Three years ago, before their offense had leapt into the NFL’s stratosphere, the Ravens entered their bye week in late October on a high. A three-game winning streak had launched the team into first place in the AFC North, putting the stench of an uneven first month even further behind it.
Upon their return to action in Week 9, a stiff test awaited quarterback Lamar Jackson and those 2019 Ravens. The New England Patriots entered the matchup in Baltimore with an 8-0 record and one of the league’s best defenses. Before a national “Sunday Night Football” audience, the Ravens didn’t settle for a win; they delivered a smackdown, rolling up 372 yards and four offensive touchdowns in a 37-20 victory that hinted at what was to come over the next two months.
“I feel like our team already knew what we were capable of,” Jackson said afterward. “We just had to show it, and we did that tonight.”
The 2022 Ravens returned to practice this week on a similar trajectory. Their Week 9 win over the New Orleans Saints was their third straight. At 6-3, they’re heavy favorites to knock off the Cincinnati Bengals for the division title. And their roster depth — except, of course, at wide receiver — only seems to grow with every passing week, bolstered by the team’s improving health and wised-up rookie class.
The more these Ravens win, the more inevitable the comparisons to those Ravens will become. An accommodating second-half schedule, starting Sunday against the rebuilding Panthers (3-7), has only stirred up hypotheticals about just how easily the team might glide into the playoffs. If the Ravens’ win over New England in 2019 became that offense’s launchpad, a Week 11 home game against a battered and beaten-up Carolina defense could herald a similar onslaught.
“I’ve always been excited about what the offense can do, but I do know that we have a lot of work to do,” coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. “We’re just in a situation where we’re trying to get better at everything all the time. Every game is kind of its own different kind of an entity. We’re chasing execution, we’re trying to be efficient with everything we do, run and pass. We kind of know what he have to work on, and try to apply it to the game plan and the defense that we’re facing, and within all that, try to improve every week.”
In some ways, this Ravens offense entered its bye week in a better place than did the 2019 unit that would rewrite the franchise’s record books. They’ve been more efficient, according to Football Outsiders’ metrics. They’ve been more balanced, though the loss of top wide receiver Rashod Bateman to a season-ending foot injury has weakened the passing attack. And, maybe most promisingly, they’ve yet to get the best of their superstar quarterback.
Jackson’s accuracy through nine games (62.3%) would be the lowest of his career as a full-time starter. So would his yards per pass attempt (6.9). His scrambling success has dipped (7.3 yards per carry), even as his ability on designed runs remains as brilliant as ever. After the Ravens’ win over the Saints, in which Jackson passed for fewer than 180 yards for the fourth time this season, he was asked about his focus during the bye week.
“The same thing I’ve been focusing on: everything,” he said. “I can’t sleep on our opponents; we haven’t won the Super Bowl yet. We have to keep taking it one game at a time, a play at a time.”
In 2019, Jackson had one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, a deep running back room, a lightly regarded receiving corps headlined by its tight ends and a creative run-game designer in coordinator Greg Roman. Three years later, this Ravens offense, for better or for worse, profiles as a doppelganger.
The next eight weeks will prove whether that’s enough to hang in a conference teeming with offensive heavyweights. During Jackson’s 2019 run to NFL Most Valuable Player honors, he more than made do. Despite only minor personnel changes on offense, Jackson ended the year on an historic tear.
Over the regular season’s final nine weeks, the Ravens’ running game remained one of the NFL’s best; it was the passing attack that took off. Jackson improved his pre-bye-week accuracy from 63.3% to 69.4% after the bye. His passing-touchdown rate jumped from 5.1% to 13.4%, while his interception rate fell from 2.3% to 0.5%. Every five drop-backs by Jackson were worth about two points in terms of expected points added, according to TruMedia, a staggering level of efficiency.
These Ravens have hit those highs only occasionally this season. But there are structural advantages in place: a more mature Jackson; a more diverse running game; a more accomplished receiving corps, led by All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews.
“As a team, I think we’re on the upward trend,” tight end Nick Boyle said Wednesday. “I think players are just getting used to their roles, are understanding their roles. And Lamar’s playing at an MVP level, and he’s awesome out there. … So I think it’s just a team all coming together and just understanding their role and kind of meshing, you know what I mean? And even the games we’ve lost, there were so many good things in those games.”
“The more things you can do, the more options you open up for anyone,” right guard Kevin Zeitler said. “You never know what we’re going to do; we don’t even know half the time.”
The Ravens’ biggest help might come from their schedule. According to Football Outsiders, they’ll face four of the NFL’s eight worst defenses down the stretch: Carolina (No. 25) on Sunday, the Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 27) in Week 12, the Cleveland Browns (No. 31) in Week 15 and the Atlanta Falcons (No. 30) in Week 16.
Even the biggest roadblocks for the Ravens’ offense are somewhat weakened; the Denver Broncos (No. 4) will be without star pass rusher Bradley Chubb when they visit Baltimore in Week 13, having traded him to the Miami Dolphins two weeks ago. The Cincinnati Bengals (No. 10) lost star cornerback Chidobe Awuzie to a season-ending ACL injury last month, and top defensive tackle DJ Reader is returning from a torn MCL.
For now, the Ravens’ focus is on Carolina — and on themselves. Zeitler said the Ravens have been made “very aware” of their strengths and their shortcomings. The bye week offered the team a respite, and on Sunday comes another measuring stick. Along the offensive line, Zeitler’s noticed gradual improvement from week to week, an elite unit slowly but surely coming together. On the offense, there’s hope in finding a similar, familiar path.
“We had a lot of ups and downs the first six weeks of the season and then won three straight,” Jackson said. “Then our guys get to rest their bodies and get ready for this long journey we’re about to have. So I feel like [the bye week] came at the right time. Guys are still locked in; we just had a great practice today. So I feel like we’re moving up the ramp how we’re supposed to.”
Panthers at Ravens
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 45
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 12 1/2