The Baltimore Ravens were dealt a seemingly devastating blow back in Week 11, when three-time Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews suffered a potentially season-ending ankle injury against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Thankfully, it turned out to be not as severe as they had initially feared and the door was left open for him to possibly return to action in the postseason. Not only is Andrews ahead of schedule but he was back on the practice field this past week. The Ravens designated him to return to practice from injured reserve, which opened a 21-day window for him to be activated to the 53-man roster.
Prior to his injury, Andrews was having another elite season with 45 receptions on 61 targets for 544 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns — still most the team — in 10 games. He still ranks second on the team in receptions and third in both targets and receiving yards, despite having missed the last six games of the regular season while on the mend.
The biggest reason that his loss wasn’t the crushing blow it would’ve been in the past four years was because of Isaiah Likely. The 2022 fourth-round pick didn’t just admirably step up but has emerged as one of the league’s best young tight ends in his absence.
Once his promising understudy who flashed promising potential as a rookie last year, Likely has blossomed into a true difference-maker down the stretch for the Ravens. He had already shown tremendous strides as a blocker both in the run game and downfield before Andrews went down. In the last six games, Likely has recorded a career-high five touchdowns and hauled in 21 of 28 targets for 322 receiving yards. He logged just nine catches on 12 targets for 89 receiving yards and no scores in the first 11 games.
While the connection between Likely and quarterback Lamar Jackson isn’t anywhere near as seemingly telepathic as the bond he shares with Andrews, their trust and chemistry have grown exponentially.
There have been several instances over the final stretch of the regular season where Jackson trusted Likely in high-leverage and he delivered. One of the most notable is the contested catch he made between two defenders against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 15. Likely’s catch here moved the chains deep into the red zone after Jackson had already pulled a Houdini act to escape a dead-to-rights sack for most other quarterbacks.
The most recent came a on a fourth down gamble in a Week 17 win over the Miami Dolphins. Likely not only picked up the first down with an impressive one-handed snag but finished the play in the end zone to put the Ravens up by double figures just before halftime.
Those are the type of situations that Andrews almost always was relied upon by Jackson. Now the question that begs to ask is how will his return impact the offense during what many believe will be the Ravens deepest playoff run in over a decade.
On one hand, a team with championship aspirations can never have too many high-level playmakers at its disposal. Then again, though, disrupting the rhythm of what has been working so incredibly smoothly might be risky at the same time.
The Ravens will probably fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to figuring out a plan of action and deployment moving forward. They won’t want to put too much in Andrews and his surgically repaired ankle even if he has looked like his old self in practice. This is out of fear of reinjury and also because significantly reducing Likely’s role when he is full of confidence and breaking out isn’t a good move.
Ravens’ first-year Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken proved that he can utilize two-tight end sets at a high level in his stint at the University of Georgia, where his offense won back-to-back national titles. While the Ravens have arguably the best group of wide receivers ever assembled in franchise history, not using his two-matchup nightmares at tight end would be malpractice if they’re both available.
The most likely scenario, assuming Andrews returns in time for the divisional round or AFC championship, is Likely still being put in positions to maximize his explosive run after the catch ability. Meanwhile, his veteran mentor will be eased back into action and used primarily on obvious passing downs to work the middle of the field and in the red zone.
Andrews can also be a force in the run game as an inline blocker. However, Charlie Kolar —another 2022 fourth-round pick — has been doing an exceptional job performing. The sixth-year veteran’s presence will provide the entire unit with more juice while giving their opponents yet another weapon and potential threat to prepare for.
“He’s moving around, he looks good,” fullback Patrick Ricard said. “I think this was his first major surgery. We all know he’s working incredibly hard. We’ll all just really proud of the work he’s putting in. He wants to be out there with us every second he can. He’s a guy who’s a big leader on this team, a great teammate, great brother. For us to see him out there definitely boosts the morale.”