Though not quite as dramatic as the portals scene in “Avengers: Endgame,” injured Ravens players are beginning to return, which is quite the exciting thought for a team already off to a 4-1 start.
Less than a week after wide receiver Miles Boykin returned from injured reserve, Baltimore activated 2021 first-round wide receiver Rashod Bateman and Week 1 starting left guard Tyre Phillips ahead of Sunday’s clash with the upstart Los Angeles Chargers. Bateman’s NFL debut has been a long time coming with the 27th overall pick sidelined since the second week of August with a groin injury that required surgery. And the timing of Bateman’s return should help ease concerns about the hamstring injury sustained by veteran wide receiver Sammy Watkins in the Week 5 overtime win over Indianapolis.
Of course, the Ravens still await the returns of left tackle Ronnie Stanley, tight end Nick Boyle, and defensive tackle Derek Wolfe, which could be quite a cavalry for a team still finding ways to win games despite its many injuries and deficiencies in certain areas.
It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Chargers meet for the first time since the 2018 postseason and the 13th time in the regular season with Baltimore holding a 7-5 edge. Including the playoffs, the Ravens are 4-3 under John Harbaugh against the team formerly from San Diego.
Below are five predictions for Sunday:
1. The Ravens will score on their opening drive for the first time all season. Two years ago, Greg Roman’s offense scored on its opening drive in eight of the first nine games and 11 of 16 overall. Last season, Baltimore scored on its first drive in four of the first six contests. But the engine has been slow to warm in 2021 despite the final outcomes and Lamar Jackson again playing like an MVP. With two explosive offenses facing off, a quick start could prove critical, but the Chargers must overcome the dreaded East Coast 1 p.m. kickoff while the Ravens are coming off an overtime thriller on a short week. I certainly wouldn’t like the Ravens’ chances if they start like they did against Indianapolis on Monday.
2. Bateman will register three catches for 35 yards on 25 snaps. There was plenty of excitement about the 6-foot-1, 193-pound receiver in the spring and early summer, but that’s nothing like playing in preseason games, let alone talking about regular-season action after such a long layoff. In other words, some patience is warranted if Bateman doesn’t immediately take the NFL by storm. Jackson noted this week that building chemistry in practice isn’t the same as playing games while Roman indicated he doesn’t plan to “throw [Bateman] into the fire for every play” upon returning. That said, the Chargers certainly need to be aware of a smooth route runner and talented receiver who brings even more upside to this ascending passing game.
3. Austin Ekeler will score two touchdowns and finish with over 150 total yards. It’s time for the weekly mention of a running back eating up the Ravens defense with last week’s mistake being to predict Nyheim Hines instead of Jonathan Taylor for a big night. Ekeler could be the best all-around back the Ravens have faced so far this season and has caught a touchdown in three straight games and gained at least 100 total yards in each of the last four. Meanwhile, the inside linebackers continue to be a significant problem to the point that Wink Martindale is now avoiding putting them on the field altogether in obvious passing situations. The expected return of DeShon Elliott will help, but the Ravens need to be on alert for edge runs in addition to Ekeler leaking out of the backfield as a receiver.
4. Baltimore will get the ground game going with 130 rushing yards. No, this isn’t in response to Le’Veon Bell being elevated from the practice squad for the second time in three games. This group of running backs lacks explosiveness and could really use an upgrade, but the offensive line hasn’t exactly created much running room with the Ravens averaging just 4.2 yards per designed run play, according to Pro Football Focus. The Chargers have a formidable pass defense — arguably the best Baltimore has seen thus far — but they’ve been gashed on the ground and rank dead last in yards per carry allowed (5.6) and 31st in efficiency. If the Ravens aren’t able to exploit that to try to control the clock and keep 23-year-old sensation Justin Herbert and the Chargers off the field, concern about the running game will only grow.
5. Jackson and Herbert will combine to throw for over 600 passing yards and six touchdowns, but the Ravens’ recent late-game fortune turns in a narrow 34-31 loss. I strongly considered flipping a coin to pick a winner as both teams are 4-1 and have played four games decided by a single possession, a reminder that the difference between winning and losing isn’t all that much in the NFL. Still, Baltimore’s tendency to start slow offensively and make even a couple middling quarterbacks look good this year has to be concerning on a short week and facing a quarterback and team that just scored 47 points against a Cleveland defense that had looked pretty formidable in previous weeks. This will be a shootout and another close game between two young stars at quarterback, but the Ravens have been walking too close to the edge of weirdness to pull out such tight games. That will finally catch up with them this week with Jackson needing a little more help than he ultimately receives from his teammates, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. However, if Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams doesn’t play, I’d be inclined to flip my final score in favor of Baltimore. With both teams dealing with their share of injuries at the moment, you could easily see a really fun rematch come January.