Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson exorcised some demons with his first playoff win last year after two straight first-round exits, but questions linger about how far this run-first offense can take the Ravens. They need to develop a more well-rounded attack, with better blocking, better passing and better catching. The offensive line has been manhandled in three straight playoff losses. Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams anchor a veteran but aging defensive line, while Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters lead a secondary that can wreak havoc. But can anybody get to the quarterback? There isn’t a returning edge rusher who had more than three sacks last season. When the game’s on the line, at least the Ravens know they have the most accurate kicker in NFL history.
While other teams zig, the Ravens have chosen to zag, building a run-first approach led by Jackson that defies convention in a league that has skewed heavily toward the passing game. The Ravens ran the ball on 58 percent of their offensive snaps the past two years, by far the most in the league. (Tennessee, at 51 percent, is the only other team with more runs than passes in that span.) With Jackson as the starting quarterback and leading rusher, the Ravens have compiled two of the three most prolific rushing seasons in NFL history, with a league-record 3,296 yards in 2019 and 3,071 last season.
The Ravens, though, ranked dead last in passing last year, with 171.2 yards per game, and three straight quick playoff exits have led to questions about the ceiling for this system. “Our offense has won us a lot of football games here,” head coach John Harbaugh says, “and we’re not apologizing for that for one second.”
Scrutiny, though, has even come from within; not long after the 2020 season ended with a divisional round loss at Buffalo, wide receiver Marquise Brown said, “Whenever you’re the No. 1 rushing (offense) and the 30-something passing, that’s not right. That’s not balance. We’ve got to find a way to balance our game.”
Jackson remains a singular talent, the only quarterback in NFL history to record two 1,000-yard rushing seasons. But last year, he regressed from his MVP form of 2019, throwing 10 fewer touchdowns and three more interceptions. Perhaps most importantly, his downfield passing game hasn’t developed as the Ravens had hoped, and pandemic-disrupted offseasons certainly haven’t helped.
Brown and tight end Mark Andrews remain his most popular targets, but the rest of the corps hasn’t inspired much fear. The Ravens hope first-round draft pick Rashod Bateman can change that. The Ravens also signed free agent receiver Sammy Watkins, whose best years came in Buffalo under current Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
The running game drives this offense, and backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards are capable complements to Jackson. Dobbins took over top billing last year as a rookie and finished second on the team with 805 rushing yards, but he needs to improve both as a receiver and pass blocker to be a three-down back.
It was no surprise that the first free agent acquisition was veteran guard Kevin Zeitler. Getting All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley back also will help. He missed the final 10 games last year with an ankle injury. The Ravens drafted massive Georgia guard Ben Cleveland (6'6", 357), and he could start right away. The Ravens tried three different players at center last year, and none established himself as the presumptive starter. Bradley Bozeman, a two-year starter at left guard, is expected to shift to center, the position he played at Alabama. After trading two-time Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Brown Jr. to Kansas City, the Ravens signed former Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who moves to right tackle for the first time in his career.
The Ravens have built their roster to emphasize coverage over pressure, signing cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters to major extensions, while letting Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue walk as free agents. Still, the Ravens need to generate a more consistent pass rush. The Ravens ranked 14th in sacks with 39, and just seven came from edge rushers on the 2021 roster.
Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams and Derek Wolfe anchor the Ravens’ 3-4 defense up front, but all three are over 30. Campbell had four sacks last year, the most among returning players, with three of those coming in one game. Wolfe had a career-low one sack in 2020, but he excels as a run defender and leader, and the Ravens signed him to a three-year extension this spring. Justin Madubuike could be a rising star on the defensive line.
The Ravens edge rush group remains the biggest question mark with the departure of Judon, Ngakoue and Jihad Ward. Tyus Bowser, who had two sacks and three interceptions in 2020, was re-signed to a new deal, and the Ravens brought back veteran Pernell McPhee as well. The time is now for third-year rush linebacker Jaylon Ferguson. The Ravens used a first-round draft pick on Penn State edge rusher Odafe Oweh, who had no sacks in 2020, but defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale raved about Oweh’s speed and the creative ways his defense can utilize that. Baltimore also signed veteran Justin Houston to a one-year deal at the start of training camp. A four-time Pro Bowler, Houston has recorded at least eight sacks in each of the past four seasons.
Inside linebacker Patrick Queen led the Ravens with 106 tackles as a rookie in 2020 but admitted his eyes got him into trouble at times; quarterbacks moved him the wrong way in coverage with a fake, or he overran a play and took an incorrect path to the ball. The Ravens love Queen’s athleticism, and new inside linebackers coach Rob Ryan will need to make sure Queen’s rookie mistakes are behind him.
In the secondary, Humphrey and Peters are game-changers, as evidenced by a combined total of five interceptions (four by Peters) and 12 forced fumbles (team-record eight by Humphrey) a year ago. Peters’ 31 career interceptions are the most in the league since 2015. Tavon Young should return as the starting slot corner, but his health is a constant concern. He has played in just two games since signing a contract extension in 2019. Veteran Jimmy Smith returns for his 11th NFL season and can play corner or safety.
Safety Chuck Clark, a former sixth-round pick, has emerged as the cerebral quarterback of the defense, and free safety DeShon Elliott is a tenacious hitter for his size. The Ravens need more splash plays on the back end; that duo totaled one interception in 2020.
The Ravens’ kicking operation undergoes a significant change this season. No, record-setting kicker Justin Tucker isn’t going anywhere, but longtime long-snapper Morgan Cox was released. The Ravens will turn to Nick Moore, who spent all of last season on the practice squad. Tucker, 31, returns as the most accurate kicker in NFL history, converting on 90.7 of field-goal tries in his career (291-for-321). Sam Koch is back for his 16th season as the Ravens punter and last season broke Terrell Suggs’ record for the most games played in a Ravens uniform. Devin Duvernay had a 93-yard kickoff return touchdown last year — one of just seven in the league — and should return to that role. Duvernay and James Proche II will compete for the punt return job.
For now, the Ravens have one of the NFL’s great luxuries: a franchise quarterback on a rookie deal, which has allowed them to re-sign several of their own Pro Bowl players. With a highlight-reel quarterback, an opportunistic defense and the best kicker in the game, they are well-positioned to contend once again. The Ravens have given Jackson more passing weapons, and now on the brink of a massive contract extension, the pressure is on him to take the next step. He’s 30–7 as a regular-season starter, but 1–3 in the postseason, where a deep run has proved to be elusive.