The Ravens begin the 2021 NFL season on the road against the Las Vegas Raiders on “Monday Night Football.” Here’s who has the edge in each phase of the game:
Ravens passing game vs. Raiders pass defense
The Ravens went from a low-volume, high-efficiency passing offense in 2019 to a low-volume, medium-efficiency passing offense in 2020. They’ll look to do better with quarterback Lamar Jackson operating behind a revamped offensive line and a receiving corps bolstered by free-agent addition Sammy Watkins. Tight end Mark Andrews (58 catches, 701 yards, 7 touchdowns) and wide receiver Marquise Brown (58 catches, 769 yards, 8 touchdowns) were Jackson’s favorite targets, and they’ll be at the center of the operation again. But much will depend on the offensive line, which will be different at every position from the unit that failed to protect Jackson in the team’s playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills last season. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley will try to show he’s back to All-Pro form after ankle surgery, and center Bradley Bozeman will try to bring stability to the middle after switching from left guard.
They’ll start out against one of the league’s worst pass defenses from 2020. The Raiders allowed opposing quarterbacks to average 7 yards per attempt, 27th in the league, and ranked 30th in third-down defense. They drafted safety Trevon Moehrig in the second round and added former Raven Yannick Ngakoue to rush off the edge, but they still lack high-end veterans in the secondary.
Raiders passing game vs. Ravens pass defense
The Raiders moved efficiently through the air in 2020, with quarterback Derek Carr completing 67.3% of his passes and averaging 7.9 yards per attempt in the best statistical season of his career. Former Raven Darren Waller (107 catches, 1,196 yards, 9 touchdowns) is an elite weapon at tight end, and the Ravens will see another familiar face in slot receiver Willie Snead IV. The Raiders hope Henry Ruggs III, their top pick in 2020, takes a step forward after a disappointing rookie year.
The Ravens will take on Las Vegas with one of the deepest defensive backfields in the league but without their top ballhawk in cornerback Marcus Peters, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice Thursday. They limited opposing quarterbacks to 5.6 yards per attempt in 2020, and cornerback Marlon Humphrey made the Pro Bowl for a second straight year. With his outside-inside versatility, Humphrey could be their best option for shadowing Waller. Anthony Averett will likely step in for Peters, and coaches have expressed confidence that he’s a starting-caliber cornerback. The Ravens have questions to answer on the edges, where they lost Ngakoue and Matthew Judon, their top pass rusher from recent seasons. Will veteran Justin Houston and first-round pick Odafe Oweh give them consistent sack production? Or will they again rely more on the creative blitz designs of defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale?
Ravens running game vs. Raiders run defense
The Ravens have produced more on the ground than any team in the league since Jackson stepped in as their starting quarterback halfway through the 2018 season. He surpassed 1,000 rushing yards for a second straight season in 2020. Jackson’s impact will be tested like never before after the Ravens lost their top two running backs, J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, to season-ending knee injuries. They’ll turn to training camp breakout Ty’Son Williams, who spent most of last season on the practice squad, and hastily signed veterans Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray, one of whom will likely be asked to contribute in Las Vegas. The Raiders ranked 30th in run defense in 2020, allowing opponents to average 4.6 yards per carry. They don’t have a standout interior run defender, which could be a problem if the Ravens run Edwards and Williams out of power sets. They signed longtime Seattle Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright to shore up the middle tier of their defense.
Raiders running game vs. Ravens run defense
Running back Josh Jacobs is probably the Raiders’ second most dynamic playmaker behind Waller, but he averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in 2020 after averaging 4.8 in his rookie season. The Raiders ranked 14th in rushing last season, and they added former Arizona Cardinals starter Kenyan Drake to back up Jacobs. They’ll at least try to keep the Ravens honest with their ground attack, but their best interior blocker, guard Richie Incognito, could be hampered by a calf injury he suffered in training camp. The Ravens’ run defense peaked in the playoffs last year, shutting down Tennessee Titans superstar Derrick Henry and holding the Bills to just 32 rushing yards in the AFC divisional round. They’ll look to replicate the same formula this year, with nose tackle Brandon Williams plugging the middle and an array of defensive ends and outside linebackers setting the edge. They’ll also count on improvement from second-year linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison.
Ravens special teams vs. Raiders special teams
Ravens kicker Justin Tucker remains the NFL’s gold standard after he made 26 of 29 field-goal attempts last season. Tucker did miss two attempts in difficult weather conditions in the team’s playoff loss to Buffalo. Sam Koch will return for his 16th season as the team’s punter after ranking eighth in the league in net punting average in 2020. Long snapper Nick Moore will replace Morgan Cox as the long snapper in a unit known for its stability. The Ravens excelled on both kickoff and punt coverage in 2020, and Devin Duvernay helped them immediately as a rookie returner. Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson had an excellent 2020, making 33 of 35 field-goal attempts, including all four of his tries from 50 yards or beyond. Hunter Renfrow was one of the league’s most consistent punt returners, averaging 11.5 yards on 23 runbacks, but the Raiders gave up 330 more yards than they gained on kickoff returns.
Ravens intangibles vs. Raiders intangibles
The Raiders will be hyped to play before their first home crowd at Allegiant Stadium. They’ll want to prove their late fade in 2020 was not indicative of the franchise’s direction under Jon Gruden, who’s 19-29 since he returned to coaching in 2018. They’ll get their shot at a Ravens roster severely depleted by injuries. The Ravens have come out hot in recent seasons, winning their last two openers by a combined score of 97-16. Coach John Harbaugh has led them to the playoffs each of the last three years and nine times in his 13 seasons with the franchise. Jackson is 30-7 as a starter in the regular season.
The Raiders will attack the Ravens with a dangerous passing offense and try to ride the emotional lift provided by their home crowd. But the Ravens are a better all-around team, even without Peters and Edwards. They expect to win games like this, as they almost always have with Jackson at quarterback. They’ll move the ball against a lower-tier defense and rely on their still-deep secondary to keep Carr and Waller in check. This won’t be a laugher like their last two openers, but it won’t be a nail-biter either. Ravens 31, Raiders 20.