A full one-third of the NFL regular season is now complete, giving us plenty of information to go off of as we try to figure out how good this Ravens team can actually be. So we asked our team to answer some of the most pressing questions around the team.
What has surprised you the most (good or bad) about the Ravens so far?
Jonas Shaffer: Cornerback Marlon Humphrey and safety Marcus Williams have combined to play about 200 defensive snaps, and yet the pass defense ranks No. 1 in the NFL in yards allowed per attempt (4.5). Yes, the Ravens have faced a soft lineup of quarterbacks so far — Texans rookie C.J. Stroud was making his NFL debut, Bengals star Joe Burrow wasn’t completely healthy, et cetera — but there have been almost none of the breakdowns that set this secondary back early last season. Amid a handful of injuries and position changes, Ravens defensive backs have made Mike Macdonald’s defense look like a plug-and-play system.
Giana Han: The chemistry and lack of chemistry between quarterback Lamar Jackson and the wide receivers has been interesting to see. Odell Beckham Jr. was the big storyline over the summer, and sure enough, Jackson seemed to look right toward the veteran. But after Beckham’s injury, Jackson had to look elsewhere. Interestingly, that hasn’t been towards veteran Rashod Bateman. Even when Beckham was in, Jackson seems to rely on rookie Zay Flowers. That only became more apparent once Beckham got hurt and Flowers quickly became the most targeted receiver. Fair enough — Flowers can create separation, and (outside the Steelers game) has had very reliable hands. But I don’t think I expected him to become so essential so fast.
Aron Yohannes: The secondary. For all of the legitimate questions and concerns we had about them going into the year because of injuries, they’ve more than held their own through the beginning of the season. Brandon Stephens rose to the challenge as the No. 1 cornerback in Marlon Humphrey’s absence and has been stout as the No. 2 across from him. Nobody saw Geno Stone being tied for the most interceptions (3) across the league at this point. Kyle Hamilton has taken another big step. The Ravens were greatly banged up at this spot and have weathered the storm better than everyone expected.
Kyle Goon: On the positive side: the absolute resiliency of the defense. This unit has suffered so many injuries especially in the secondary and at edge rusher, the two places where you’re most able to affect a passing offense. Yet somehow they’ve held opponents to just 4.5 yards per passing attempt, the NFL’s best mark, and have allowed just one rushing touchdown through six weeks. That has some to do with facing some lower-tier QBs during that stretch, but the defense has made do thanks to their elite linebacker talent of Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen, as well as heroic fill-in performances by guys like Geno Stone, Brandon Stephens and Jadeveon Clowney.
Which player or unit has been the biggest disappointment?
Shaffer: I doubt the Ravens’ special teams play will be considered mediocre for much longer, but the fact that they’re even under consideration here is a mild shocker. Their punt coverage team has been one of the NFL’s shakiest units, and until Sunday’s win over the Tennessee Titans, returner Devin Duvernay’s impact had been minimal. The Ravens now rank 15th in special teams DVOA, well below their usual perch. As long as Justin Tucker is making kicks, though, Chris Horton’s unit should be in good shape.
Han: Growing up in Baltimore, I’d only heard the special teams talked about with pride. So it was strange to arrive to a conversation about the problems in this year’s special teams units. The problems have been all over the field, too. Opposing returners have blown through their coverage, kicks and punts have been blocked and several have been off their mark. They’ve directly led to losses, too. To be fair, the injuries have had a serious effect on things. People who don’t typically play on special teams have been called to fill in, and players who already play big roles have had to take on bigger workloads. With the team getting healthier, though, it looks like the units are steadying out and should hopefully be back on track soon.
Yohannes: This was a toss-up between Odell Beckham Jr. and Rashod Bateman. I’m going with Bateman, though, because he’s not 30 and doesn’t have as much tread on his tires. Simply put, the former first-round pick just hasn’t looked good. He’s had a minor role in the Ravens’ passing attack and has not eclipsed more than 30 yards in any game since the opener. The last two weeks have been his worst stretches: He had a costly drop in the end zone in Week 5 and in London his lone target that did not result in a catch ultimately turned into an interception. While he continues to play a decent number of snaps on offense, you have to wonder if his production will match that going forward.
Goon: Based on the preseason hype, I have to go with wide receivers here. Am I surprised exactly? No. Does it have to do with some injuries? Sure. But rookie Zay Flowers (367 yards) has nearly the same production as the next three wideouts combined (405 yards). Odell Beckham Jr. hasn’t been available as much as hoped, and it feels like the Ravens haven’t exactly figured out how to use him. Rashod Bateman is underachieving. The next-best receiver to Flowers has been Nelson Agholor, strangely enough. A new offense obviously doesn’t change Mark Andrews’ status as the go-to passing target, but a bigger payroll hasn’t exactly made the receiving room a whole lot more productive.
How would you grade the new offense under Todd Monken after the first six games?
Shaffer: I’d give Monken a C-plus. For as much as Lamar Jackson has impressed this season, it’s hard to get overly excited about an offense that has struggled to close out wins and has yet to score 30 points in a game. Injuries to key players have limited the Ravens’ options this season, but the offense too often has played down to the level of the opponent. Monken has the pieces in place for a successful attack. Now he just needs them all to work in concert.
Han: Between the stretches of excellence and the frustration, I think the offense evens out to average. When things are clicking, it’s easy to imagine this offense competing with the best of them. But when it’s bad, it feels like the Ravens just can’t do anything. The potential is there, but I also wonder if they’ll reach that potential in year one. At first it felt like the wrinkles they had to work out came with shaking off some rust and adapting to something new, but it’s now more than a third of the way through the season.
Yohannes: Right now, I would give it a C-minus. While it hasn’t been bad per say, and new offenses typically hit their stride in the middle or end of the regular season, it still feels like it’s supposed to be better than what we’ve seen so far. Granted, losing your starting running back in the first game of the season, plus injuries at receiver and on the offensive line have hampered things, but it’s not near the potential it should be. That could certainly change in the coming weeks, though.
Goon: It’s in an OK place for any NFL team, but not a great place for a contender. You can see a lot of great concepts, and how Lamar Jackson has matured as a passer, and his completion rate is evidence of the strides he’s making, as well as the initial success in the red zone through the first four weeks. But as Jonas pointed out recently, this offense has diminishing returns as games go on, and they’re one of the NFL’s worst in the fourth quarter, decidedly not a good time to struggle. I’d like to see a more consistent commitment to the run game from start to finish (including Jackson designed runs), and I’d like to see more explosive attempts to utilize the receiving corps. There’s a real Jekyll-and-Hyde feel to the Ravens offense a third of the way through the season, and that has to even out.
What’s the biggest concern you have with this team at moment?
Shaffer: The Ravens need a reliable third receiver in this offense. Rookie wideout Zay Flowers has proven himself worthy of the training camp hype. Tight end Mark Andrews is back to his All-Pro form. But who else is going to reliably win their matchups and make defenses pay for blitzing Jackson? Nelson Agholor has been the Ravens’ best bet so far, but can he sustain it? Hopes were higher for Odell Beckham Jr. and Rashod Bateman, but injuries have blocked their path to more regular production.
Han: After giving the standard congratulations to the other team, a “very good team,” after each loss, the Ravens have followed it up by saying each of those games was winnable. Some have gone so far as to say they beat themselves. The Ravens are their own worst enemy right now. And while they might claim the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers are a “good team,” realistically, a good team would have turned the Ravens mistakes into a blowout. While there’s no such thing as a perfect game, the list of imperfections in the Ravens’ performances is too long to be sustainable through the rest of the season. They have to clean up their game because tougher competition won’t hesitate to capitalize.
Yohannes: The Ravens have a ton of issues to figure out on the offensive side of the ball, but the one I’ll go with is their inability to sustain and build off strong starts to games. Baltimore has started well with opening drive scores and played with the lead in multiple games, but they’ve consistently have had stretches were draw blank and look lost offensively and are forced to scramble near the end of games instead of building upon early success. The Titans game is another great example of that, when their 18-3 halftime lead was cut to 18-13 in the third and they needed a late fourth quarter field goal to make it a two-possession game. The Ravens have found themselves needing to grind it out in the second half of games and they can’t afford to be in these situations as the season wears on against teams better than the Titans.
Goon: Painting a broad brush here, but: discipline. The Ravens’ losses have come off of wacky gaffes that all seem to lack a certain fundamentally sound style. They’ve given up more turnovers (9) then they’ve gotten back (8), they’ve lost more penalty yardage (367 to 266) and their special teams, especially on punt coverage, have been ... kind of an adventure. The tight screws we’re used to seeing under John Harbaugh feel a little looser than expected. They are a few mistakes away from being undefeated, quite honestly. The Ravens have high upside thanks to their talent, but unfortunately a very low floor because of moments that make us wonder: “What were they thinking?”
A bold prediction heading into the middle portion of the regular season
Shaffer: Flowers will set the Ravens’ single-season catch record. He has 35 receptions in six games, which means he’s on pace for 99 over a 17-game season. That would leave him just four catches behind Derrick Mason’s 2007 season (103 in 16 games) and eight behind Andrews’ 2021 season (107 in 17 games). And it’s not unreasonable to think Flowers could pop off for an eight- or 10-catch game soon. The first-round pick has been productive without being force-fed this year; just imagine how often Jackson might look for him if the Ravens are trailing and need some juice.
Han: Your starting lineup could look pretty different soon — and not because of injuries. This team is finally getting healthier, but the guys who have stepped up have made serious cases to keep their jobs. Brandon Stephens and Geno Stone have impressed me more than their counterparts. Meanwhile, those who have come back ... have not. In fact, why don’t we take it a step farther? Rashod Bateman might not just lose his starting job. He might be gone. If you’re trying to revamp your receiving corps, and you have a veteran in Nelson Agholor, why hold onto veterans with less upside and fewer years left to play?
Yohannes: This is pretty bold, but why not? Roquan Smith wins Defensive Player of the Year and becomes the first Ravens defender to win it since Terrell Suggs in 2013. He’s been the anchor of the defense throughout all its injuries and has been a linchpin for defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald since coming over in the middle of last season. He’ll have an insanely tough battle to win the award against guys like Dallas’ Micah Parsons and Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt, but if the Ravens defense continues to play at a high level and Baltimore competes for a top seed, he has a shot.
Goon: The Ravens can’t literally clinch the AFC North in the next six games, but I predict it will be close to wrapped up when they hit their bye. The next game against the Lions looms pretty large, but the following five against the Cardinals, Seahawks, Browns, Bengals and Chargers are all quite winnable. My bold prediction (and pardon me if my stomach twists in knots while making it) is the Ravens go 5-1 through the next third of the schedule and are among the AFC’s elite. The Browns, Bengals and Steelers may be close in terms of record, but they just haven’t impressed that much so far (Cleveland’s win over the 49ers aside, which feels a little fluky with San Francisco’s injuries), and I actually think the Ravens are an appreciable margin better than their division rivals.