Ravens head to the offseason with more questions than answers

The Baltimore Ravens saw their 2018 season come to an end Sunday in the Wild Card round with a 23-17 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers at M&T Bank Stadium.

The final score was not indicative of how close the game was as the Chargers dominated the Ravens throughout the game. The Ravens defense kept the game within striking distance as the offense put together arguably the worst performance in NFL playoff history through three and half quarters.

Two garbage time touchdowns from Lamar Jackson to Michael Crabtree made the game close and the Ravens actually had the ball back with a minute to go and a chance to drive down the field and inexplicably win the game. Jackson fumbled on the final possession and the Ravens hit the offseason.

For the first time in 11 years, the offseason begins in Baltimore without Joe Flacco figuring to be a part of the quarterback equation. Flacco is expected to be cut or traded this offseason as the Ravens have officially handed the keys to the offense over to Jackson. Flacco was a class act one again in the locker room following what was likely his final game dressed in a Ravens uniform:

We know Joe won’t be here, but who will? There are more questions than answers as the Ravens hit their first offseason with Eric DeCosta calling the shots as Ozzie Newsome steps down as the team’s general manager.

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John Harbaugh wants to be back in Baltimore. But will he be? Image Credit: Getty Images

1) Is John Harbaugh the head coach?

The Ravens came out and announced that Harbaugh would be back as the head coach for the 2019 season prior to their contest with the Chargers in Week 16. They also said that both parties are working towards a contract extension to keep Harbaugh in Baltimore.

Harbaugh proceeded to lead the Ravens to a 22-10 win in that game before defeating the Cleveland Browns 26-24 in Week 17 to win the AFC North Division crown for the first time since 2012.

So Harbaugh is slated to be back right? Not so fast. Many pundits have stated that while the possibility for a contract extension in Baltimore does exist, it is also possible that could be done to help in facilitating a trade of Harbaugh to a team in need of a new head coach. Harbaugh has one year left on his current deal and that can’t be too reassuring if you are a suitor for Harbaugh’s services.

If the Ravens choose to part ways with Harbaugh, they need to request a king’s ransom. He has been to the playoffs in seven of his 11 seasons in Baltimore. He has often over-achieved with rosters that severely lack difference-making talent.

He took a 4-5 team that lost their starting quarterback at the bye week to a 6-1 record down the stretch and an AFC North crown. Whatever hot shot coaching candidate you might want, ask yourself what would happen if he had a 4-5 record at the bye and had to change starting quarterbacks. Collapse would be imminent.

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Mike Tomlin has been unable to keep the peace in Pittsburgh while the Ravens have had no public locker room discontent. Image Credit: Getty Images

The Ravens hadn’t been to the playoffs in three years prior to 2018 and many of this year’s players were a part of those teams. There was no in-fighting. No locker room discontent. Look at what is going on in Pittsburgh who had been to the playoffs four straight years. Their tight end is calling them the Kardashians of the NFL.

Look at the coaches that have been signed this offseason . Kliff Kingsbury to the Cardinals bringing his 35-40 record at Texas Tech with him. Matt LaFleur is on his way to Green Bay after taking the Titans offense to the 25th ranking this past year. Adam Gase is getting a shot with the Jets after going 23-25 at the helm of the Dolphins.

Give me Harbaugh and all that comes with him for as long as he wants to be here.

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The Ravens will need Lamar Jackson to put in a ton of work this offseason to make necessary improvements. Image Credit: Getty Images

2) Can the Ravens develop a sustainable offense and who develops it?

The offense that got the Ravens to the playoffs isn’t sustainable. If you’re not convinced of that after Sunday’s offensive nightmare, then I can’t help you.

There’s a lot of blame to go around for Sunday’s performance but the most obvious scapegoat has been the much maligned Marty Mornhinweg:

There’s 1000’s of these but you get the point.

Were people bashing Marty when the team was 6-1 down the stretch and absolutely torching opposing defenses with the NFL’S best run game? Of course not, they were handing that credit to the almighty Greg Roman. But nowhere this week did we see people giving Roman hell for the run game getting shut down on Sunday. Many believe he is the catalyst behind this offense but when it fails everyone goes right to Marty.

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Many folks are waiting for Marty Mornhinweg to be fired this offseason. Image Credit: Baltimore Sun

Let’s look at what Marty has to work with on offense shall we? His left tackle Ronnie Stanley is average at best. Whoever they play at left guard stinks. Matt Skura at center is awful. Marshal Yanda is excellent. Orlando Brown Jr. looks like a solid get at right tackle.

His wide receivers stink. His tight end is a rookie who had a massive year and looks like he could become quite a factor moving forward. His running backs are an undrafted guy and another one that everyone wanted to cut heading into the season.

And here’s the kicker. The best thing you can say about his quarterback is that he is great at running the ball. Here’s a few breakdowns from people much smarter than I am to illustrate how frustrating this is:

There’s also 1000’s of these.

Jackson has a ton of work to do. His weaknesses are glaring. He has terrible footwork. He is wildly inaccurate whether it be from in the pocket or on the run. He struggles to hit any route with consistency outside the numbers. He is a turnover machine.

He’s a rookie. He can improve. He is an exceptional athlete and arguably the fastest player in the NFL. He needs to get significantly better for the Ravens to find their way back to the playoffs. The blueprint to shut him down is out and whoever is in charge of the Ravens offense next season has their work cut out for them to get this unit heading in the right direction.

But it’s not just Jackson that needs to improve. The Ravens need to make an effort to surround him with players that can help him succeed. The Ravens should be looking at offense all throughout the draft. Stanley and Brown Jr are likely your bookend tackles, but Stanley’s contract expires after next season. Tackle could be a need but not the biggest along the offensive line. Skura is a guard playing center and looks like it. Yanda isn’t going to play forever. James Hurst is a nice backup and the Ravens don’t have much to be excited about otherwise.

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The Ravens brain trust needs to get some weapons to help rookie QB Lamar Jackson. Image credit: SI

The Ravens also sorely need a wide receiver. What year is it? The same issue that has plagued this team throughout their existence here in Baltimore. The Ravens have drafted just one receiver in the first three rounds of the draft since 2013. Only Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs are impact players drafted outside of the first three rounds since 2013. You want to find an impact receiver, you better draft one early.

In their franchise history the Ravens have drafted just seven wideouts in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft. In comparison the Steelers who are actually good at drafting receivers have taken 15 of them since the Ravens joined the NFL. The seven receivers the Ravens have drafted: Patrick Johnson (1998 Round 2), Travis Taylor (2000 Round 1), Devard Darling (2004 Round 3), Mark Clayton (2005 Round 1), Yamon Figurs (2007 Round 3), Torrey Smith (2011 Round 2), and Breshad Perriman (2015 Round 1). Yikes.

Lot of swings and misses in there. That doesn’t mean you stop swinging. Get a wide receiver early in this year’s draft. Get two of them I don’t care. Willie Snead can come back as Jackson seems to like him. If Michael Crabtree wants to be here and the Ravens want him fine. John Brown is gone. Chris Moore, Jordan Lasley, and JaLeel Scott figure to be in the mix. That’s not good enough. Get him an early-round wide receiver, something you almost never did for Flacco.

The free agent crop features Adam Humprhies, Golden Tate, Robby Anderson, Cole Beasley, and Tyrell Williams. For the love of God please draft a wide receiver. Another retread scrub that wasn’t wanted by his prior employer isn’t going to help.

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The Ravens defense was dominant this season, but an offseason of change could be looming. Image Credit: Baltimore Ravens

3) What does the defense look like?

Don “Wink” Martindale and his number one-ranked defense were the steadying force behind the Ravens 6-1 run to the AFC North crown. With a revitalized rushing attack giving them a bit more rest than they had been afforded the first nine weeks of the year, the defense stepped up throughout the run with key play after key play.

In the eight games with Jackson at quarterback, the Ravens gave up 18 points per contest, slightly above their season allowance of 17.9 points-per-game. But the real difference came in the way of turnovers. The Ravens generated 11 turnovers in the last eight games of the year after generating just six through the first nine weeks.

The defense also chipped in three scores in that time frame as well. The defense made game-clinching plays in contests against the Browns the last week of the year and the Bengals in Jackson’s first start in week 11.

For the Ravens to remain competitive with an offensive roster full of question marks, the defense will need to duplicate their performance from this season and once again be near the top of the league. The issue there is that this unit has a plethora of question marks in their own right.

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We may have seen the last of Terrell Suggs as a Baltimore Raven. Image Credit: USA Today

Terrell Suggs is a free agent. A team leader and staple of the Ravens defense, Suggs picked up seven sacks on the year, his lowest total 2009 given 13+ games played. He is 36-years-old and a fan favorite, but it will be interesting to see what his value is to the Ravens as well as what his value is on the open market. Suggs has made his wishes known:

Suggs said after the loss on Sunday “I will be lining up for somebody next year.”

Suggs isn’t the only pass rusher hitting the free agent market as Za’Darius Smith will be looking for a pay day after a career year. Smith picked up 8.5 sacks on the year, nearly doubling the 4.5 total sacks he recorded int he last two seasons combined. Pass rushers are typically a hot commodity come free agency and Smith’s figured to be handsomely rewarded this offseason.

C.J. Mosley is arguably the team’s most important soon-to-be free agent. The four-time Pro-Bowler has spent each of his five NFL seasons in Baltimore and has done a fantastic job in the center of the Ravens defense. Mosley is great against the run but often struggles in pass coverage.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Minnesota Vikings

C.J. Mosley is in line for a big day this offseason but will it be in Baltimore? Image Credit: USA Today

There are a lot of folks out there that believe that Mosley could command a deal similar to the five-year $62 million contract that Luke Kuechly received in 2015. This would put the Ravens in a tough spot as they are hoping to get out of some “salary cap hell” this offseason by cutting some veterans on “bad contracts.”  This would simply replace a bad contract with potentially another one.

Brent Urban is the other unrestricted free agent from Baltimore’s starting defense.  While he doesn’t generate the headlines of the other two key free agents, he is a player that plays a pivotal role inside for the Ravens, helping out Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce.

In the Restricted Free Agent (RFA) realm, the Ravens have two more defensive starters in Patrick Onwuasor and Pierce as notables. Restricted free agents normally receive “tenders” tied to draft pick compensation. These tenders allow the Ravens the right to match any deal that the RFA reaches with another team. If they choose not to match, the Ravens will receive a draft pick given which tender was assigned to the player. If no team signs the RFA to a contract, the Ravens would pay the allotted salary given the tender assigned.

2019 Projected RFA Tenders

Type Amount
First Round $4,429,000
Second Round $3,110,000
Original Round $2,035,000

 

Then comes “cap casualties.” For those who don’t know, if the Ravens have a player that has an undesirable salary cap hit for next season, the team could choose to cut the player to save money against the cap. There is dead money tied into these types of transactions. Dead money is defined as the amount of guaranteed money remaining on a cut player’s contract that will count against your salary cap that next season. Dead money is undesirable.

There are also different designations regarding cap casualties. Cutting a player prior to June 1 means that their dead money will all hit your salary cap the next year. Cutting them post June 1 spreads out the dead money against the next two season’s salary caps. For more on this check out this explanation.

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Jimmy Smith and Eric Weddle could be cap casualties for the Ravens. Image Credit: Getty Images

The Ravens have quite a few players that fit the bill here on both sides of the ball. But as we continue focusing on defense here, Brandon Carr, Jimmy Smith and Eric Weddle are all candidates for this. The chart below spells that out from Ravens Salary cap Guru Brian McFarland.

The Ravens would not be likely to sign up for the dead money associated with cutting Tony Jefferson and/or Williams so I would assume that they will be back.

So in total, the Ravens have Williams, Matthew Judon, Marlon Humphrey, and Jefferson as near certainties to be back on defense. The other seven starters’ status is currently unsettled. And that is unsettling.

The Ravens need to be smart about which defensive players they choose to put their money into. Bad deals on both sides of the ball have put the Ravens in the salary cap predicament that they have been in the last few seasons. Some relief is finally in sight. Will the Ravens take it? Or will they be in the same place three years from now with a new group of ugly contracts?

The answers await this offseason.

Image Credit: Russell Street Report

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Three things to watch for as Ravens welcome Chargers in the return of playoff football to Baltimore

The Baltimore Ravens are back in the playoffs.

The Ravens clinched their first playoff berth since 2014 and their first AFC North Division championship since 2012 this past Sunday with a 26-24 nail-biting victory over a much-improved Cleveland Browns squad.

In typical Ravens fashion, it wasn’t easy even though they jumped out to a 20-7 lead at halftime on the back of two Lamar Jackson first half touchdown runs.

Jackson would finish the day with 90 yards rushing and the two aforementioned touchdowns. Kenneth Dixon chipped in 117 yards on 12 carries and Gus Edwards rounded out the three-headed monster rushing attack with 76 yards of his own. The 296 rushing yards on the day was a season high for Baltimore.

Jackson was 14-for-24 through the air for 179 yards with fellow rookies Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst combining for 96 yards on six catches to pace the Ravens passing attack.

The offense stalled in the second half, tallying just 139 yards and six points. The defense found themselves in a familiar spot, needing a stop on an opponent’s last-minute drive to seal a Ravens victory. This time, C.J. Mosley and company delivered:

The game-clinching interception was the Ravens third pick on the day for Browns rookie sensation quarterback Baker Mayfield. Mayfield carved up the Ravens defense for 376 yards passing and three touchdowns in what was arguably the Ravens secondary’s worst day of the season.

The win has set up a first-round AFC Divisional playoff matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers at 1:05pm this Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

Here’s what to watch for as the two teams will meet for the second time in three weeks.

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Pressure will be on the Ravens coaching staff to keep the offense rolling along against a team that has already seen the revamped attack. Image Credit: USA Today

1) What is the impact of this being the second meeting in three weeks?

One of the number one things that you see on social media and hear on the airwaves of 105.7 The FAN in Baltimore is that you cannot simulate the speed of Jackson. Until you see this speed on the field you truly do not know how freaky fast the Ravens rookie is.

For the first time in the Jackson era, the Ravens will do battle with a team that has seen the revamped offense once before. There are concerns regarding adjustments that the Chargers can make now that they know what to expect from the Ravens offense.

It was just two weeks ago that the Ravens totaled their lowest rushing total in a game since Jackson took over the starting job when they picked up 159 yards in Carson, California against the Chargers.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers Training Camp

Gus Bradley and his defense did a nice job on the Ravens rushing attack in the second half of their last meeting. Image Credit: USA Today

Further concerning is that the Ravens totaled just 38 rushing yards in the second half of that contest.  The Ravens offense struggled throughout the second half with three straight three-and-outs late after extending their lead to 16-10 with 5:36 remaining in the third quarter.

The Chargers were driving to take the lead when the Ravens defense stepped up with a forced fumble caused by Patrick Onwuasor. Tavon Young scooped up the ball and ran it back for the game-sealing touchdown. While the Chargers appear to have made adjustments to slow the Ravens down in the second half, I was interested to see if this was a trend or an exception when it come to teams stopping the Ravens offense as the game goes along.

The first half vs second half numbers have been relatively similar overall for the Ravens under Jackson.

Category 1st Half 2nd Half
Total Plays 253 267
Total Yards 1408 1179
Offensive Points Scored 75 73
TOP 114:53 135:39

The Chargers had success shutting down the Ravens running game in the second half of the last meeting. Let’s hope that success is short-lived and the Ravens can crank up the running game. If they can’t, it could be a long day for Jackson and company.

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Marlon Humphrey and the secondary will look to bounce back from a dreadful performance. Image Credit: Getty Images

2) Can the defense bounce back?

The Ravens defense has struggled following up on some of their biggest performances of the season.

Remember the 11-sack shutout of the Titans in week Six where the defense held them to 106 total yards? That was followed by three straight losses in which they had just two sacks and surrendered an average of 335 yards-per-game as well as 27.7 points-per-game.

This past Sunday, the defense was flying high after their dominant performance against the Chargers two weeks ago where they held the NFL’s 11th-best offense to 198 total yards, 175 yards below their season average. The only touchdown they allowed was on a short field after a Dixon fumble gifted the Chargers the ball at the Ravens 17-yard line.

Then Sunday happened. Mayfield and the Browns offense racked up 426 yards of total offense and scored the most points the Ravens have given up since the 27-24 overtime loss against the Chiefs. It marked the second time all year the defense gave up 24+ points in a contest at home.

Receivers were open all over the field with five Browns pass catchers tallying 45+ yards receiving. The group was led by Jarvis Landry who snagged a 48-yard touchdown pass to quickly cut the Ravens lead to 20-14 on the first drive of the third quarter.

Safe to say he was pretty open. Old friend Breshad Perriman got in on the fun for the Browns too, opening up the scoring for Cleveland with a 28-yard touchdown catch.

Again, the coverage was non-existent. The secondary owned up in the postgame taking blame for the performance. “The secondary, we didn’t play our best ballgame, especially me,” Marlon Humphrey said.

The Ravens need to hope that Humphrey and the secondary can get back on track Sunday against a Chargers team that they dominated two weeks ago. Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense struggled throughout in their 23-9 win over the Broncos. Rivers was 14-for-24 for 176 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.

Rivers rarely has three bad games in a row and will be welcoming back his starting tight end Hunter Henry who has missed the entire season to this point with a knee injury. Henry joins an offense that boasts Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Melvin Gordon among other weapons.

This game will be won for the Ravens on the strength of their defense. This unit cannot afford another below average performance Sunday or the Ravens return to the playoffs will be short-lived.

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Lamar Jackson has been a catalyst with his legs in willing the Ravens to the playoffs. Image Credit: Baltimore Sun

3) Will the Ravens show any new wrinkles on offense?

I love that the Ravens are rushing for 229.5 yards per game over the past seven games.

I love that the Ravens defense sits at number one in yards-per-game allowed, fifth in passing yards-per-game allowed, fourth in rushing yards-per-game allowed, and second in points-per-game allowed for the 2018 season.

I love that the Ravens are 6-1 over their last seven games and are surging going into the playoffs hosting their first playoff game since the 2012 Super Bowl season.

Running games and defense have often been two pivotal parts of putting together Super Bowl caliber teams and it is hard to imagine that any team is the league boasts a better one-two punch in that department than the Ravens.

But the Chargers proved two weeks ago that they have what it takes defensively to slow down the Ravens vaunted rushing attack. Yes the Ravens won the game. Yes the Ravens still rushed for 159 yards. Yes Jackson hit Mark Andrews on a big time 68-yard touchdown in that contest.

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John Brown has been the forgotten man since Lamar Jackson has taken over the QB position. Why not take a deep shot to him early? Image Credit: USA Today

With all that being said, LA was driving to win the game when the Ravens defense made a huge play to put it away. Despite 296 rushing yards last week, the Browns were driving to win the game before the Ravens defense made a huge play to put it away. There’s nothing wrong with relying on your defense to make huge plays to put games away especially when your defense is as good as this one.

But wouldn’t it be nice to not have to rely on the defense? Wouldn’t it be nice to flash some sort of semblance of a deep passing threat/quick strike offense? Wouldn’t that strengthen an already beastly rushing attack if defenses had to at least acknowledge that the Ravens would be willing to take a deep shot?

The Chargers are a west coast team traveling cross country to the east coast for a 1:05pm start time. This is often discussed as one of the most difficult things to do in the NFL and the scheduling gods smiled upon the Ravens with that start time. So why not take a deep shot on the first play of the game?

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The Chargers wouldn’t know what hit them if the Ravens attempt a play action pass on play one Sunday. Image Credit: Pro Football Weekly

The Ravens have been reluctant to do so and trust me, I get why. I have often been critical of Jackson’s passing ability and if the Ravens don’t think he’s capable of hitting a deep throw than so be it. But what is the harm in trying?

If a deep pass is overthrown, it falls incomplete and it’s 2nd and 10. If it is intercepted, it serves as a punt. But what if it is completed for 60 yards? Even better, what if it goes for six? The Chargers would be shell-shocked, the Bank would be rocking, and the Ravens would have the Chargers scrambling for answers.

Not likely going to happen, but wishful thinking right?

Predictions

Jake McDonnell: Chargers 21 Ravens 20

Nolan McGraw: Ravens 24 Chargers 23

Jay Stavros: Ravens 28 Chargers 24

Ian Schultz: Chargers 24 Ravens 19

The second half of the Chargers game concerns me. Gus Bradley is a damn good defensive football coach. Maybe he figured something out about the Ravens offense. Maybe he didn’t. But if he did and the game rests on the shoulders of the defense again, I expect Rivers to deliver this time.

Broadcast information:

Podcast Episode 32: The Ravens are AFC North champions

Welcome to Episode 32 of the Charm City Bird Watch Podcast with site owner Jake McDonnell, editor Nolan McGraw, and author Ian Schultz.

At the top of the show, we revisit the Ravens 26-24 win over the Cleveland Browns (4:40). As always, we tell you Who’s Trending (26:15) and go over some things to watch for in the Ravens upcoming Wild Card game against the Chargers (38:15).

In addition to the Ravens game, we gave a quick break down of the other three wild card games and some predictions for who we think will win (48:07). Be on the lookout for some more in depth articles on charmcitybirdwatch.com throughout the playoffs where all of our authors will give their official predictions as each round arrives.

Before getting into the weekly numbers segment (1:05:40) we had to take a moment to appreciate the Steelers meltdown following their elimination from playoff contention (57:40). Jake, Nolan, and Ian all give their opinion on the Antonio Brown situation and his heated exchange with Ben Roethlisberger.

You can find the Charm City Bird Watch Podcast on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Google Play. Please leave us a review on iTunes, we love to hear your feedback and may read it on a future episode. Happy New Year and thanks for listening!

Image credit: Kathy Kmonicek / Associated Press