Ravens’ ability to handle unknowns key to 2020 season

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Even for a top Super Bowl contender like the Ravens, the unknowns are what make a new season both exciting and unsettling.

Who will start at right guard and try to adequately replace future Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda?

Does a revamped “30-something” defensive line live up to the hype and improve both the pass rush and run defense?

How will the unproven DeShon Elliott fill the on-field void of dismissed seven-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas?

Will defending NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and a record-setting offense remain a step or two ahead of defenses or will a few more opponents narrow the gap after an offseason to carefully study the “revolution” that took the league by storm?

Do the Ravens finally have a January breakthrough with little else to accomplish in terms of regular-season records and awards after last year’s embarrassment of riches?

These are all legitimate questions, but nothing out of the ordinary.

The unknowns extend far beyond the roster and the field in 2020, of course. Every NFL event this offseason ranging from free agency and the draft to the schedule release was accompanied by the real doubt of whether there would even be a season due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now that we know football will begin, the question becomes whether it will be continue without interruption. The league knows it has no time to exhale despite the encouraging testing results of the preseason.

With players now having more free time in regular-season mode and teams now traveling to other cities for games, what happens if there’s a virus outbreak akin to what the Miami Marlins or St. Louis Cardinals endured in Major League Baseball this summer?

Will there be more injuries than usual after an abbreviated training camp and the cancellation of preseason games?

How will teams and players be impacted mentally and emotionally by the absence — or at least the significant reduction — of fans in a sport strongly tied to the concept of home-field advantage?

Will a continuing push for social justice reform and racial equality put a halt to the schedule at some point as the other major professional sports experienced last month?

No one knows the answers to these questions now, but teams like the Ravens with strong leadership and continuity appear better equipped to navigate these challenges, making Sunday’s opener against Cleveland an interesting contrast. Baltimore has a 13th-year head coach, both coordinators returning, and a general manager who’s been with the organization since its inaugural 1996 season while the Browns are again starting over with a new coaching staff and general manager.

First-year head coach Kevin Stefanski may have the element of surprise on his side with a talented roster that didn’t live up to last year’s hype, but that leadership transition was accompanied by a restrictive offseason and abbreviated summer. Many anticipate tackling being an issue across the league in the early going, but the idea of slowing Jackson and a record-setting rushing attack from a year ago seems more problematic than containing Cleveland’s impressive running duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

Yes, every team figures to have some early hiccups, whether it’s the aforementioned tackling, poor offensive line play that’s a hot topic even during normal times, or sloppiness on special teams. But the teams with an established process and strong culture figure to have a better-than-normal chance to succeed in what could be the most volatile season in NFL history. Organizations still finding their footing in those areas may not reach stable ground before its too late for 2020.

Early tackling test

The additions of defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe and the first-round selection of inside linebacker Patrick Queen were made in large part to improve a run defense ranking just 21st in yards per carry allowed and efficiency.

The Browns were the first opponent to expose that weakness last year in their convincing Week 4 win, so they provide a good test for a revamped front. Chubb ran for a season-high 165 yards in that contest, but Baltimore held him to 45 yards in Week 16. Many hoped that was a sign of the Ravens fixing their issues against the run before Derrick Henry and Tennessee ran all over them in January.

The fundamentals of tackling have been a point of emphasis in summer practices despite few “live” opportunities without preseason games. How that translates to the first game will be a major question around the league.

“You have to have your angles, you have to bring your feet, you have to bring your hands, your feet,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “And the biggest thing is that you gang tackle if that first guy does miss. Watching college games [last weekend], you saw some missed tackling in that Navy-BYU game, for example, that jumps out. I think it’s going to be a big focal point for both sides.”

Returner mystery remains

Special teams coordinator Chris Horton wouldn’t reveal who would handle punt and kick return duties in the opener, allowing the mystery to linger for a few more days.

“I think we’ve waited a long time. I think we can wait three more days to figure out who’s going to be out there,” Horton said. “Again, whoever we put out there is going to be the guy for the job.”

Of Baltimore’s punt returner candidates, rookie sixth-round wide receiver James Proche looked the most comfortable during practices open to reporters, but veteran slot receiver Willie Snead is listed ahead of him on the unofficial depth chart put out by the public relations staff. Identifying the kick returner is more challenging with running back Justice Hill and wide receiver Chris Moore currently sidelined with injuries, but rookie third-round wide receiver Devin Duvernay is listed behind them on the depth chart and could receive the first opportunity.

Odds & ends

The Ravens have “full confidence” in Elliott making his first career start at safety after last month’s untimely dismissal of Thomas. “He loves the game of football,” Martindale said. “I told [pass defense coordinator] Chris Hewitt, “You might want to have a brown paper bag over there for him too because he’s going to get so excited, he might be hyperventilating.’ Just teasing with him, but he’s going to be ready to go.” … Pro Bowl fullback Patrick Ricard is expected to have an expanded role on offense, especially with the Ravens carrying just two tight ends on the active roster for now. “He has practiced a lot more in the tight end role, so I think he can do more,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “Every year, he’s been able to do more and more, so we’re really glad we have him.” … Thursday’s NFL-opening game between Houston and defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City provides the Ravens an early look at their next two opponents. Baltimore will play its first road game against the Texans in Week 2 and will host the Chiefs for Monday Night Football on Sept. 28. “All eyes are on Cleveland,” said Martindale from a preparation perspective. “I think that I’d be lying to you if I’m not going to go home tonight and watch that game because I’m just like you guys — we’re just excited to see football.”