The Ravens captured their first AFC North title since 2012 last season with the NFL’s top defense and a run-first attack that looked nothing like the league’s top offenses.
Now, in Lamar Jackson’s first full season as a starter, the Ravens are confident they have a dynamic enough quarterback to offset their offseason losses on defense.
Throughout preseason practices, Jackson has shown great progress as a passer, from improved mechanics to greater command of the huddle. As a rookie, he led the Ravens to a 6-1 regular-season record but completed just 58.2% of his passes. With Jackson’s elite open-field athleticism, on both scrambles and designed runs, hopes are high for a breakthrough second season.
Jackson said he’s added 7 to 10 pounds of muscle since the Ravens’ season ended in January with an AFC wild-card-round loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, but team officials expect the offense to rely less on his rushing ability. Despite starting just seven games, Jackson set an NFL record with 147 carries, the most ever by a quarterback.
“I’m really pleased with the passing game,” coach John Harbaugh said in early August. “You can never predict where it’s going to go, but it’s been really good. ... It’s been crisp and sharp.”
The Ravens have talked about building a “revolutionary” offense around Jackson, but even a more balanced run-pass ratio — the Ravens ran about 60% of the time last season with Jackson as a starter — will challenge NFL trends. Across the league, teams with efficient passing attacks have fared far better than those with efficient rushing attacks.
But if Jackson, new running back Mark Ingram II and the Ravens offense can control the clock with their ground game, they can help take pressure off a reconfigured defense.
In free agency this past offseason, the team lost Pro Bowl middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, edge rusher and longtime leader Terrell Suggs, starting safety Eric Weddle and sacks leader Za’Darius Smith.
The arrival of safety Earl Thomas III should fortify one of the NFL’s top secondaries, but all eyes are on Jackson.
“I’m very comfortable,” he said a few days after reporting to training camp. “I had months to prepare with it. There has been a lot of studying going on. I’m getting my chemistry down with my guys. I love it. I love the offense.”
The Ravens took wide receivers with two of their top three picks in April’s draft, selecting Oklahoma’s Marquise “Hollywood” Brown late in the first round and Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin in the third round.
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Brown, considered one of the fastest players in the draft, missed offseason workouts while recovering from a Lisfranc injury in his foot and wasn’t cleared to practice when training camp opened. Boykin, meanwhile, has impressed with his size and speed, and should contribute immediately on a receiving corps considered one of the NFL’s weakest.
The Ravens didn’t expect to retain Smith, an outside linebacker who signed a four-year, $66 million deal with the Green Bay Packers after recording a team-best 8½ sacks last season. But the departure of Suggs (seven sacks), a Baltimore icon who joined the Arizona Cardinals on a one-year, $7 million contract, was a blow to the team’s defense.
Matthew Judon (seven sacks) will anchor the Ravens’ pass rush in possibly his final season in Baltimore, and the team will rely on a mix of unproven youngsters and oft-injured veterans elsewhere. Pernell McPhee has impressed in his return to Baltimore, and 2017 third-round pick Tim Williams has improved this summer. Tyus Bowser, Shane Ray and rookie Jaylon Ferguson are also in the mix.
Tight end talent
What the Ravens lack in wide receivers, they make up for in tight ends. Former offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg frequently deployed multiple-tight end sets last season, and that philosophy won’t change under new coordinator Greg Roman.
Mark Andrews, who set a Ravens rookie record for receiving yards at the position last season, has been the offense’s most consistent skill position player since the start of offseason workouts. Hayden Hurst, a 2018 first-round pick who struggled to overcome an early-season foot injury last year, looks stronger and sharper. And Nick Boyle, whom the Ravens consider one of the NFL’s top blocking tight ends, has an offense that will showcase his greatest skill.
The Ravens finished first in total defense, fourth in rush defense and fifth in pass defense last season. But the defense fell short in one notable area: takeaways.
With just 12 interceptions and five recovered fumbles, the Ravens ranked tied for 22nd in total turnovers forced. Thomas, regarded as one of the game’s best ball hawks during nine seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, will need to be at full strength to lead a more disruptive defense.