Can the Ravens win an aerial shootout if need be?
They have built their team to win on the ground, to get the lead, hold the lead, and chew up the clock. That was their formula in the 14-2 season of 2019, and that seems to be their preferred formula in 2022.
What happens, though, when they have to win through the air? Can they do it? It’s a fair question with no sure answer.
Lamar Jackson has continued to dazzle as a dual-threat quarterback and leads the league with 7.4 yards per carry, but he has thrown for fewer than 150 yards in three of the past six games. He ranks 25th in completion percentage at .623, his lowest since his rookie year. More than once, he has missed an open receiver that could have resulted in a huge play, and he has had ill-timed turnovers in Ravens losses. And now top wide receiver Rashod Bateman is out for the season with a foot injury that requires surgery.
Devin Duvernay will presumably be the top target not named tight end Mark Andrews, but his total of 25 catches ranks tied for 79th in the league. The Ravens did not to draft a wide receiver, or sign a high-profile one in free agency, or trade for one at the deadline once the extent of Bateman’s injury was known. Those decisions invite scrutiny.
The passing game will need to be better for the Ravens to get where they want to go in January, but it did perfectly fine without Mark Andrews. Lamar Jackson’s completion percentage has been well below expectation in three of the last four games, reflecting opportunities being there.
Jackson has been smart with the football the last couple weeks when it would have been easy for him to try to do too much. The touchdown pass to Isaiah Likely was a work of art with Greg Roman deserving credit for the design. Jackson sold the run very well.
Baltimore can’t feel great about its cornerback depth behind Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, but the emergence of Kyle Hamilton eases some of that concern for now. The Ravens are using him more and more as a big nickel, and the first-round safety is getting the job done.
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Safety Kyle Hamilton
The No. 14 overall pick has graded out as Pro Football Focus’ No. 2 rookie safety and No. 6 overall safety this season. Because of the Ravens’ depth there, however, 73 players at the position have played more defensive snaps. Marcus Williams and Chuck Clark started the season as every-down players. Since replacing the injured Williams, Geno Stone has been one of PFF’s top safeties.
That’s left Hamilton looking for ways onto the field. Special teams snaps have come easily; only inside linebacker Kristian Welch has played more this season. On defense, though, the Notre Dame product’s diverse skill set — Ravens coaches didn’t expect him to be such an effective blitzer — has made him the defense’s most flexible piece, if not its most used.
Hamilton’s seen nearly equal playing time as a box safety (67 snaps), slot defender (78) and deep safety (86). He’s also lined up along the line of scrimmage, generating two quarterback pressures (one sack, one hit) in 13 pass-rush snaps. Hamilton has 25 tackles (one for loss) this season, and in coverage, he’s allowing a passer rating of just 73.7 when targeted, bouncing back from a forgettable early-season stretch.
It may take a while, but general manager Eric DeCosta will extend Roquan Smith: The Ravens want to keep Smith around long term. They already saw how he elevated the rest of the defense in his debut. The hope will be that the Ravens win big and Smith, who has never been part of a playoff victory in his career, develops a strong rapport with teammates and coaches and falls in love with Baltimore’s culture. That’s what happened when the Ravens acquired cornerback Marcus Peters before the 2019 trade deadline and extended the pending free agent a couple of months later.
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The Ravens appear to have put their second-half meltdowns behind them, tearing off three straight wins to take a one-game lead over the Bengals in the AFC North. Not great news for Cincinnati, which is looking to repeat as division champs for the first time since the 1981-82 seasons. What’s worse for the Bengals? They’re the only team left on Baltimore’s remaining eight-game slate that currently has a winning record.
While the Ravens have been far from perfect during their recent run, they have posted the sixth-best point margin in the second halves of games in the league (+15) after recording the seventh-worst (-25) in such situations over their first six games.
The Bengals are dealing with their own injuries on that side of the ball, most notably to Ja’Marr Chase, who’s been sidelined since Week 8 after hurting his hip two weeks earlier. Still, Joe Burrow, Joe Mixon and Tee Higgins can provide plenty of star power in their own right. They followed up Week 8’s dud against Cleveland with a 40-burger against Carolina, the Bengals’ third 30-plus-point effort in their previous four games. Meanwhile, the Ravens haven’t eclipsed 30 since Week 3.
The Bengals’ 0-3 record in the division, including a Week 5 loss at Baltimore, and their remaining strength of schedule (ninth-toughest) mean a push for the division crown will be an uphill battle. But if the Ravens revert to their early-season ways, failing to play up to their potential, Cincinnati could have enough leeway to make this season finale must-watch TV. If we learned anything from the reigning AFC champs last season, it’s that we should not count them out.