For a team that lost its final six games to finish 8-9 and miss the playoffs last year, the Ravens are getting plenty of respect entering the 2022 season.
A consensus top 10 team in preseason power rankings and neck and neck with defending AFC champion Cincinnati as the betting favorite to win the AFC North, the Ravens know expectations remain high with most pundits recognizing the role a historic run of injuries played in their 2021 demise. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some legitimate questions entering Week 1, beginning with some of those key players who were injured last year still working their way back to form or sidelined altogether for the start of the season. And while the salary cap makes it all but impossible to construct the perfect roster with high-quality depth at every spot, the current 53-man squad feels a little more lopsided than usual with some positions enjoying an abundance of options (safety) and others lacking proven talent (wide receiver) or even enough warm bodies (outside linebacker) just days from Sunday’s kickoff.
There’s certainly some unknown entering the Week 1 clash with the New York Jets, but that mystery exists every year to some degree. There are no perfect teams.
“You never really know where you’re at until you play the first real game,” said head coach John Harbaugh, who has led Baltimore to a 10-4 record in season openers and wins in five of the last six. “You get a sense in the preseason a little bit, but until you line up against somebody for real, you don’t really know where you’re at. Then, you kind of go from there, and all of a sudden, things are going fast.
“They’ll be doing things that we haven’t practiced for that they’ve been practicing. We’ll be doing things for sure that they haven’t seen that we’ve been practicing. That’s just the way openers are.”
The reality of that unknown is magnified after a slow ramp-up of a summer in which most starters didn’t step foot on the field for any preseason game action and didn’t have as much as a joint practice to test their mettle against someone other than teammates. All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews spoke last week about how he “turned the switch on” to practice like it was a game at different points during training camp, but do all starters have such ability?
And with the early-season status and performance level of 2019 All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley, three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters, and top running back J.K. Dobbins up in the air and some other keys players not returning until later in the season, it’s fair to wonder how quickly the Ravens will storm out of the gate. Serving as an honorary member of the AFC East over these first four contests should serve as a reasonable litmus test with three of those teams finishing with winning records a year ago, including consensus conference favorite Buffalo.
But unlike last year when Baltimore rapidly entered survival mode on the injury front and was fighting what felt like pending doom for much of the season, the potential — if not a higher likelihood — is there for this team to get better as the weeks progress with some key young starters gaining experience and the likes of outside linebackers Tyus Bowser and David Ojabo and running back Gus Edwards eligible to return at some point after Week 4. Of course, there are no guarantees that players will return to pre-injury form as quickly as you’d like — or at all — with the Ravens now hoping for a second straight year that Stanley can stay on the field and retake his place as one of the NFL’s best left tackles after appearing in one regular-season game over the last 22 months.
That’s why the Ravens have largely preached patience throughout the spring and summer with eyes toward being at their very best later in the season. It’s not out of the question that playing it safe from a health perspective across the board could lead to a slower start, but that’s when it helps to have Lamar Jackson back under center after he missed the final four games of the 2021 season. His unresolved long-term contract status remains a hot topic off the field, but his teammates aren’t seeing any distractions on the field.
“There’s no better feeling to see that your quarterback comes out every day and is just willing to work. He’s come out here and worked,” new right tackle and ninth-year veteran Morgan Moses said. “A lot of people have said his arm has gotten stronger [or] ‘this’ has gotten better — it all looks good to me.
“But just seeing a guy that just doesn’t get phased. He’s steady, stays the course. He’s a polished quarterback. He’s doing the things that he needs to do. He’s getting the offense running, [and] the guys are gravitating around him.”
Remembering the Ravens are 37-12 in games Jackson has started in his career makes questions and concerns — on either side of the ball — seem less significant. And his presence makes it easier to be patient if they’re not playing at their optimal state in September.
As long as Jackson is upright and healthy, the Ravens always have a chance. And unlike last year, more help should be on the way as the 2022 season advances.