In 2019 the Baltimore Ravens had a healthy and productive training camp that emphasized getting their second year quarterback, Lamar Jackson, as many reps as possible. Following a lightning rod finish to the 2018 regular season and dramatic first round exit at the hands of the Los Angelos Chargers, the Ravens attacked their training camp head on. The result? A 14-2 record, the top seed in AFC for the first time in franchise history, the top point differential in the NFL and an unanimous MVP for their 22-year-old quarterback. The Ravens set a bevy of franchise records: longest win streak (12 games), most points scored (531), wins (14) among others. They beat five of six playoff teams and had one of the league’s hardest schedules. With an MVP quarterback, historically good run game and ferocious defense, Baltimore was a wagon.
One aspect that goes overlooked in their 2019 run was their clean bill of health. Their most notable injuries were to center Matt Skura and nickel back Tavon Young. Young missed the entire regular season after sustaining a neck injury during training camp, while Matt Skura suffered a season ending knee injury half way through the season. Cornerback Jimmy Smith also missed eight games after sustaining an ankle injury in the regular season opener against the Miami Dolphins. Considering Young to be a “starter,” 11 of Baltimore’s 12 defensive starters and 10 of 11 offensive starters were active when they played the Tennessee Titans in the Divisional Round. That’s not to say the Ravens didn’t have bumps and bruises in training camp.
Ravens have 11 players not practicing Tuesday:— Jamison Hensley (@jamisonhensley) August 13, 2019
-CB Jimmy Smith
-WR Seth Roberts
-G Marshal Yanda
-LB Matt Judon
-LB Pernell McPhee
-CB Tavon Young
-CB Biggie Marshall
-OT Greg Senat
-CB Anthony Averett
-G Randin Crecelius
-LB Mike Onuoha
CB Maurice Canady returned.
The Ravens did have different starting linebackers from the beginning of the season to the end of the season, however that was from the decisions to trade Kenny Young in a package to gain Marcus Peters. L.J. Fort and Josh Bynes were signed to man the starting linebacker spots. This showed Eric DeCosta’s ability to cut his losses and seal a hole in the roster.
Fast forward to 2021, the Ravens training camp has been anything but reminiscent of what their 2019 camp looked like. They’ve been engulfed by questions and seem to have found little answers to this point.
When will Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin rejoin practice? When will the Ravens starting offensive line get time together? How much? When will Rashod Bateman be able to return? Will his injury linger? Will the starting offense have enough time to gel?
Their (now) franchise quarterback, Lamar Jackson, missed the first ten days of camp following his second stint on the COVID-19 reserve list in less than eight months (I don’t believe I’ve heard of another player having two bouts with COVID). Marquise Brown suffered a hamstring injury on the second day of camp. Their budding star first round receiver had a lingering injury that compounded into surgery before he ever played a snap of NFL football. One of their solutions on the offensive line, Kevin Zeitler, missed two weeks of practice with a foot injury. Their left guard turned center, Bradley Bozeman, sustained an ankle injury, their third round pick competing for the left guard spot, Ben Cleveland, suffered a concussion and couldn’t play in the preseason game.
While there are still weeks left for players to get healthy and gain their footing on the practice field, that doesn’t ensure that Baltimore won’t struggle offensively to start the season. Four of their five lineman either weren’t on the team or played a different position last year. In Alejandro Villanueva’s case, both. The Ravens one bluechip offensive lineman, 2019 All-Pro Ronnie Stanley, is just now getting practice reps for the first time following a season ending ankle injury last year. Offensive line struggles were a major factor in the Ravens devastating defeat to the Buffalo Bills in the Divisional Round in January.
In summary, the start of camp has been tumultuous, turbulent and trying. The good news is that Baltimore’s defense has routinely demonstrated why they’ve allowed the fewest points in the NFL since defensive coordinator Wink Martindale took over in 2018. They’ve consistently harassed Ravens quarterbacks in practice, won far more days than they’ve lost and just forced six turnovers in their first preseason game against the New Orleans Saints. The one true question mark, the Ravens ability to rush the passer, was fortified by adding veteran Justin Houston who has had at least eight sacks in each of the last four seasons.
Baltimore’s defense is poised to answer questions that their offense might not be capable of early in the season— including the most important one, can they win? Greg Roman’s offense must do its best to answer the remaining questions. How can they craft an offense that hides deficiencies up front to start the year in Las Vegas? The answer could be to run the ball downhill using the man/gap scheme that has propelled Baltimore to the league’s top rushing attack over the last two years, particularly down the stretch last year. When the Ravens were struggling to control the point of attack they used counter option plays that put their running backs in space to avoid battles up front.
'Scheming with Scho' Episode 12 with @MarkSchofield!— The Scouting Academy (@TheScoutAcademy) January 8, 2021
This week, Mark takes a look at the Ravens' use of Counter Bash and how it allows Lamar Jackson to punish defenses no matter what they try to stop him pic.twitter.com/CATjyRUnWj
The Ravens made personnel decisions to potentially transition away from the dependency on Lamar Jackson’s legs. They may very well need to rely on them early on in the regular season to mask some of their shortcomings as their line develops continuity. Who will start at left guard in week one to deploy that plan? The answer, for now, appears to be Tyre Phillips, who was the first Ravens rookie blocker to start in the season opener aside from Ronnie Stanley in the last decade. Phillips has shown athleticism and proper angling as a run blocker throughout camp, an area he struggled with last year. With Ben Cleveland missing time and appearing to struggle in his pass sets, he will need to have a strong close to the preseason when he returns from a concussion in order to prove to be the safer alternative.
Another question is who will step up in the receiver room until Rashod Bateman and Marquise Brown return? Sammy Watkins has taken his share of the load, although he exited Monday’s practice with a trainer.
Ravens WR Sammy Watkins left the practice field early with a trainer.— Jamison Hensley (@jamisonhensley) August 16, 2021
That meant Baltimore was without its top three WRs for the last hour of practice.
Marquise Brown (hamstring) and Rashod Bateman (groin) are also sidelined.
That leaves the onus on Devin Duvernay and James Proche to answer the bell. Duvernay was impressive in the Ravens preseason win over the Saints, hauling in several contested targets. Duvernay has seen heavy usage as a flanker, where he can use his 4.4 speed and improved releases under Keith Williams and Tee Martin’s tutelage to threaten defenses vertically, while also using his open field ability and toughness to work underneath. Duvernay’s blazing speed may be the fastest of any ball carrier on the entire offense.
Devin Duvernay reached a top speed of 21.48 MPH, the 2nd-fastest speed by a ball carrier on a kickoff over the last two seasons.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 29, 2020
Duvernay traveled 110.4 yards of distance on the play, and reached his top speed at the KC 45-yard line.#KCvsBAL | #RavensFlock pic.twitter.com/XMcCzMJqwo
Proche has excelled in contested catch situations throughout training camp, reeling in catches with outstanding hands, concentration and competitiveness. He’s not a big receiver, but he jockeys for position and leverage well, shielding the ball from defenders and attacking the ball at the catch point.
James Proche woke up at 4:30 a.m. during the offseason to get in three-a-day workouts.— Jonas Shaffer (@jonas_shaffer) August 16, 2021
“I get paid to play football. It’s crazy.” pic.twitter.com/CwZb8svnpR
James Proche is practicing his way right into a roster spot— Kevin Oestreicher (@koestreicher34) August 3, 2021
What a catch pic.twitter.com/YRVE0AHzoG
James Proche is already showing why he deserves a spot on the Ravens’ final 2021 roster pic.twitter.com/USgXadP9Le— Kevin Oestreicher (@koestreicher34) July 29, 2021
While Lamar Jackson seems hesitant to throw contested passes to receivers not named Mark Andrews, James Proche will have every opportunity to earn Jackson’s trust with Brown, Boykin, Deon Cain and Sammy Watkins missing time.
Overall, the Ravens have time to answer questions offensively. They will join the Panthers in Carolina to join forces and potentially find the answers needed to get the ball rolling. Beginning to make determinations at left guard and in the receiver room will go a long way in gaining traction towards another winning season. With the additions of Zeitler, Cleveland, Villanueva, Josh Oliver, Tylan Wallace, Rashod Bateman and company, Baltimore needs to settle down, get healthy and stack reps to avoid a rocky start.