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Offseason Moves Turned the Ravens Into a Super Bowl Contender

This would be the year to put it all together

At 9-3 and atop the AFC, the Baltimore Ravens appear poised for a Super Bowl run. But how they got here was a culmination of excellent coaching hires and roster moves.

Hiring Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken

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The Greg Roman era was nearly a success. In 2019, he helped lead the team to a 14-2 record and the offense was among the most dominant in modern football history. Lamar Jackson sat nearly three games worth of fourth quarters due to the blowouts. But, they couldn’t break through in the post-season, nor when Jackson was sidelined with injury in back-to-back years. For all Roman’s faults, he did bring success.

But it was time to move on and Head Coach John Harbaugh was true to his word in “turning over every stone” to find a candidate to evolve the offense. Jackson had become a more refined passer and the ball needed to get downfield with better frequency and schematically. Their red zone offense must be better, as they finished 2022 with a 44% touchdown rate in the red zone. It was a priority of Monken, and a philosophy, as he shared in his introductory press conference in February.

“You take that and what you realize is that good football is surrounded by don’t turn it over, be explosive, score touchdowns in the red zone, be good on third downs, don’t have loss yardage plays and athletic quarterbacks that make off-schedule plays,” Monken said. “The rest of it just falls into that.”

The Ravens are ranked third in the NFL in red zone touchdown scoring at 64.58%. They’re finding the end zone better than 29 other teams. They’ve gone from third-worst in the NFL to third best. And while some of that is not having backup quarterback Tyler Huntley start four games and play in six or seven total, it’s abundantly clear the vision of Monken has come to fruition.

Hiring Outside Linebacker Coach Chuck Smith

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I admire Smith’s respect to the organization and modesty. In his first answer (and throughout his presser), he credited Assistant Head Coach/Defensive line coach Anthony Weaver for a lot of the improvements this season for the team. I don’t doubt Weaver hasn’t been beneficial. I think Weaver has certainly helped develop changes to improve the Ravens defensive front and their attack schemes to benefit the team. But in the nature of pass rushing, it’s hard to believe the man the Ravens hired has only been a partial improvement to the team, especially when the players rave about his coaching and knowledge of getting to quarterbacks.

Last season, the Ravens finished the season with 48 sacks. This season, through 12 games, the Ravens have 47. Their pass rush is hunting from all angles. Justin Madubuike has 10 sacks, and their edge rushers have combined for another 17.5 between Jadeveon Clowney (7.5), Kyle Van Noy (6) and Odafe Oweh (4). The pressure has been overwhelming for opposing offenses and it’s clear the coaching from Smith has taken hold.

Hiring Dennard Wilson

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Hidden among the big-name coaching additions this offseason is Defensive Backs Coach Dennard Wilson. But don’t tell that to Pass Game Coordinator/Secondary Coach Chris Hewitt.

“It’s been really awesome [working with Dennard Wilson],” Hewitt said. “You get another guy in the room to help you out, and you can see the result in what’s been going on with our secondary, but it’s definitely been a plus.”

Same with Weaver, who made sure to mention him when asked about the additions to the coaching staff this season.

“I think [defensive backs coach] Dennard Wilson was a huge add,” Weaver said. “To see him and [pass game coordinator/secondary] Chris Hewitt working that ‘DB’ [defensive backs] room is awesome.”

In seasons prior, the Ravens secondary would struggle to overcome the absence of cornerback Marlon Humphrey. Now, Humphrey, who missed the past two games (and the first four of the season) isn’t being brought up during Hewitt’s press conference. The star cornerback on the team isn’t being mentioned because there’s so many other players to discuss in the secondary.

Incumbent Coaches

Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald

The Ravens defense has taken a massive leap forward this season. They were good last year and became great down the stretch. They started to solve their issues and the younger players rounded into form. The addition of inside linebacker Roquan Smith and steadied play of safety Kyle Hamilton helped to quell their issues.

Now, though, with more explosive players on defense and studs at just about each position, the Ravens are raring to make plays and Macdonald has the versatility in his roster to make calls to better benefit their scheme; even when it means blitzing veteran cornerback Arthur Maulet on fourth down after playing only six snaps prior and having 355-pound nose tackle Michael Pierce drop back into coverage.

“For that particular technique, [Michael] Pierce is probably the best guy we have at doing it. He’s a really underrated athlete,” Macdonald said. “It goes back to our philosophy of we’re trying to … We want everybody to be able to blitz [and] drop. It’s fluid, right? And having the threat of being able to bring pressure from both sides, up the middle, overload a side. That particular scheme asked him to drop, and he has his role, and he executed his role, and he stood right where he should be standing.”

Macdonald’s defense has been praised by Rich Eisen and The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen as “must-see TV” for football fans. Each week there’s a new wrinkle, or an exciting and dynamic way to generate pressure or confusion in an offense. It’s working, too, as the defense is ranked No. 2 in DVOA, allowed only 16 touchdowns (fewest in the NFL) and ranks second in the NFL in scoring defense, at 15.6 points per game allowed.

Head Coach John Harbaugh

He leads. He gets his players to buy in. He hired a superstar staff this offseason and is getting results. The success this season is not “in spite” of Harbaugh. It’s because of Harbaugh. It’s bizarre needing to defend the man who has helped lead this team for over a decade to great success, and has done so with star talent and with fractured rosters.

Looking over all the hires, you can’t help but note this Ravens coaching staff is Super Bowl caliber. The ones who were already in place have combined with additional talent, much like the roster. I asked Weaver about it, and he agrees.

“I truly do [believe this is a special group of coaches],” Weaver said. “I think we have an incredible staff both offensively and defensively. I think [defensive backs coach] Dennard Wilson was a huge add. To see him and [pass game coordinator/secondary] Chris Hewitt working that ‘DB’ [defensive backs] room is awesome. I coached [inside linebackers coach] Zach Orr in college, so I knew exactly what we were going to get out of him with the linebackers, and you see how they play. Then, I think we have a bunch of position assistants that you never hear about that are up-and-comers in the profession like [defensive quality control] Matt Robinson, [defensive coaching fellow] Brendan Clark, [coaching/scouting analyst] Andrew Rogan. It’s awesome. We have [coaching fellow] Marianna Salas who puts together one of the best ‘DB’ [defensive backs] tip sheets I’ve ever seen in my life. We have a really solid group from top to bottom, led obviously by Mike ‘Mac’ [Macdonald] who I think is incredible. I truly do believe we have a special staff.”

Roster Additions

Outside Linebacker Jadeveon Clowney

Quite possibly the best free agent addition of any team this season. Clowney has produced 7.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hits and a grand total of 55 pressures, which ranks No. 7 among all edge rushers, putting him ahead of Khalil Mack, Trey Hendrickson, Haason Reddick and Myles Garrett. He was given high praise by Smith.

“This is Jadeveon Clowney, who we see today, and it’s a credit to him of his hard work, his belief in himself – because he went places where he didn’t have the success – and there’s nobody in this building, probably except Lamar Jackson, who’s had as much pressure as Jadeveon Clowney [has],” Smith said.

Outside Linebacker Kyle Van Noy

Off the couch and into fire came Van Noy, who proved he is still capable of great things. In nine games, Van Noy has generated 31 pressures, including six sacks and two batted balls. Like the vet said, “training camp is overrated.”

Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

As the seasons come along, so too has Beckham. In the beginning, he was moving the chains via defensive pass interference flags as defenders appeared to underestimate his speed and burst. He got a couple from being a savvy veteran, but overall, teams were keying in on him. Now, they’ve turned their attention elsewhere, which is freeing up Beckham to make plays and get more involved, as he’s done the past few weeks. He’ll be looked to more with the loss of tight end Mark Andrews and as he regains his health through the bye week.

Wide receiver Zay Flowers

The kid is special, no debate about it. Carving up defenses with his speed, elusiveness and agility has him with 58 catches for 613 yards and two receiving touchdowns. I believe he’s been caught only a handful of times by the first defender who reaches him on account of his agility making defenders eat turf. The Ravens have a bonafide receiving group.

Cornerback Arthur Maulet

The play he made on fourth down against the Los Angeles Chargers epitomizes what I’ve seen from Maulet all season. He’s been a patient, disciplined player who has bided his time and made the most of his snaps. Harbaugh shared his respect for Maulet.

“He’s a hard playing guy. He brings a lot of savviness [and] a lot of energy,” Harbaugh said. “He’s never satisfied. [To] come up with that play he made – that sack – was a huge play, and it wasn’t the only [one]. He had a number of plays. He was out there. He made the most of his time. He’s done a great job for us. That [Maulet signing] was a great job by our personnel department.”

Cornerback Ronald Darby

The Ravens were looking desperate for a No. 2 cornerback during training camp. They added Rock Ya-Sin and Darby later on. The emergence of Brandon Stephens helped alleviate the anxiety at the position, but depth is always critical. They’ve found it in Darby, who’s jumped in opposite Stephens when Humphrey’s been absent for six games this season. His play has been consistent. He ranks No. 40 in total defense according to PFF, above cornerback Marcus Peters—and Humphrey, in fact. The vet hasn’t made a lot of noise for better or worse. Just a player who shows up, has bought in and makes plays and gives up little.

Running back Keaton Mitchell

The Ravens found their running back of the present and future in the speedster Mitchell. His big-play ability has transformed an already studly rushing attack into a higher gear with his burst and vision. Things are about to get a whole lot more fun in the back half of this season, and some of that is due to Mitchell’s ability.

Wide receiver Nelson Agholor

The Ravens needed depth at the position they’ve been hurt at for so long. They landed veteran wideout Agholor, who leads the receiving room with three touchdowns, and second behind only Andrews. He’s been solid in moving the chains with 12 first downs on 20 receptions, and has nearly cracked 300 yards in a low-volume role.

Super Bowl Staff and Roster

The Ravens have built themselves into a Super Bowl contender for 2023. Their coaching hires have paid dividends. Their free agent additions have largely improved the team. Their young stars have developed into playmakers. Their incumbent starters are executing at a high level. All that’s left is for them to step up in the postseason and prove it.

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