2019, 2019, 2019. Although it was four years ago, Baltimore Ravens fans still cite the team’s remarkable season more often than any other amongst NFL fan bases; and why shouldn’t they? It was the best regular season unit in the history of the franchise and the way they steamrolled one opponent after another made it as fun and entertaining as possible for a fan.
With its historic rushing attack and opportunistic defense, opponents had almost no chance of slowing them down. The sheer volume of which they ran the ball drained the clock and made it nearly impossible for opposing teams to outmatch them on offense. After coasting through the regular season with an NFL-best 14-2 record, the Ravens ran into the buzz saw that was Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round of the playoffs. To this day, I wager that the Ravens beat the Titans 99 out of 100 times that night. While the Titans were red-hot, everything went wrong for the Ravens. Drops, trick plays — you name it, it probably went in Tennessee’s favor.
While it was a devastating loss at the time, an important growing opportunity was presented. The whole year, pundits and fans were questioning whether the 2019 Ravens could operate a game from behind when needing to throw the ball to win. Ever since, they’ve made efforts to address what has been one of the worst passing attacks over the last five years.
Despite drafting multiple wide receivers in the first round, injuries and schematic issues prevented Lamar Jackson and the rest of the offense from showing their true capability in a playoff game. Finally, this offseason, the Ravens elected to part ways with the run-heavy Greg Roman in favor of former Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Additionally, they signed and drafted wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr., Nelson Agholor, and Zay Flowers.
Nearly four years after the 2019 Ravens started rolling on their way to the best record in the league, the 2023 Ravens seem to be following a similar tract. While the dominant running game is still very much alive, the passing game and defense has made this year’s iteration of the Ravens seemingly unstoppable.
In 2019, the Ravens were all-in on the premise of, “we are going to run the ball and there is nothing you can do to stop it.” In 2023, the Ravens’ offense has been much more multiple with more variety. This past Sunday, CBS commenator and former quarterback Tony Romo described the team’s offense as, “a pitcher in baseball, they have so many different pitches and can attack you in so many ways.”
Four years ago, if you could stop the run, you would have a decent chance of victory against the Ravens. This year, if you stop the run, you have to then contain what has been one of the most efficient passing attacks in the NFL — evidenced by Jackson’s league-leading completion percentage. This year, Jackson has weapons like Flowers, who has been as good as any rookie wide receiver in the NFL. Combined with Mark Andrews, Beckham Jr., and Rashod Bateman, Jackson easily has the most help he’s had in his five-year career.
To put a cherry on top, it looks like the Ravens may have struck gold in blazing rookie running back Keaton Mitchell. Even if you can manage to slow down their offensive onslaught, you have to score consistently against a defense that is giving up the lowest percentage of touchdowns per drive since — you guessed it — the 2000 Ravens.
The 2019 defense was very good, giving up only 282 points (No 3 in the NFL) and 4809 yards (No. 4). However, a large function of that was the Ravens simply didn’t let their opposition touch the ball. By the end of the year, the unit faced the least amount of opposing offensive plays in the league with 921. The 2023 Ravens defense is an entirely different beast.
Through nine games, they have surrendered the least amount of points in the NFL despite having to defend the seventh-highest number of plays. They’ve surrendered the fewest yards per play, have the most sacks, lowest pass yards per play, and have contributed an expected 85.51 points on defense. For reference, the Browns are second with 85.06, and the Cowboys are third with 31.97. While many media figures still stand behind the Browns as the best defense in the league, it’s the Ravens who have given up the fewest points and yards per play. That is, in my estimation, the two most important defensive stats.
By most advanced metrics like DVOA and EPA, this is not only the best team in the league right now, it’s one of the best the NFL has ever seen. While that’s still a big stretch after nine weeks, it is becoming more and more apparent that the only thing stopping the 2023 Ravens is themselves. As many fans would like to bring up, this team could easily be 9-0 if it weren’t for numerous self-inflicted mistakes. While all this may be true, tougher challenges lie ahead. The Ravens have the hardest remaining schedule in the league and ultimately will have to prove their merit come playoff time.
As Ravens fans everywhere have been taken back to 2019 with the team’s recent success, its important to remember that the regular season isn’t the goal. While nightmares of their divisional round exit against Tennessee still loom large in our heads, the 2023 Ravens have the foundational blueprint of a true Super Bowl contender.