The off-season of our discontent is finally nearing its end. From a blustery night January night in Buffalo that featured Lamar laying in a heap on the turf at Rich Stadium (it will always be Rich Stadium to me) to a devastating injury to close out the pre-season; things certainly haven’t been boring. With the 3 game pre-season schedule now mercifully in the books (and the winning streak still intact), we’re on the eve of the 2021 NFL season and the boys in purple are just a few days away from taking the field in Las Vegas. I figured now would be a good time to unload the brain a bit before the regular season gets under way.
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- There has already been a bunch of discussion about the JK Dobbins injury, which has now been compounded by the Justice Hill injury. Like just about all Ravens fans, and NFL fans at large for that matter, I expected a big season from Dobbins this and I’m certainly disappointed that he won’t suit up in 2021. With that said, I firmly believe that Roman’s system, combined with the Lamar factor, can overcome the loss of Dobbins. In Lamar Jackson’s 2 seasons as starter, he’s accounted for just under 30% of the total carries and been the team’s leading rusher in each of those seasons. The other constant in the running game over the last couple of years has been Gus Edwards. He has accounted for roughly 25% of the total carries and notched a career average of 5.2 yards per carry. What carries remained have been handled by the likes of Mark Ingram, JK Dobbins, Justice Hill, various jet sweeps and backup QB scrambles. With Ingram, Dobbins and Hill not in the picture this year, the Ravens will lean on Ty’Son Williams and a running back to be named later; maybe even LeVeon Bell at some point? I believe that Roman will increase Edwards’ workload somewhat, to where he sees 35ish% of the carries. Ty’Son Williams output will be predicated upon his production. I think it will be a wait and see type of approach with how he handles NFL caliber defenses. There will certainly be questions for Williams to answer, vis-à-vis ball security, decision making, getting in sync with Lamar on RPO plays, blitz pick up, etc. If Williams can answer these questions and perform along the lines of how he did in the pre-season, the rushing attack shouldn’t miss a beat.
- I don’t want to want to sound like I’m drunk on purple Kool-Aid but the latest installment of the Ravens defense could be one of the best in franchise history. I won’t equate their potential to the 2000 defense because the current defense is a completely different style than the 2000 edition. Arguably the best defense of all time, the Ravens defense of 2000 thrived on discipline; being where you were supposed to be and trusting that the man on either side of you would do the same. On the other hand, the 2021 defense will be a lot more reminiscent of the 2006 Rex Ryan led, “Organize Chaos” defense. We already know that current defensive coordinator Wink Martindale (who has been referred to as the 3rd Ryan brother) likes to bring blitz pressure from every angle and from every level of the defense. In order to do this, you need outstanding players in the secondary. The 2006 Ravens had Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle at corner, along with Dawan Landry and a guy named Ed Reed at safety. The 2021 Ravens secondary may not have an all-time great in their midst but I would argue that they’re deeper than the ’06 secondary. Humphrey, Peters, Young, Smith, Clark and Elliott are maybe the deepest secondary in the league. The 2006 club had veteran Trevor Pryce lead the team with 13 sacks. The 2021 club could see a similar impact from veterans Justin Houston and Pernell McPhee. The ’06 team saw sack contributions from a linebacking trio of Adalius Thomas, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs (and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention edge setter extraordinaire, Jarret Johnson). The ’21 team has a trio that consists of “veteran” Tyus Bowser and youngsters Odafe Oweh and Daelin Hayes that could have an impact comparable to the crew from ’06. The 2006 defensive line had rookie Haloti Ngata to go with an established vet in Kelly Gregg, along with depth from Justin Bannan and Aubrayo Franklin. The 2021 defensive front is likely better from a talent standpoint with veterans Williams, Campbell and Wolfe. Plus, the team is expecting big things from 2nd year player Justin Madubuike. The 2006 defense was number 1 in the league in several categories, most importantly, fewest points against. Baltimore was a 13-3, division winner and number 2 seed on the backs of the Organized Chaos defense in 2006. With their throw caution to the wind, attacking style, along with a deep roster, the Ravens 2021 defense is capable of carrying the club on its back, if it should be called upon to do so.
- My last bullet point will be some random predictions for the upcoming season. I may get them right, I may get them wrong but these are things that I just have a feeling about. In no particular order, here we go:
- The Ravens will finally get past the Chiefs at some point this season. It may be in Week 2 at The Bank or perhaps in January but Baltimore will exorcise that demon.
- While we’re on the topic of demons to be exorcised, the Ravens will finally have a home grown player establish himself as a legit #1 wide receiver. Rashod Bateman will likely take a few weeks to get up speed upon his return but as Buck Showalter liked to say, “Delayed doesn’t mean denied.”
- I can’t buy into the Cleveland Browns as a division winner yet. This sentiment is opposed to many in the national media, who have anointed the Browns as pre-season AFC North champs but color me skeptical. The Browns benefitted from the new coach’s first season bump last year, a relatively weak schedule (22nd in the league) and still finished 3rd behind the Ravens (who swept them) and division winning Steelers. Albeit, they defeated Pittsburgh in the playoffs before falling in the divisional round. The Browns are certainly on much better footing than they’ve been at any point since their franchise re-birth in 1999 but they will still be hard pressed to capture the AFC North in 2021.
- On the subject of AFC North foes, I think this may finally be Mike Tomlin’s first sub .500 as Pittsburgh’s head coach. An aging Roethlisberger behind an unsettled offensive line that will lean on youth at running back could spell disaster for the Steelers offense as a whole. The Pittsburgh defense is improved at inside linebacker with the return of Devin Bush and they will be strong on the edge with game wrecker TJ Watt and veteran Melvin Ingram. However, they’re weak at secondary and will be expecting a lot from an aging Joe Haden. The defense could be tested quite a bit if the Steelers cannot re-establish a rushing attack that has long been a major part of their identity. Also, the Steelers will face the league’s toughest schedule (as ranked by opponent’s ’20 win %). Granted, the Ravens have the 2nd hardest schedule by the same metric but a more balanced and deeper roster to combat it.
In a few short days, the Ravens will face their first test of 2021 when they square off against the Raiders at shiny new Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. Needless to say, we’ll be waiting all week for Monday night.
Jamie has been a Baltimore sports fan since he can remember. He grew up in Gwynn Oak and currently resides in Hampstead with his wife and 2 kids. He graduated from UMBC with a Bachelor of Arts in History. He’s currently employed at Verizon Communications in Hunt Valley.