By: Ashley Anderson
Coming off an embarrassing 22-10 loss against the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night football, the Baltimore Ravens had to do some soul searching this week. With a few extra days rest, they travel to Chicago on Sunday to take on the Bears. Led by rookie quarterback Justin Fields, the Bears are currently 3-6. Their record is deceiving though, as they have played a number of close games. Here are the big questions leading into Week 10.
3.) Can the Baltimore Ravens find a way to limit big plays defensively?
“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” – Cool Hand Luke, 1967.
When people think of the Baltimore Ravens, they typically think of bruising defenses led by the likes of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Although there is plenty of talent on the 2021 squad, it seems like the Ravens are struggling to put them all together. Nearly every week, even if the defense plays well as a whole, they experience lapses. Big plays have become the norm rather than the unexpected.
Somewhat astonishingly, Baltimore has allowed six plays of 50 or more yards in just the past three weeks. Their busted coverage on a 64-yard catch and run by Albert Wilson evaporated any chance of a comeback against Miami. Even in the win against Minnesota, they surrendered a 50-yard touchdown to Justin Jefferson.
Long-time fans are baffled by the overall performance of the unit, which is typically prideful and dominant. There are plenty of factors, including injury, that point to the down year. The biggest issue, however, seems to be a lack of communication within the group.
For some time, the Ravens were struggling with tackling, leading to explosive plays. They seemed to have that figured out a bit in recent games, but there have still been several big plays. Often, there appears to be a breakdown in pre-snap communication. Safety Chuck Clark wears the green dot on his helmet, so he is ultimately responsible for relaying the play calls. Marlon Humphrey has also taken responsibility for his part in the lapses.
All-in-all, chunk plays are a dagger for any defense. The Ravens know this is an area of weakness and one that must improve if they hope to make a playoff run this season. Facing a rookie quarterback in Justin Fields should help them get things right this week.
2.) Will the running game get back on track?
For years, the bread and butter of Baltimore’s offense was their rushing attack. It seemed they could run against any and every team in the NFL. However, there has never been another season where the Ravens lost all three of their top running backs prior to the start of the year.
The losses left the front office reeling as they searched for help. Ty’Son Williams made the 53-man roster out of camp, and Baltimore quickly added Latavius Murray, Devonta Freeman, and Le’Veon Bell. Since then, they also added Nate McCrary back to the practice squad.
Murray missed the past three games with an ankle injury, and the run game suffered as a result. Most weeks, quarterback Lamar Jackson is actually the leading rusher, and none of the backs separated from the pack. With Murray finally getting healthy, the Ravens made the surprise choice to part ways with Bell.
Much of the blame for the run game struggling can be placed on the offensive line. Without Ronnie Stanley, the unit was forced to shift Alejandro Villanueva to left tackle. Patrick Mekari had finally stabilized the right tackle role before he went down with an ankle injury. Second-year man Tyre Phillips is not built to be a tackle, but Baltimore was forced to use him there. Ben Powers and Ben Cleveland were rotating at left guard before Powers suffered a knee injury. Powers struggled in his absence.
Cleveland may be ready to return this week, and Mekari is also getting healthy. As the weather turns cold, Baltimore is certainly hopeful that someone or something can provide a spark on the ground. Could this be the week Nate McCrary finally gets a call-up?
1.) How will mid-week absences from Lamar Jackson and Bradley Bozeman affect the offense?
Both Lamar Jackson and Bradley Bozeman were sent home from practice Wednesday with non-Covid related illnesses. Jackson is virtually the only reason the Ravens are 6-3 at this point, but he has now missed practice time four separate weeks. Meanwhile, Bozeman has been the anchor of an offensive line that has faced a ton of adversity this season.
It is never a good thing when starters miss practice time for any reason. What makes matters worse is that Jackson and Bozeman are the most crucial pieces of an offense that would look dramatically different without them. At this point, there is no reason to believe either will miss Sunday’s game. The missed practice time, however, could throw off the rhythm of the entire offensive unit.
Jackson has shown an uncanny knack for building chemistry with his receivers despite the repeated absences. Still, there are moments when the timing seems just a touch off with this offense. For example, in his return from a three-game absence, Sammy Watkins was targeted early on a deep pass against the Dolphins. Unfortunately, he either believed the ball to be overthrown, or he lost it in the lights, and a would-be touchdown landed incomplete. Slightly better timing between Jackson and Watkins may have made a difference.
Losing Bozeman would be equally damaging. Last year, the Ravens struggled mightily with poor snaps, but Bozeman virtually eliminated the issue. He has been one of the top centers in the league and easily the best lineman in Baltimore. Without him, the Ravens would have to turn to Trystan Colon, who has primarily been used as an additional lineman in heavy packages. Colon would then have the responsibility of making pre-snap reads and trying to gel with a line that, as previously mentioned, already dealt with its fair share of change.
All-in-all, it is too early to panic here, but the situation bears watching (no pun intended). Jackson and Bozeman may both return tomorrow fine as fiddles, and this question becomes irrelevant. Any other scenario, however, could put the Ravens at a huge disadvantage.