With a 16-10 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday Night Football, the Baltimore Ravens are once again in possession of the AFC’s top seed. The Ravens have an 8-3 record, half of a game ahead of the 8-4 New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans.
While having the top seed is excellent as the calendar turns to December, Baltimore is in a precarious spot with its upcoming schedule. Despite having the top spot, they are only 2.5 games away from 12th place in the conference (Browns at 6-6). What will the Ravens need to do to hold onto that top spot?
Lamar Jackson Needs to Figure It Out
When Lamar Jackson walked out of M&T Bank Stadium after Baltimore’s Week 5 win over the Indianapolis Colts, he was perhaps the king of the NFL. He was an MVP front-runner. He could reliably be found in the top tier of quarterback lists. However, he has been nothing short of a disaster since that moment.
Since Week 6 began, Jackson is tied for the lowest graded passer with a minimum of 100 dropbacks. He has six big-time throws in five games compared to nine turnover-worthy plays. In this time, he has an abysmal 71.4 passer rating with weak performances in completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown percentage, and interception percentage.
At a certain point, Jackson has been so poor that even the things he does well begin to dissipate. Escaping from sacks is a great trait, but if he’s going to target a defensive back, what is the point? Why bother picking up a first down with your legs if you are just going to loft a ball to a linebacker on the next play?
Jackson must be held responsible for an extended stretch of being one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL. Every quarterback has a bad game from time to time; Jackson has had five in a row. He must be better or the Ravens could quickly find themselves at 8-9.
Keep It Up, Defense
Heading into their Week 8 bye, the Ravens had a questionable defense. They had allowed 400 yards in four different games and had let three teams score at least 33 points. Since the bye, the Ravens have become one of the premier defenses in the NFL.
They have allowed just 19 points per game, going 3-1 in the stretch. This total is exaggerated slightly as the Minnesota Vikings (kick return touchdown) and Miami Dolphins (fumble return touchdown) tacked on non-offensive points, but the Ravens have improved dramatically since the bye.
In particular, Patrick Queen has been playing at a reasonable level. Early in the season, Queen was one of the worst players in the NFL. Queen has been playing a more natural weak-side linebacker position in Baltimore’s 3-4 scheme. Similarly, Josh Bynes has played well in Queen’s old role. Both players are now able to make more plays and be out of position less often.
In the offseason, Baltimore let two key pass rushers go: Yannick Ngakoue and Matt Judon. This left much of the pass-rushing load on the shoulders of Tyus Bowser. Bowser has not been as productive as either Ngakoue or Judon, but keep in mind that he has only rushed on 58.7% of passing downs he has been on the field for.
Judon is over 80% and Ngakoue has not had a coverage snap. All told, Bowser leads the trio in overall defensive grade, run defense grade, pass-rush grade, and coverage grade. When contextualized, his pressure rate compares favorably to both Judon and Ngakoue. The three play different roles for their teams, but Bowser has been a tremendous surprise for Baltimore.
Ironically, Justin Houston has an identical overall defensive grade to Bowser as the duo has proven to be effective on the edge. Rookie Odafe Oweh leads the team with 40 pressures and a trio of forced fumbles. Calais Campbell has been a superstar on the interior, earning an 83.1 run defense grade and forcing 26 pressures.
With the loss of Marcus Peters before the season and the trade of Shaun Wade to the Patriots, the Ravens have had a random assortment of cornerbacks in 2021. Marlon Humphrey has not been quite as good as he was in 2019 and 2020, and Anthony Averett is among the league leaders in yards allowed. Chris Westry showed flashes in his first game, but he then missed a chunk of the season. Jimmy Smith is not a consistent on-field presence. Tavon Young has had his moments, but the most important thing is that he has been healthy.
The safety room has been a mixed bag. Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott are solid players, but they would both be deployed as strong safeties in a perfect world. Elliott, now injured, was not good enough of an athlete to play the traditional Earl Thomas free safety role. Brandon Stephens has occasionally been deployed in this role, but he is a rookie and prone to coverage busts.
As a whole, the secondary is holding (no pun intended) for its life most weeks. Defensive coordinator Don Martindale has asked the secondary to be less perfect as he has toned down his heavy-blitzing packages, but Humphrey, Young, and Averett/Smith have some of the hardest jobs in the NFL.
Baltimore is 8-3. They hold tiebreakers over the likes of the 6-6 Colts, 6-5 Los Angeles Chargers, and 6-5 Denver Broncos. They also control their destiny for both the top seed and the AFC North. With a win over the Cincinnati Bengals in a few weeks, the Ravens would be nearly insurmountable.
FiveThirtyEight projects that the Ravens have a 91% chance to make the playoffs heading into Week 13. If they were to knock off the Bengals in Week 16, their odds would jump to 97% with an 87% chance to win the division. Even if the Ravens finish 2-4 in their last six games, they are overwhelmingly likely to make the playoffs.
The Ravens do not play a below-.500 team the rest of the season. The “easiest” matchups are a trio of games against .500 divisional opponents. In Week 13, the Ravens head to Heinz Field to play the 5-5-1 Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers just got embarrassed by the Bengals, so this could be a reverse statement game for the Steelers.
The following week, the Ravens head to Cleveland. The Browns are coming off a bye, and they played the Ravens in Week 12 (one of the weirder schedule quirks in recent memory). The last of this trio is Steelers-Ravens in Week 18. In between, the Ravens host the 9-3 Green Bay Packers in Week 15, head to the 7-4 Bengals in Week 16, and host the 7-4 Los Angeles Rams in Week 17. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Ravens are favored in four of six games with both the Packers and Bengals getting the nod in pick ’em games.
The Ravens desperately need Jackson to return to his early-season form for the final stretch of the season. Even if the Steelers and Browns are worse teams than Baltimore from a personnel perspective, all divisional games are difficult to win. Jackson will need to be at his best.
Don’t forget to check out the OTH Football Podcast on Spotify and YouTube!