After starting the season 4-2 and riding the league’s best defense in 2018, the Baltimore Ravens have slumped to under .500 for the first time this season. Their defeats came at the hands of the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, and Pittsburgh Steelers — who as a group, have a combined record of 18-5-1. For most teams, this would not be a means to panic but in the case of the Ravens, it’s just another season where a good September start has turned into a situation in which the team has to (most likely) win out in order to make the postseason. They’ve failed four out of the five years since winning Super Bowl XLVII, including the past three years in a row.
Now on the verge of tying the longest postseason drought in their franchise’s history, the Ravens may be looking at a complete overhaul. John Harbaugh‘s job appears to be in jeopardy for the first time and if Baltimore continues their tailspin, he could find himself unemployed sooner rather than later. Couple this with Ozzie Newsome‘s resignation at the end of the season and the Ravens could look a lot different in 2019.
Is it finally time for Baltimore to enter their first retooling phase in franchise history?
The Baltimore Ravens Identity Is in Need of Change
It’s Not A Rebuild, It’s A Rebrand
Since the franchise’s inception after being moved to Baltimore from Cleveland, the Ravens have had one kind of mindset; play good, solid defense and run the ball. It’s not a bad way to live but it is completely against the grain of the way the NFL is trending. The most electric teams in the league live and die through their ability to pass the ball through the air which has completely led to a change in the way offenses use players out of the backfield. The Ravens on the other hand like playing stubborn defense with a ferocious pass rush and use their running game to help manage the game clock by keeping the ball in their hands as long as possible. It is no secret that a change at quarterback is looming but the rest of the significant pieces of the team will most likely stay assembled.
It wouldn’t make any sense for the Ravens to completely dismantle the roster even if Harbaugh were to be relieved of his duties. The cornerstones of the franchise remain on defense and players like Brandon Williams and Tony Jefferson were given large deals in free agency just a couple years ago. The question is, who will they add or subtract to compliment the players they already have? With so many recently drafted stars on the defensive side of the ball (i.e Marlon Humphrey, Michael Pierce), and their best defensive player All-Pro linebacker C.J. Mosley set for a long-term contract at the end of the year, it is hard to see Eric DeCosta moving on from these players so early in their careers. The Ravens roster isn’t flawless but is just a couple of key pieces away from becoming much improved.
Lamar Jackson Will Only Bring So Much Change
The most important part offense under Joe Flacco has always been his use of play-action. This game plan has gone out the window multiple times over the season, because of Baltimore’s incredibly lackluster ground game, and has forced Flacco to try and be a nearly perfect passer. After looking greatly improved from last year in his first six games, he’s looked more like the player that sank the Ravens offense to 27th in the NFL in 2017. The Ravens lack of a run game has put more pressure on Flacco to perform and unless this changes when Lamar Jackson is starting, he is going to have the same problems as Flacco: a lack of wide open receivers and a hindrance on his abilities to make big plays.
Alex Collins had a decent first year in Baltimore but is showing his true colours in 2018 as he looks like more of a change of pace back as opposed to a bell cow. The next step is finding that lead back type of player who can open up both the run and passing games.
Jackson is a different type of quarterback to Flacco but the Ravens would most likely still like to utilize and emphasize play action under his leadership. It would be different, as Jackson is most dynamic when he uses his legs to create space, but the central focus remains the same. Use diversions and an excess of running the ball, whether it be with the running backs or quarterback, to open up the field and do damage. Therefore, this would not be a changing of philosophy, but a change in how it is implemented. Jackson is still a raw talent but currently looks closer to a great athlete than a great passer and isn’t ready to start.
Sounds like pretty much all options are on the table for Lamar Jackson, except for being the starter right now. Harbs said they've talked about giving Lamar full series'.
— Ryan Mink (@ryanmink) November 5, 2018
The Pass Rush Is Still the Defense’s Biggest Problem
Baltimore’s defense came charging out of the gate. They helped the Ravens hang 47 points on the Buffalo Bills, recorded a franchise-best 11 sacks against the Tennessee Titans, only allowed more than 14 points in one of their first six games and didn’t allow a second-half touchdown until Week Seven against the New Orleans Saints. They are still – through nine weeks – giving up the least amount of yards per game but their one glaring problem is Baltimore’s clear omission of a consistent pass rush. This seems odd from a team that, through six weeks, led the NFL with 26 sacks. Since then, they’ve only scraped together two sacks in three games. One was also more of a time management decision to go down by Ben Roethlisberger.
The Pass Rush Is the One Area the Ravens Must Completely Overhaul
Terrell Suggs, despite his ageless form, has been the only consistent pass rusher on the Ravens since Elvis Dumervil was cut in 2016, and could play his last game any day now. His successor hasn’t emerged on this roster either. Baltimore has a lot of cogs in their pass rush machine but none of them looks like they can replace Suggs when his time eventually comes.
Za’Darius Smith is having a decent year but he looks destined to follow in the footsteps of Paul Kruger and Pernell McPhee, stepping into free agency expecting a big payday after playing their best in a contract year. Matt Judon will be looking to do the same next year and should be allowed to walk. Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams are still learning after being early picks in 2017’s draft but Williams has been the only one of the two to flash elite potential in their second years. He is unfortunately buried on the depth chart and won’t gather regular snaps until next season where his ability can be more reasonably evaluated.
The scheme may also be the problem but I would find it hard to believe that the Ravens would fire Don Martindale, after just one year as defensive coordinator, sitting on the league’s best defense in terms of yards allowed as well as the second-best scoring defense.
Going into the 2019 draft, a dominant pass rusher should be the number-one priority on Baltimore’s draft board. This year’s draft appears to be filled with players that specialize in getting to the quarterback and the Ravens should grab one as early as they possibly can. As much as the interior lineman aren’t great at pushing the pocket, they are maybe the best in the NFL at stopping the run. The Ravens must take the good with the bad.
Offseason priority number one: pass rusher.
The Pass Catchers
The targets for Flacco or Jackson are a tricky group to dissect because there doesn’t seem to be much that can be done right now. Baltimore spent their first four picks in the top three rounds of the 2018 draft on offensive players and, at the moment, do not have a second-round pick in 2019. John Brown will most likely move on after he has definitely made good on his ‘prove it’ deal, leaving the Ravens moving into 2019 with almost the exact same receiving corps they currently roster. Both Willie Snead and Michael Crabtree will return next year but the department the Ravens looked most equipped in is at tight end.
Hayden Hurst needs more time to develop into a significant contributor but Mark Andrews has looked great in his rookie season. So far Andrews hasn’t had eye-popping stats, currently sitting at 21 grabs for 244 yards and two scores, but clearly has the makeup of someone who could become a big part of the Ravens offense in the future. Since losing Dennis Pitta the Ravens have been looking for a tight end that can open up the middle of the field and they may have it in Andrews. He’s already eclipsed Todd Heap‘s rookie receiving and touchdown totals in three fewer games. If Hurst can flash some of the talents that made him a first-round talent down the stretch, he and Andrews could become a deadly and versatile duo for at least the next three years.
"Baltimore is going to be really excited about having Mark and Hayden as a part of the Ravens." pic.twitter.com/nuJvQHNe9q
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) November 6, 2018
With a lack of picks to find top-tier receivers, Baltimore’s best hope at improving their receivers will, once again, come through finding veterans in free agency in 2019.
In conclusion, is it time for the Ravens to blow it up? No, but there are certain areas they need to take a good hard look at and find out how they are going to properly retool them for the longrun. It would be pointless to completely dismantle the defense after having so much success thus far in 2018. Improving the offense, on the other hand, won’t require a complete teardown but is going to require some creativity to change when DeCosta is officially awarded the general manager’s chair.