Just like last year, the Ravens have started 6-3. Just like last year, the Ravens enter the second half of their season with promising playoff hopes — a 97.4% chance of advancing to the postseason, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.
But the Ravens started last year 8-3 and still missed out. This year, there can be no looking ahead.
“It guarantees us six wins, I know that,” coach John Harbaugh said last week of the Ravens’ start. “I’ve learned that; I learned that last year. Let’s just worry about the next game.”
As the Ravens prepare for their Week 11 game against the Carolina Panthers, it’s time to take stock of where the AFC North’s top team stands. Here’s what Baltimore Sun reporters Childs Walker and Jonas Shaffer and editor C.J. Doon make of the Ravens’ first nine weeks, as well as what could happen over the next nine.
What’s the most encouraging and most damaging development from the first half of the Ravens’ season?
Walker: The Ravens spent all of 2021 worrying about their offensive line, and now it’s the strength of the team. The good news starts with left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who’s nearly back to his 2019 All-Pro form after we spent almost two years wondering whether he would ever be the same. Right tackle Morgan Moses has been great in recent weeks, especially as a run blocker. Tyler Linderbaum has lived up to all the hype that said he’d be a quality starting center from Day 1. Ben Powers has locked down the left guard spot after years of position battling. Right guard Kevin Zeitler is Kevin Zeitler: always there, always good.
But the loss of wide receiver Rashod Bateman (foot) will haunt the Ravens come playoff time. They will beat up on inferior opponents for the next two months but will need at least a few home run plays to make it through the postseason gauntlet. Bateman was the best candidate on the roster to produce those sudden jolts. The Ravens did not trade for an offensive playmaker at the deadline, so they won’t have much choice but to double down on ground-and-pound. On an individual level, Bateman seemed poised for a breakout season as the team’s clear No. 1 wide receiver. Now, he’ll go into Year 3 of his rookie deal feeling pressure to prove he can endure a full NFL season.
Shaffer: A year ago, we were wondering when Stanley’s ankle would ever let him play again. Now he’s back to his All-Pro form, a stunning career turnaround. Stanley entered Week 10 as the NFL’s highest-graded left tackle in pass protection, according to Pro Football Focus, having given up just two quarterback pressures on 120 drop-backs. Every quarterback craves comfort, and Stanley helped the offensive line give Lamar Jackson acres of space to throw from in their Week 9 win over the New Orleans Saints. If the Ravens can protect Jackson with just five-man protection schemes, they can compensate for their lackluster receiver group by making more receivers available.
As for damaging? The injuries. All of ‘em. Bateman’s second major injury in as many years is a huge setback, of course. But the Ravens might be undefeated if Kyle Fuller hadn’t torn his ACL in Week 1, robbing the secondary of a reliable No. 3 cornerback. Vince Biegel (Achilles tendon) and Steven Means (Achilles) could’ve lightened the early-season load at outside linebacker. Michael Pierce (biceps) was back to being one of the NFL’s best nose tackles. Safety Marcus Williams (wrist) and running back J.K. Dobbins (knee) will both return this season, but their early-season flashes made their injuries even more disappointing. The pall of 2021 hasn’t completely left this franchise.
Doon: Despite all that’s gone wrong — injuries, questionable play-calling, a mini slump from Jackson — the Ravens’ offense is still one of the best in the NFL. That’s the power of an efficient running game, which is creeping closer to reaching the heights of the 2019 team that romped to 12 straight wins. The Ravens have rushed for 150 or more yards in eight straight games, and it doesn’t feel like they’re slowing down any time soon, especially with a fully healthy Stanley leading the way. You can quibble with the lack of an outside receiving threat come January, but for now, the Ravens’ offense is getting it done.
Aside from the injuries, the most damaging development has to be the lackluster cornerback play. Veteran Marcus Peters is not the playmaker he once was, and rookies Damarion “Pepe” Williams and Jalyn Armour-Davis have struggled to establish themselves. Even Marlon Humphrey has not been elite, ranking 28th among corners in PFF grading. As we saw in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins, a defense is only as good as its weakest link.
What Ravens player, position or group will you be watching closely in the second half of the season?
Walker: The running backs. We know the Ravens have at least four ball carriers — Gus Edwards, Kenyan Drake, Justice Hill, Dobbins — capable of impressive efficiency when playing off Jackson. But we have yet to see all those runners healthy at the same time, so we don’t know how coordinator Greg Roman will deploy them when and if that happens. Edwards needed just two games to remind us of the short-yardage reliability he adds. But will a cleanup surgery on Dobbins’ knee set him up to be more explosive than he was in his four games earlier this season? If Dobbins and Edwards return to being a 1-2, will Drake, the team’s most productive back to date, become a mere changeup threat?
A surplus of gifted runners would be a good problem to have, and we know Roman does not mind sprinkling carries around. But with the receiving corps diminished by Bateman’s injury, the Ravens will need chunk plays from this crew.
Shaffer: The secondary. Blame untimely injuries, blame the slow-starting pass rush, blame the unfavorable run defense, but however you want to evaluate the Ravens’ first half, there wasn’t much that the secondary could reliably excel at. Even now, what’s its strength in coverage? Over their first nine weeks, the Ravens were below average in man-to-man and in zone. They struggled in two-high shells and in one-high shells. They were gashed by screens and by deep shots. Turnovers have been a much-needed balm, but this secondary, when healthy, is too talented and too experienced to not be one of the NFL’s more productive units.
Doon: The linebackers. Is Roquan Smith the missing piece that unlocks Patrick Queen and takes the defense from good to great? Will Justin Houston continue his resurgence at age 33? Will David Ojabo make an immediate impact as a rookie? Will Odafe Oweh start living up to his preseason promise? Can Tyus Bowser regain the athleticism that made him such a valuable chess piece? More than any other position group, this feels like the one that could truly alter the Ravens’ trajectory in the postseason.
Of the Ravens who’ve sat out or missed significant time this season, whose return will prove most impactful?
Walker: Bowser’s versatility will lift the defense, as will Williams’ ballhawking from the back line. Edwards will help Jackson extend drives. But man, the Ravens could use the version of Dobbins we saw in the second half of his rookie season in 2020. It’s a lot to ask of a player who recently opted for a second knee surgery because he wasn’t satisfied with his pace of recovery from the first. But coach John Harbaugh sounded bullish when last he updated Dobbins’ progress. We know Dobbins is determined to put his stamp on this season and get his career back on track. With one or two explosive cuts, he could turn the tide in a playoff game.
Shaffer: If he can get back to being the pass rusher he was before he tore his Achilles tendon, it’s Bowser. His strength makes him an asset against the run, and his defensive smarts and tackling ability make him an asset in coverage. If Bowser can pair his technical skills with the explosiveness and motor that helped him lead the Ravens in sacks last year, Mike Macdonald will be one happy coordinator. Pair Bowser with Houston, surprisingly one of the NFL’s best pass rushers, and an edge-rusher group that gets deeper by the week, and the Ravens shouldn’t need a lot of help to get after the quarterback.
Doon: Edwards. All due respect to Kenyan Drake, but he isn’t the kind of sledgehammer who can wear down an opposing defense. We saw glimpses of Edwards being that player before his hamstring injury, as he averaged nearly 6 yards per carry against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Ravens need that north-south threat to complement Jackson’s outside speed. Edwards is rarely going to take over a game by himself, but his downhill style is a unique weapon.
Has quarterback Lamar Jackson’s first half changed how you think about how the Ravens should or will handle his contract negotiations?
Walker: No. The Ravens want to hold the line against fully guaranteed contracts, and they’re right to be patient instead of overreacting to Deshaun Watson’s deal with the Cleveland Browns. But there’s no denying Jackson’s importance to everything they do. He wins games, no matter who’s catching his passes or lining up beside him in the backfield. Remove him from the picture, and the Ravens would have to start over. If Jackson leads them to the Super Bowl, he would negotiate from a position of greater strength. But for now, the terms of his standoff with the Ravens have not changed. He deserves to be paid like a franchise quarterback, but the NFL is still figuring out what that means in a post-Watson world.
Shaffer: Not really. Jackson’s been a top-10 quarterback this season, and just about every top-10 quarterback should reset the market with their next contract. These next two months are setting Jackson up for a 2019-esque run — dominant offensive line, deep running back room, solid enough receivers, accommodating schedule. Ultimately, whatever Jackson does in November and December won’t matter nearly as much as what he does in January and February. Jackson wants to be defined by his postseason success. The team needs a playoff breakthrough. If the Ravens make a deep run, Jackson could enter offseason negotiations with a blank check. With another early exit, a franchise tag would seem inevitable.
Doon: Somewhat. It’s easy to say the Ravens should meet whatever Jackson’s demands are, considering how valuable he is to the franchise and the fact that he might still be getting better. It’s another to actually commit more than $230 million guaranteed — the record-setting price the Browns paid for Watson — to a quarterback who has yet to prove he can win more than one game in the postseason and carries the ball more than any quarterback since Cam Newton. The opinion here is that he’s worth the investment, despite the risks. He’s a singular talent whose rushing ability gives him a higher floor — and an even higher ceiling — than other quarterbacks.
The Ravens have one of the NFL’s easiest remaining schedules. Is that a good or bad thing as they prepare for a potential postseason run?
Walker: It’s a fine thing. They’ve played plenty of good teams already, and it’s not as if they will face untalented defenses over the remaining eight weeks. So many factors, health chief among them, go into a team’s postseason form. We could drive ourselves loopy trying to guess how the Ravens will look in January. Getting to the postseason, preferably with home-field advantage, is still a big part of the battle, so the schedule will help in that respect.
Shaffer: It’s not like the Ravens’ next eight opponents are from the Sun Belt Conference. Amid the not-so-great teams on the schedule are a lot of great units, with players and schemes that could be as good as any the team Ravens might see in the playoffs. The Denver Broncos (Week 13) have one of the NFL’s best defenses. The Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 14) should have All-Pro outside linebacker T.J. Watt back. The Browns (Week 15) and Atlanta Falcons (Week 16) will test the Ravens’ run defense. And the Bengals (Week 18) could offer a preview of the kind of high-powered offenses expected to fill out the AFC’s playoff bracket.
Doon: Sounds pretty good to me. The Ravens could very well end up with the top seed in the AFC and a first-round bye, and we don’t need to explain how valuable that is. The first half of the season presented enough challenges to last a season, anyway, so the Ravens shouldn’t feel bad if they end up coasting against inferior competition for a few weeks. All that matters is how they look come January.
It’s prediction time. What record will the Ravens finish with? How will the AFC North shake out?
Walker: They went 6-3 against the tougher half of their schedule, and that could’ve easily been 7-2 or 8-1. They’re deeper now than they were at the start, with a defense that could jump from the middle of the pack to the top five. They won’t run the table, but 12-5 feels well within reach, and that will be enough to take the AFC North by a game or two over the Bengals. The Browns have dug too deep a hole, and the Steelers will not sort out their offense enough to avoid fourth place.
Shaffer: I don’t expect smooth sailing over the Ravens’ next eight weeks, but it won’t be a bumpy ride to the finish line, either. Put me down for an 11-6 record, enough to win the AFC North by a game or two. The Bengals have enough of a head start to hold off Watson and the Browns. The Steelers will finish last, but win enough to take themselves out of the running for a top-three draft pick.
Doon: The Ravens might be favored in all eight of their remaining games, so running the table isn’t out of the question. It seems likely they’ll get tripped up by a division foe at least once — just look at what the Browns did to the Bengals in Week 8 — so let’s go with 12-5, first place in the AFC North and a No. 2 seed in the conference.
Panthers at Ravens
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 45
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 12