Lamar Jackson and the run-heavy Ravens look to contend in the AFC North
Hope was fading fast as the Ravens entered their Week 10 bye last season. They had lost their third straight game, falling under .500. A fourth straight postseason absence appeared likely. Coach John Harbaugh’s future in Baltimore was bleak. And the worst news had yet to emerge: Quarterback Joe Flacco had injured his hip in the Week 9 loss. He was out; rookie Lamar Jackson was in.
The Ravens’ late-season push was as transformational as it was unlikely. Led by a run-heavy offense and a stifling defense, the Ravens won six of their final seven games and claimed their first AFC North title since 2012.
Even after a dispiriting home playoff loss, the future in Baltimore was clear. It included Harbaugh and Jackson, but not Flacco. Now the Ravens must show that the league hasn’t caught up to their rushing attack — and that their defense hasn’t fallen off, either.
Few quarterbacks have had a rookie season as unique as Jackson’s. In his first start, the former Heisman Trophy winner ran for 117 yards, at the time the second most by a rookie quarterback since 1970 (Josh Allen topped it two weeks later). It took only another six starts for him to break the single-season NFL record for rushing attempts by a quarterback (147). The Ravens’ approach was novel — no team came close to running the ball as often as they did over the second half of the season — but effective enough. They dominated time of possession with methodical drives, often befuddling defenses with a mix of zone-read and run-pass-option plays.
The offense will look different in 2019. Harbaugh promoted Greg Roman, the architect of the team’s running game, to offensive coordinator, replacing Marty Mornhinweg. Roman has pledged more balance, but his overhaul will likely keep in place many of Jackson’s pet plays. The Ravens do not mind being different. Even as modern offenses increasingly rely on their passing attacks, expect the Ravens to keep grinding away on the ground.
Defenses will have the offseason to figure out how to bottle up the Ravens’ backfield, but it won’t be easy. Much like Alex Collins in 2017, running back Gus Edwards emerged from the anonymity of the team’s practice squad to become one of the offense’s most reliable performers. A physical downhill runner, he’ll compete for the starting job with free agent signing Mark Ingram, a dangerous receiving threat and highly respected leader. Rookie Justice Hill could also give the Ravens a big-play threat in the open field.
The team’s often-overlooked offensive line could take another big step forward. Only five teams allowed fewer sacks last season, though the Ravens’ move away from a pass-first approach certainly helped. Bookend tackles Ronnie Stanley, a Pro Bowl alternate in 2018, and Orlando Brown Jr. give the Ravens one of the NFL’s best young pairings, and All-Pro Marshal Yanda remains among the league’s best right guards. The Ravens could continue to have problems inside, but coaches remain confident in center Matt Skura and left guard James Hurst. Nick Boyle, a hybrid tight end-fullback, is also an asset in the team’s blocking schemes.
If the Ravens have passing problems, it likely won’t be because of their other tight ends. Mark Andrews had a standout rookie season, and hopes remain high for 2018 first-round pick Hayden Hurst, who struggled to recover from a preseason stress fracture in his foot. Wide receiver is another matter. Willie Snead IV is a productive slot receiver, but Chris Moore and free agent signing Seth Roberts project only as complementary pieces. Rookies Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin will face pressure to replace the production of departed starters John Brown and Michael Crabtree. The offense’s success could hinge on their development and Jackson’s evolution into a more fundamentally sound passer.
The Ravens led the NFL last season in total defense and finished behind only the Chicago Bears in scoring defense. Then the offseason struck. The Jets gave C.J. Mosley the biggest deal ever for an inside linebacker. Za’Darius Smith, who led the Ravens in sacks, signed a lucrative contract with the Green Bay Packers. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs left to join the Arizona Cardinals after 16 seasons in Baltimore. Safety Eric Weddle was cut. Defensive end Brent Urban was not re-signed.
The exodus should most acutely affect the team’s linebacking corps. Mosley was not just a tackling machine over his five years with the Ravens but also an important voice in the team’s pre-snap adjustments. Coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale will have to rely on Patrick Onwuasor, who flashed his star potential late last season, and Kenny Young, a 2018 fourth-round pick, to keep the Ravens strong up the middle. Out wide, they’ll take a step back. Suggs faded over the second half of last season, and Smith struggled at times against the run, but they still combined for more than a third of the Ravens’ 43 sacks last season (tied for 11th most in the NFL). Matthew Judon is primed to collect double-digit sacks this season, but the team needs rookie Jaylon Ferguson and third-year pass rushers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams to pick up the slack. Shane Ray, a former Denver Bronco who was the 23rd overall pick in the 2015 draft, and Pernell McPhee, who was a fifth-round pick by Baltimore back in 2011 and played for Washington last season, were both signed in mid-May and will be given a shot of making the 53-man roster.
Even with Weddle’s departure, the Ravens’ pass defense remains a strength. The signing of safety Earl Thomas should help solve their takeaway problems — the defense had just 17 total last season — and bolster a veteran secondary. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey was consistently elite last season, and there aren’t many better options to test. Brandon Carr and Jimmy Smith are physical, savvy veterans, and Tavon Young will be expected to perform like the well-compensated nickel back he became this offseason. With Thomas expected to roam deep, safeties Tony Jefferson and Anthony Levine Sr. can move closer to the line of scrimmage and cause trouble for offenses.
Up front, the Ravens are almost always productive, if rarely flashy. Defensive tackle Michael Pierce is an analytics darling and could break out as one of the NFL’s top interior linemen if his snap count increases. Brandon Williams is paid like a top-15 tackle and performs like one against the run, too, but his limitations as a pass rusher could be magnified with the defense’s losses elsewhere. Chris Wormley, a natural candidate to take over for Urban at defensive end, also will need to grow into a bigger role. Second-year end Zach Sieler and rookie tackle Daylon Mack could be useful rotational players.
Justin Tucker is still the most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history (90.1 percent) and, excluding blocked kicks, hasn’t missed an attempt from inside 50 yards since 2015. Sam Koch finished fourth in the NFL last season in punting average and pinned nearly half of his punts inside the 20-yard line. Long snapper Morgan Cox remains an essential piece of the Ravens’ special teams plans.
At returner, there’s more mystery. Midseason acquisition Cyrus Jones finished fourth in the NFL last year in punt return average and added a touchdown, but he needs to ease concerns about potential turnovers. On kickoffs, Moore is sure-handed but rarely a threat to break out into the open field.
The spectacle of the Ravens’ unexpected march to the playoffs last season somewhat obscured just how well-rounded of a team they’d become. Only two teams ended the year with a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense: the Ravens and the dethroned AFC North champion Steelers. Their 2019 season is sure to be a referendum on the team’s offense and Jackson’s long-term prospects as an NFL quarterback. Running quarterbacks seldom run for very long in the league, and Jackson must show he can strike fear into defenses with his arm, too. If the offense can’t succeed against defenses now far better prepared, it won’t matter how strong the Ravens’ defense and special teams are.