AFC North: 2021 Ravens Review

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Well, glad that’s over.

The 2021 Baltimore Ravens presided over one of the biggest late-season collapses in NFL history, having plummeted from the AFC’s top seed in late November to last place in the AFC North and out of the playoffs in six short weeks.  An 8-9 record might not seem that bad given the astounding amount of injuries the Ravens had to contend with, many of which occurred before the season began, but there’s little excuse for the method in which the collapse happened.  The Ravens simply had to win one, possibly two games down the proverbial stretch to secure a playoff berth, and they proceeded to lose five of their final six games by a combined 8 points, the other loss being a blowout by the eventual AFC North champion Bengals.  Two of those losses resulted from last-second coaching decisions to win games at the final whistle via 2-pt. conversion rather than push into overtime (head coach John Harbaugh’s reasoning involved much technobabble regarding the state of his defense at those moments – you decide if his explanations were worth taking seriously).  In any event, both attempts failed, and opinions remain split over whether the decision was an act of unbridled hubris by a desperate coach or simply the right thing to do at the time.  I think the results speak for themselves.

Here’s how the 2021 Ravens fared positionally in 2021.

Quarterback
Starting QB Lamar Jackson’s flair for the dramatic has been well-established, as has his propensity for late-game heroics.  Until Week 10, there was little to realistically criticize in Jackson’s game; he was rallying his team late and consistently putting them in position to win regardless of the vast talent dropoff via injury.  Jackson was a popular choice for MVP until the slide began, dating roughly to the team’s loss to the Steelers December 5 and culminating in a season-ending ankle injury against the Bengals December 19.  Backup QB Tyler Huntley performed reasonably well in Jackson’s stead, but ultimately proved his “backup status” with poor execution at crucial times.  It’s safe to say Jackson’s job isn’t in any jeopardy in 2022, except possibly from his own machinations if his reactions to blitz packages doesn’t improve.

Running Back/Fullback
It’s a tale of two scenarios, really.  Since the Ravens were robbed via injury of their entire rushing backfield (RBs J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill) before the season began, “what-if” projections are rampant among fans, but it should be noted the Ravens finished sixth in the NFL in rushing anyway, and that was without the benefit of Jackson rushing for over 1,000 yards again. Backup RBs Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray performed adequately given the circumstances and each showed their experience.  Sadly, each also showed their age, as neither proved to be a reliable 20+ carry back this late in their respective careers.

Pro Bowl FB Patrick Ricard was excellent in a difficult, injury-hobbled campaign, and he stands to cash in in free agency this year.  Since FB isn’t considered a high-salary position in the NFL, it’s possible he’ll be retained.  Stay tuned.

Tight End
There’s few accolades to throw around about Pro Bowl TE Mark Andrews that fully capture his worth to the Ravens right now, but calling him the team’s MVP seems like a good place to start.  Andrews established team highs in receptions (107) and receiving yards (1,360) while remaining upbeat and positive about his team’s chances throughout.  When a clutch catch was needed, Andrews was generally the guy to deliver it.  Blocking TE Nick Boyle was sidelined for most of the season, resulting in five underwhelming games in which he contributed little.  Fill-ins Eric Tomlinson and Josh Oliver remain fill-ins, but have probably seen their last actions in Baltimore.

Offensive Line
Opinions are split, but I would identify the offensive line as one of the most problematic areas on the team, and the one most in need of offseason improvement.  LT-turned-RT-turned-LT Alejandro Villanueva struggled from the outset; first at RT, where he was repeatedly overwhelmed Week 1 by the Raiders’ Maxx Crosby, then at LT for the remainder of the season, where he was repeatedly overwhelmed by everyone else.  Starting LT Ronnie Stanley never fully recovered from his 2020 ankle injury, bowing out in week 2 to eventually undergo another season-ending surgery.  Stanley’s status remains very much in question for 2022.  The rest of the line offered mixed results, as RG Kevin Zeitler proved to be the dependable asset he’s always been and C Bradley Bozeman turned in his best year as a professional, while backup RT Patrick Mekari played out of position and managed to not embarrass himself.  The same can’t be said of the other RTs to grace the field this year, or the many candidates that attempted to step in at LG.  It’s hoped 2022 will sort things out, but it’s not hyperbole to say there a lot of work to be done here.

Defensive Line
Age and attrition may have caught up to this group in 2021, as 32-year old NT Brandon Williams missed a few contests and wasn’t inspiring in many others.  31-year old DE Derek Wolfe never saw the field in 2021 due to lingering back issues.  35-year old DT Calais Campbell eschewed his typical pass rushing responsibilities in favor of run support, with generally positive results.  DT Justin Madubuike acquitted himself well and remains on track to take over for Williams, possibly in 2022, but he remains the only viable member of this group that’s under 30.  More skilled, large men are needed, preferably younger ones, going forward.

Linebacker
WLB Patrick Queen has seemingly found his niche on the weak side, having sputtered at ILB, where he proved to be too undersized and overaggressive for the role.  Once moved outside, Queen became a disruptive force, doubling his tackling output and generally playing solid situational football.  SLB Tyus Bowser was the team’s most improved defensive player, boosting his stats in almost every category and providing clutch pass rushing and coverage as needed.  Rookie OLB Odafe Oweh had typical ups and downs as befitting a first-year player, but few doubt he’s talented enough to become a solid, possibly all pro-level pass rusher going forward.  The team could use more bodies here, but the foundations of a solid LB corp appear to be in place.

Defensive Backs
By season’s end, the only remaining members of the initial slate of cornerbacks and safeties on the roster were S Chuck Clark and CBs Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young.  CB Anthony Averett become an unlikely stalwart until Week 15, when he suffered a rib injury that proved to be season-ending.  Former Pro Bowl CB Marlon Humphrey’s torn pectoral muscle in Week 12 ended an already-trying campaign in which Humphrey was clearly overcompensating for the absence of CB Marcus Peters (tore ACL in training camp) and the inconsistencies of Averett and Smith.  Clark continued to prove his overall worth by holding down his position all season, missing one game due to COVID-19, while fellow S DeShon Elliott received a torn pec and bicep for his trouble Week 9.  Fill-in safeties Ar’Darius Washington and Geno Stone provided a few moments of solid play, as did the late-season addition of former Ravens S Tony Jefferson, whose surprisingly good showing may warrant a camp invite in 2022.  Of note is the probable departure of long-time special teamer and backup S Anthony Levine Sr., whose emotional contributions on defense shouldn’t be overlooked.

Special Teams
Perennial Pro Bowl K Justin Tucker posted another typically excellent year in a career loaded with them; if Tucker were to retire tomorrow, his place in Canton would already be assured.  P Sam Koch remained a steady, reliable punting option, generally providing good field position for the defense and avoiding the better returners the league has to offer.  P/K returner Devin Duvernay was very good in 2021, having averaged 13.8 yards per punt return, which merited Pro Bowl recognition.  Overall, this was the most consistent unit on the team, and it wasn’t close.

Coaching
Opinions of every coach and coordinator will vary greatly after what most agree was a bizarre season in which few players could be reliably counted on for consecutive weeks.  As mentioned above, head coach John Harbaugh was overly aggressive at times, perhaps not remembering his fourth down follies were effective in previous years because of a much better offensive line, not to mention better ball carriers.  Harbaugh has some soul-searching to do this offseason, as the six-game slide to end the year was unprecedented both in Ravens history and Harbaugh’s coaching career.

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s status, seemingly up in the air a couple of days after dropping a winnable game to the Steelers, seems to be settled after an endorsement by Jackson, but few disagree that Roman’s passing play designs remain problematic.  Many pundits pointed out some of his unforced errors this season, including drawing up poorly-spaced receiving routes and faulty pass-blocking schemes.  Some of the offense’s struggles are surely on the players for not executing properly, but Roman’s role in deploying his pieces remain significant, and should be scrutinized closely during this offseason.

Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s blitz-happy ways may have finally been curtailed, as few of his scripted jailbreaks “got home”, often being blocked entirely out of plays or rendered pointless by a QB’s quick release.  Martindale’s defense obviously suffered late from a lack of quality CB and S depth, yet, as the cliché says, “plays were there to be made”; there were plenty of dropped interceptions, missed tackles and poor positioning to go around, and that’s often the result of shoddy preparation.

Outlook
Mixed.  Fans will point to the amount of injuries the Ravens experienced and feel confident the team will rebound next season, but this assumes a full return to health by a majority of those players, which is far from guaranteed.  This is a good, experienced front office and staff, so expecting more misery in 2022 is probably foolish, but this draft – as we say almost every year – is crucial to the team’s success going forward.

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