Tuesday, March 2, 2021

INTELLIGENT CONVERSATION

Familiar problems coupled with unexpected miscues sink Ravens in end

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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.

One by one, the problems resurfaced for a Ravens offense that had seemingly hit its stride over the last six weeks after an up-and-down first three months of 2020.

The offensive line sorely missed retired eight-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, All-Pro tackle Ronnie Stanley, and standout blocking tight end Nick Boyle, the latter two lost to season-ending injuries back in November. The group couldn’t handle the Buffalo blitz, and the starting center — now Patrick Mekari after Matt Skura earlier in the year — couldn’t snap the ball accurately for an offense operating almost exclusively in the shotgun and pistol formations.

Penalties on three straight plays sunk any hope of a drive midway through the second quarter.

The running game was fine statistically speaking, but it was far from the explosive machine that had sparked the Ravens to six straight victories. Lamar Jackson, J.K. Dobbins, and Gus Edwards combining for 118 yards and 4.1 yards per attempt isn’t going to get the job done in the way Baltimore typically wants. This current offense doesn’t really work if the ground game is merely good through a conventional lens.

That brings us to a passing attack that ranked in the bottom third of the NFL for much of the season before improving to 18th in yards per attempt and 17th in efficiency by year’s end. Even on the occasions when the protection was there, Jackson threw erratically and his pass catchers struggled to separate and make impact plays outside of second-year receiver Marquise Brown, whose late-season awakening was an encouraging development.

Combining those factors with the normally invincible Justin Tucker missing two field goals inside 47 yards in the unforgiving wind and Bills cornerback Taron Johnson returning the first red-zone interception of Jackson’s NFL career 101 yards for a touchdown — miscues for which you never plan — it’s no wonder the Ravens didn’t give themselves much of a chance in a 17-3 loss to Buffalo in the divisional round on Saturday night. Thanks to another poor snap, their diminishing hopes were all but finished when Jackson sustained a concussion on the final play of the third quarter, leaving undrafted rookie Tyler Huntley to finish out the game for Baltimore.

A defense that surrendered only 10 points to Josh Allen and the explosive Bills offense deserved better, but it wasn’t enough to extend the season.

In the end, the Ravens overcame a 1-4 post-bye slump and the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the NFL to qualify for the postseason and win their first playoff game in six years, which qualifies this trying campaign as a relative success despite the strong Super Bowl aspirations entering 2020. Regardless of the aesthetics of Saturday’s defeat in which Buffalo didn’t play its best football either, there was no shame in losing to the Bills, a better team than the Ravens this season.

But now we look toward the offseason, asking once again how Baltimore gets over the hump after being eliminated in the divisional round for the second straight year. The Ravens have shown that a historic running game led by Jackson and strong defense can take them pretty far — you don’t win 26 games over two seasons by accident — but the ultimate goal is to win three to four games in January and early February. It’s fair to wonder if the Ravens are getting any closer to doing that on their present path, especially with a young core rapidly becoming more and more expensive.

Simply put, is the future as bright as it still felt a year ago after the franchise-record 14-2 season and Jackson’s historic MVP campaign ended in shocking disappointment?

That depends on what the Ravens do to improve their passing game this offseason. Despite Allen having an underwhelming night against the Ravens defense, it’s impossible not to observe his dramatic improvement in his third season and not see the arrival of All-Pro wide receiver Stefon Diggs as an enormous reason why. Even if a talent like Diggs wouldn’t come close to his NFL-leading 127 catches and 1,535 yards in Baltimore’s run-heavy offense, his presence helped transform Allen from a middling young quarterback in 2019 to a legitimate MVP candidate this season. On a night when Allen struggled against the talented Baltimore secondary, Diggs caught eight passes for 106 yards and the lone offensive touchdown of the game.

How could you not want to learn what a high-end talent — like an Allen Robinson, for example — would do for Jackson as a passer, especially as the time draws near to extend the 24-year-old quarterback? What might the addition of a true No. 1 target on the outside do for both the speedy Brown and 2019 Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews?  

Of course, it’s not as simple as just plugging in a recognizable name. In addition to Stanley’s healthy return from a serious ankle injury, an interior upgrade would be a plus for a Baltimore offensive line that was in significant flux for much of the season.

Jackson would be the first to tell you he can be better than he was for the bulk of the season, even if some statistical regression from his historic 2019 felt inevitable. Based on the work ethic he’s shown over the brilliant start to his career, the thought of that disastrous goal-line interception being returned for a touchdown on the 15th play of a potential game-tying drive should motivate Jackson more than ever.

And there’s the matter of addressing the passing schemes of offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who’s orchestrated a remarkable ground attack that’s gained more than 6,000 yards over the last two seasons. In the same way Roman was hired to help former offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg with the running game, might there be a bright mind out there to offer a similar boost for the passing attack if the answers don’t lie within the current staff?

Multiple former NFL players and analysts have noted the lack of variance and sophistication in the passing concepts the Ravens run. Some assessments have been kinder than others, but seeking improvement in the passing game doesn’t mean Baltimore has to jettison Roman or suddenly become a pass-happy outfit. Either way, some difficult conversations lie ahead in the name of getting better.

How the Ravens attack that passing game objective this offseason will determine whether their future is as bright as ever or their star dims a little more, much like their 2020 season faded to black after scoring just three points in frigid Buffalo on Saturday night.

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