After an offseason full of change, the 2019 season re-established the Baltimore Ravens as a top-tier team. Although the most prolific regular season in franchise history ended in postseason disapointement, valuable lessons were learned during the journey...
Lamar Jackson is the Ravens heir to Ray Lewis
Ray Lewis played 16 years for the Ravens, earning 13 Pro Bowl honors, seven All-Pro selections, Defensive Player of the Year, Super Bowl MVP and eventually first ballot Hall of Fame status. Ray is perhaps the greatest linebacker to ever play in the NFL. Above all, he was the face of the Ravens because of the intangibles he brought to the franchise.
Former general manager Ozzie Newsome understood the talent Lewis possessed and built a roster that maximized his impact. Lewis was the centerpiece of the first championship team while surrounded by block eaters on the defensive line, ballhawks in the secondary and a power rushing offense. Last offseason, the Ravens made Jackson their focal point when they built an offensive scheme that accentuated his skillset.
Lamar responded with an MVP caliber season that included a league leading 36 touchdown passes, eight point improvement in completion percentage, league leading 6.9 yards per carry, NFL record 1,206 rushing yards from the quarterback position and the best single season approximate value in the history of the sport.
Beyond the stats, Lamar shares many of the same intangibles that made Lewis great. He truly elevates his teammates, not only with the schematic advantage his talent supplies, but with his leadership. His dedication to his craft, passion and competitiveness fuels the locker room.
Judging by the weekly postgame jersey exchange and press conferences, Jackson has earned the ultimate respect of his opponents. Top players want to play with him, Marcus Peters already accepted a discount to remain in Baltimore. Other coveted free agents may also sign with Baltimore because of their desire to play with Lamar and chase Super Bowl glory.
Trading back into the first round of the 2018 draft to select Jackson was a stroke of brilliance by the Ravens. He has almost singlehandedly fixed their near decade long salary cap problems, papered over roster deficiencies and made the Ravens an attractive team again. Lamar has re-invogorated a fanbase that had grown tired of mediocre football and restored civic pride throughout the city.
Lamar is a worthy successor to Ray as the epicenter of Baltimore football.
Not re-signing C.J. Mosley was the correct decision
After lengthy negotiations, the Ravens former Pro Bowl linebacker signing with the lowly Jets for a market setting five-year $85 million contract. Mosley played just 114 snaps all season due to a groin injury.
Instead of overpaying a good not great player at a relatively replaceable position, new general manager Eric DeCosta bolstered the secondary with Earl Thomas III and eventually Marcus Peters. The Ravens were not strong against the run in 2019, they allowed the 12th most (4.4) yards per carry. But in the end, a below average run defense did not stop Baltimore from earning the AFC’s top seed.
Sure, the defense was susceptible to breakaway runs during the regular season and Derrick Henry amassed 195 yards on the ground in the playoffs. But Henry was bottled up until the Titans secured a two touchdown lead that afforded them a favorable game script. The best run defense will always be a potent offense.
The most comparable linebackers to Mosley in terms of contract and ability are Bobby Wagner, Jaylon Smith, Benardrick McKinney and the now retired Luke Kuechly. Their teams finished with the 26th, 15th, 22nd and 32nd most efficient run defenses, respectively.
Baltimore’s defense finished the season as Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA second ranked defense in the NFL despite the 19th most efficient run defense. This represents an improvement from the 2018 season when the Ravens defense finished fourth in the same metric. Instead of the expected regression after losing the leadership of Mosley, Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith and Eric Weddle, coordinator Martindale’s defense was actually better.
It has proven unwise to devote major resources into run defense, the game’s least valuable phase. Regardless of Mosley’s excessive salary and unforeseen injury, the Ravens are better constructed without a high paid inside linebacker.
Upgrading the offensive line should be the top offseason priority
For the second consecutive postseason, Baltimore’s highly regarded blocking unit was manhandled in the playoffs. Perhaps no position group bears more responsibility for the postseason letdowns that the offensive line.
Lamar Jackson’s effect on defenses boosted a near league worst run blocking unit into a rushing machine during the second half of the 2018 season. But once the injury depleted Chargers came to Baltimore in the wildcard round, the Ravens managed only 2.6 yards per carry from their tailbacks while surrendering seven tackles for loss and eight quarterback hits.
In the divisional round against Tennessee this year, the record setting rushing offense was dominated at the point of attack on a pair of crucial failed 4th-and-1 attempts. When coordinator Roman began calling more passing plays because of the run game’s ineffectiveness and resulting game situation, the pass blocking did not fare well.
Against the Titans, the blockers allowed seven quarterback hits and four sacks. All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley turned in easily his worst performance of the season without the benefit of play call deception. Just as Matt Skura in the previous playoff game, backup center Patrick Mekari was exposed as an inexperienced former undrafted free agent.
Even if they do profit from a unique scheme, tackles Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. have certainly played well enough overall to be considered long term foundational players. The depth chart on the interior is not nearly as stable with Marshal Yanda contemplating retirement and Skura attempting to recover from a potentially devastating knee injury.
Two seasons in a row the Ravens have proven they do not have the bullies necessary to win in the trenches when the competition ratchets up in the postseason. And they could lose two interior starters this offseason. Adding another playmaking wideout would make the offense more versatile and bolstering the defensive front would lessen the pressure on coordinator Martindale to scheme up pass pressure, but upgrading the offensive line is paramount.
The Ravens played outstanding complementary football during their twelve game winning streak in 2019. That formula of formidable offense and pass coverage dependent defense can certainly thrive again in 2020. Yet in order to advance in the playoffs, Baltimore needs powerful blocking above all else.