett has filled in ably as a starter, and Calais Campbell has returned to his Pro Bowl level at age 35. The Ravens will dominate some weeks, but they’ll continue to be stressed by the league’s top passing offenses.

Shaffer: If you want an elite defense, you’d better have at least one elite position group. I don’t know whether the Ravens have that. At least not yet. Humphrey and Averett have played like one of the NFL’s better cornerback duos, but the depth behind them is still a question mark. Young’s slowly regaining his form in the slot, Smith’s injury history is a liability, Westry’s lost valuable practice time, and rookie Brandon Stephens has had his ups and downs in his shape-shifting role.

There’s a lot to like about the potential of the Ravens’ defensive front, but Martindale still needs more consistent production from young starters like defensive tackle Justin Madubuike and Queen. If defensive end Derek Wolfe and rookie outside linebacker Daelin Hayes can get healthy for the second half of the season, the Ravens should have the kind of versatility Martindale covets. The more creative he can be, the more his defense can rattle opposing quarterbacks.

Doon: There’s no question the Ravens miss Peters and his playmaking ability, which gave quarterbacks pause before throwing downfield. And seeing outside linebacker Matthew Judon dominate the way he has in New England has to be a little upsetting, even though it would have been tough for the Ravens to fit another big contract under the salary cap.

But Oweh’s emergence and Campbell’s ageless, intimidating presence are encouraging, as is the frenetic play of Chuck Clark, Pro Football Focus’ third-ranked safety. Yes, the missed tackles are cause for concern, but a performance like Sunday’s shows the Ravens’ defense is anything but soft.

Should the Ravens or Browns be considered AFC North favorites?

Walker: The Browns have borrowed the Ravens’ formula, combining the league’s best running game with a top-tier defense. They’re still the less proven entity in this race. We known Jackson and John Harbaugh can adapt to the inevitable dips and disappointments thrown up by an NFL season. They’ve already navigated a terrible run of injuries to start this year 3-1. Can the Browns be similarly resilient behind Baker Mayfield and Kevin Stefanski? Maybe, but they still have to prove it.

Shaffer: If the Browns get more of the Mayfield who completed over 81% of his passes in the season’s first two weeks, it’s Cleveland’s title to lose. If the Browns more get more of the Mayfield who completed just over 53% of his passes the following two weeks, it’s the Ravens’ title to lose. Cleveland’s defense doesn’t have many holes, and its coaching staff finds edges in the same kind of places that the Ravens’ does. Considering all that they’ve lost to injuries, not to mention who’s still ahead on their schedule, the Ravens face a steeper climb to a division title.

Doon: I put the Ravens just ahead of the Browns in my recent NFL power rankings, in part because I trust Jackson more than Baker Mayfield. Cleveland might have the edge in overall talent, especially with Myles Garrett playing like the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and rookies Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Greg Newsome II flashing star potential. But when push comes to shove, I’ll take the team with the better quarterback.

Week 5

COLTS@RAVENS

Monday, 8:15 p.m.

TV: ESPN Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 7

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