At his final news conference before the Ravens’ season opener, coach John Harbaugh got right to the point.
“OK, we’re ready to go,” he said after practice Friday afternoon. “Time to go play football.”
The long wait is almost over. The Ravens host the Houston Texans on Sunday, their first measuring-stick game since last season’s dramatic playoff loss brought on an offseason of reinvestment and restructuring. Here’s what to watch in the Week 1 matchup.
1. How different will Todd Monken’s Ravens offense look compared to Greg Roman’s Ravens offense? At times Sunday, the answer could be: very. At other times, the answer could be: not that different, actually.
Adaptability is one of Monken’s greatest strengths. He has coached on staffs with “Air Raid” passing attacks and pro-style passing attacks, under-center rushing schemes and college-style rushing schemes. If tight end Mark Andrews is available Sunday — he was limited in practice all week by a quadriceps injury and was listed as questionable on Friday’s injury report — Monken will have every offensive weapon on the Ravens’ roster at his disposal.
The personnel he chooses to surround quarterback Lamar Jackson with could signal his intentions for the season ahead. It could also be the personnel he thinks matches up best against a talented but inexperienced Texans defense.
“I really don’t care who’s on the field, to be honest,” Monken said Thursday. “If you stay within the framework of what wins, which is, don’t turn it over, be successful on offense, be explosive, eliminate loss-yardage plays, score touchdowns in the red zone and be elite on third downs — if you stay within that framework … it’s putting the best players on the field to give you a chance to be successful.
“The more talent that you have, the more exciting it is. You can be more versatile. If you have multiple backs, you can play some of your 21 personnel [two backs, one tight end and two wide receivers]. If you have multiple tight ends you like to get on the field, that gives you opportunities to put personnel on the field. I think we’re in a good place in terms of the personnel that we have that allows you to be versatile in a lot of ways. You just have to be careful of getting spread too thin and having way too much and being easy to defend, because you have things you do specifically in certain packages, but I’m excited about our guys [and] the versatility I think we’ll have.”
It’s quite a broad spectrum. The Ravens could line up in a spread look with five wide receivers — Rashod Bateman, Odell Beckham Jr., Zay Flowers, Nelson Agholor and Devin Duvernay — and feel good about each matchup. They could also force defenses into their “base” personnel (four defensive backs) by deploying fullback Patrick Ricard along with two tight ends. Besides Andrews, Isaiah Likely had a strong camp, and Charlie Kolar impressed in the preseason.
“If you have myself and Mark [Andrews] in the game, what kind of defense are they going to put out there? Are they going to put out a bigger front?” Ricard said in training camp last month. “OK, if they do, then we’re going to go play action, and Mark’s going to be in mismatches, or if they try to get lighter for Mark and all the receivers, then we’re going to start running the ball.
“So it’s kind of like those things where … it’s so valuable of how you can exploit defenses and have all the different advantages that you can have. So, as long as guys can play all different spots, then it’s great for everybody. You don’t want to just be like a one-trick pony and only doing one thing, because then defenses are going to know what you’re going to do, and they’re going to have success against you.”
2. Jackson has a sweet spot as a passer: the intermediate middle of the field. In San Francisco, then-49ers defensive coordinator Demeco Ryans, now in his first year as Houston’s head coach, had a stranglehold on the same territory.
According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, over Ryans’ two seasons as San Francisco’s coordinator, the 49ers had the NFL’s second-best success rate on passes thrown 10 to 19 yards downfield and over the middle third of the field. Opposing quarterbacks completed 48.6% of those attempts and just 36 passes total. (The Ravens, in that same span, allowed 55 completions on 64.7% accuracy.)
The challenge for Ryans is replicating that success without All-Pro inside linebacker Fred Warner, a middle-of-the-field savant — and doing it against Jackson. Since 2019, he has a 122.5 passer rating on intermediate passes over the middle, with 17 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 60.2% completion rate.
“Different coach, different players, but the system is sort of similar to other teams who we’ve played in the past,” Jackson said Wednesday of Houston. “And from watching film — watching 49ers defense and their coach comes from the 49ers — [they have] similar defenses.”
3. The last time Monken saw C.J. Stroud, he saw maybe the best-ever version of the then-Ohio State quarterback. In a 42-41 loss to Monken’s Bulldogs in the College Football Playoff semifinals last season, Stroud went 23-for-34 for 348 yards and four touchdowns and added 12 carries for 34 yards. It was only the second time all season Georgia’s elite defense allowed more than 22 points, and the first time it allowed more than 30.
“He’s a tremendous player,” Monken said of Stroud, the Texans’ No. 2 overall pick.
He’s also a rookie, and the Ravens tend to turn first-year quarterbacks in Baltimore into lesser versions of themselves. Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 16-2 at M&T Bank Stadium against rookie starters. In 15 games since 2012, that group has combined to throw nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions on 53.8% accuracy while taking 49 sacks, according to TruMedia. Rookie quarterbacks have averaged minus-0.17 expected points added per play against the Ravens in that span — worse than Zach Wilson, Baker Mayfield and Colt McCoy last year.
Stroud’s supporting cast might not be of much help, either. The Texans will be missing three starting linemen, and their wide receiver room is less talented than what Stroud had available at Ohio State. Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has experience game-planning against Stroud, too. His 2021 Michigan defense sacked him four times in a 42-27 win, holding on despite allowing 394 passing yards.
“He doesn’t look like a rookie on preseason tape,” Macdonald said Thursday. “He seems poised back there and comfortable. He’s always been a really accurate passer — that definitely hasn’t changed. I think the scheme and him fit well, and obviously he’s a really talented guy. He has a pretty good command of what they’re doing, it looks like. It’ll be a great challenge for us, so we’re ready to go.”
4. Few of the Ravens’ projected starters on defense played even a snap in the preseason. If there’s uncertainty about their reintroduction to starter-level strength and speed, Dameon Pierce could be a one-man litmus test.
The Texan was one of the league’s most physical running backs as a rookie last year, when he had 939 rushing yards in 13 games. He averaged 3.28 yards after contact per carry, ninth best among backs with at least 100 attempts, according to PFF. Pierce also forced 62 missed tackles on 220 carries, or about one every four attempts, one of the NFL’s highest rates at the position. In a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars last season, he was credited with 17 missed tackles forced on 26 rushes.
“We say he runs angry,” said Macdonald, whose Ravens had 79 missed tackles last season, according to Pro Football Reference, eighth most in the league. “The first guy is going to have a hard time bringing him down, so it’s going to take a group effort. That’s definitely a point of emphasis this week. We haven’t tackled in a real game yet, especially with our [first-string defense]. So that’s been a message throughout the week of, ‘Hey, we want to bring our ‘A’ game with the tackling and make sure we get 11 hats to the ball and [take] great angles, so we’re not giving up any loose plays.’”
5. The Ravens come into most games with a clear advantage on special teams. Not this game, though.
The Texans finished No. 2 overall in special teams efficiency last season, according to FTN, just ahead of the third-ranked Ravens. As measured by DVOA, Houston had the NFL’s best kickoff unit and was seventh in field goals and extra points, eighth in punts and ninth in punt returns. Kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn was 29-for-31 on field goals last season, and punter Cameron Johnston was ninth in net average punt yards.
The Ravens, meanwhile, are hoping for more consistent production from punter Jordan Stout and a return to form from returner Devin Duvernay.
“Their fifth- and sixth-year veterans are all over their core [special teams] group right there,” Harbaugh said Wednesday of Houston. “They know how to play. We’re going to have our hands full. So, yes, we have to emphasize special teams, especially this week, just to make sure that we’re doing our part”