The Ravens boast the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player in quarterback Lamar Jackson and return virtually everyone on offense from a team that went 14-2, but the number hounding Jackson like an aggressive edge rusher is zero, as in zero career playoff wins. Jackson is 19-3 as a regular-season starter but 0-2 in the playoffs. “I need to win a playoff game before anything because I’m tired of that already,” Jackson says. “Once I get tired of something, I have to make it happen.”
The Ravens have the personnel to make that happen. Their only notable loss on offense is a big one: perennial Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, who retired after 13 seasons. Defensively, the Ravens beefed up the defensive line, adding All-Pro Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe, and they rebuilt the inside linebacker group in front of a Pro Bowl secondary. In crunch time, it doesn’t hurt to have the most accurate kicker in NFL history.
The Ravens and Jackson operate a system that is both “revolutionary” — head coach John Harbaugh’s word — and old-school, with an innovative, dual-threat quarterback and a ground-and-pound approach that hearkens back to the 1970s and flies in the face of the pass-happy trends of today’s NFL.
Led by Jackson and running back Mark Ingram II — both 1,000-yard rushers last year — their ball-control offense is suffocating when they have the lead. They had five scoring drives of at least nine minutes last year; no other team had more than one.
Along with his off-the-charts athleticism, Jackson’s deception at the mesh point in the read option is superb. Recently retired Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle, an astute student of the game, says that when his Rams played the Ravens last year, he often had no idea who had the ball. When edge defenders cheat outside to contain Jackson, room up the middle opens for Ingram or bulldozing Gus Edwards. Rookie J.K. Dobbins adds another element to an attack that set the NFL single-season record last year with 3,296 rushing yards.
If an outside linebacker overpursues inside, Jackson can keep and beat him to the edge, which he did often last season en route to 176 carries for 1,206 yards, both NFL single-season records for a quarterback. The Ravens don’t want to subject Jackson to unnecessary hits, but in the open field, he is a sight to behold. Case in point: his 47-yard, spin-move touchdown run at Cincinnati, which left four Bengals practically crashing into one another. “They’ll be watching that run for decades and decades,” Harbaugh says.
Jackson became the first player in NFL history with 1,000 rushing yards and 3,000 passing yards in the same season. Defiantly answering critics who have questioned his mechanics, Jackson delivered an NFL-best 36 TD passes against just six interceptions in 2019 despite having no wide receiver with more than 600 receiving yards.
Tight end Mark Andrews has been Jackson’s favorite target since the two broke into the league together, and second-year receiver Marquise Brown is expected to be fully recovered from a foot injury that bothered him his entire rookie season. The Ravens added sure-handed slot receiver Devin Duvernay in the draft, but they don’t have many of the big, physical receivers that so many teams covet. Miles Boykin (6'4") best fits that bill, but he was limited to 13 catches as a rookie. Then again, offensive coordinator Greg Roman has shown he won’t hesitate to do things differently, and receivers on this team had better be ready to block.
Up front, the Ravens face a massive hole with the retirement of Yanda, an eight-time Pro Bowl pick. Center Matt Skura is recovering from a major knee injury sustained in November, leaving the interior of the line unsettled. That’s no small issue for a team that wants to run the ball down your throat. The Ravens signed former first-round pick D.J. Fluker after his release from the Seahawks, and he becomes the front-runner to replace Yanda. Skura hopes to be ready for the season opener. Ronnie Stanley, who figures to cash in after this, a contract year, and Orlando Brown Jr. impressively bookend the line at left and right tackle, respectively. Depth behind them could be an issue, especially with veteran Andre Smith opting out of playing this season due to concerns about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ravens defense finished No. 4 overall, but they were physically beaten up in their three losses. They allowed more than 500 yards of offense in back-to-back losses to Kansas City and Cleveland — a franchise first — and then Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans ran them over in a Divisional Round stunner.
It’s no coincidence, then, that the Ravens emphasized the front seven this offseason. They traded for Campbell, a five-time Pro Bowl defensive end, hoping he still has plenty left at 34. They signed Wolfe and rebuilt their inside linebacker group, drafting LSU’s Patrick Queen in the first round and Ohio State’s Malik Harrison in the third. The Ravens like Queen’s coverage skills, and his blitzing ability will be a good match for defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, whose defense blitzed more than any other team last season. Run-stuffing Brandon Williams still anchors the middle of the 3-4 scheme.
If Yanda’s replacement is Question No. 1 for this Ravens team, the edge rush is Question 1A. The Ravens ranked 21st in the league with 37 sacks last year and added no edge rushers in their 10-member draft class. “In most cases, you’re always going to have a hole that kind of stays open,” general manager Eric DeCosta said after the draft. “But we’ll continue to try and fill those holes.”
Matthew Judon received the franchise tag after recording a team-best 9.5 sacks last year, but no one else had more than five. The Ravens figure to add a veteran pass rusher, but they need more from Tyus Bowser (five sacks last year) and second-year edge Jaylon Ferguson (2.5). They also hope to be more disruptive in the interior with the addition of Campbell (88 career sacks) and Wolfe (career-best seven sacks in 2019 with Denver).
The Ravens have invested heavily in their secondary, but have already bid good-bye to one of their Pro Bowlers before the season started. Cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey are back and the team re-signed cornerback Jimmy Smith this past spring; at 32, he’s on the back side of his career but still can contribute when healthy. Slot cornerback Tavon Young also returns after missing all of last season with a neck injury, and hybrid Chuck Clark is an emerging star. Clark received a contract extension in the offseason and floats between safety and dime linebacker while directing the defense with the headset helmet. Earl Thomas III was expected to man his free safety position again, but Baltimore abruptly released the veteran on Aug. 23, two days after he got into an on-field altercation with Clark during training camp. DeShon Elliott, the Ravens' sixth-round pick in 2018, is in line to replace Thomas.
The “Wolfpack” — the group that includes kicker Justin Tucker, punter/holder Sam Koch and long-snapper Morgan Cox — collectively has seven Pro Bowl appearances (three for Tucker, three for Cox, one for Koch) and has operated together since Tucker joined the team as an undrafted rookie in 2012. Tucker has become the most accurate kicker in NFL history, with a success rate of 90.8 percent (265-for-292). The Ravens ranked 30th in the league in kick returns with an average of 18.3 yards per return. De'Anthony Thomas was brought back on a one-year deal, but he opted out of playing this season due to concerns related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Rookie wide receiver James Proche is a strong candidate to win both return jobs.
With an MVP quarterback, a 1,000-yard running back, a rebuilt front seven, and a Pro Bowl secondary, there’s justified optimism that the Ravens will again be the class of the AFC North. Yet there are concerns. They need to capably replace Yanda, they want more playmaking from their receivers and they need more havoc in the pass rush, which would benefit the outstanding secondary. DeCosta likes the roster he has constructed. Now they need to take the next step. They have been to the playoffs in back-to-back years but have just one playoff win since their Super Bowl XLVII title after the 2012 season. Ultimately, success this season will hinge on adding to that total.