There is no easy way to describe what awaits the Ravens over the next 10 weeks. It is a gauntlet perhaps best captured with superlatives.

Starting Sunday in Baltimore, the Ravens will face — and strap in, because this will take a while — the NFC West’s top team (the Seattle Seahawks), the NFL’s best defense outside Baltimore (the Cleveland Browns’), their biggest threat in the AFC North (the Cincinnati Bengals), the AFC South’s best team (the Jacksonville Jaguars), perhaps the NFC’s most talented team (the San Francisco 49ers) and the NFL’s best offense (the Miami Dolphins’).

But wait, there’s more: Also looming in that nine-game stretch is a recent Super Bowl champion (the Los Angeles Rams), a recent Super Bowl dark horse (the Los Angeles Chargers) and a Pittsburgh Steelers team the Ravens just can’t seem to figure out. According to FTN, it is the NFL’s second-toughest remaining schedule, and even that might be underselling it.

“It’s going to be tough regardless,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said Wednesday. “Any team in the league you’re going to play against is going to be a tough game. All of us NFL players are superstars, but I believe we’re prepared. We’re prepared. We’ve been showing it, getting better each and every week.”

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The Ravens are considered one of the NFL’s best teams for good reason. These three factors could determine how long they stay there.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs with the ball during the first quarter against the Detroit Lions at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023.
Lamar Jackson says the Ravens are prepared for the NFL's second-most-difficult remaining schedule. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Downfield defense

There might not be a better deep-ball defense in the NFL than the Ravens’. There might not be a better deep-ball thrower in the NFL than Seattle’s Geno Smith.

Last season, Smith went 24-for-51 (47.1%) for 719 yards, 13 touchdowns and two interceptions on passes at least 20 yards downfield, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Among regular starters, only the Miami Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa (54%) had better accuracy. This year, Smith’s 13-for-29 (44.8%) for 383 yards and three touchdowns on deep shots.

They’re high-degree-of-difficulty passes, too. Only 10.3% of Smith’s long balls have targeted “open” receivers, according to NGS, one of the NFL’s lowest rates, while 41.4% have landed in “tight windows,” one of the league’s highest rates. But wide receiver Tyler Lockett plays bigger than his 5-foot-10 frame, tight end Noah Fant has turned into a reliable downfield option, and rookie wide receiver Jake Bobo has made a couple of big plays.

Will that be enough to challenge the Ravens? On deep passes this season, opposing quarterbacks have combined to post a 19.7 passer rating, with as many completions as interceptions (three). Take out the Ravens’ Week 5 performance against the Steelers, and their defense has allowed just one of 20 passes of at least 20 air yards.

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They should see a lot more down the stretch. Smith is sixth in the NFL in deep shots, the Chargers’ Justin Herbert is seventh, the Rams’ Matthew Stafford is eighth and Tagovailoa is 10th. Among regular starters, Tagovailoa is second in expected points added per deep shot, Stafford is third, the 49ers’ Brock Purdy is fourth, Smith is fifth and the Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence is eighth, according to NGS.

Jackson’s health

Jackson has not missed an offensive snap because of injury this season, a feat that becomes more impressive with every passing week.

On Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings lost Kirk Cousins to a season-ending Achilles tendon tear. The New York Giants’ Tyrod Taylor was discharged from the hospital Monday after injuring his ribcage Sunday in a start he made because Daniel Jones (neck) was sidelined himself. Stafford hurt his thumb Sunday. Deshaun Watson, dealing with a shoulder injury, has attempted just five passes for the Browns over the past month.

Then there’s the New York Jets’ Aaron Rodgers, a long-shot candidate to return from a Week 1 Achilles injury. The Indianapolis Colts last month shut down rookie Anthony Richardson (shoulder) for the season. The Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray (knee) has yet to make his 2023 debut. The Chicago Bears’ Justin Fields (thumb) and Tennessee Titans’ Ryan Tannehill (ankle) are banged up, too, and unlikely to play in Week 9.

The Ravens’ hopes and dreams, as with almost every other franchise’s, are inextricable from the availability of their QB1. An injury to Jackson can prove insurmountable. In 2021, he suffered a bone bruise in his ankle in Week 14, and the injury-depleted Ravens watched an 8-3 start crumble into an 8-9 finish. Last season, Jackson sprained his MCL in Week 12 and missed the Ravens’ final six games, including a playoff loss to the Bengals.

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Jackson is averaging 9.3 carries per game this season, matching the career low he set last year, which could limit his exposure to dangerous open-field hits. But there’s risk on drop-backs, too. His season-ending injuries in 2021 and 2022 happened in and around the pocket.

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - OCTOBER 29: Odell Beckham Jr. #3 of the Baltimore Ravens warms up prior to a game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on October 29, 2023 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Odell Beckham Jr. has a history of increased production late in the season, but that was before an ACL injury cost him a full year. (Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Wideout returns

Progress for the Ravens’ wide receiver room has come slowly this season. In three of the past four seasons, the group has finished last in the NFL in receiving yards. Through eight games this year, Ravens wideouts have combined for 91 catches for 1,005 yards, 24th most in the league.

But the position’s problem in recent years hasn’t been how it’s started seasons. More concerning for this season is how these Ravens have finished.

Over Devin Duvernay’s first three years in Baltimore, he had 572 receiving yards from Week 1 to Week 8 and just 308 yards from Week 9 on. Rashod Bateman’s first two seasons produced a more equal split — 394 yards through Week 8, 406 yards thereafter — but wear and tear remain a concern.

Odell Beckham Jr. has averaged more receiving yards in November (89.9 per game) and December (88.0) than in any other month, but he’s also coming off a season away from football and has perhaps the most concerning injury history at the position.

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Zay Flowers played in 48 games over his Boston College career but never more than 13 in a season. The so-called rookie wall could get in his way at some point.

Nelson Agholor, in his final season with the New England Patriots, entered last November with 15 catches for 227 yards. He added only 16 catches for 135 yards the rest of the way.

The Ravens’ offensive makeover this past offseason — a new coordinator in Todd Monken, a new wide receivers coach in Greg Lewis, a rejuvenated Jackson — could render their track record at wide receiver obsolete. But, with four pass defenses ranked in the top 11 in DVOA looming, the Ravens will need all the late-season help they can get.

Jonas Shaffer is a Ravens beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Ravens for The Baltimore Sun. Shaffer graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Silver Spring.

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