Thursday, October 6, 2022

After 2021-like start, Ravens offense flashes promising development in season opener

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Luke Jones
Luke Jones
Luke Jones is the Ravens and Orioles beat reporter for WNST BaltimorePositive.com and is a PFWA member. His mind is consumed with useless sports knowledge, pro wrestler promos, and movie quotes, but he struggles to remember where he put his phone. Luke's favorite sports memories include being one of the thousands of kids who waited to get Cal Ripken's autograph after Orioles games in the summer of 1995, attending the Super Bowl XXXV victory parade with his father in the pouring rain, and watching the Terps advance to the Final Four at the Carrier Dome in 2002. Follow him on Twitter @BaltimoreLuke or email him at Luke@wnst.net.

The first 26 minutes of Sunday’s season opener against the New York Jets looked too much like 2021 for the Ravens offense.

The schemed-up running game was struggling, gaining just eight yards on six carries. Playing for the first time since injuring his ankle on Dec. 12 of last season, Lamar Jackson couldn’t find his rhythm, going just 9-for-15 for 58 yards. And a couple Jackson throws that were on target were dropped as the Ravens failed to convert five of their first six third downs.

The offense was playing with no tempo.

Despite a 32-yard pass interference penalty that had put Baltimore in Justin Tucker’s range, the vibes went from bad to worse with 4:29 remaining in the second quarter when left tackle Ja’Wuan James — playing in a game for the first time since 2019 and already filling in for Ronnie Stanley — tore the same Achilles tendon he had injured last year. Seeing a teammate carted off the field is always jarring to players, but how could the Ravens not have flashbacks to the litany of injuries that derailed their championship hopes last season?

Here we go again.

But instead of languishing on that third-and-5 and settling for a field goal in a 3-0 ballgame, Jackson found the maligned Devin Duvernay for a beautiful 25-yard touchdown. The play of the game not only gave the Ravens a two-score advantage, but it allowed them to exhale after the rocky start on offense and James’ injury. With the defense mostly thriving, Duvernay’s contested end-zone catch assured that the Ravens were going to be fine on this season-opening Sunday.

“It was a big part of the game. We were just trying to hold the fort there just a little bit,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “We got the turnover and then the field goal [in the first quarter]. For Devin to make the play, and for Pat Mekari to come in [at left tackle] deserves a lot of credit.”

That the third-year wide receiver and Pro Bowl return specialist rose to the occasion after the Jets defense had limited Mark Andrews and Rashod Bateman to three catches for 20 yards in that first half is exactly what the Ravens hoped to see after an offseason of questions about the wide receiver position. And while one game is nowhere close to a definitive answer, Duvernay setting career highs with two touchdowns and 54 receiving yards is a step in the right direction. Ultimately, the third pass-catching option — whether it’s Duvernay, rookie tight end Isaiah Likely, veteran newcomer Demarcus Robinson, or third-year slot man James Proche — needs to win his matchup when opponents devote extra coverage resources to contain Andrews and Bateman.

It also helps that Jackson’s three touchdown passes were the most he’d thrown in a game since last year’s Week 9 overtime win over Minnesota, the point at which his 2021 season went south before ending prematurely due to injury. Per Next Gen Stats, his three touchdown passes of 20-plus air yards marked a single-game career high as his final scoring strike of the day was a 55-yard bomb to a wide-open Bateman for a 24-3 advantage.

Ultimately, the Ravens played well enough — especially on defense — to beat an inferior opponent in comfortable fashion, which is all you could really ask from a team that couldn’t run the ball, rested nearly all starters in the preseason, and is still waiting on the likes of Stanley, top running back J.K. Dobbins, and three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters to return to action. But unlike last year when the Ravens were already on such dangerous footing so early in the season, the good news is these players will be coming back. And while there’s no crystal ball to determine when — even if — they return to their pre-injury form, you’d much rather have them in the picture than out of the conversation entirely.

In the meantime, the Ravens didn’t play their best football and still won 24-9 on the road, something that shouldn’t be taken for granted upon browsing the unpredictable Week 1 results around the NFL. This is a team with room to grow instead of simply trying to hold on like last year.

“I feel like it was just us feeling it out, out there. We didn’t play in the preseason,” said Jackson, who threw at least three touchdowns for the 14th time in his career. “I hadn’t played in like six games last year — not much really. We’re just getting back into the swing of things. We played better. We came out better in the second half and started putting points on the board.”

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