Five Things We Learned from the first (almost) half of the Ravens’ 2019 season

From a one-of-a-kind offense built around a radical talent to uneven returns from a talented draft class, here are five things we learned from the first seven games of the Ravens’ 2019 season.

The Ravens really have achieved something radical on offense, because they have a radical talent at quarterback.


Ravens coach John Harbaugh laughed recently as he assessed the reactions from some corners when he predicted Lamar Jackson and Greg Roman would revolutionize NFL offense.

“You say something, you have some fun with something, and then you come under barrage from all the skeptics and scoffers, which, really, I don’t have any respect for those people anyway, so who cares?” he said.


Harbaugh is free to speak from a perch of amused defiance because so far, he’s been correct. The Ravens really have built a unicorn offense around Jackson, and they deserve credit for their total commitment to the endeavor.

There’s a feeling you get watching a great quarterback, whether it’s Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes, that the defense never really has the advantage. Even facing third-and-long, buried on the wrong side of the field, that guy will find a way out.

The thing is, we’re used to quarterbacks playing queen on the chessboard because of their extraordinary passing skills. Jackson might be the first to checkmate NFL defenses primarily with his running ability. Even Michael Vick, at least as extraordinary a pure athlete as Jackson, never transformed an offense to this degree.

Go back to that third-and-15 in the third quarter last Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. How many teams would even consider calling a designed quarterback run under those circumstances? How many quarterbacks would be able to cut and twist for 13 yards and then do the same thing again on fourth down?


We’ve always heard a running quarterback can’t thrive long term on this level. Inherited wisdom says he’ll be countered by uber-prepared coaches or battered into submission by the sprinting, mauling hulks on the other side.

But what if Jackson, with his once-in-a-generation elusiveness and acceleration and a creative ground attack tailored specifically to his skills, is the man to turn that logic on its head? Opponents know what’s coming at this point, and after 14 regular-season games, they haven’t stopped it. The Ravens’ week-by-week rushing totals have become sort of numbing: 265 yards, 182 yards, 203 yards, 269 yards, 199 yards. Each would represent a season best for many teams. The Ravens’ worst number of the season — 138 yards in a Week 5 win at Pittsburgh — is better than the weekly average for all but four other teams.

They really are playing a different game than anyone else in the NFL. With Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards rumbling out of the backfield, they’d probably be good even with a traditional drop-back quarterback. With Jackson ripping off 6.9 yards per carry on a dizzying array of designed runs, option reads and improvised scrambles, they’re in a class of their own.

If we were handing out report cards, Jackson would not receive straight A’s. He’s excelled at running, commanding the offense and evolving into the charismatic center of the team’s culture. His passing judgment and accuracy, on the other hand, have been spotty after a hot start. Better than last season, but spotty.

It just doesn’t matter as much as we thought. Jackson doesn’t have to throw as precisely as Brady or Drew Brees to keep a defense on its heels. He has overwhelming gifts they don’t possess.

We thought the pass rush would be a problem, and it has been.

All summer, we wondered how the Ravens would replace the production they lost when Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith departed in free agency. Would defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s relentless blitzes make up for an apparent deficit in edge-rushing talent?

So far, the answer is no. The Ravens have blitzed more than ever through seven games but rank 25th in the league in sacks. The picture doesn’t look any better under the more powerful microscope provided by advanced analytics. They rank 26th in adjusted sack rate, a statistic devised by Football Outsiders to account for down, distance and opponent.

Their top outside linebacker, Matthew Judon, has four sacks and 13 quarterback hits but hasn’t taken a step forward to become one of the elite at his position. Veteran Pernell McPhee shouldered a heavy workload and played up to expectations, but is now out for the season with a torn triceps. Rookie Jaylon Ferguson has progressed in recent weeks, but has four tackles and no sacks in five games.

The news is not all bad. Third-year linebacker Tyus Bowser has played the best stretch of his career over the past month and actually grades as the team’s best all-around edge defender, according to Pro Football Focus (with the caveat that he’s played many fewer snaps than Judon or McPhee). Defensive tackle Jihad Ward helped right away after the Ravens signed him as a castoff from the Indianapolis Colts. With Ward and Ferguson absorbing McPhee’s workload in the second half against Seattle, the Ravens did an excellent job pressuring Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

But the reality is that when you contrast the Ravens with the best front sevens they’ve faced this year (Cleveland, Pittsburgh), they come up short on talent. Meanwhile, Suggs and Smith have combined for 11 sacks in their new homes.

The offensive line has been a surprising source of stability.

At the same time we fretted over the pass rush, we looked to the other side of the ball and wondered if the Ravens were sufficiently stocked with competent NFL blockers.

Their depth has not been tested by injury and could still prove to be a weakness given a wrong turn of fortune. But the offensive line has been remarkably stable, with the same five players — Ronnie Stanley, Bradley Bozeman, Matt Skura, Marshal Yanda and Orlando Brown Jr. — taking almost every important snap.

The Ravens were thrilled when Yanda signed a contract extension after last season, and he continues to rank as one of the league’s most dependable guards in his 13th season. He’s no longer the only Pro Bowl candidate on the line, however, as Stanley has stepped forward to become one of the league’s finest pass blockers. The former No. 6 overall pick was good to very good in his first three seasons. Now, he’s one of the best at his position and will command a hefty raise if the Ravens wish to keep him past next season.

Before the season, Harbaugh said several players on the line needed to evolve from starters to “established” starters. Skura and Brown have seemingly taken those steps, evolving into steady pass blockers and above-average players at their respective positions.

Left guard was always the least settled position in the group, and Bozeman has been the shakiest performer through seven games. He’s simply overwhelmed at times by the power and quickness of the league’s best defensive linemen. It’s not clear if that will ever change, but he’s nonetheless held his own as an average starter. The Ravens will take that for now.


The secondary hasn’t lived up to expectations, but it still could.


Other than Jackson, much of the team’s star power going into the season resided in its high-priced defensive backfield.

But the injury toll has been relentless, with nickel cornerback Tavon Young, starting safety Tony Jefferson and gifted second-year safety DeShon Elliott all suffering season-enders and cornerback Jimmy Smith missing most of the first seven games because of a sprained knee.

With health woes thinning their ranks, the Ravens also struggled with basic communications and tackling as they surrendered 1,033 yards in consecutive losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns. Their most talented cornerback, Marlon Humphrey, acknowledged blowing coverage on several home-run plays. Their shiniest offseason addition, Earl Thomas III, seemed uncomfortable at times as he learned a new defense.

The presumed strongest unit on the roster suddenly felt like a potential weakness.

Such dire talk aside, the Ravens have many reasons to feel excited about their pass coverage going forward. General manager Eric DeCosta made an appropriately bold trade for cornerback Marcus Peters, which paid off immediately as Peters played 65 snaps and returned an interception for a touchdown against the Seahawks. Put his high-risk, high-reward style on one side with Humphrey’s ornery, man-to-man coverage on the other and you might have one of the best cornerback pairs in the league, supplemented by the returning Smith and ever-competent veteran Brandon Carr.

At safety, Thomas hasn’t made many splashy plays, but Ravens secondary coach Chris Hewitt said he’s yet to bust a coverage in seven games. Chuck Clark has seamlessly assumed Jefferson’s role as defensive signal caller and has graded nearly as well in coverage as Thomas, according to Pro Football Focus.

We saw this secondary’s potential as it shut down a dangerous Seahawks offense in the second half of a signature road victory. The Ravens will look to build on that performance while crossing their fingers to ward off further injuries.

The rookie class holds real but fragile promise to meet significant needs.

It would be hard for a player to debut any more spectacularly than Marquise Brown did in Week 1 against the Miami Dolphins. The Ravens’ first-round pick showed he could immediately get behind an NFL defense for touchdowns of 47 and 83 yards.

From there, we learned Brown is more than a straight-line burner. He’s a sure-handed target with the craft to get open against defenses playing off him out of respect for his rare acceleration. His touchdown catch in traffic against the Steelers ranks among the team’s offensive highlights from the first seven games.

Unfortunately, Brown has hardly played since then, and that’s the rub with him. Between his current ankle injury and the recovery from Lisfranc (foot) surgery that cost him much of training camp, he’s been a part-time player. And given his unusually slight build, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound wide receiver will face questions about his durability until he remains in the lineup for an extended stretch. In Brown, the Ravens picked a player with skills they’ve coveted for many years. If only that were the whole picture.

Third-round pick Miles Boykin has demonstrated potential with two touchdown catches and a 50-yard reception in the win over the Seahawks. He’s also turned into a phantom, either not playing or not attracting Jackson’s eye as a target, for long stretches. Wide receivers coach David Culley said Boykin was overwhelmed by the complexities of the offense and “thinking about things instead of just reacting” early in the season. Culley pointed to the 50-yard catch in Seattle, which required an instinctive reaction to Jackson’s movement, as a signal of better times ahead for the rookie from Notre Dame.

The Ravens have used fourth-round pick Justice Hill as a kickoff returner and change-of-pace running back, but he’s yet to break out as he seemed on the cusp of doing in the preseason.

On defense, they’ll ask a lot of Ferguson as he takes on part of McPhee’s workload. He has the strength to hold the edge, but will he show more explosiveness or craft in getting to opposing quarterbacks?

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