By: Joshua Reed
Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports
They’ve been telling us with their words and actions this offseason. Even though the Baltimore Ravens have had one of the most explosive and potent offenses in the league over the past two seasons, their postseason shortcomings during that span have sparked outside controversy and internal reflection. Earlier this offseason, Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman said that the team would be “expanding their profile” on his side of the ball.
They weren’t able to do so last year following their historic 2019 season because the COVID-19 pandemic robbed them of an in-person offseason program and all the invaluable installation time that comes with it. However, with the proper protocols in place and more weapons at their disposal in the passing game, the Ravens are poised to be even more dynamic and perhaps even more balanced heading into the 2021 season.
So what will their “expanded profile” look like this year?
Several players and high-ranking team officials have been leaving bread crumbs and divulging some clues through their words and actions without fully tipping their hand to the opposing teams they’ll face in the regular season and/or playoffs.
Here are five of the most notable hints:
Upgraded pass-catching corps
The Ravens wide receiver depth chart is perhaps the most criticized aspect of the team behind Lamar Jackson’s competency as a passer. While the outside noise from fans and media pundits mostly fell on deaf ears, General Manager Eric DeCosta and Co. went to work this offseason to improve the pass-catching corps surrounding Jackson.
To make his job easier and take some of the attention away from some of the other talented weapons already in-house such as Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown and Mark Andrews, they signed veteran wideout Sammy Watkins in free agency, drafted rookies Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace, and traded for tight end Josh Oliver.
Watkins has already established a strong rapport with Jackson according to reports and video clips from the Organized Team Activities and Mandatory Minicamp. Bateman and Wallace have both consistently flashed the refined route-running skills and playmaking ability that made them so highly regarded coming out of college.
Oliver was acquired with hopes that he could push for a roster spot and perhaps even carve out a role on offense if he stays healthy and realizes his full potential in a new environment. The former third-round pick looked good this spring/summer as well and if he makes the team, he could help fill the complementary pass-catching tight end role that was left by Hayden Hurst.
The hiring of Keith Williams as the Pass Game Specialist and Tee Martin as the Wide Receivers Coach will also give the offense a tremendous boost by assisting in the development and maturation of their young offensive skill players.
Emphasis on the deep ball
According to Jackson himself, another part of the expansion of the offense in the passing game specifically will be taking and converting more shots deep down the field.
“We’ve been working, not just me, all the QBs and receivers, we’ve been getting together and trying to make that a big emphasis for us this year,” Jackson said. “People always saying we throw short, intermediate routes and stuff like that, little 5-yard, 10-yard routes. We had some chances last year, we hit some of ‘em but we’re just trying to be more consistent this year. That’s where the strides happen, it starts in practice and hopefully it transitions to the game. Just gotta keep working on it.”
The Ravens certainly have the speed in both the slot as well as on the outside to stretch the seams and take the top off of opposing defenses with burners like Brown, Devin Duvernay, Bateman, and even Miles Boykin who can cover a lot of ground in a hurry with his long strides. Now it’s up to them to put it all together on the field on a more consistent basis so that they can make their opponents regret loading the box to stop the run.
Lamar will be under center more
While he can’t put a figure on how often they’ll be using it, Roman assured that it would be happening more than occasionally and is a part of Jackson’s natural development as a quarterback.
“That is definitely going to be a part of what we do this year — the percentage of which I cannot state at this point,” Roman said, via ESPN. “I don’t know the extent of it. But we are working on it and evaluating it every day.”
“It’s something we will certainly use from time to time, some games more than others,” Roman said. “I believe it’s a very important part in the development of a quarterback from a forward standpoint.”
Incorporating more under center work for Jackson won’t just help the 24-year old mature at his position, it will also make the Ravens’ play-action passing attack even more deadly. Since they are still expected to be a run-first offense going forward and opposing teams will be expecting and positioned to defend the run more than pass against Baltimore, selling hard run fakes will make defenses overcommit and be out of position to make a play in the passing game.
This could lead to more wide-open targets for Jackson at every level and create favorable one-on-one matchups where his targets will have a step or two on the nearest defender because they think the ball is getting handed off more often than not.
Running Backs will be used more as pass catchers
Speaking of handoffs, that’s a perfect transition to this nice little nugget that Head Coach John Harbaugh was gracious enough to share with the media during OTAs.
“One of the main points of emphasis has been to involve our running backs in the passing game more,” Harbaugh said. “J.K, obviously, is going to be a focal point in that, Justice [Hill], and Gus [Edwards] does what he does in the passing game.”
“J.K. and Justice [Hill], specifically, that’s what they should be really good at. That should be a big part of their tool kits,” Harbaugh said. “That’s something we want to emphasize and continue to improve at.”
Dobbins had some bad drops in crucial situations as a rookie but seems to have devoted a considerable amount of time and effort into working on that area of his game. Practice reports and clips have indicated improvement. Edwards showed greatly improved pass-catching skills in 2020 and deserves to have more balls thrown his way coming out of the backfield as well.
Hill has been underutilized in both the running and passing game but could finally be in store for more touches this year where he could do some serious damage getting upfield quickly on screens and swing passes.
Revamped offensive line
The foundation of all offenses begins upfront with the blockers that open up lanes in the running game and provide clean pockets for the quarterbacks to operate and maneuver.
Even though they said goodbye to two-time Pro Bowler and franchise legacy Orlando Brown Jr via trade, the Ravens brought in reinforcements and did some reshuffling to improve their offensive line this offseason without breaking the bank. They were able to add a few notable veteran free agents on team-friendly deals and added a rookie that is expected to be a day one starter.
Their first big savvy move was bringing in Kevin Zeitler to fill the void at right guard more effectively after he was a salary-cap casualty of the New York Giants. The aforementioned rookie is Ben Cleveland, who they stole late in the third round and is the favorite to win the starting left guard gig now that Bradley Bozeman is returning to his natural position at center.
After surprisingly not drafting a tackle this year, they unsurprisingly signed two-time Pro Bowler Alejandro Villanueva, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers, to compete to replace Brown Jr. and provide an experienced insurance policy at left tackle.
Earlier this month, they signed a pair of veteran offensive linemen. Ja’Wuan James will likely miss the entire 2021 season but should be ready to compete in 2022. Michael Schofield is an experienced veteran that has started at both positions on the right side of the line.
Harbaugh got his first look at the revamped group—minus Ronnie Stanley—during minicamp and OTAs and liked what he saw from the bunch even though not much can be gleaned from trenches until the pads come on.
“Watching them play has been a pleasure,” Harbaugh said about Zeitler and Villanueva. “They’re all ball, all the time – both of those guys. Whether it’s meeting room, weight room, conditioning [or] on the field work – they’re all ball, all the time. I love that about them. I think they’re going to be a formidable tandem on the right side. I’m really pleased with them so far.”
“Nobody has separated at this point, but you’re not going to separate in something like this,” Harbaugh said. “But we’ve got candidates, for sure, and they’re all high-level candidates. So, I’m excited about that and can’t wait to see it play out. If you like football and you’re a real student of the game, you’ll be watching that left guard battle during training camp.”
In order for any of the new weapons, schematic innovations, and added wrinkles to bear fruit on the field, the offensive line will need to be solidified first. It won’t be decided anytime soon and could go down to the wire but one thing you can almost always count on is that the Ravens will put the best five starting blockers on the field no matter their draft status or veteran pedigree.
In conclusion, it was nice of the Ravens to peel back the curtain a bit and gives us a sneak peek of what to expect from their offense this fall and beyond. While you can never read too much into offseason comments from players and coaches, their actions don’t lie and tell the truth of where their true intentions lie. My dad always used to tell me growing up that “Actions speak louder than words.” The moves that the Ravens made this offseason speak volumes that reinforce their words.