Reflecting on the first half of the Ravens season
Raise your hand if before the start of the season you expected the Ravens to have a 6-2 record and sit two games ahead in the divisional standings through eight games. Now keep it raised if you also had a 37-20 beatdown of the Pats marked down on the schedule as well. Ok, all you liars can put your hand down now.
The Ravens are off to their best start since 2012, and I think we all remember what happened that year. Now, there was a lot of excitement surrounding the team heading into this season as the Ravens were coming off their first Division Championship in 5 years, but I don’t think many people had the Ravens as a serious Super Bowl contender.
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There were too many questions surrounding how the defense would play with a number of veterans departing via free agency and probably more importantly, how would QB Lamar Jackson look in his first full season as the starter?
Well, the defense has solidified after a few shaky performances and Lamar Jackson is a legitimate MVP candidate as he has led an impressive Ravens offense that leads the NFL in scoring and is second in yards per game. Perhaps most impressively, the Ravens have been dominating opponents by running the ball which is completely counter-intuitive in today’s NFL.
So how have we gotten here, and should we have seen this coming? Before the start of the season, I thought the Ravens would continue to be a very good defensive team with a functional offense, and it would be the defense that carried the team. Boy was I wrong. The defense has been mostly good outside of a couple of games, but they are a far cry from the unit that was one of the best in the league last year. The offense has been the real story, and it all starts with Jackson and a coaching staff that embraced his unique skill-set.
John Harbaugh said in the offseason that the Ravens offense was going to be “Revolutionary”. He was roundly mocked for his comments, but it appears that he had a pretty good idea of what the Ravens would be able to do this year. First year offensive coordinator Greg Roman has had lots of experience working with dual-threat QBs in the past, and if you add in a generational talent like Lamar Jackson, you get an offense that is multi-dimensional and virtually impossible for defenses to stop.
The difficultly that the Ravens offense presents to opposing defenses was readily apparent on Sunday night as New England, which was on pace to have the most statistically dominant season in NFL history, got absolutely punched in the mouth. On the opening possession of the game, the Ravens marched 75 yards down the field for a touchdown on an 11 play drive that took over 8 minutes. The Ravens would never look back as they raced out to a 17 point lead that the visiting Patriots could never quite recover from.
The key to the Ravens offense is obviously Lamar Jackson. We saw over the final seven games of the 2018 season how Jackson could be an elite playmaker with his legs, but there were still significant questions regarding his ability to pass the ball. It turns out the Ravens weren’t concerned at all and made a point to surround him with talent and an offensive scheme that would allow him to succeed.
But it hasn’t just been better personnel and a better system that has made the Ravens offense take a leap this year. Jackson has made immense strides in his second pro season. His mechanics have greatly improved which has led to far more consistency in Jackson’s ability to deliver the ball to open receivers. Jackson’s accuracy has improved over 6% since his rookie campaign, and his passing stats have improved significantly in every single category.
There is still room for Jackson to improve as a passer, which is actually a pretty scary thought, but with how he can run the ball he doesn’t need to sit in the pocket and throw receivers open on a regular basis. The threat that Jackson’s legs pose gives Greg Roman so many different options with how he can design the offense. Play action is a fundamental aspect of the Ravens passing game, and the different personnel groupings that Roman employs makes it incredibly difficult for opposing defenses to know how to react which brings us back to the offensive weapons that the Ravens surrounded Jackson with this offseason.
The Ravens spent two of their first three draft picks on WRs that both provide significant speed. Marquise Brown has been limited by injuries, but his impact when on the field is impossible to ignore. He demonstrated in week 1 that he can take any pass to the house and his speed requires defenses to play honest. Miles Boykin hasn’t had quite the impact that Brown has had, but he has also shown the ability to stretch the field and is a big body that can be a legitimate Red Zone threat.
Brown and Boykin were huge additions to the passing game, but the Ravens also made it a point to do everything they could to solidify the run game as well. Re-signing TE Nick Boyle ensured that the Ravens would have the best TE group in the NFL between him and 2nd year players Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst. Andrews has had a break-out season as a receiver, but Hurst and Boyle contribute in the passing game as well and all three have been solid blockers in the run game. Roman is not shy about employing the TEs either as multiple TEs are on the field for close to 40% of the team’s snaps and even 3 TEs are used together somewhat regularly.
The Ravens also made a huge addition in the offseason by bringing in RB Mark Ingram who has been a perfect fit in this offense. Ingram has never been a homerun hitter, but he brings a different dimension as a runner who can fight through contact and also has the short area burst to threaten the edge and make a three yard gain into an eight yard gain. The other area where Ingram can contribute is in the passing game. No one is going to confuse him for Christian McCaffery, but he is a capable route runner and pass catcher that provides more flexibility to Roman’s play-calling. There have been several occasions this season where Ingram has been used as a receiver to pick up crucial first downs and I would expect him to continue to be used in that role.
Looking back it is clear that the Ravens front office and coaching staff had a vision for how they wanted the team to look in 2019. They gave a lot of responsibility to 2nd year QB Lamar Jackson and did everything they could to put him in position to succeed. The defense may still be a work in progress, but changes have been made to improve that side of the ball as well. Stay tuned to see what to expect as the Ravens enter the 2nd half of the season.
Gabe is an avid fan of the NFL and Ravens football. He grew up in Westminster, MD, and attended college at Johns Hopkins University majoring in Biology. He earned his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and now works as a Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where he studies cartilage development and cancer. Gabe has appeared as a guest on 105.7 The Fan.