Posted in Ashley's 3 big questions

Baltimore Ravens: 3 Big Questions as Ravens Travel to the Windy City

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.

NEXT POST: Baltimore Ravens: A full examination of the Greg Roman situation

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.

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J.K. Dobbins out for the year: How the Ravens move forward

By Chris Schisler

The Baltimore Ravens had one of the worst possible things happen in their preseason game against the Washington Football Team. They lost their star running back J.K. Dobbins for the season. According to reports, Dobbins tore his ACL and won’t play in the 2021 season. How do the Baltimore Ravens move forward? Let’s dive into that.

This obviously makes Gus Edwards the top running back in Baltimore. An outside signing isn’t out of the question. Todd Gurley talked to the Ravens this offseason. Frank Gore hasn’t retired yet and is available. With the regular season coming in just a couple of weeks, the timing for a move like this isn’t ideal.

The most likely scenario is that the Baltimore Ravens roll with the running backs on their roster. This probably means that on the 53 man roster, Gus Edwards, Ty’Son Williams, and Justice Hill will make up the running back spot. Dobbins is hard to replace, though there isn’t suddenly room for a fourth running back on the 53 man roster.

The Ravens didn’t just have two unproven running backs play amazing football to sign an older and staler player on a knee-jerk reaction. The roster is loaded but the Ravens should absolutely get Nate McCrary on the practice squad. He could be called up if needed. The running back position as a whole got a little less proven, but it’s not a completely disassembled unit.

Edwards is in a very interesting position. On one hand, he’s one of the most consistent running backs the Baltimore offense has ever had. Edwards has had three straight seasons over 700 yards. On the other hand, Edwards has never been the Jamal Lewis or the Ray Rice type of player. He’s been the compliment of the Ravens run game more than he’s been the bell cow. Edwards is looking at a bigger role.

Dobbins averaged six yards per carry in his rookie season. If Dobbins stayed healthy he more than likely would have had over 1,000 yards on the ground. Last year, Dobbins, Edwards and, Jackson totaled 2,533 total yards. To stay on track Edwards needs to have his best year ever and at least flirt with the 1,000-yard mark.

As good as Ty’Son Williams has looked in the preseason, the Ravens running back group took a huge hit. The Ravens lost one of the best one-two punches in the NFL. Whether the number two back becomes Williams or Justice Hill, it won’t pack the same dynamic. Edwards’s role was often to be the closer at the end of the game, who would run without mercy against a tired defense. Now he’s the starting pitcher.

One of the major concerns of training camp was how severely the injuries prevented the offense from gelling. Should Lamar Jackson and the now-injured Dobbins have been playing in the final preseason game? No. The motivation to play them though was to get as much of the starting offense rolling together as the Ravens could.

The Dobbins injury compounds the chemistry problem. The purple and black now have to go into the preseason without working out the kinks in a game with their real starting offense. They have to figure out the new rotation at running back and establish a new pecking order in the backfield.

The Ravens should still be one of the best running football teams. They even have a chance to remain the top running football operation in the NFL. Lamar Jackson will always boost the ground game. He does this not only by producing on the ground but by making the defense mindful that he can produce on the ground.

The Ravens aren’t going to go from being one of the best running teams in the history of football (maybe even the best) to struggling on the ground. The ground game should still be the core competency of this offense. The question isn’t even how many yards this will shave off their total production running the football, but how will it impact the crazy efficiency of the unit on the ground.

Jackson averaged 6.3 yards per rushing attempt last season. Dobbins averaged an even six. Edwards picked up five yards a pop. At the end of the year, if the Ravens don’t have their three top runners picking up five or more yards per attempt, it takes a bit of the bite out of the strength of the offense.

NEXT POST: Baltimore Ravens 3 Big Questions About the Secondary

The Dobbins injury doesn’t sink the Ravens. It is however completely deflating to lose a potential superstar breakout year from a young running back. The Ravens lost star power and it’s awfully early to be turning to the next-man-up mentality. One way or another the Ravens needed to see gains from their passing attack in 2021. This surely reinforces that. If the Ravens don’t add an outside running back it shows you that they are still confident in their ability to be a dominant team running the football.

 

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Baltimore Ravens: Ty’Son Williams deserves a roster spot

By Chris Schisler

The Baltimore Ravens have had no position battle more compelling than the battle at running back. While J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards were mostly out of the spotlight, Ty’Son Williams and Nate McCrary have made a strong push for Justice Hill‘s job.

Is it Justice Hill’s job?

Justice Hill was the presumed running back number three. He was a fourth-round draft pick and he’s competing against two undrafted free agents. Hill may have entered training camp as the favorite for the third running back spot, but the competition has heated up.

Hill had 59 rushing attempts in his rookie season averaging just 3.9 yards a pop. In 2020, Hill only had 12 rushing attempts. The Ravens, by the way, are the most committed football team to the ground game. Hill hasn’t made much of an impression in the backfield. Assuming the job was his no matter what is a little foolish.

The job is certainly in fair play. Speaking of play, the Ravens have two running backs who are performing at a high level. Hill has reportedly been dealing with an ankle injury. Preseason games aren’t the full story, in fact, the practices probably tell a larger portion of the story. Preseason games are however the window we have for analyzing the players in a game setting. Being mindful that we can’t put too much stock in the preseason to be fair and realistic, the eye test has spoken. Ty’Son Williams has aced it.

Ty’Son Williams has traits:

Going into the preseason I had 10 preseason predictions. One of these predictions is that Nate McCrary would make a serious push for the third running back spot. I picked the right position battle but backed the wrong back. McCrary has had some impressive moments. Statistically, he’s right there with Williams. The traits Williams has put on display should give him the edge.

The first thing the Ravens need from a running back behind Dobbins and Edwards is the ability to catch the football out of the backfield. This trait is why the Ravens flirted with the idea of bringing in Todd Gurley this offseason. Williams has caught seven passes this preseason for 39 yards. He’s shown himself to be a natural hands catcher, it’s not awkward. He checks the box here, even if it’s not the main aspect of his game.

Williams has great leg strength and the ability to run through a crowded tackle box. His contact balance is almost on a Gus the Bus level of impressiveness. It’s hard to bring Williams down and he always fights for a couple of extra yards. Stylistically, Williams could be another bowling ball the Ravens use to tire out defenses. Edwards packs a little more thickness and weight, but they’re both freight trains.

The Baltimore Ravens play that showed it all:

Williams’s touchdown run against the Panthers showed everything. It’s one play that makes the whole argument. Five Panthers had a chance to take Williams down. Foster Sewell pulled on the play and got just enough of a Panthers linebacker. Williams ran behind the block he got to get to the second level. Vision and awareness made this run possible.

A Panthers’ safety failed to square up on Williams. Williams showed just enough shake to throw. The defender took a bad angle and hit Williams on the side. Williams brushed it off like it was nothing, for a lot of running backs that would have been just a seven-yard gain at that point. Then Williams managed to stave off a couple of shoestring tackle attempts. He started falling almost five yards before the goal line. It took balance, core strength, and determination to get in the end zone.

NEXT POST: Baltimore Ravens: Projecting 53 man roster after 2 preseason games

Williams topped off his second impressive performance with a run that was the best possible pitch for a roster spot. The eye test really works in his favor. He’s got traits, he’s popped onto the scene and if the Ravens are smart he’s not going anywhere. He should be your running back number three.