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Ravens News 12/3: Double-Edged Sword and more

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Baltimore Ravens Training Camp Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

QB Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense surged late last season. There’s belief ‘it all clicks’ again this year. - Jonas Shaffer

So for as much as the team’s offense has struggled in recent weeks, the lows of 2021 have not quite reached the lows of 2020. Which means the highs of the Ravens’ next six weeks might yet eclipse those of last year’s surge, too.

Even after a disappointing showing on offense Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, the Ravens’ road back to the NFL’s upper third is not quite as far. They’re No. 17 in overall efficiency (20th in passing and eighth in rushing), according to Football Outsiders, and none of the five teams left on their schedule are defensive juggernauts.

With a mistake-prone defense, however, Jackson and the Ravens have given themselves little margin for error. According to RBSDM.com, their offense since Week 6 ranks 24th in the NFL in expected points added per play, a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position. That trails even the Steelers (22nd).

The component pieces are there for Roman and Harbaugh; they just need to come together. As Jackson described the experience of watching his four interceptions against Cleveland, he seemed not to recognize the player he saw on film. That’s what this week’s practices would be for: rediscovery and rejuvenation.

Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense are suddenly struggling at a time they need to be at their best - Jeff Zrebiec

The Ravens averaged over 33 points per game in their six December/January regular-season games last year. During their record-breaking regular season in 2019, they averaged 29 points in their five December games.

If the current Ravens are going to be the team that’s gone 14-2 the past three years in December and January regular-season games, if the Ravens are going to be the offense that keyed those strong finishes, something is going to have to change and fast as the Ravens prepare for another key AFC North matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

“The thing we’re doing extremely well is controlling the football game,” Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Thursday. “It’s kind of unique. Honestly, I can’t put my finger on being a part of this kind of dynamic where you’re averaging 38 minutes of possession, you’re getting 23-plus first downs. We’ve just got to turn those and finish drives into points. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.”

“That game, it was what it was,” Roman said. “It was a little bit of an aberration. It’s definitely something that we work on full speed. We’ve seen some of it. The touchdown (Sunday) night was one of them. We always want to take the approach of, ‘Bring that blitz on, we’ll make you pay.’ That’s our attitude.”

Tyus Bowser’s Rise to the Next Great Ravens Outside Linebacker - Ryan Mink

According to Pro Football Focus’ grades, Bowser has been the Ravens’ second-best defender this season, tied with veteran Justin Houston behind veteran Calais Campbell, who might both be in their final years. The Ravens defense is going to undergo some change in the 2022 offseason, but one thing has become very clear. Bowser is, and will continue to grow into, a cornerstone of the Ravens defense.

“He’s been playing at a Pro Bowl level,” Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale said. “When you close the game out in Chicago with a sack, and then you close out the game in coverage like he did against Cleveland, that just shows you. I think he’s been playing elite against the run, elite against the pass and elite rushing the passer.”

A better all-around game has led to Bowser becoming a three-down linebacker. He began the year playing about 60% of the snaps. Against the Bears, Bowser got 83% of the defensive snaps and versus the Browns, Bowser played all but three of the snaps (95%). Bowser answered with two huge games: nine tackles, three sacks, five quarterback hits, two passes defensed and one forced fumble.

NFL Week 13 underdogs: Can Steelers break out of funk against Ravens? Patriots to top Bills? - Marc Sessler

The Steelers were an embarrassment in Week 12, bullied and scattered by a Bengals team showing zero fear of Pittsburgh’s once-dreaded defense. The Steelers can’t run the ball, but you can run on them at will. Just ask the Lions (229 ground yards in Week 10), the Chargers (159 yards in Week 11) or mighty Joe Mixon, who helped Cincy set a butt-kicking tone early with a 20/117/1 line before halftime as the Bengals raced through T.J. Watt and friends for 198 yards on the day. Joe Burrow carved them up through the skies, too, while late-period Ben Roethlisberger creaked around the gridiron.

The Steelers appear cooked, but they’re also a desperate operation clinging to life under an agitated coach in Mike Tomlin. They know the Ravens better than anyone. Baltimore is no gem, either, handing the ball away nine times over the past four games. Lamar Jackson is capable of high wizardry, but his last two outings against the Browns and Dolphins (with five picks, six sacks and just two scores) raise a flock of questions about this club’s final destination. Baltimore’s ranking in defensive DVOA (18th) is almost as surprising as Pittsburgh’s (27th) for those waking up from a trance and assuming these two teams are unchanged from yesteryear. They aren’t. Both are vulnerable and imperfect, but also resilient and capable of rattling the other. The Steelers won’t appreciate being labeled as ‘dogs at home against a hated foe. Expect them to come out with a fevered look in the eye.

Week 13 NFL game picks: Cowboys stomp depleted Saints on Thursday Night Football; Bills edge Patriots - Gregg Rosenthal

Baltimore Ravens 30, Pittsburgh Steelers 20

WHERE: Heinz Field (Pittsburgh)

WHEN: 4:25 p.m. ET | CBS

SPREAD: Ravens -4.5 | O/U: 44

I can believe that the Steelers’ offense is this bad. I can’t quite believe the defense is this bad. T.J. Watt did not look like himself last week and is now in the COVID-19 protocol. Pittsburgh’s defensive struggles to stop the run and cover outside receivers deep down the field figure to be a deadly combination against the Ravens. (In other news, Ben Roethlisberger is the lowest-graded non-Jets quarterback among all qualifiers in Pro Football Focus’ grading.)