BALTIMORE — When the Baltimore Ravens kick the 2018 season off against Buffalo on Sunday, the direction of the franchise hangs in the balance.
For the Ravens, this year’s week 1 contest brings more than just another season opener. Jobs are on the line. Head coach John Harbaugh feels more pressure now than ever to win after missing the playoffs three years in a row. In some ways, this feeling is new to Harbaugh. After all, his first losing season as the Ravens’ head coach did not come until his eighth season.
Some called Harbaugh lucky when Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti elected to go forward with his head coach after a gut-wrenching ending to the 2017 season at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals. Missing three consecutive postseasons, sometimes even two in a row, gets NFL head coaches fired. Even those close to the team don’t know for sure if Harbaugh is on the ‘hot seat,’ but a fourth consecutive year without a playoff berth seems almost impossible for Harbaugh to overcome.
While Harbaugh doesn’t see an immediate threat that could lead to him losing his job, quarterback Joe Flacco does. The Ravens’ first official regular season depth chart lists first-round pick Lamar Jackson as the second-string quarterback behind Flacco. It’s safe to assume that Jackson will suit up on gameday while Robert Griffin III stands on the sideline with a ball-cap and/or clipboard. On Sunday, M&T Bank Stadium (should be) filled with fans. If the Ravens come out and struggle on offense like they often have recently, the fans will start chanting for Jackson.
In order to remain Baltimore’s starting quarterback, Flacco needs to perform and perform well. If not and the Ravens go into week eight with a 2-5 record, Jackson will likely take over at quarterback. Even though Flacco’s performance in recent seasons doesn’t match up with his early career success, he’s delivered in high-pressure situations. But, in his 11-year career he’s never been pushed by a quarterback taken in the first round who’s meant to replace him.
Simply put, there’s a lot of pressure on the Ravens this year to return to the playoffs at the minimum. There’s pressure on the coach, there’s pressure on the starting quarterback, and there’s even pressure on the defense with first-year defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale calling the shots. This amount of pressure did not exist in prior seasons, but it’s certainly there now and it’s not going away anytime soon.
With all of this pressure on their backs, the Ravens need to come out on Sunday and beat the Buffalo Bills by a large margin. The Bills, by all accounts, project to be one of the worst teams in the NFL this season. Their roster is weak in several areas and they will be throwing out Nathan Peterman to start on Sunday over their quarterback of the future – also taken in the first round of this year’s draft – Josh Allen.
Peterman, a fifth-round pick by the Bills in 2017, started two games for Buffalo last year, playing in four total contests. He threw two touchdown passes and five interceptions. Those five interceptions all came in one half against the Las Angeles Chargers.
With Sunday being Peterman’s third career start, the Ravens cannot let him and the Bills pull off a big upset at M&T Bank Stadium. Mitchell Trubisky of the Chicago Bears did it last year while completing just eight passes. That 27-24 overtime loss in week 6 lingered over the rest of the 2017 season like a dark cloud. If the Ravens come up short on Sunday, it would set a terrible tone for the beginning of the season.
The Ravens defense should get to Peterman on Sunday. For this defense, a few turnovers and a few sacks is very doable. With Jimmy Smith out of the picture until week 5, Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr, and Tavon Young need to bring their A-game. Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson need to have good days. Jefferson needs to improve his overall body of work, and having a year of experience in the Ravens’ defense will help him. Weddle led the team in interceptions last season but let up big plays in big moments. If these two can click, watch out.
As far as the pass rush goes, Terrell Suggs cannot continue to carry the unit. He can’t lead the team in sacks again this season considering he celebrates his 36th birthday on October 11. The Ravens need to limit Suggs’ snaps early on to keep him fresh for December. The Ravens’ depth at outside linebacker is deep. Guys like Matt Judon, Za’Darius Smith, and Tim Williams need to get to Peterman and force him into bad decisions.
On offense, expect a big day from Flacco and Alex Collins. The wide receiver corps is brand new and the offensive line may turn out to be the weakness of the unit, but Flacco needs to overcome the odds and make a statement. The Ravens should score early and score often. If the defense forces turnovers, that will set the offense up in favorable field position, which should translate into points. Peterman’s track record, along with playing against the Ravens defense in Baltimore, should fair well for the Ravens.
A blowout on Sunday is very possible. A low-scoring affair could transpire too, but the Ravens need to make a statement against a weak opponent. Harbaugh needs it, Flacco needs it, and Ravens fans need it. Everyone remembers the 2011 opener in Baltimore when the Ravens dismantled the Steelers 35-7. Based on how the 2017 season ended, a dominant win would restore some faith in the fanbase and boost the team’s confidence heading into a short week.
This game is very much in the Baltimore’s favor. The Ravens should beat the Bills fairly easily. If they don’t, things will certainly not get any easier over the next handful of games. After this week, the Ravens play three of their next four games on the road against all three divisional opponents with a home game against the Denver Broncos squeezed in-between in week 3.
After all that happened over the offseason, the Ravens need to win their season opener more than ever this year. Beating Buffalo, hopefully in convincing fashion, will put the week 17 nightmares behind the team and their fans, but a loss would rank among the worst defeats in franchise history as the Ravens head into a tough stretch of their schedule.
Image Credit: Ravens Wire – USA Today