Regular season football is literally starting today! We made it through a long offseason, we made it through the dog days of Training Camp, we made it through literally the longest preseason in Ravens history. We are finally ready to kick off some real football! With their long preseason after their busy offseason, the Ravens had several questions heading into this preseason. Questions like “Will the Ravens carry 3 QBs?” and “Will an undrafted rookie still make this team?” and “Will we STILL keep Breshad Perriman around?” have already been answered. But, as is customary with every preseason, there are still a lot of mysteries with this team. When you are trying to keep your starters healthy and keep your game plans close to the vest, some of those questions just can’t be answered with fake football games.
So here’s a look at the Top 5 questions still hovering over the 2018 Baltimore Ravens:
Will the Passing Game Improve?
It was clear in the moves made in free agency and the draft this year: Ozzie Newsome wanted his swan song offseason to be a retool of the offense. He began by cleaning house, figuratively speaking, at WR with the releases/losses of all WRs except for Perriman (who eventually lost his spot anyway) and Chris Moore. On the final 53 man roster, there’s just ONE WR who has caught any passes for the Ravens in other seasons (Chris Moore). The team also looked to address the TE group as well, letting last year’s top TE go in Ben Watson. We then brought in 7 new offensive skill players at WR and TE to improve the weapons for Joe Flacco.
While the early reviews of these WRs and TEs were promising, we haven’t gotten much of a glimpse of them in preseason, as the Ravens kept their snaps low to conserve health. So, when the Ravens step onto the field on Sunday to play the Bills, we will still hold our breath to see if Flacco will have a stronger connection with his new targets, or if this is Jeremy Maclin all over again. He got a good amount of work in with them during camp, but going against a live defense could expose more communication or timing issues. We just hope things like that will be at a minimum, and pass quickly.
What Group Starts on the Offensive Line?
The Ravens were fortunate last year to find answers to holes at RT and C midway through the preseason, with Ryan Jensen winning the C job, and Austin Howard being signed as a cap casualty from the Raiders. But a year later, the Ravens found themselves again with holes at C and RT with Jensen’s departure and Howard’s release. James Hurst was re-signed as a G/T depth/starter, Alex Lewis returned from his injury from last year, Matt Skura (who lost the C battle last season) returned as the defacto leader at C, Nico Siragusa and Jermaine Eluemunor returned as 2017 draft picks developed into 2nd year players, and the Ravens drafted three new offensive linemen in Orlando Brown Jr, Greg Senat, and Bradley Bozeman.
We know Yanda and Stanley will line up at RG and LT, respectively. But for the rest of the spots, the Ravens were clearly trying different combinations and looks during the offseason to see who fit best. Orlando Brown Jr. looked to have all but locked up the RT spot with a fantastic preseason, but the Ravens official depth chart lists him only as 2nd string, with Hurst (who played as RG all summer) sliding into the RT spot. Skura didn’t seem to wow anyone with his play at C, while Bozeman earned a spot due to strong play in the middle, but Skura remains the starter for now. Alex Lewis spent time at both C and LG, but will start at LG seemingly. These moves leave many fans a bit nervous as to the performance of that Offensive Line. Hurst hasn’t played RT all summer and Yanda will also be shaking a bit of rust off. If Skura and Lewis struggle at their spots, and Hurst and Yanda aren’t in lock step, it might not matter too much if the WRs and Joe are on the same page. The Offensive Line has to step up and be solid if the Ravens have any hope of improving. Also, a player like Brown Jr would seem destined to get his chance to start at some point. When would the Ravens decide to switch him in, and how might they reshuffle the line at that point?
How Strong Will the Secondary Be Without Jimmy?
The Ravens have built a fairly strong secondary group over the last few seasons. The nightmares of turning to guys like Dominique Franks, Asa Jackson, and Chykie Brown when our starters get hurt are thankfully becoming distant memories. The Ravens have spent some significant draft capital over the past few offseasons to rebuild our CB depth, and with Jimmy Smith’s history as of late, one can see why. Jimmy’s last full season was 2015, so we have several players ready to step up in his place. But how strong will this secondary be in the 4 games it will have to survive without him? Brandon Carr is impressively healthy and has his own “Iron Man” style streak going, but has showed time and time again that he CAN’T be put up against the #1 WR and hope to even slow them down. Marlon Humphrey seems the most likely candidate to go after WR1, but he’s just a 2nd year player and it remains to seen if he will have a sophomore slump. Tavon Young is back from injury, but we don’t know yet how much that injury will change his quality of play as the Slot CB. The Ravens added to their depth by drafting Alabama CB Anthony Averett this year, but all these pieces are going to have to find ways to shut down the strong WRs of the Bengals, Steelers, and Broncos before Jimmy can return. Can this secondary lift this defense into a Top 5 performance, or will opponents be able to target some of the lesser CBs and take advantage of Jimmy’s suspension?
Who Will Return Kicks/Punts for the Ravens?
This one has been *semi* answered with Janarion Grant winning the battle in preseason over Tim White, but his play didn’t exactly wow anyone and he more won the job by default. The NFL made some changes to the kickoff rules in the offseason, which should allow for better runbacks. That said, if Grant fails to post strong returns midway through the season, this could be a spot John Harbaugh and Jerry Rosburg decide to shake up the roster and give someone else a chance. Jordan Lasley and Willie Snead are both listed as further return depth, as well as Chris Moore, but we didn’t see any of them get preseason return opportunities. For a team that prides itself on strong Special Teams play, the Ravens need someone to step up and truly earn that returner job.
How Will Lamar Jackson Be Used?
The Ravens choice to carry a 3rd QB for the first time since 2010 in Robert Griffin III shows that they aren’t quite ready for Lamar Jackson to step into the starting QB job if Flacco is injured. However, it also gives them the flexibility to use Lamar Jackson in more creative ways, knowing if he does get hurt, it won’t take out the only other healthy QB on the roster. Lamar got an extended audition in preseason to show how well he could be strictly as a QB, and while he had some initial rust spots, he also showed progress, in addition to his blazing quickness.
While they didn’t run any 2 QB plays in the preseason for obvious reasons, fans heard tales of increased practice of formations where Flacco handed off to Lamar, or Lamar took a direct snap as a RB in the backfield, and even times where one QB leaked out of the backfield as a receiver. While trick plays are generally a desperation move for an offense, Jackson’s natural quickness and agility could be a major asset, and Ravens fans are anxious to see if the team rolls out these “Wildcat” packages in the regular season. This Ravens offense hasn’t had any particular exciting players in many seasons, and Lamar Jackson’s abilities leave fans hungry, waiting for him to break some big run or make a big throw on the run to generate some hype and clips. Or, the Ravens could choose to treat Lamar as purely a QB and go with more of a base offense to keep their rookie 1st round draft pick healthy and sitting on the bench behind RG3. Either way, it will be interesting to see if and when the Ravens choose to play that Ace card that they are clearly holding onto for the right moment.