Five things we learned from the first half of the Ravens’ 2022 season

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			Five things we learned from the first half of the Ravens’ 2022 season
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After six weeks of angst, internal and external, over their inability to protect double-digit leads, the Ravens have won three straight games and stand 6-3, about where we thought they’d be at the season’s midpoint. Their depth has fortified them against fresh injuries and familiar ones that lingered from 2021. With a string of mediocre or worse opponents awaiting them down the stretch, they’re on target to put last season’s collapse behind them.

What do we know about this team that we did not in September? What remains to be discovered? Here are five things we learned from the first half of the season:

Maybe Lamar Jackson really doesn’t need wide receivers.

We say this with tongue planted in cheek. The Ravens still feel compelled to stick two fast guys on the edges of their offense to keep opponents honest, and Jackson still likes to throw the ball downfield, ranking fourth among current starting quarterbacks in air yards per attempt.

But with 2021 first-round draft pick Rashod Bateman out for the season, we might be nearing the peak of a long bet the Ravens made midway through the 2018 season, when they decided to refashion their offense around Jackson’s particular set of skills. Over their last six quarters, we have watched them move the ball steadily against a pair of solid defenses without anything resembling a primary target for their franchise quarterback. They have depended on an imaginative ground attack set up by Jackson’s running genius and by their massive, mobile offensive line. Jackson’s completions have been short (save for a 24-yard touchdown to tight end Isaiah Likely) and spread among a wide variety of pass catchers. Devin Duvernay leads the team’s wide receivers with 33 targets; on all but two other teams, the top wide receiver has been targeted at least 50 times.

This is not to say we won’t see the offense open up at times over the next eight games. Tight end Mark Andrews, the team’s top receiving threat, will return from the knee and shoulder injuries that sidelined him against the New Orleans Saints. And Jackson’s passing stats against the Saints would have been gaudier if he had not misfired on downfield attempts to Likely and wide receiver Demarcus Robinson. But the trend line does not point toward aerial fireworks, and the Ravens’ personnel decisions have indicated they’re OK with this.

Think about the last two inflection points when general manager Eric DeCosta could have invested in wide receivers. In April, he traded his top incumbent, Marquise Brown, to avoid navigating Brown’s personal dissatisfaction with the offense and his impending contract demands. Rather than draft Brown’s replacement, DeCosta used his top four picks on a third safety, a starting center, an injured edge rusher and a defensive tackle. More recently, at the trade deadline, DeCosta could have used a pair of picks to chase a wide receiver such as Brandin Cooks of the Houston Texans or Jerry Jeudy of the Denver Broncos. He decided the Ravens would be better off with their existing offense and a defense bolstered by one of the game’s top linebackers, Roquan Smith. It did not matter that Bateman was about to opt for season-ending surgery on his foot.

What does this tell us? DeCosta and coach John Harbaugh do not see value in using their most precious resources, financial or draft, on pass catchers who might not thrive in Baltimore anyway. They’re relying on more “heavy” offensive sets than any team in the league, with only the Atlanta Falcons in the same ZIP code. They believe this formula will carry them a long way given Jackson’s one-of-one impact as a running-game fulcrum, the quality of their offensive line and their embarrassment of defensive riches. It’s a bet they ultimately lost after winning many games in 2019 and 2020, but they’re tripling down.

The offensive line has blown away expectations.

Much went wrong as the Ravens plummeted from the top of the AFC over the last six weeks of the 2021 season, but their inability to field a dependable offensive line was a persistent concern that exacerbated other problems. DeCosta blamed himself for not setting up enough contingencies and spent $15 million in free-agent money and the first-round pick he acquired for Brown to add rock-steady Morgan Moses at right tackle and insta-starter Tyler Linderbaum at center. Meanwhile, the Ravens crossed their fingers that Ronnie Stanley, their franchise left tackle, would finally feel like himself again after nearly two years of dispiriting, stop-and-start recovery from multiple ankle surgeries.

They entered the new season with high hopes but plenty of questions, the most pressing centered on Stanley’s continued absence from the lineup. So they have to be thrilled that, nine weeks in, their offensive line is an unqualified strength.

The story starts with Stanley. Fans began to wonder whether he would ever be well as he sat out the first four weeks of the season despite moving well in practice. But he insisted that he feel fully confident in his ankle before taking the field for game action. The payoff would be worth the wait, he said. Well, give the man his due, because in five games, he has regained his perch as one of the finest pass blockers in football. “I don’t see much difference from before the injury really,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said, which was not the message after Stanley gritted his teeth through an aborted comeback in the 2021 season opener.

With the star of the unit back, the Ravens are pass-protecting as well as any team in the league. Roman is also using his mobile behemoths, Stanley and Moses, to pull, creating rich outside running lanes for running backs Kenyan Drake and Justice Hill. Linderbaum’s superior quickness makes him a linebacker-sinking torpedo on these same plays.

We don’t talk as much about the guards, but that’s probably fine with Kevin Zeitler, whose set-your-watch effectiveness makes him a prototype for the position. We should shower some acclaim on Ben Powers, who spent the previous three years hearing about the guys who were certainly going to beat him out at left guard. Instead, he’s the one still standing and among the best pass blockers at his position to boot.

If anyone falters, Patrick Mekari will step in, filling the super-utility role that makes him a rare asset in a league perpetually short on quality linemen.

We talked about the offensive formula the Ravens have used in their recent wins. It would not work without this group clicking.

Mike Macdonald’s defense is more conservative but built for the long haul.

Macdonald needed exactly two games as coordinator to put himself in the crosshairs of fans worried about the team’s direction. The discourse goes apocalyptic when your defense, devoid of a meaningful pass rush and riven by miscommunication on the back end, surrenders 28 fourth-quarter points to blow a 35-14 lead in the home opener.

He has settled in well, however, and the Ravens’ defense has steadily moved from bottom to middle of the pack in various league rankings. With Smith hunting ball carriers at inside linebacker, a healthy Tyus Bowser providing versatility on the outside and Calais Campbell anchoring the interior after a one-week absence, Macdonald’s crew was downright terrifying in New Orleans.

This is not Don “Wink” Martindale’s defense. The Ravens rank 22nd in blitz percentage after ranking eighth last season and first each of the previous three seasons under Martindale’s leadership. Macdonald will call opportunistic blitzes and simulated pressures, as he did to good effect against the Saints, but he’s not going to risk his coverage shell to send defensive backs screaming after the quarterback possession after possession. He’ll back his defense off for an entire game, as he did in hopes of preventing big strikes in the Ravens’ win over the Cincinnati Bengals. This is not a knock on Martindale, whose approach worked for most of his tenure in Baltimore. It’s just different.

Beyond tactics, what we’re really seeing is a defense that has grown more talented over nine weeks.

With a deeper crew of edge defenders bolstered by Bowser, Jason Pierre-Paul and soon rookie David Ojabo, the Ravens have reduced the demands on Justin Houston and Odafe Oweh, leading to greater production on fewer snaps. After a slow start, their pass rush has been one of the league’s best in recent weeks.

Macdonald has made strides with young players such as linebacker Patrick Queen and safety Kyle Hamilton, whom he frequently used in lieu of a third cornerback against the Saints. Even with nose tackle Michael Pierce out for the year, the Ravens have plenty of live bodies to rotate on the interior. Starting cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters have stayed on the field. Safety Geno Stone has done admirable work filling in for top free-agent addition Marcus Williams, who’s expected back from a wrist injury in December.

Everywhere we look on this defense, there’s another high-end player, with Smith, who led the league in tackles for the Chicago Bears, adding whipped cream atop dessert. No matter what an opponent wishes to do on offense, Macdonald has players to answer, and he showed a clever feel for deploying them against the Saints.

This thing wouldn’t be working without the rookies.

DeCosta has always believed in quantity as much as quality when it comes to the draft, so he had high hopes for the potential impact of an 11-player class fronted by two first-round picks.

Not every rookie has paid immediate dividends. At cornerback, fourth-round pick Jalyn Armour-Davis gave up too many big plays when he was thrown into the fire early in the season, and Damarion “Pepe” Williams, selected 22 slots later, has also failed to shore up the weakest point on the defense. Ojabo only recently came back from the torn Achilles tendon that knocked him out of the first round, and tight end Charlie Kolar was just activated, three months after he underwent sports hernia surgery. Sixth-round pick Tyler Badie is stuck on the practice squad behind five other running backs.

There’s plenty of good news, however, starting with Linderbaum, who stepped in as starting center the first day of training camp and has never given the Ravens reason to regret that decision. His agility, on top of well-honed technique, makes him an unusual weapon for an unusual ground attack, and he might be the best rookie offensive lineman in the league.

Hamilton, their other first-round pick, drew more scrutiny out of the gate because of mental mistakes in coverage, and his playing time slipped in weeks 3-5. He’s coming on strong, however, as Macdonald figures out how to use his skill set to cover for the lack of a reliable third cornerback and to add punch to blitzes. “We’re just now just tapping into things that he can do,” secondary coach Chris Hewitt said. “He’s a unique player. As Mike calls him, ‘He’s a unicorn.’ He’s different.” Hamilton is already a standout by Pro Football Focus’ reckoning, with good grades for coverage, pass rush and run defense.

Third-round pick Jones, who missed the first two games because of a knee injury, has settled into the interior rotation. Fourth-round tackle Daniel Faalele blocks out the sun and showed considerable promise when he unexpectedly had to step in on the left side in weeks 3 and 4. Jordan Stout has bumped up his net punting average after an inconsistent start as Sam Koch’s replacement. Likely immediately became the team’s most productive pass catcher when he filled in for the injured Andrews in a Week 8 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He has made great strides as a blocker.

We talk about depth as a reason, maybe the reason, why the Ravens moved past their rough patches. Their rookie class is the heart of that story.

No matter how down they were at times, the Ravens have accomplished what they needed to through nine weeks.

They have played the fourth-most difficult schedule to this point, according to Football Outsiders, a fact we have to keep in mind as we assess the 6-3 record.

Would they like to have another shot at their fourth quarters against the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and New York Giants? Of course. They could be 8-1 with a lead in the conference and a stranglehold on the AFC North.

But they have built a lead in their division — enhanced by the Bengals’ 0-3 record against AFC North opponents — without facing a single cream-puff opponent. Their roster has grown stronger with the recent additions on defense and will grow stronger still with the anticipated returns of Andrews, running backs Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins, and safety Marcus Williams, Meanwhile, their schedule will grow weaker: sixth easiest in the league the rest of the way, per Football Outsiders.

It adds up to an enticing picture for a team that sounded bewildered by its self-defeating nature in the wake of its 24-20 loss to the Giants on Oct. 16. If the Ravens romp through the rest of their schedule, does that mean they’re primed to defeat the Bills or the Kansas City Chiefs with a Super Bowl trip on the line? No. They will still need to prove they can go play for play with these offensive juggernauts in the postseason crucible. But mission No. 1 was getting back to the point where they could ask those questions of themselves, and the Ravens are on their way.

Week 11

Panthers at Ravens

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Ch. 45

Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 12 1/2

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