Previewing Week 1: Bills at Ravens
Is it just me or does it feel like this NFL offseason was longer than years past? Maybe it has something to do with the Orioles very forgettable season, or perhaps it is more related to the bad taste left in my mouth after how the 2017 season ended. Or, maybe an exciting offseason that saw the Ravens completely revamp their offense, including the addition of the QB for the future, has engendered more excitement for the upcoming season than what I am typically used to. Regardless, the start of the 2018 NFL season is upon us, and I for one am extremely excited to see this Ravens team take the field on Sunday. There are so many questions that still need answering, but we won’t know much of it until 1 PM Sunday afternoon.
A lot was made last season about the Ravens easy schedule in which they seemingly played a new back-up QB almost every week. For the most part, the team did will to take advantage of the inexperienced signal-callers that they faced, but the question was always posed…just how good is the team? According to analytics websites like Football Outsiders, the Ravens were one of the better teams in the league last season. Their Pythagorean win total (calculated by point differential) suggested the team considerably under-performed in the W-L total as their expected win total was 10.5 games. According to DVOA (which adjusts for strength of opponent), they were a team that should have made the playoffs.
Looking ahead to 2018, Football Outsiders gives the Ravens the 9th best Super Bowl odds heading into the season, and have a 42.5% chance of making the playoffs (5th best odds in AFC). This is a projection based on simulated games weighted by the team’s projected DVOA taking into consideration how the team played last season and changes to the roster. The schedule will be more difficult than last season no doubt, but ironically enough the Ravens season will open against the Bills and starting QB Nathan Peterman, the same Nathan Peterman that famously threw 5 INTs in the first half against the Chargers last season. So we may not learn a great deal about how good the Ravens defense may be in 2018, but there are a lot of things that we should be able to find about the team, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
You can talk more about the Ravens upcoming match-up with Bills and their 2018 season outlook on our message board, and follow along Sunday in our game thread.
In 2017, the Ravens offense was one of the worst units in the NFL for much of the season. Improvements were seen in the second half as Alex Collins emerged as a real threat and the offensive line began to gel along with Joe Flacco’s improved health, but it was still not a unit that inspired much fear in opposing defenses. Much has been written here and elsewhere about the Ravens attempts to improve the skill positions around Flacco, so I will not much time addressing the changes that were made at WR and TE. That said, it is now time to see if the additions of Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead will take a paltry passing game and help raise it to respectable levels. It won’t be an easy task that Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense will face either as the Bills quietly possess one of the better secondaries in the NFL to go along with a very talented defensive line led by Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes and new FA acquisitions Star Lotulelei and Trent Murphy.
The make-up and performance of the Ravens offensive line is one of the biggest question marks I have for the team headed into the season, and how they hold up against this talented Bills front should be very informative. Orlando Brown seems to be penciled in at RT, and he has looked fairly competent through the preseason, but we may yet see James Hurst start if the coaches do not think Brown is ready. On the other side, Ronnie Stanley is more of a known quantity, but the interior of the OL may still be a work in progress. Marshal Yanda will be the line’s anchor at RG, and Alex Lewis should return to the spot where he shined as a rookie at LG. However, the all-important Center position is likely to be manned by Matt Skura, who has very little NFL experience and Lewis also has only 8 games started to his name. Whether or not the Ravens talented but inexperienced offensive line will hold up may be a defining question for the team’s performance not only in Week 1, but for the entire 2018 season.
On the other side of the ball, a Ravens defense that is returning 10 of 11 starters from 2017 will be facing what is on paper one of the worst offenses in the NFL. As previously mentioned, Nathan Peterman is the starting QB for the Bills and he has a less than impressive resume although he did not look so terrible in the preseason. The Bills WRs Kelvin Benjamin and Zay Jones should not present many problems on the outside and TE Charles Clay has his best days behind him. The Bills best playmaker is likely veteran RB LeSean McCoy, but he will be running behind a less than stellar offensive line.
The Ravens defensive front led by behemoths Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce should not have many issues dominating the Line of Scrimmage in this matchup. If they can shut down the running game early, it will put pressure on Peterman to have to throw the ball more than he should against a secondary that intercepted opposing QBs 22 times and had the 2nd best pass defense DVOA in the NFL in the 2017 season.
One of the things that I will be paying close attention to in this match-up is the defensive personnel the Ravens employ and also the kind of pressure looks that new Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale will bring to the table. Last season, Dean Pees turned to the dime package (6 defensive backs) at a high frequency (28% of the time) which was a fairly new development for the Ravens defense. This package was extremely effective as it allowed the Ravens to get their best players on the field. It will be interesting to see if Martindale continues this approach.
I also want to keep a close eye on what pass-rushers are used and how they are used to bring pressure. Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser played limited roles as rookies last season, but Williams in particular showed great growth this preseason. Will he be given a larger role in the team’s pass-rush rotation, and if so how will the other edge rushers like Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith and last season’s breakout Matthew Judon be used? Martindale has a lot of weapons at his disposal, and it will be very interesting to see how they perform.
I would not be surprised if the Ravens defense comes out looking like they did in Week 1 of 2017 against an overmatched offensive line. It’s very hard to predict another shutout, but I don’t see the Bills getting into the Endzone unless it is a defensive score. I think the Ravens win this one handily, 20 – 6.