It didn’t take long for the Ravens’ home opener plans to need some revising.
Amid a wave of injuries and ongoing recoveries, the team could welcome fans back to M&T Bank Stadium without four stars who ended last season on injured reserve. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley, running back J.K. Dobbins, and cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters are all questionable or doubtful for Sunday’s game against the Miami Dolphins (1-0).
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, however, will be back for his first home game since Nov. 28, and his performance could be revealing. Jackson struggled mightily against the Dolphins’ pressure packages in their Week 10 meeting last season, a 22-10 road loss. A strong showing Sunday could turn the page on the offense’s struggles against the blitz. Here’s what to watch in the teams’ Week 2 matchup.
1. After a disappointing season opener, the Ravens’ running game needs a bounce-back performance Sunday. The offense finished with 21 carries for just 63 yards against the New York Jets, their second fewest since 2019 and their fewest with Jackson as a full-time starter. (The Ravens, missing Jackson and other key contributors because of injuries and the coronavirus last season, had 16 carries for 39 yards in their Week 16 blowout loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.)
While the Ravens’ run blocking was inconsistent, especially in the first half, the rushing production probably could’ve been better. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats modeling, running back Kenyan Drake (11 carries for 31 yards) finished with 16 fewer yards than expected in his Ravens debut. Another week of practice should help Drake’s comfort with the run schemes. A healthy and explosive Dobbins, who practiced as a full participant Thursday and Friday and could play Sunday, would also be a boon.
“I would describe [the running game] as very choppy,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Thursday. “We were rusty in some things; it was a guy here, one thing here, one thing there. So it’s obviously something we’re attacking and trying to improve. We really didn’t show a whole lot once that game opened up a little bit, and we built a different lead. …
“But as far as the running game goes, we want to be more efficient. We will be. We’ve got to work through it, work at it. But really, it wasn’t, like, a massive problem. It was one thing that broke the play down. But we’ve got a lot of work to do, and I feel really good about the guys getting it done.”
2. If the Dolphins’ Cover 0-heavy blitz schemes are only as secure as their secondary’s weakest link, the Ravens could have a target in mind for Sunday.
In last season’s meeting, Dolphins cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Byron Jones — the sixth- and ninth-highest-paid corners in the NFL this year — played every defensive snap and helped hold Jackson to 238 yards, a touchdown and an interception on 26-for-43 passing.
This time around, the Dolphins still have Howard and rising-star safety Jevon Holland, who can line up as a slot corner. Fellow starting safety Brandon Jones also fared well in Week 1, getting the strip-sack on New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones that outside linebacker Melvin Ingram returned for a touchdown.
But the Dolphins don’t have Jones, who started the season on the reserve/physically-unable-to-perform list with an Achilles tendon injury. Starting in his place Sunday was Nik Needham, who allowed five completions on six targets for 93 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s far from inexperienced, having started 11 games over the past two seasons. But he played just four snaps in last year’s matchup.
3. The cat-and-mouse game between the Ravens’ offense and the Dolphins’ defense Sunday could be entertaining. As the Patriots’ Jones saw in Week 1, Miami can show a Cover 0 look before the snap and deliver on that promise with an all-out blitz. The Dolphins can also show a Cover 0 look, wait for the offense to audible into a more secure pass-blocking scheme, then back off the line before the snap and drop into a passive zone.
The Ravens have maintained this week that they’re better prepared for the kind of punches the Dolphins threw last season. But they’ll need to be prepared for Miami’s counterpunches, too.
“They play Cover 0, but they also play a lot of other things,” Roman said. “They want to show you ‘0,’ and they don’t [run it]. … So, yes, there’s definitely some layers to this. But it’s going to come down to preparation, communication and execution. So if we’re good in those areas, I like our chances.”
4. Roman didn’t wait long Sunday to show a new dimension in the Ravens’ attack. On their first play from scrimmage, Jackson faked a handoff to Drake and rolled out to his right, where he completed a short pass to wide receiver Rashod Bateman.
It wasn’t how the play unfolded that was novel, but how it started. Jackson had lined up under center, a departure from Roman’s shotgun- and pistol-heavy formation tendencies. On first and second down Sunday, the Ravens ran three pass plays from under center — Jackson went 3-for-3 for 30 yards — and had six under-center runs for 24 yards. According to Sports Info Solutions, they had just 14 drop-backs and 26 carries (excluding kneel-downs) from under center on early downs all last season.
“We can do a lot of stuff under center,” Roman said. “We did some of it this week, and there’ll be more of it to come. We’ve got to stay on top of what we’re doing under center, which we will — maybe set the hook on a few things.”
5. In his first game against the Ravens, in 2018, then-Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill had eight catches for 139 yards, including a miraculous 48-yarder on fourth-and-long late in the fourth quarter to keep Kansas City’s comeback hopes alive. In 2020, Hill had five catches for 77 yards and a touchdown in Baltimore, plus two runs for 25 yards.
Last year, the Ravens decided they’d seen enough. They double-teamed Hill often and shaded their coverage toward the six-time Pro Bowl selection, holding him to three catches on four targets for 14 yards — but leaving plenty of space elsewhere for quarterback Patrick Mahomes to carve up the Ravens’ secondary.
In Miami, Hill doesn’t have Mahomes throwing to him, tight end Travis Kelce lining up next to him or Andy Reid coaching him. He does have wide receiver Jaylen Waddle as a running mate, though. The No. 6 overall pick in last year’s draft, Waddle had 1,015 receiving yards as a rookie and started his season Sunday with a 42-yard catch-and-run score. The Ravens can’t double-team both.
“I think when you face a team like this, you have to really make sure you’re on your fundamentals, running out of the stacks, pursuit angles are good, communication in the back end, presnap and postsnap,” defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said Thursday. “So it’s been a big emphasis for us this week.”
6. The Ravens don’t just want communication on defense. They want “obnoxious” communication: everyone pointing, everyone talking, everyone calling out reads.
There wasn’t enough of that last season in Miami Gardens, Florida. The Dolphins’ two biggest gains came on coverage busts.
In the final minute of the first half, the Ravens had three zone defenders drop into coverage to quarterback Jacoby Brissett’s right, almost forming a line 10 yards wide. But as wide receiver Isaiah Ford ran a vertical route down that sideline, no one went with him. He was wide open for a 52-yard catch-and-run that set up a go-ahead field goal.
Late in the fourth quarter, with the Ravens trailing 15-10, they forgot to cover wide receiver Albert Wilson after he went in motion and zoomed up the left sideline. This time, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa found him unmarked for a 64-yard catch-and-run. A minute later, Tagovailoa put away the game with a touchdown run.
In Week 1, the Ravens’ defensive game plan looked far from vanilla. The shape the defense showed before the snap often changed at the snap. But safety Chuck Clark said afterward the unit was on the same page throughout the afternoon.
With Kyle Fuller lost for the season and fellow cornerbacks Brandon Stephens, Humphrey and Peters dealing with their own injuries, that cohesiveness might not come so naturally Sunday.
“The thing that I’m most pleased with is the sense of urgency from our guys about communication,” Macdonald said Thursday. “Not that it wasn’t there, but it really feels like the most buy-in we’ve felt in the sense of urgency to make calls since we got here over the last couple weeks. That’s something that we’re definitely harping on; it’s a point of emphasis. You always hear the saying, ‘A loud defense is a good defense,’ and that’s what we’re trying to be.”
7. Tagovailoa was one of the NFL’s most accurate quarterbacks against zone coverage last season ― 72.4% against Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover 4 and Cover 6 shells, according to SIS ― but far from one of the most efficient. Seven of his 10 interceptions in 2021, and just three of his 16 touchdowns, came against zone looks.
In their first year with Macdonald as coordinator, the Ravens could play more zone than they ever did under predecessor Don “Wink” Martindale, who favored aggressive, man-to-man looks. Jets quarterback Joe Flacco saw a majority of zone coverages in Week 1, finishing 21-for-29 for 183 yards and an interception (74.4 passer rating).
8. The Ravens have won six straight home openers, outscoring opponents by a combined 181-78 in those games. The Ravens are also 13-1 in home openers under coach John Harbaugh and 20-4 at M&T Bank Stadium in September since 2008, the NFL’s best home winning percentage in that span. A win Sunday would be the 150th of Harbaugh’s career, including postseason victories.
9. How important would a win Sunday be? Of the 262 teams that have started 2-0 since 1990, 165 (63%) ended up making the playoffs, according to CBS Sports. Teams that started 2-0 have also won 20 of the past 32 Super Bowls, including the 2000 Ravens.
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 3 1/2