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Despite offensive growing pains, the Ravens have navigated 2020 masterfully

This group needs time and experience to master a complex offense

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Through Week 5 of the NFL season, the Baltimore Ravens have outscored their opponents by 73 points. Their +73 point differential leads the NFL. In fact, only one other team (Green Bay Packers, +51) have a point differential over +50. The Ravens are outscoring opponents by 14.4 points per game.

In comparison with 2019, which saw the Ravens set their franchise record for regular season wins (14), the Ravens outscored opponents by 15.5 points per game. A one-point drop off would be much less regression than many NFL pundits predicted following the Ravens exuberantly successful 2019 regular season campaign.

However, looking back to where the Ravens were through five weeks provides hope that this year could be just as good, maybe even better.

In 2019, the Ravens opened up strong with a dominant win over the Miami Dolphins where they outscored Miami by 49 points. After that? The Ravens snuck by the Cardinals in a one-score win, faced a 24-6 deficit in Kansas City before losing 33-28, then had a complete meltdown on both sides of the ball against the Cleveland Browns — which caused a chain reaction that saw an entire defensive overhaul mid-season.

The Ravens remade their linebacking corps by signing veteran free agents L.J. Fort and Josh Bynes, while relegating Patrick Onwuasor to part-time duty. They also signed Domata Peko, Justin Ellis, Jihad Ward and finally shipped off Kenny Young and a mid-round pick to acquire Marcus Peters. In Week 5, the Ravens narrowly escaped Pittsburgh and “The fighting Duck Hodges” with a win, behind an incredibe effort in overtime from Marlon Humphrey. Not a single soul predicted that the Ravens would finish the season on a 12-game win streak, propelling them to the AFC’s No. 1 seed for the first time in franchise history.

Following an offseason that saw the Ravens lose three key contributors, including a shoe-in Hall of Fame right guard and team captain in Marshal Yanda, as well as 34 combined first down receptions from Seth Roberts and Hayden Hurst, the Ravens have navigated a tumultuous COVID-19-impacted offseason/season incredibly well. It has led lead to a 4-1 record with promise towards 5-1 as they’re set to square off against an injury and incompetence riddled Philadelphia Eagles squad in Week 6.

Factoring in the loss of Earl Thomas, who surely gave the front office enough headaches to clear out the ibuprofen supply of every drug store in Owings Mills, the Ravens defense has looked like one of the leagues premier units, aside from an ugly first half against the defending Super Bowl Champions in Week 3. This was expected, as the Ravens defense is the highest-paid unit in the league, even before extending superstar CB Marlon Humphrey to the second highest contract in team history.

Their defensive efforts reached a peak against a young quarterback and poor offensive line last week, as the Ravens overwhelmed rookie Joe Burrow and Cincinnati’s five-man group up front to the point where they seemed to treat the game like a practice. The Ravens had so much control over the Bengals that they were rotating right guards Patrick Mekari and Ben Powers every two series, working sixth-round pick James Proche into the receiver rotation, and abandoned their complex motion/option offense to work on the passing game — which will need to improve if the Ravens want to win in January.

The Ravens offense, while leading the league in yards per carry (5.6) has experienced growing pains. Fans seem to have forgotten the Ravens offensive struggles through five weeks in 2019, but the Ravens haven’t. They also haven’t forgotten how out of sorts their passing offense looked against the Tennessee Titans in the postseason, particularly without Mark Ingram being anything close to healthy.

Baltimore talk radio and social media have exploded with concerns, despite the Ravens domination of four of their five opponents, while also leading the league in point differential. Debates have run rampant: “They need to use J.K. Dobbins more! Duvernay too!”, they shout into the void. “Why is Roman throwing the ball so much! What the heck! This is a run-first team!”

The truth of the matter is that the Ravens have one of the youngest and cheapest offenses in the NFL. They were inevitably going to experience some growing pains, particularly considering the losses of Yanda and Hurst, not having the benefit of a minicamp nor preseason, and not being able to get their rookies and new additions on the field until July.

The Ravens ability to open games strong and jump out to two-score leads against inferior competition has been a godsend. The Ravens have been able to treat parts of these games like the preseason, rotating in players, testing the passing offense and gaining crucial game experience. They weren’t able to get Dobbins, Duvernay or Proche up to speed in the preseason. There were no scrimmages against other teams. The fact that they’ve been able to have Dobbins lead their running back rotation in snaps, while giving Proche and Duvernay reps, will pay dividends in December and January as the Ravens seem poised to make a playoff push for the third season in a row.

While their shiny rookie toys have made big plays, they’ve also looked like . . . rookies, at times.

Despite the doom and gloom, the Ravens clearly have benefitted from bringing back their entire 2019 coaching staff. The Ravens run incredibly complex schemes on both sides of the ball. Their defense blitzes from every spot, leading the NFL in blitz percentage, while using combinations of man and zone coverage. Their offense uses the highest rate of motion and pistol formation. They also deploy heavy play action and option, while combining gap and zone blocking schemes. This isn’t Matt Cavanaugh’s offense.

Despite the growing pains, the Ravens offense is still scoring points at will in the first half. In fact, they just tied the 2000-02 Rams, otherwise known as “The Greatest Show on Turf”, for the second longest streak in NFL history of scoring 20 or more points. They’re two games away from tying Peyton Manning’s Broncos for the NFL record.

The Ravens offense is leading the NFL in yards per carry, and is third in rushing yards per game. They clearly haven’t hit their stride yet, even on the ground. Against an underrated Bengals defense Sunday, the Ravens ran the ball 11 times on first down. Those runs didn’t find great success. Only two first down runs gained more than four yards (6 and 14 yards). The pass game struggled as well on first down, with six incompletions and only three first downs, including a first down touchdown pass inside the five to Mark Andrews. The Ravens haven’t put themselves in favorable situations on second and third down, which stunts drive efficiency. Additionally, the Ravens offense trails in time of possession through five games, which seems inevitable to tilt back the other way.

The other major problem is the lack of distribution in the passing game. Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown seem to be targeted nearly every other play, while Miles Boykin and Willie Snead IV have received extremely low target rates considering their high snap counts on passing downs. Snead and Boykin have been targeted a combined 30 times, despite running 233 routes. They’re currently sporting the 10th and 17th lowest yards per route run among the 108 receivers with 10 or more targets.

If Snead and Boykin are to be on the field when the Ravens throw the football, they need to be respected by defenses. Snead has done very little to prove unworthy of targets during his time in Baltimore. Boykin has looked lost at times, while being wide open at others. He and Lamar Jackson appear to have a thick and obvious disconnect on the timing and landmarks of routes. Boykin has only been effective running slants or crossing routes, where he has vision to Jackson as the ball is delivered. It’s disappointing to see Boykin, as well as Duvernay and Proche, not to be targeted when the offense is throwing the football with huge leads.

If the Ravens want to take the next step offensively, they need to use the rest of October determining whether they have the right men for the job, or use future draft picks to bring in a receiver like Jamison Crowder or Marvin Jones Jr. from struggling teams looking to sell off veteran pieces at the deadline.

All in all, the Ravens have a defense that has created multiple turnovers in three of their five games, registering a turnover in every game. Their run defense has been stout, their pass rush has been able to confuse quarterbacks not named Patrick Mahomes, and they’ve gotten strong man coverage from their expensive secondary. With Patrick Queen playing like a mad man, Justin Madubuike looking to be the first impactful interior pass rusher drafted by Baltimore in quite some time, and newcomers Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe getting acclimated, this defense should be able to keep Baltimore in most of, if not all of their remaining games.

The Ravens have until the trade deadline to continue to assess their situation at wide receiver. Adding another capable tight end might bring back the multiplicity that the Ravens offense threatened defenses with in 2019. There’s a long way to go and veteran depth in the tight end and wide receiver rooms appear needed. GM Eric DeCosta made the necessary additions ahead of the trade deadline last year to ensure the Ravens had the pieces necessary for a strong run in November and December. While it might be brash to assume he does the same again, the Ravens appear primed for another playoff run — despite the Browns and Steelers both having AFC North title aspirations.

Overall, the onus, as it so often does, falls into the lap of Lamar Jackson. He’s flashed precision accuracy, broken off 10 runs that have gained 10 or more yards, but also been frantic in clean pockets, hesitated to throw with anticipation and missed open receivers. He hasn’t played his best football, but that’s a good thing.

The Ravens have the highest point differential in the NFL despite their offense not clicking on all cylinders. The comparison to 2019 might be too easy and apropos, although with this young offense gaining more experience, as well as a Week 7 bye to asses the playbook, this offense should be lightyears ahead of where it is now by December, then ultimately January. There is little analytical prowess in suggesting the Ravens could “peak at the right time”, but they feel primed to.

With a stable of fresh legs in the backfield, a deep interior offensive line, young playmakers gaining more experience, and a quarterback whose two greatest qualities are his work ethic and desire to win a championship, the Ravens feel like they will round into playoff-caliber when the time comes. Dreadfully, they won’t be able to work the kinks out ahead of the playoffs, as they face the three true contenders to conclude the season: the Jaguars, Giants and Bengals. Oh, wait?

With the big picture in mind, the trade deadline to shore up the offense and an experienced, proven coaching staff, the Ravens are in good shape despite 2020 being one of the most trying years in franchise history.