It was around this time last year that the Baltimore Ravens were entering training camp ahead of a much-anticipated 2021 season with high hopes and heavy expectations. After finally slaying the dragon that was winning a playoff game in the Lamar Jackson era, there was belief among many that it was time to take the next step.
Sure, there were still some questions following a disappointing divisional round effort in Buffalo that ended their season, with most of them still centering on Jackson and his perceived inability to keep the Ravens alive with his arm in big games. In the face of these questions, General Manager Eric DeCosta went about as all-in as we’ve seen him (and maybe this organization at any point) go on juicing up the passing game.
To cap off a multi-year effort that saw DeCosta take a wide receiver in the first round in 2019, and one each in the third round between then and 2020, the Ravens GM doubled down by selecting Rashod Bateman in the first round of the 2021 Draft, as well as Tylan Wallace in the fourth. All this combined with the veteran addition of Sammy Watkins bolstered their de facto number one option in tight end Mark Andrews, and the 2021 Ravens looked ready to dominate the air if Jackson took the next step they believed he was capable of.
In many ways, he did. The ‘21 Ravens were true cardiac kids, with Jackson running and throwing them to victory with equal aplomb in the first half of the year – one of the catch-all criticisms the maligned young QB was often levied was that he had an inability to lead his team to victory when facing a 10-point deficit in the second half of games, something he did three times through the first nine weeks of last year.
But despite the thrilling comebacks and passing game fireworks, it was clear that there was something fundamentally wrong with the team. Rather than this passing attack coming alive to help the Ravens dominate other teams as we had seen from other teams over the years, it seemed more to do so simply out of necessity.
Baltimore had been decimated by injuries from jump street, an unrelenting trend that continued throughout the season and made them one dimensional on both sides of the ball. On offense, it was their line that fell apart, robbing Baltimore of their revered run game, and forcing them to go to the pass; on the other side of the ball, the secondary suffered greatly, which allowed teams to throw on Baltimore with ease and prompt those high octane, high-stress shootouts.
While Jackson had undoubtedly shown the world what he could do as a passer, the toll of carrying the team throughout the first half of the season was a hefty one, and it arguably began to show. After a lifeless 16-10 home victory over Cleveland in Week 12 in which he threw four head-scratching interceptions, Jackson almost snatched victory from the jaws of defeat at Pittsburgh, instead failing to hook up with Mark Andrews in a daring two-point attempt that would’ve essentially walked the game off.
The next week, Jackson got injured in an away game in Cleveland, and that would be the last of the field he’d see for the year. With the stakes of winning a championship weighing on them early in the year, and the additional stress brought on by the deluge of injuries and corresponding shootouts leading to their collapse in the second half of the year, the argument could be made that the high pressure, singular focus with which they had entered the year had done to them what happens to so many of us when we operate with tunnel vision: it burned them out.
This led to a second-half hangover of epic proportions, seeing a team that started at 8-3 finish at 8-9, and calling into question what exactly could’ve caused such a precipitous fall. It’s in the Ravens actions since then that we can glean what they think are the answers to this very complex question.
First and foremost, it’s obvious they didn’t ascribe their uncharacteristic struggles on defense just to the spate of injuries they suffered. In an unexpected move, they parted ways with Defensive Coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale after a tough season from the stalwart coach both on the field and in front of the microphone. In his stead is a former protégé of his, the 34-year-old Mike Macdonald who comes over from Michigan with plenty of Baltimore DNA, but just enough experience on his own to freshen things up.
“The Ravens will move away from playing so much man-to-man and will be more varied in their defensive approach,” wrote The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen. “They’ll play more split safety (two-deep safety) coverages like quarters, Cover 6 (quarter, quarter, half) and Tampa 2 (two-deep zone). At Michigan, Macdonald didn’t blitz as much as Martindale, but there were games when he cranked up his aggression, like against Ohio State. But he used more simulated pressures, which are pressures in which the defense rushes four but with the fourth rusher coming from a second- or third-level defender instead of a defensive lineman, rather than bringing five or six at a high rate.”
All of that shop talk from Nguyen is certainly complex, but it can be boiled down to this: Baltimore is banking on balancing things out on a side of the ball that desperately needed it last season but couldn’t get it due to a severe lack of talent, and some stubbornness from the always swashbuckling Martindale. In hiring one of their own who had taken a year to hone his skills, the Ravens hope to infuse youthful energy and tactful aggression, along with some reigned in ideas on how to use it; classic philosophy, new methodology:
“So, let’s say all of your split-safety coverages are named after shoe companies, and then let’s say your two-man is named after music artists and your three-deep is named after phone companies,” said Stephen Adegoke, former Michigan quality control coach, in Nguyen’s article. “So anytime you hear ‘T-Mobile,’ ‘Verizon,’ ‘AT&T’ or ‘Sprint,’ I already know it’s a three-deep family, so now I know that we got buzzers, we got hookers, and this is what’s going on. Because other people just, like, give these really abstract names and it just doesn’t mean anything.”
Methodology to controlled madness and simplifying things without sacrificing elegance – this all sounds like something the 2021 Ravens could’ve used a bit more of. Deploying that effectively is easier said than done, but the re-stocking of the cupboard – including the signing of safety Marcus Williams, retaining defensive end Calais Campbell and outside linebacker Justin Houston, and the drafting of safety Kyle Hamilton, defensive tackle Travis Jones, and former Wolverine standout, outside linebacker David Ojabo – is a big part of the reason there’s high expectations that the NFL’s youngest defensive coordinator will make good on his potential from day one.
But it wasn’t just the defensive side of the ball that saw plenty of transformation over the past few months. Especially in comparison to where we last saw it, this offense will be essentially brand new for 2022.
It all starts at the sports’ most important position, where Jackson returns in good health and head-turning physical condition as he enters into his first true contract year. Almost nothing tangible of note has been reported on Jackson’s contract situation in ages, possibly because of how unconventional the process has been and possibly because there’s simply nothing to report. Time will tell on how that shakes out, but there’s reason to buy into the fact that Jackson has a great opportunity to earn himself some more money this season.
That reason would be that in regard to Jackson, the Ravens – as the great 21st century poets “Imagine Dragons” would put it – are going back to their roots. In keeping with this franchise’s long standing disregard for the wide receiver position, Eric DeCosta has yet to spend one guaranteed penny on it, and even shipped off the team’s most proven option at the position in wide receiver Marquise Brown on draft night.
He parlayed that move into the selection of Tyler Linderbaum, a first-round center from Iowa who is perfectly emblematic of what this franchise has wanted to be since day one of its existence. That is, rough, tough, cerebral and a bit of an underdog.
“I guess his arms weren’t quite as long as somebody wants,” his former coach, Kirk Ferentz (who has Ravens ties) said during the pre-draft process. “I’d rather have a guy that has his arms half an inch short that can actually block guys trying to block them.”
Since DeCosta took over for Ozzie Newsome in 2019, the franchise has been much more invested in analytics and measurables, rather than just relying on tape and production to evaluate draftable players – a prime example of this would be outside linebacker Odafe Oweh, who after not registering a sack his final year college went No. 31 to Baltimore in the 2021 draft. But Linderbaum, as Ferentz noted, runs somewhat counter to that. His former coach went on to sum up what makes the young center prospect special, in a summary that sounds like a lot of classic Ravens draft picks who’ve worked out in spades:
“The one nice thing, any coach appreciates, is just knowing what you’re going to get, really knowing,” he said. “I think that’s the best thing I can say about Tyler, whatever they think they’re getting, that’s what they’re getting, probably plus some. He’ll be a guy in my mind that’s going to play the next 10, 12 years, play really well. Be a great guy on the team, in the locker room, all those things that are really invaluable.”
Linderbaum was a meat-and-potatoes pick in a meat-and-potatoes draft that drew rave reviews for Baltimore, amid some lingering concern from anonymous sources who claimed they were outsmarting themselves by once again ignoring positional value to an extent. There’s some validity to this idea, as Baltimore enters training camp with severe uncertainty at wideout. But it’s eschewing investment at that position that allowed them to rebuild their offense in what was once it’s most powerful image – downhill, run-heavy, and ready to dominate the middle of the field.
Joining Linderbaum to start along on the line are Morgan Moses at right tackle and a hopefully replenished Ronnie Stanley at left tackle, while some of DeCosta’s more underrated moves of the offseason will provide insurance within the position group. If either of Ja’Waun James or Daniel Faalele contribute at tackle this season it would be a big win, as will those that they’ll surely see from the re-signed offensive lineman Patrick Mekari in his versatile swing role.
In continuation of his effort to answer the all-important question of “where’s the beef?” DeCosta shored up a tight end position that was in need of some depth by grabbing two promising rookies in Isaiah Likely and Charlie Kolar, both of whom fit the profile of guys that Jackson will get a lot of usage out of. He’s done the same for a running back position that was comically depleted in ‘21, swapping the likes of Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray for Mike Davis, Corey Clement and rookie Tyler Badie. All three of whom are only insurance against the recovery efforts of J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards.
Comparisons to the brash and bruising 2019 team have already been overdone in both positive and skeptical fashion, but it’s hard not to see them when you look this squad up and down. But when you really get down to the nitty gritty of it all, it seems that the Ravens are less bent on chasing those glory days than they are on ensuring that the nightmare that was the second half of the 2021 season won’t happen again.
We see all of that in what they’ve done with the roster, opting for strength in numbers and leaving no stone unturned when it comes to acquiring strong depth. But we’ve also seen it in their preparation and approach to the opening practices of training camp.
In years past, the organization has received fines for John Harbaugh pushing things too hard in practices by bending the rules of what was allowed by the NFLPA (2016, 2018). In 2021, perhaps by no fault of anyone’s, the practice field became a house of horrors for the Ravens as they lost cornerback Marcus Peters and running back Gus Edwards, in one day of pregame prep at The Castle in Owings Mills.
Many of the Ravens injuries last season could be chalked up to bad luck. But in some ways, you create your own luck, and it seems the Ravens are invested in doing whatever is within their power to ensure that fortune favors them in the injury department this season.
In his camp-opening presser, Harbaugh addressed the media with platitudes on understanding assignments, executing properl, and politely non-committal injury updates – all very on-brand for the Ravens’ longtime gipper. But it was when he was asked about some newly tailored approaches to camp practices, especially the time in which they’re held and the lower intensity than some might’ve expected, he sharply responded.
“We did a lot of studies, and we looked at it really hard,” Harbaugh said to the Baltimore media. “We just wanted to do the best we could. You can never say for sure what causes anything, but we just feel like this gives us the best chance to have the best practices, and to get our guys the most ready that they can be for practice. It’s also better to be able to get them ready from a nutrition standpoint in the morning. I like the teaching tempo because we get a meeting, and we get a walkthrough before practice, so that helps us. We’ll see how it goes. Nothing is written in stone.”
After a year in which they were ravaged by injuries, illness and heavy expectations, the Ravens are doing what they can to dial things back. After coming into the league as anything but a player’s coach according to early accounts, and then getting in trouble for practice violations, it seems that John Harbaugh is a big voice in the conversation about said changes.
All of this lines up with the personal changes we’ve seen from him in recent years, most notably when making the transition over to Jackson in 2018. And if what we’ve seen from both him and the organization at large, it’s that melding of classic philosophies and new methodologies that the Ravens are banking on to get them back to where they need to be.
Time will tell if it works out and questions remain about the team in the short term. Jackson’s contract hangs in the air as the leading storyline, as does the lack of talent surrounding him at wideout. On the play calling front, skepticism remains on Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman and whether the team has reached a point of diminishing returns on what he brings to the table.
All of this to take on what’ll undoubtedly be a loaded AFC is enough to make one wonder if the Ravens have what it takes to finally rise above the rest. By the sound of it, though, they’re just taking things one day at a time.