The opening week of the 2021 NFL season is nearing its conclusion. The beginning of the new campaign has already been defined by dramatic games and intriguing storylines. As always, this tendency is highly likely to continue through the next stages of the year.
Week One is scheduled to be rounded up with the first Monday Night Football game of 2021. ESPN’s choice for this landmark occurrence of the broadcast calendar resembles a showdown that could defy the expectations. As of the time of writing, Baltimore is favored by Caesars Sportsbook to win by four points on the road at Las Vegas. The Raiders’ home opener will be the first matchup with fans at their new home, Allegiant Stadium.
Upon further review, this game could end up closer than experts anticipate. An outcome different from the current projections would be unexpected but hardly surprising. That is given the noticeable problems within the Ravens’ roster that could be here to stay.
Drastic Raven Changes
Baltimore’s offense was very lopsided last year. The unit was notoriously unbalanced, with the extent of success of the air raid and the running stable differing starkly. However, the Ravens’ attack underwent notable changes during the 2021 offseason that could end up pushing the group towards different outcomes. But that might not be for the better.
On the one hand, the Ravens’ ground-game faction has been known as a force to be reckoned with for the last few years. More specifically, the team has finished with the most produced yards on the ground for each of the last two campaigns. Moreover, the unit finished its latest effort with 5.5 yards per rush, a figure which was on par with the stable’s production in 2019.
That span happens to not be accidentally focused on – it overlaps with Lamar Jackson‘s tenure as a regular NFL starting quarterback. The former first-round pick has been in his element running the ball for the Ravens. Jackson was amongst Baltimore’s two most-used runners in each of the past two years. Furthermore, the Louisville alum holds an average of 6.0 yards per attempt across his three-year NFL career.
Lamar’s efficiency on the ground has often turned out to be a challenge that can hardly be dealt with. Jackson resembles everything that NFL teams are not used to facing. That has made with a tremendous, and significant, piece of a running faction, alongside the likes of Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins.
However, the focus on his identity as a run-threat promised to take hostage his passing capabilities from the very moment he was drafted in 2018. In fact, that component was even more problematic during his period as a Cardinal. For the Kentucky-based program, Jackson spent three years, completing less than 60 percent of his throws in each campaign.
The transition to the professional game that ensued was slightly less woeful than expected. Lamar Jackson even turned in a near 2:1 accuracy ratio across his second year. In the following campaign, that number fell to 64%, on a lighter workload. Of course, while neither figure is abysmal, they are hurt by a discrediting sample. Most notably, during the 2020 NFL season, the Ravens threw the ball less than any other team in the league. Moreover, the Ravens’ playmaker finished 24th in passing attempts, about 300 throws behind Matt Ryan‘s league-leading number.
Baltimore’s reluctance towards using him through the air indicates even the Ravens acknowledge this issue. But as long as the running group was at its best, this would barely be alarming. That is especially amid the resurgence of Dobbins and Gus Edwards, who put on averages near 5.0 behind Jackson. Both backs registered more than 140 carries.
Worryingly, that luxury will be unavailable to Lamar Jackson through the entirety of the 2021 season. Early on this week, the team lost the services of, amongst others, Edwards after a torn ACL. This piece of news came just less than a fortnight after Dobbins’s campaign-thumping injury was announced. Potential candidates to fill the openings include Ty’Son Williams, Latavius Murray, and Le’Veon Bell. Discouragingly, Williams has not played a single snap as an NFLer. Meanwhile, the latter duo has been far from what Jackson’s reinforcements brought to the table in 2019 and 2020.
All signs point to a dramatic downturn in the Ravens’ productivity on the ground. This, in turn, could mean a shift in the play selection to the pass. Both Jackson’s collegiate track record and the coaching staff’s unwillingness to utilize him in that role show that a decrease for the air raid and the offense overall might be bound. To help limit the damage, Ravens’ general manager Eric DeCosta added an upgrade to the receiving corps in former Chiefs pass-catcher Sammy Watkins. At the same time, Willie Snead departed from that same group to join the team’s opening week opponent.
Marquise Brown and Devin Duvernay round up the pool of starters at the position, while James Proche could be an undercover candidate to break out. Mark Andrews has also developed chemistry with Jackson. Meanwhile, the offensive line was also very heavily invested in. Still, this core is not in any way deep and stacked, and might not be enough to make up for Lamar’s throwing woes. It seems like the offensive output could be an issue for the squad beyond their Week-One visit to Allegiant Stadium.
Tough Matchups Upcoming
While the Ravens’ running unit does not face an unbeatable opponent, the same cannot be said about the air raid.
On Monday, Baltimore will travel to Nevada to go up against one of the league’s ten worst defenses against the run last year. Across the 2020 season, the Raiders allowed 4.6 yards per rushing attempt, the ninth-highest mark in the NFL. However, the club’s front office took major steps towards stabilizing this struggling group. Notable moves included the additions of such assets as Johnathan Hankins and K.J. Wright. Furthermore, while LV’s woes against the rush could open the door for Lamar Jackson’s genius, there is little to no depth behind him, as already mentioned.
Yet, things are far worse in terms of moving the ball through the air. Last winter, the Raiders’ secondary turned in a contradicting performance. The unit ended up conceding the 11th-lowest completion percentage. At the same time, the club was Bottom Ten in both (fewest) total air yards and (allowed lowest) passer rating. This could be an indication that the group was exceptionally mediocre against the long ball. If that was indeed the case, it was another issue addressed during Vegas’s 2021 offseason campaign.
Most notably, the team brought in former Charger and Packer Casey Hayward Jr. on a one-year deal worth $2.5 million. Heyward has surrendered a passer rating of around 93.0 or lower in each of his last three seasons, facing at least 48 targets in coverage on each occasion.
Therefore, the Las Vegas Raiders’ passing defense could likely be bound for a successful 2021 campaign. The ceiling of this unit, also consisting of third-year outside corner Trayvon Mullen and Johnathan Abram, is set promisingly high. Subsequently, should it start on a high note, it provides a truly difficult matchup for the unreliable Ravens air attack.
However, the opposition is not tough only for Baltimore’s offense. Similar to the offense, the two primary groups within the defense have also become weaknesses heading into 2021. Should their downfall continue, they could be in for an even harder task on Monday Night Football.
Firstly, the Ravens’ embarrassing rushing defense faced a Raiders ground-game stable with hopes of resurgence. The leader of the pack, former first-round pick Josh Jacobs, experienced a shocking downturn during his sophomore year as a pro. His production last winter fell to 3.9 Y/C from 4.8 Y/C, over an identical sample. The upcoming season or two could showcase his real identity on the professional level.
His faction faces a Ravens run defense, which finished the 2020 NFL season in the same position as Las Vegas. The only significant newcomer to that group is former Colts linebacker Justin Houston. However, he focused more on his duties as an edge-rusher in Indy. This trend is beyond possible to carry onto Maryland as the Ravens seek to replace the production lost in Matt Judon‘s departure to New England. Moreover, the putout of Malik Harrison, who started just six games across his rookie campaign, should define the degree of improvement within the Ravens’ run D. However, he is difficult to bet on as a guarantee to dominate across a full campaign until further notice.
Also, the Raiders’ air raid, one of the most overperforming in the recent few seasons, is set to face a shorthanded Baltimore secondary. The AFC North ballclub allowed the seventh-lowest collective passer rating last season. However, the loss of cornerback Marcus Peters to an ACL injury is a discouraging hit. Against them will be an air raid, which ranked inside the Top Ten in completion percentage and had a team rating north of 100.0.
The Problems Are Here To Stay
Key injuries towards the end of the team’s preseason preparation have pushed the Ravens into worrying territory. The club’s losses will be an issue not just in the first-ever game with fans in attendance at Allegiant Stadium. More precisely, these subtractions have amounted to significant downgrades in Baltimore’s biggest strengths from last year. That tendency has only been coupled with limited upgrades during free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft.
A forced shift in the offense’s play selection could prove right Lamar Jackson’s critics, jeopardizing the unit’s turnout for the entirety of the 2021 NFL season. Despite the continued improvement of their AFC rival, the Raiders could very well be set to expose dire problems that could haunt Baltimore for the remainder of the league year.
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