The Baltimore Ravens are coming off one of their most turbulent seasons and disappointing finishes in franchise history. They missed the playoffs for the first time since 2017, finished with a losing record (8-9) for the first time since 2015, and ended the year in their longest losing streak since the pre-John Harbaugh era in 2007.
While they played the most games that were decided by less than one score in 2021, of their three losses that came by two or more possessions, two came against the same opponent in the Cincinnati Bengals.
Heading into the season even before the Ravens roster was ravaged by a slew of seemingly never-ending injuries, not much was expected of the other team that dwells in Ohio. However, by the end of the year, they completed series sweeps both the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers handedly with a combined point differential of 147-to-58 in route to their first division title and playoff appearance since 2015.
The Bengals were swept by the preseason favorite Cleveland Browns but while their first matchup resulted in a 16-41 blowout, the second was decided by just five points in the season finale and Cincinnati was resting several starters after wrapping up the division the week prior.
Even though the Ravens were far from full strength in either 2021 matchup with the Bengals, they didn’t play them nearly as close from start to finish as they did other quality opponents such as the Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams, and Las Vegas Raiders in narrow defeats. All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey and starting safety DeShon Elliott were still in the lineup for their first meeting in Week 7 when rookie phenom Ja’Marr Chase torched their secondary for 201 receiving yards and a touchdown on eight catches.
Cincinnati had their way with the Ravens on both sides of the ball in both games but the second featured what was essentially the JV-team for Baltimore due to injuries compounded by a COVID outbreak so not much could be gleaned from that. While Joe Burrow and Chase were reliving their LSU glory days on offense in the first matchup, Lamar Jackson was corralled for five sacks by the Bengals potent pass rush that was able to get pressure around the edge as well as up the middle.
Like their secondary, Baltimore’s offensive line was in shambles for most of the year as well, but proper planning in the offseason along with better in-game adjustments could prevent injuries from tipping the scales so dramatically going forward.
Ever since Lamar Jackson took over as the full-time starter midway through his rookie season and burst onto the scene with his unanimous MVP winning season the following year in 2019, the other three teams in the division have been constructing their rosters with the goal of countering the dynamic dual-threat quarterback.
The Steelers traded for two-time All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, traded up 10 spots in the 2019 draft to select inside linebacker Devin Bush, and spent their first two picks in the 2021 draft on a pair of promising young offensive skill position players in running back Najee Harris and tight end Pat Freiermuth.
The Browns fortified their offensive line with the drafting of Jedrick Wills in 2020, the development of Wyatt Teller, and the signing of two-time All-Pro Jack Conklin in the 2020 free agency period. They also got a lot faster and more athletic of defense last offseason with the drafting of players like Greg Newsome and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and acquisitions of veterans Josh Johnson, Troy Hill, and Jadeveon Clowney in free agency to join the likes of Denzel Ward and Myles Garrett.
As impressive as the new pieces of the two aforementioned teams in recent years have been, it appears that the Bengals have made the biggest strides and quickest turnaround to lessen the gap with the Ravens and other AFC elite. They’ve managed to go from worst to first in a one-year span and capitalized on their AFC North foes being down in 2021, each for different reasons.
Their young nucleus of playmakers on offense that is led by the 2020 No. 1 overall pick at quarterback has catapulted them into a new stratosphere of legitimacy as championship contenders. Burrow’s offensive arsenal includes a dynamic trio of wide receivers, an underrated yet gifted tight end in C.J. Uzomah, and a Pro Bowl running back in Joe Mixon.
On defense, they have a pair of young linebackers in Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson who can make plays in coverage over the middle of the field where Jackson favors, the pass-rushing duo of Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard who combined for 21.5 sacks this year, two penetrating defensive tackles in Larry Ogunjobi and D.J. Reader, and ball-hawking free safety Jessie Bates.
They were blessed to be not just the healthiest team in the division in 2021 but entered the playoffs with one of the most intact rosters in the entire league. That won’t be the case every year and hopefully, the highly infectious injury bug had its fill of the Ravens this year and will leave them be for a while.
Injuries and COVID aside, heading into his third fourth offseason at the helm of the Ravens’ front office, General Manager Eric DeCosta and Co. should be on a mission to ensure they compete and best the class of the division after finishing with a woeful 1-5 record in the AFC North in 2021. The most assured way to gained entry into the postseason without having to hold their collective breaths for a wildcard berth is to win the division. As it currently stands the Bengals are poised to be the Ravens’ new rivals when it comes to being favored and likely to be crowned ‘Kings of the North’. for the foreseeable future so they should construct their roster with that in mind this offseason and beyond.
Their top priorities in the coming months, aside from getting healthy, should be to replenish and fortify the trenches on both sides of the ball, add more quality depth in the secondary at cornerback in particular, and find more playmakers on defense.
The offensive line needs a new starting right tackle, an upgrade at swing tackle, a better contingency on the blindside behind Ronnie Stanley, and could be looking for a new center if Bradley Bozeman departs in free agency. The interior of the defensive line needs to not only get younger but it needs to field players that can consistently penetrate and generate interior pressure. With Tyus Bowser likely out of commission for most of the offseason and possibly the start of the season, paired with the uncertainty of Justin Houston’s return, outside linebacker is a need yet again.
Even though both Humphrey and three-time Pro Bowler Marcus Peters are expected to make full recoveries from their season-ending injuries, improving the depth behind them is crucial if they would like to prevent Burrow from setting records every time they face off as he did in 2021 with combined 941 yards passing and seven touchdowns with just one interception.
Baltimore was among the worst teams in the league at forcing turnovers on defense this past season with just nine interceptions and only eight forced fumbles a year after Humphrey logged that many himself in 2020. There are some talented free safeties with excellent ball skills slated to become unrestricted free agents in March that could be looking for new homes, including Bates. There are also some intriguing options in the draft, including Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton, who could be in play at when they’re on the clock with the No. 14 overall selection in the first round.
If the Ravens are able to sign a player like Tyrann Mathieu for example, it would add another difference-maker capable of making game-winning plays that they haven’t had since Eric Weddle for a brief time from 2016-18. The last time they had such a presence for a sustained period was when Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed patrolled the backend of their defense.
Burrow has proven that he can go toe-to-toe in a shootout with the likes of Aaron Rodgers Justin Herbert, and Patrick Mahomes. He has also proven to be adept at eluding pressure, reading pre-snap pressure and making the right checks, exploiting mismatches in coverage, and fearlessly throwing the ball up to give his playmakers a chance to be special. To combat his emergence into borderline if not already elite status, the Ravens will have to plan and build accordingly.