With one game left, there are crucial decisions awaiting the Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens extended their hilarious,—yet impressive—streak of preseason wins to 19 by trouncing the Carolina Panthers on Saturday. This tied Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers for the longest such streak in NFL history.
While preseason games are mere scrimmages designed to get special teams reps and provide opportunity for back-of-the-roster-players, it’s hard to entirely dismiss what the Ravens have done. Dating back to the start of the streak, Baltimore has won every regular season opener. John Harbaugh’s Ravens have blown out their opponents in Week 1, with four being by three scores or more. Their combined point differential in their last five openers is an astounding 151 points. To find these instances completely unrelated and incidental feels ignorant.
With the regular season three weeks away, the Ravens have struggled to find clarity in areas of their offense, while their defensive efforts have been dominant. Let’s take a look at what we know and what we don’t on each side of the ball prior to Baltimore’s preseason finale in Washington this Saturday.
Offensive Questions and Clarity
Will the Ravens’ receiving corps. be ready to make an impact in Week 1?
At this point, the Ravens healthy receivers are Devin Duvernay, Tylan Wallace, James Proche II, Jaylon Moore, Binjimen Victor, Devin Gray and newcomers Michael Dereus and Siaosi Mariner. Headed into training camp, this wasn’t the group that was envisioned. With rookie wide receiver Rashod Bateman recovering from groin surgery while wide receivers Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin and Deon Cain work their way back from hamstring injuries, Baltimore hasn’t come close to putting the full wide receiver room together. Considering quarterback Lamar Jackson missed the first ten days of camp, he’s spent little time on the practice field with Boykin, Brown, Bateman and Cain. The silver lining is more reps with Duvernay, Proche II and company. We may not see the lineup originally envisioned until several weeks into the season, depending upon Bateman’s health.
Baltimore will need tp rely on Watkins to carry the load as the lone veteran of the group, although Brown appears ready to return to practice any day now.
Proche has been a practice standout, but failed to gain much traction in games. Duvernay has looked more agile and twitchy in his routes throughout camp and into the preseason. Both may be thrusted into more major roles than previously anticipated to begin the year.
Josh Oliver is ready to make an impact while Nick Boyle works back from injury
While tight end Nick Boyle continues to work his way back from a knee injury sustained last year, tight end Josh Oliver has been getting plenty of work with the Ravens first-team offense. The former Jaguar has impressed in both the run and pass game consistently over the Ravens first two games, showcasing a physical play style paired with general athleticism and movement skill. With tight end Mark Andrews being inactive for preseason play, Oliver has been the Ravens’ top tight end in preseason action. While he had several drops and an untimely fumble in Carolina, Oliver consistently moved the chains, fought for yards and blocked his tail off.
Josh Oliver is a bit of a horse after the catch pic.twitter.com/7VyyqWF9gW
— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) August 23, 2021
3×1 trips to the field
Proche whips and Oliver runs the crosser.
Panthers bail at the snap into a split safety look. Huntley with a dart. Nice snag by Oliver. pic.twitter.com/qdE5kEUXK7
— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) August 23, 2021
Will the offensive line be more effective than last years?
This is a loaded question. Part of the struggles of the 2020 offensive line can be attributed to injury. The star of the unit, left tackle Ronnie Stanley, missed most of the season with a broken ankle. This forced Ravens Offensive Line coach Joe D’Alessandris to rotate between offensive linemen D.J. Fluker and Tyre Phillips at right tackle. Neither player was acquired to play tackle. Their play also showed the dearth of tackle depth Baltimore possessed.
As things stand, we don’t know if that’s been solved. Offensive lineman Patrick Mekari and Phillips both struggled to provide quality tackle play through two preseason games. Undrafted free agent tackle Adrian Ealy might be the solution, but Baltimore may be hiding him. Ealy’s seen far too limited action over the last two weeks to justify how much Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta paid the rookie tackle out of Oklahoma. The Ravens may be attempting to hide the rookie from the eyes of front offices around the league in order to carry him on the practice squad to begin the season. While this is purely speculation, it would be a tactful yet risky move if they do value Ealy.
Offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, guard Kevin Zeitler and center Bradley Bozeman will bring 257 combined starts along the right side of their unit, most of which came while playing for an AFC North team. Factoring in Stanley’s 62 starts, and the Ravens have quite an experienced unit. With rookie Ben Cleveland, Phillips and Ben Powers competing for the starting left guard spot, the Ravens should have a balanced unit that can displace opposing fronts more than their line was able to last year. While Baltimore doesn’t have the high-end talent that right guard Marshal Yanda, Stanley and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. presented in 2019, the 2021 unit is balanced and experienced, although not overwhelmingly talented.
With the new additions, the Ravens should be able to displace opposing fronts more in zone-blocking schemes, which were heavily avoided in 2020, particularly after Stanley’s injury. A unit that can mix up their concepts with variety will be more difficult to prepare for, which is a scary thought considering the rushing output that Baltimore has put forth over the last two years. In the passing game, there is only one extremely talented player (Stanley), but a veteran group with more size should find more consistency as long as they’re able to stay relatively healthy. Stanley and Villanueva’s health may be one of the most important factors in determining how far Baltimore can go this season.
Ravens running backs will be a dominant force from the get-go.
Running back Gus Edwards came back from a 10-day absence to start training camp in better shape than ever. In practice and preseason action alike, Edwards continues to improve by leaps and bounds. He’s leaner and more explosive, yet just as physical.
Gus Edwards is a freight train. #BALvsCAR
— Pro Football Network (@PFN365) August 21, 2021
With his continued development in the passing game, the tandem of Edwards and running back J.K. Dobbins should provide one of the best one-two punches of any backfield in the NFL. Second-year standout running back Ty’Son Williams has been maybe the most impressive player for Baltimore over the last two preseason games. Williams has shown ability in all three major aspects of running back play (pass protection, receiving, taking handoffs). He’s also shown quick feet and jump cuts, power through contact and vision to set up second level defenders.
We’re up 20-3 after that touchdown run by Ty’Son Williams!
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) August 22, 2021
Ty’Son Williams is a PRO.
Concise to the flat. Hands catch and maintains speed through the catch. Makes someone miss. Gets as much as he can while keeping an angle to stop the clock.
A+ play by him. pic.twitter.com/N8yUE3r8Ci
— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) August 15, 2021
While the Ravens seem to like Justice Hill’s ability in the pass game and as a special teams contributor, Williams has displayed so much talent and polish that it would be negligent to allow another team to poach him off of waivers. The question isn’t whether or not Baltimore should give Williams a spot on the opening day roster, rather— should they keep four running backs and two fullbacks (Ben Mason and Patrick Ricard both contribute as tight ends as well).
Can Lamar Jackson do what it takes to lead the Ravens overtop?
Now that the dust has settled from controversy following Jackson’s stint on the COVID-19 list to begin training camp, all fronts are quiet surrounding the Ravens franchise quarterback. Jackson appears to have calibrated his mechanics and launch angle, particularly on throws to the perimeter. He’s coming down overtop of the ball and driving it to the sideline with more torque, therefore velocity.
Jackson struggled with his footwork in the pocket at times in 2020. As his pass protection became erratic, so did his feet. The former MVP didn’t trust his ragtag offensive line to keep him clean, losing anticipation and timing at times because inefficient feet forced him to take too long to get the ball out. With a more seasoned offensive line keeping Jackson clean, he should continue his progression towards being a more consistent passer to all areas of the field. While Jackson is among the best passers between the numbers, he needs to attack defenses on the perimeter to make them respect Baltimore laterally.
We haven’t seen Jackson outside of practice, so there’s an enigma surrounding how he’ll come out of the gate in Las Vegas. With more dynamic weapons (if Bateman, Brown and Watkins can return at full force) and a veteran offensive line, the stars may be aligned for Jackson to find the consistency in all aspects of his game to turn the Ravens into a true Super Bowl contender.
Defensive Questions and Clarity
Can Don Martindale’s defense carry the load while the offense finds rhythm?
With talent at all three levels, veterans, emerging young talent and seemingly confident depth, Ravens Defensive Coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s defense is primed for a hot start. The addition of Justin Houston solidified a unit that lost their top two pass rushers in the offseason. As the offense has had an injury-riddled training camp and preseason, they may need time to fire on all cylinders. Martindale’s defense has allowed an NFL-low 18.2 points per game since he took over play calling duties in 2018. With three new offensive lineman, three new receivers, a new tight end and quarterback that’s spent little time with his top projected targets, Martindale’s defense may be asked to suffocate opponents as Ravens Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman’s offense pounds the ball down opponents throats. The Las Vegas Raiders (4.6 yards per carry allowed), Kansas City Chiefs (4.5 yards per carry allowed), Detroit Lions (4.4 yards per carry allowed) and Denver Broncos (4.8 yards per carry allowed) all ranked 15 or lower in rushing yards allowed per carry. Baltimore draining clock and stifling opposing offenses, having a positive turnover differential and forcing opponents to settle for field goals in the red zone may be their best path to success to start the season.
The Ravens’ secondary has well rounded depth
While Tavon Young’s return from the third catastrophic injury gives reason for cautious optimism, Baltimore has emerging depth in their defensive backs room. Safety Ar’Darius Washington has been sticky in coverage, with two pass breakups and only one reception allowed. The former TCU standout also forced a fumble, sticking a New Orleans Saints running back in the open field and turning the ball over. Washington has also produced on special teams and appears to have absolved any doubt over his size.
This was a really impressive play by Ar’Darius Washington to get the Ravens the ball back deep in their own territory
He’s a playmaker, as he seems to be constantly around the ball pic.twitter.com/3GeGhJDPCD
— Kevin Oestreicher (@koestreicher34) August 19, 2021
Second-year safety Geno Stone has two interceptions and a pass breakup, while not allowing a single reception in 37 combined coverage snaps over two preseason games. Stone’s play speed and deep range have flashed, along with urgency closing to the flats. Stone feels like a confident backup to play middle-of-the-field coverages and use his anticipation and range to make plays on the back end.
Golly, do I hate TV broadcast rewatches for a litany of reasons here, but Geno Stone coming downhill with BAD intentions here. His play speed was evident last night. pic.twitter.com/eUKerkPXxh
— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) August 15, 2021
Rookie defensive back Brandon Stephens has flashed physicality, blitzing prowess and versatility that may allow him to be a contributor this season. Stephens has played 36 snaps in the slot, 15 snaps as a high safety and 11 snaps in the box so far. While he’s a neophyte at the position, his potential and versatility are exciting.
Finally, safety Nigel Warrior has had an interesting training camp. The former Tennessee Volunteer played mostly at cornerback, which was strange considering defensive backs usually transition from corner to safety. Wink Martindale spoke about Warrior and his time at cornerback this year in a press conference on July 30.
We’ve seen S Nigel Warrior move around a little. Where do you foresee him fitting in? Is it a full-time change? (Jeff Zrebiec) ”Well, that’s his strength – he has position flexibility. We know he can play safety; now we’re going to see where he’s at corner-wise, and he’s done a nice job. He’s done a nice job, and he’s had some good battles with some good receivers. So, it’s going to be fun to watch. That’s the other great thing for all of us, for us here, standing here – is we get some preseason games, too. For me, that’s the pure enjoyment of coaching – to see where these young guys are actually at, live, tackling, playing football.”
Finally, cornerback Chris Westry has flashed strong developmental traits. At 6-foot-4, Westry possesses tons of length and has lightning quick feet considering his height. He’s shown physicality and recovery speed, while still needing refinement in several aspects.
How big of a leap can Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison take in Year 2?
Queen, Baltimore’s 2020 first-round draft pick, flashed athleticism and playmaking ability, but lacked consistency in diagnosis and execution last year. With a full, more “normal” offseason, the LSU standout is looking to play with confidence in his film study and more sound execution. Throughout preseason, Queen has flashed dynamic ability to sift through traffic and stuff opposing running backs. However, he’s struggled getting off the blocks of offensive lineman working to the second level. If Queen can simply maintain his responsibilities in coverage and reduce the valleys between the peaks, he will take a large step forward and stabilize the middle of the Ravens’ defense.
Following a season ending injury to fellow linebacker L.J. Fort, linebacker Malik Harrison will take on an even bigger role than expected. Harrison has demonstrated heavy hands time and time again, while being a rock solid contributor in the run game.
This rep by Malik Harrison (40) vs. BAMF Quenton Nelson might be one of the most impressive of any Raven this season? Lordy. pic.twitter.com/ggyCKask6S
— Jonas Shaffer (@jonas_shaffer) November 10, 2020
The question with Harrison is how quickly he can read and react to route combinations in coverage. Harrison can adjust quickly by staying aware of screens and perimeter run concepts, an area that Fort excelled in diagnosing and thwarting last year. As he works to increase his processing speed, his physical dominance when taking on blocks ensures a redeeming quality through any road bumps that follow a substantial increase in playing time.
If the two second year linebackers take a leap, Baltimore’s defense projects to be rock solid at all three levels, which will increase their offense’s margin for error. The name of the game is consistency from play to play, game to game. Harrison and Queen present a wonderful yin and yang with their skillsets. By the end of the season, they have the ability to be one of the most impactful linebacker duos in football.