Can the Ravens tackle their current uncertainties?
On the verge of training camp, the Baltimore Ravens have answered quite a few questions since their last game played. Orlando Brown is out, Alejandro Villanueva is in. Rashod Bateman, Sammy Watkins and Tylan Wallace were added to make the Ravens perimeter passing attack more formidable. Defensively, they’re going to run it back without Ngakoue or Judon. Nonetheless, there are several burning questions remaining, which will need to be answered before the Ravens kick off Week 1 in Las Vegas against the Raiders.
Are they deep enough at key positions?
The Ravens saw their lack of depth on the offensive line derail their lofty 2021 aspirations. Ronnie Stanley suffered a season-ending ankle injury, forcing Orlando Brown Jr. to move to left tackle, where he filled in admirably. However, they were utterly unable to find any semblance of quality play at right tackle, being forced to rotate between D.J. Fluker and Tyre Phillips, both of whom the Ravens preferred at guard. This had a domino effect, causing Lamar Jackson’s footwork to regress, thus throwing off his timing with receivers downfield.
Baltimore also struggled to find quality play at center, where snap accuracy was an issue consistently. They’ve made decisions to kick Bradley Bozeman to center, sign Kevin Zeitler and Alejandro Villanueva as well as draft Ben Cleveland in the third round to compete for the starting left guard slot. Beyond that, the Ravens don’t have a clear answer for a swing tackle. Tyre Phillips has the length that the Ravens prefer, but not the feet. Andre Smith is returning after opting out of the 2020 season and at 34-years-old, his best days are behind him.
While having Zeitler at right guard could improve the play of a hypothetical OT3 being thrusted into the lineup, we’ve already seen the negative impact that having poor tackle play had on the Ravens offense.
There are also two areas of concern in terms of depth on the Ravens defense: safety and the defensive interior.
Behind Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott, there is virtually no NFL experience at safety. Brandon Stephens, a running back convert who spent two years in SMU’s defensive backfield, was added as an athletic project that was arguably the biggest head-scratcher to come out of Baltimore’s draft haul. He will certainly have the opportunity to show that he can make an impact, whether on special teams or to be trusted in coverage. He played mostly at corner with limited reps at safety, so thrusting him into a starting role due to injury wouldn’t be an ideal situation, particularly early on.
Behind him, the Ravens have Geno Stone, Ar’Darius Washington and Nigel Warrior, three high profile FBS safeties, competing for likely one spot on the Ravens active roster. If the Ravens aren’t confident in any of those options by the regular season, they absolutely must look to make a move. It’s impractical to expect Clark and Elliott to survive 17 games each, and the Ravens defense relies so much on coverage prowess, a loss could devastate their defensive identity.
There’s also been speculation of Jimmy Smith making a shift to safety, however, it feels unlikely that he will simultaneously not be needed at cornerback and provide the same quality of play that Elliott and Clark do.
Pertaining to the Ravens defensive line, they’re old and lack quality depth. Calais Campbell, who is coming off of a calf injury, is one of the most important players on the Ravens defense. No other defender has the balanced ability on all downs to defend the run and rush the passer, particularly with such length. The Ravens have three viable options to play the 2i through 5-tech positions, between Derek Wolfe, Justin Madubuike and Campbell. The three lineman be used in consistent rotations. Beyond those three, there is absolute uncertainty.
Broderick Washington Jr. will see snaps as well, as he did in 2020. Washington didn’t have the same level of impact as the trio of Wolfe, Campbell and Madubuike, but he was also a rookie in one of the toughest positions to make an impact in year one. Washington also didn’t see a full offseason and could certainly make strides with a full preseason and camp. Beyond Washington, there’s a void. The Ravens didn’t draft a defensive lineman for the first time since 2011. Their top UDFA iDL, Xavier Kelly, suffered a season ending injury and was waived. The Ravens picked up Javon Swann, who was waived by the Steelers as a UDFA following rookie camp. Swann had six tackles and a pass deflection in his final collegiate season at Indiana.
Should the Ravens see one of Wolfe, Madubuike or Campbell miss time, there will be a notable void left if they’re unable to bring in a viable replacement after roster cut-downs or through trade avenues, particularly in the pass rushing department. Washington Jr. generated only two pressures on 88 pass rushes (per PFF) and is more known for his run stuffing and ability at the point of attack.
If the Ravens find themselves down a man at safety or along the defensive front, their defense (as is) will certainly struggle to maintain their expected level of play.
Can the offense carry the load?
From a 30,000 foot view, we can now look back on what the Ravens did to shape their roster coming off of their first playoff win in six years. To oversimplify— they entirely focused on upgrading their offense, while largely trusting their returning defense. The Ravens are spending ~$25M more on the offensive side of the ball in 2021, while their defensive spending decreased by ~$4M.
To summarize their defensive offseason, they let Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue walk, while brining back Tyus Bowser on an extremely team-friendly deal. Then, they drafted Odafe Oweh and Daelin Hayes to round out a group that also deploys Pernell McPhee and Jaylon Ferguson as things stand. While adding a first round defensive player isn’t exactly ignoring the defense, they will return their entire starting secondary, defensive interior and linebacking corps. In other words, they’re running it back with a different outside linebacking group. Last year, they made a big splash acquiring Yannick Ngakoue ahead of the trade deadline. However, their shortcomings weren’t defensively. The Ravens allowed only two offensive touchdowns and four total scoring drives across their two playoff games. Their offense, again, couldn’t get it done in January.
This offseason is trending in the direction of a paradigm shift in Baltimore. They focused primarily on upgrading their offensive line and receivers, adding Kevin Zeitler, swapping out Orlando Brown Jr. for Alejandro Villanueva, signing Sammy Watkins then drafting Rashod Bateman, Ben Cleveland, Tylan Wallace, as well as Ben Mason. While Mason and Wallace may not take significant snaps in year one, the rest of the group is in line to account for potentially five new starters, while Bradley Bozeman transitions from guard to center. The group has been entirely reshaped.
The Ravens have essentially acknowledged that their offensive depth and roster construction wasn’t good enough to be a legitimate threat to win a Super Bowl. They transitioned from having two or three viable receiving threats, to potentially six or seven. Teams won’t be able to engulf Mark Andrews and force the Ravens to rely on a dearth of reliable options outside of Marquise Brown. There will be one on one matchups that the Ravens can confidently take advantage of. Miles Boykin goes from being a full-time starter to a receiver five or six, fighting for a spot. The Ravens offense will be able to create mismatches with a bevy of slot and perimeter options that can attack opponents from sideline to sideline and end zone to end zone. Do they have the best receiving corps in football? No, maybe not even the second best in their own division. However, they now have the talent and depth to ensure that there will be viable options inside and outside. With the additions of Bateman and Watkins, Marquise Brown will be able to flow into slot assignments to create speed mismatches on a more frequent basis. Having Bateman, one of the best separators in college football, paired with the physical presence of Watkins and Mark Andrews commanding respect up the seam, the Ravens may finally find harmony in the passing game on a consistent basis into January.
Rashod Bateman posted a 73.3% success rate vs. press coverage in his 2019 #ReceptionPerception sample. So impressed with this WR’s ability to separate, especially downfield.
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) April 21, 2021
This is assuredly the deepest and most talented receiving group that Lamar Jackson has had at his disposal. With an offensive line that will certainly be an upgrade to the unit that took the field in 2020, this Ravens offense is primed to attack teams down the field while still maintaining one of the most difficult rushing schemes to defend in the history of football. There is depth at many positions, but as previously mentioned, offensive tackle is an area of depth concern as things stand. At the same time, being able to execute a more consistent quick passing game can mitigate pressure and perhaps help the offense survive if the Ravens offensive line suffers injury.
With the offense primed to fire on all cylinders, the defense may not be as relied upon as they’ve been in the past two seasons, where they’ve been a consistent force in terms of points allowed per game, possession and defensive DVOA. With Judon and Ngakoue leaving, Wink Martindale returns enough of the same crew to be effective, but perhaps not to the extent which they’ve maintained a standard to from 2018-2020, which leads into the next question. . .
Can the pass rush get home?
Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon totaled 72 pressures and combined for nine sacks in Baltimore on 497 cumulative pass rushes for Baltimore last year. Baltimore elected to let them walk, where Judon and Ngakoue inked $80M contracts combined. They decided to retain Tyus Bowser on a cheap four-year, $22M contract. They followed that up by selecting Odafe Oweh and Daelin Hayes in the draft. Oweh, the first Ravens outside linebacker drafted in the first round since Terrell Suggs, is one of the biggest wild cards on the Ravens entire roster.
Oweh, a sturdy run defender who was inconsistent getting home as a pass rusher, received glowing remarks from both outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins as well as defensive coordinator Wink Martindale.
“The thing that stood out to me with Odafe [Oweh] is his play on first and second down is so much further ahead than most guys that you watch coming out of college, because you can tell that he made it a priority that he was going to set the edge of the defense – that’s big in any defense, but especially ours – and how competitive he is. You could just see on every play; he was going to compete. Like I said, it’s just one of those things now that we just can’t wait to get rolling and get him in here and get going. We’re finally getting close to playing football again.”
“He’s [Oweh] got the best coach in the league in [outside linebackers coach] Drew Wilkins. He came back from his workout, because Drew was out there working him out, as well. When he came back from his workout, he had two things he wanted to tell me: Drew said that it was the best workout that he’s ever seen live – ever – with Odafe.”
From Oweh’s post-draft presser we know two things; the Ravens are going to move Oweh around and they expect him to be a stout run defender off the bat. With Wink Martindale’s obsession with ‘positionless defense’ the Ravens will utilize Oweh’s outstanding speed and athleticism to scheme up rushes.
Oweh figures to play as an end on third down opposite of Tyus Bowser, who will man the SAM linebacker role as a full time starter for the first time in his career. Bowser has flashed the ability to convert speed to power as well as stunt with bad intentions. The speed that Oweh and Bowser present in tandem is severely underrated in comparison to the edge rushers of year’s past. The combo should be able to “banana” pursue athletic quarterbacks who roll out of the pocket, trailing their back hip and corralling them towards the sideline.
Pernell McPhee will do what he’s done for years, crash the pocket and hold the edge, while being on a pitch count to maintain his health throughout the longest season in NFL history. The player with the most at stake is Jaylon Ferguson, who was a healthy scratch towards the end of the 2020 season in lieu of Jihad Ward who had more versatility. Ferguson has shown the ability to make plays in backside pursuit against the run and use his length to corral the occasional sack. Speeding up his rush and engaging his hands to gain inside placement and drive blockers back will be paramount in establishing himself for a serious role. Ferguson has struggled with misdirection or counter concepts at times, which seemed to have set him back in terms of earning snaps. Going into his third year, he will be given an opportunity to prove his diagnostic ability and maintain his run assignments. If he can’t get the job done, don’t be surprised to see the Ravens look outside the roster to make a splash addition.
Another intriguing option is second-year linebacker Malik Harrison, who played 54 snaps as from outside linebacker alignments in 2020. Harrison registered 4.5 sacks for the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2019, netting 13 pressures on only 61 pass rushes. He has heavy hand and shocking power in his lockouts, which could factor him into the rotation if the Ravens see unfortunate injury circumstance.
Lost in the mix are the wealth of explosive second level blitzing options. Patrick Queen flashed outstanding explosiveness and pursuit abilities, while racking up three sacks and 13 pressures on only 88 pass rushes last year according to Sports Info Solutions. DeShon Elliott, Marlon Humphrey and Chuck Clark made a splash in pressure calls, racking up a combined 6.5 sacks. Clark and Elliott ranked ninth and tenth on the Ravens in pressures respectively, notching 21 combined. With Tavon Young potentially factoring into the equation, more speed on the edges and ‘positionless defense’ feeling more possible. The Ravens pass rush has the potential to turn some heads after an offseason of scrutiny.