The Ravens have made improvements heading into the 2022 season, but not enough to make a deep run in the playoffs.
Well, not yet anyway.
A lot of the same problems that have plagued this team in recent years still exist, such as an inconsistent pass rush, the lack of a sophisticated passing game, the absence of a legitimate No. 1 receiver and an inaccurate quarterback.
But if several key players return from season-ending injuries and some young players develop, this season can become very interesting. More so than recent ones, anyway.
The Ravens’ formula for success hasn’t changed. They have to control the tempo of the game with a dominant running game, because if they fall behind, they can’t keep pace with highly explosive offenses — especially in the postseason.
But the dynamics change if second-year outside linebacker Odafe Oweh becomes more of a pass-rushing threat and rookie David Ojabo, recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, can contribute in the final quarter of the season.
At Michigan, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Ojabo showed the physical attributes and pass-rushing moves necessary to become a star. Now, the Ravens just have to get him on the field without jeopardizing his future. And if Tyus Bowser, also attempting a comeback from a torn Achilles, can be as steady as he was last season when he led the team with seven sacks, the Ravens have the personnel in place.
The guarantee for 2022 is that the Ravens won’t have the worst secondary in the league again. They won’t be giving up big plays because they acquired one of the top safeties in the NFL through free agency in Marcus Williams and drafted a potential star at the position with their top pick in Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton.
Last year, the Ravens brought in street free agents to play cornerback because they were so decimated by injuries. But they are hoping Marlon Humphrey (torn pectoral) and Marcus Peters (torn ACL), one of the top tandems in the league, have recovered from injuries. They’ve also added veteran Kyle Fuller and rookie Jalyn Armour-Davis to provide quality depth.
Because of their surplus of talent, the Ravens’ defense will give opposing offenses multiple looks, but here’s the rub: You can have Deion Sanders and Rod Woodson as your starting cornerbacks, but if you give a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers time, those quarterbacks will eventually rip a defense apart.
Maybe the Ravens re-sign outside linebacker Justin Houston (4 1/2 sacks in 2021), but no matter what, Oweh, Ojabo and even second-year outside linebacker Daelin Hayes need to develop quickly.
Offensively, the key is quarterback Lamar Jackson. Unfortunately, Jackson thinks he is in the class of the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes or the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen as a passer, which he isn’t. That’s probably why contract negotiations have stalled.
Jackson eventually wants to throw more, but the Ravens know that he is limited and want to stick with offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s scheme. Jackson had a news conference full of contradictions Thursday, which must have irritated coach John Harbaugh, who has preached a message of tighter bonding this season.
But Jackson is a runner first and a passer second, and his presence alone makes the running game better because he is such an outside threat. If both running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards return healthy after missing all of last season with knee injuries, the Ravens again will have one of the most feared rushing attacks in the league.
On the offensive line, tackle play has improved from a year ago with the additions of Morgan Moses and Ja’Wuan James, who are both more athletic than former starter Alejandro Villanueva. Inside, the Ravens have Kevin Zeitler at right guard and rookie Tyler Linderbaum, who will eventually need to add some weight, at center. Left guard will be a weakness again because two of the top candidates, Ben Powers and Ben Cleveland, are both stiff and don’t bend extremely well.
If Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley returns from an ankle injury that has caused him major problems the past two seasons, the Ravens will have a powerful run-blocking unit. But their pass blocking remains suspect.
The same can be said about the entire passing game.
Jackson struggled reading blitzes off the perimeter last year and always locked on to tight end Mark Andrews in crucial situations. It’s great to have a go-to guy, but it’s also good to have a second option like the Chiefs had in tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill.
Second-year receiver Rashod Bateman has to step up for the Ravens and become the No. 2 option as a No. 1 receiver. The offensive line has to improve its pass blocking and young receivers Devin Duvernay and James Proche II need to improve because Baltimore isn’t a destination for top-notch free-agent receivers.
It’s a lot of “ifs,” but that’s what 2022 has become for Baltimore. The Ravens need key players to return from injuries and young players to develop. To win a Super Bowl, a lot of things have to fall into place, especially for a team as limited as this one.
But that’s what makes this season more interesting than most.