Syllabus Intro for Baltimore Ravens Training Camp 101:
Fresh cut grass, morning dew and the piercing sound of whistles accompanied by instructions from a coach to “move, move, move!” Football is here. The Baltimore Ravens finally have opened training camp in compliance with COVID-19 adjusted protocol. The Ravens are now seven months removed from their second straight home playoff loss, although the sting is still tangible.
A whirlwind offseason saw the retirement of future Hall of Fame G Marshal Yanda and the acquisition of an elite defensive lineman in Calais Campbell. Baltimore also doubled up in the draft three times, revamping the linebacker, receiver and interior offensive line groups, while adding a lethal new runner in J.K. Dobbins.
The Ravens also brought back Matthew Judon on the franchise tag, Pernell McPhee and Jihad Ward on one-year deals and free agent Derek Wolfe, who was the Robin to Von Miller’s Batman in Denver.
Marquise Brown had a screw removed from his foot and packed on ~20 pounds of muscle, looking to regain the blazing speed he displayed when consistently averaging over 22 mph on deep routes at Oklahoma. Last year, Brown was quick, but didn’t touch 21 mph (even when burning past Minkah Fitzpatrick.)
Marquise Brown got a GPS vest from the Ravens this offseason for speed training. He hasn't tested as fast as he did at Oklahoma (23.9 mph), but he's getting there. https://t.co/jgJ6lW9i5o— Jonas Shaffer (@jonas_shaffer) August 5, 2020
Hayden Hurst was shipped off to Atlanta, while rookies Devin Duvernay and James Proche figure to bring out more 11 personnel from the Ravens offense in 2020.
Overall, the Ravens are bringing back 10 starters on offense and their entire secondary, with a retooled front seven. They also return nearly their entire coaching staff, including both coordinators. Baltimore will return nearly as much personnel from 2019 as any team in the NFL.
Essentially, the Ravens are going to “run it back” with a more disruptive front seven and a few new toys on offense . . . sans Marshal Yanda.
The Ravens have already seen WR Chris Moore sidelined with a broken finger and CB Iman Marshall placed on IR with a torn ACL. Moore’s injury has opened the door for a Dez Bryant workout in Baltimore. Marshall’s injury potentially opens the door for Brandon Carr to return to the Ravens, or paved the way for a lesser known UDFA to earn a spot.
C Matt Skura has rebounded from a late season ACL, MCL and PCL and patella injury at an awe-inspiring rate, already cleared for practice. C Patrick Mekari has opened camp as the first-team center, alongside Bradley Bozeman and newcomer D.J. Fluker — with Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. flanking at the tackle spots.
Last year, the Ravens spent a significant amount of time on red zone passing. Almost daily, they worked on red zone seven-on-seven, split-field red zone seven-on-seven, goal line passing and more close quarters passing. The result? Lamar Jackson scored 29 total touchdowns with no turnovers in the red zone.
This year, the Ravens will work on their outside passing game. Jackson has proven to be one of the best passers between the hashes in the NFL. His weakest area was deep left, the only area of the field Jackson was truly subpar.
With Devin Duvernay, a former 6-A Texas state 100m champion, now running along with Miles Boykin and Hollywood Brown, the Ravens offense aims to keep defenses from stacking the box. If the Ravens can develop better timing and rhythm in their deep and outside passing game, defenses will be left in an eternal catch-22. Increased deep passing consistency creates the opportunity for the Ravens to truly control their own destiny on offense.
While the loss of Marshal Yanda can’t be overstated, the Ravens should have outstanding depth across the offensive line. After a dominant 2019, certainly aided by the threat of Lamar Jackson’s legs, the Ravens made sure to stockpile options at the guard and center positions. D.J. Fluker is the top contender to replace Yanda, as he has a wealth of experience after spending time with San Diego (before the move), the Giants and Seahawks.
Beyond Fluker, Ben Powers, Ben Bredeson and Tyre Phillips will compete to earn snaps. For now, last year’s line with Fluker replacing Yanda feels imminent, as Harbaugh’s Ravens have always valued experience and continuity along the offensive front. After such a dominant regular season, the Titans defensive line whooped the Ravens’ front for four quarters, leaving an asteroid-sized chip on their shoulder.
For the Ravens offensive line to achieve a similar level of success, Orlando Brown Jr. needs to take a major leap in consistency. With his skill set and flashes of greatness, if he can become a true road-grader in Year 3, it will go a long way towards offsetting the loss of Yanda, who rarely pulled. Having played alongside Yanda, who was able to bang defenders off the ball, work combo blocks with Brown and then attack defenders in space, Brown knows what needs to be done. Can he do it consistently with a new partner? He’s certainly capable.
Following the departure of Hayden Hurst, Mark Andrews figures to take more snaps. Hurst and Andrews both totaled ~41% of the Ravens offensive snaps in 2019. With Hurst gone, expect that number to shoot up between 55-68% for Andrews, who led all tight ends in receiving touchdowns despite only running 295 routes in 2019 — which ranked 25th at the position.
For comparison —
• Travis Kelce: 551 routes run.
• Zach Ertz: 543 routes run.
• Darren Waller: 474 routes run.
• George Kittle: 338 routes run.
• Jeremy Sprinkle: 304 routes run.
With increased volume, 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns are within grasp if Andrews can hold up.
Nick Boyle will remain a large part of the offense, while Pat Ricard will see an increase in usage at TE, where he took 82 snaps in 2019.
With all that said, the Ravens offense needs to sharpen in tempo situations. Just as the focus was on red zone passing in 2019, attention will turn to tempo passing. Running precise routes to exact landmarks and timing them with Jackson’s mechanics and delivery to increase efficiency on boundary throws will be pivotal in continuing to grow the offense. Greg Roman’s offense is ineffable with a lead. Now, it’s time to make them difficult to hold down.
Expect a much more concise and sharpened two minute offense at the conclusion of camp. Much of that will have to do with Lamar Jackson’s ability to call plays at the line, call multiple plays from the huddle and make quick adjustments at the line. His mental processing has always been sharp, now it’s time to take on more responsibility at the line of scrimmage and make pre-snap adjustments.
Another area that the Ravens need to improve upon is check-down decisiveness. Too often, Ingram, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill straddled the fence between chipping a pass-rusher and getting to the flat. Too many half measures in each department resulted in relatively weak chips, or forced Lamar Jackson to hold the ball too long. The running backs need to do one or the other and make it snappy. With the receiving ability that Mark Ingram, Justice Hill and J.K. Dobbins possess, getting to the flats definitively can result in easy throws and space to make plays after the catch.
Additionally, expect the Ravens to expand their screen and jet sweep/pop-pass arsenal, which included only 20 such plays during the 2020 regular season. A healthy Marquise Brown, Devin Duvernay, Justice Hill and J.K. Dobbins should all be featured on bubble passes and more jet motion. The Ravens used too much motion in 2019 not to capitalize on screens and jet sweeps. Essentially, their screen and sweep game was all bark with very little bite. James Proche and Devin Duvernay combined to haul in 72 screens in college last year, among the FBS leaders. It feels imminent that they will be used on such occasions.
As the Ravens saw, you must be able to play from behind to make a run at a championship. Unless they’re putting together an all-time great playoff run, the Ravens will trail at some point next postseason. They need to regain the lead with pneumatic precision and execution from their tempo and spread offenses in clutch situations. Anything less will result in them falling short of their Super Bowl aspirations. Lamar Jackson knows that. John Harbaugh knows that. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes certainly do as well after proving themselves in those situations.
Flipping over to the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens will return their entire secondary, who will only improve with the continuity of returning two All-Pro corners, a former All-Pro safety, a defensive leader (Chuck Clark) and a healthy slot corner in Tavon Young. Jimmy Smith figures to play a wild card role in the 2020 defense, which could prolong his career and save him for critical situations in favorable matchups. The Ravens would be wise to verse Jimmy Smith in some slot corner work, as well as give him some snaps at safety in two high, single high and quarters looks.
The Ravens secondary will aim to produce more turnovers in 2020, largely in part to the Ravens major emphasis on improving their pass rush. In 2019, Michael Pierce, Brandon Williams and Chris Wormley were among the least impactful pass-rushing defensive line trios in the NFL last season, producing only 46 total pressures on 889 combined pass rushing snaps. For comparison, 14 individual defensive interior players produces 46 or more pressures, with none rushing the passer 600 times.
Baltimore (clearly disappointed with the dismal production) acquired one of those 14 players this offseason. Calais Campbell produced 71 pressures on only 480 pass rushes, nearly doubling the efforts of Wormley, Williams and Pierce with half the volume. The Ravens doubled down, acquiring Derek Wolfe, who was 30th in Pro Football Focus’ “Pass Rushing Productivity” metrics, which weigh sacks slightly more than hurries and QB hits.
The addition of DT Justin Madubuike in the draft should provide a nice rotational piece alongside Jihad Ward and Pernell McPhee, who figure to take snaps both on the edge and lined up inside the tackles.
By bringing in two proven pass rushers, then sliding Brandon Williams back to his natural position, the Ravens defensive front could double the pressures of last year’s interior starters. In turn, opponents will be forced into even more obvious passing situations, with less time to throw the ball. That will directly increase the number of sacks and turnovers, as pressure has proven to drastically increases the likelihood of both.
This schematic change also will decrease the Ravens necessity to send five or more rushers on blitzes, where the Ravens were forced to do at a historic rate in 2019 because of a lack of interior pressure. That will open up the playbook defensively in pivotal situations, allowing “Wink” Martindale to dial up his most exotic blitzed or bluff them, then drop seven defenders into coverage.
With a shiny new pair of athletic linebackers who were drafted for their combination of blitzing prowess and coverage competence, the Ravens have the potential to be the best defensive unit in football. While it may take a few games to get everyone on the same page, especially with no live bullets until their regular season opener, the Ravens defense should fall into line among the best in football in the second half of the 2020 regular season.
For now, the major emphasis will be shoring up pre-snap communication, executing assignments on twists and allowing their young linebackers to play fast. While Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison are exciting, expectations must be tempered. They will certainly experience bumps and bruises along the way to making splash plays. L.J. Fort figures to play a major role early on, which should be a welcome sight. Fort’s running back-like build, great hips and ability to click and close on ball-carriers in space will make Fort an unsung hero.
The Ravens built their defense from the back forward, which should prove fruitful. Earl Thomas, Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Chuck Clark and Jimmy Smith all had time to digest each other’s tendencies after their first year together, which should allow them to streamline communication and become more efficient while also less predictable in 2020.
Long story short, the defense’s major emphasis will be creating more splash plays on first and second down (tackle for losses and sacks) leading to more turnovers and sacks on later downs.
For training camp to make strides towards hoisting a Lombardi Trophy, the Ravens will need to do the following:
• Become more efficient with clock management, route landmarks and timing in tempo passing situations.
• Improve and expand their screen and jet sweep production.
• Be more decisive and quicker in their check down passing.
• Survive the loss of Marshal Yanda.
• Generate more interior pass rush.
• Keep their young linebackers playing fast.
• Generate more turnovers and “splash” plays on defense from the start of the season.
The Ravens face an early three-part exam by facing the Browns, Texans and Chiefs to start their season. Three AFC opponents, one divisional and three teams primed to make a playoff push in 2020. While many predict the Ravens to sleepwalk into the postseason, they will fall flat on their face if that’s their attitude.
The most difficult part of their early exam will be the written section, where the Ravens will get a chance to make their mark in week three against Kansas City. After losing back to back games in Kansas City over the past two years by a combined score of eight points, beating the defending champs in Baltimore would show if the Ravens have done enough to be the top dog in the AFC.
Then, they’ll get the chance to present in front of the NFL class and fine tune their weaknesses against inexperienced teams in the middle of a rebuild, facing Washington and Cincinnati, respectively.
Their midterm will largely determine their grade for the semester, as contests against Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New England, Tennessee, Dallas, Pittsburgh again and Cleveland will go a long way towards earning an A, or falling behind the rest of the NFL’s best.
Last semester, the Ravens were able to earn an “A” on their mid term. Wins over Houston, New England, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and San Francisco. They face a similar examination this semester. Doing well in this semester’s midterm will go a long way towards earning an “A” and giving the Ravens another home playoff game.
If the Ravens get there, again, and are unable to pass the advanced course, particularly in their first exam, the blame must largely fall onto the coaching staff and Head Coach of a team that returned most of a 14-2 football team, including an MVP QB and a bevy of All-Pro players.
The Ravens simply need to win one postseason game to have a chance at graduating from the Lombardi School of Hard Knocks.