For all the highlight-reel plays produced by Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ record-setting offense last season — including his 47-yard spin-move touchdown run at Cincinnati that head coach John Harbaugh said will be watched “for decades and decades” — one prevailing image has haunted the Ravens all offseason: Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry running over them, through them and by them in a stunning divisional round upset.
That 28-12 Ravens loss spoiled the most successful regular season in franchise history, with a 14-2 record, a 12-game winning streak and a runaway AFC North title led by Jackson, who capped a record-setting offensive performance with league Most Valuable Player honors.
The loss also appears to have informed the Ravens’ offseason strategy.
Every team has its agenda every offseason, as coaches and the front office can detach from the weekly grind and assess and address the team’s flaws. With only one Super Bowl champion, 31 teams can point to ways they need to get better.
For the Ravens, their emphasis quickly became clear once free agency began, and it was reinforced during the draft: They want a bigger, stronger, faster front seven on defense. They want to neutralize opposing offenses at the point of attack. They want rangy, fast, physical inside linebackers. In short, they don’t want Derrick Henry happening again.
That’s probably far too simplistic, because the Ravens also need to develop a more disruptive pass rush than they had last season, when they ranked 21st in the league with 37 sacks. But the Ravens’ offseason moves point toward the goal of a more dynamic, athletic and consistent front seven — to complement a Pro Bowl secondary and an offense that returns virtually every starter except Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda and that added several playmakers in the draft.
In the opening days of free agency, the Ravens traded for five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell and signed veteran defensive lineman Derek Wolfe — after a deal with Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Michael Brockers fell through because of physical concerns.
Then the Ravens used premium draft capital on front-seven players, selecting inside linebacker Patrick Queen in the first round at No. 28 overall and defensive lineman Justin Madubuike and inside linebacker Malik Harrison in the third round. For good measure, they added Texas Tech defensive tackle Broderick Washington Jr. in the fifth round.
The additions this spring supplement a roster that Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta has worked to keep largely intact. Since last spring, the Ravens have re-signed more than a dozen of their players to extensions or new contracts, including cornerbacks Marcus Peters, Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young, safety Chuck Clark, linebacker L.J. Fort and outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, who was signed to a one-year deal in May. The Ravens also applied the franchise tag to Matthew Judon, who led the team with 9.5 sacks last year.
And while DeCosta has focused on all areas of the team with the internal re-signings, he has stressed, both by his words and his actions this offseason, that strength in the trenches is a foundational cornerstone.
“I know sometimes our fans don’t think that’s maybe sexy, but we do,” DeCosta said after the draft. “We want to be as strong up front as we can. … It’s important for us to control the line of scrimmage and be a physical football team.”
Revamped, Veteran Line
The Ravens’ defense finished last season ranked No. 4 overall and No. 5 against the run, but when teams tried to run, they had some success. The Ravens allowed 4.39 yards a carry, which ranked 21st in the league in the regular season, and then Henry piled up 195 yards on 30 carries in the playoff game.
The Ravens lost nose tackle Michael Pierce to free agency, but run-stuffing Brandon Williams is back to anchor the line, and Campbell and Wolfe figure to start on either side of him in the Ravens’ base defense.
The Ravens also hope the newcomers can be disruptive as pass rushers; Campbell has 88 career sacks, including 6.5 last year, and Wolfe recorded a career-best seven in 2019 with the Denver Broncos. Ravens defensive linemen totaled four sacks last season.
The future is now for this group, though; Williams is 31, Campbell will be 34 when the season begins and Wolfe is 30, which explains the Ravens focusing on the defensive line in the draft.
Both Campbell and Wolfe said they see themselves as ideal fits for defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s creative schemes, and they pushed back against any age concerns.
“I know there are guys who did it at a high level who were older than me, so it can be done,” Campbell said. “I’m going to go out there and give it my best shot. Obviously, I’m really happy that Baltimore still thinks I can do it at a high level … so I want to go out there and prove them right.”
Wolfe said, “I’m still able to take guys that are five, six years younger than me and put them on their back, put them into the quarterback’s lap. I think I have a lot of football left.”
Young, Fast Linebackers
At the other end of the spectrum is Queen, the Ravens’ top pick in the 2020 draft and the youngest player on the Ravens’ roster. Queen, who turns 21 in August, was a starter for just one season at LSU before declaring for the draft after his junior season, but that was all the Ravens needed to see.
“He jumped off the tape,” Harbaugh said. “He’s flying around in the biggest games, against the best teams, making play after play.”
The Ravens love Queen’s sideline-to-sideline range, his blitzing prowess and his ability to cover, and he fills a need after the Ravens lost Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwuasor as free agents.
Queen “makes us so fast,” DeCosta said, “and I think he’s going to be great behind those guys that we added this year.”
At 6-foot and 232 pounds, Queen said he has grown weary of the questions of whether his size can translate to NFL success at inside linebacker.
“I’m so tired of hearing that,” he said. “I heard it all the way through college. It didn’t matter. I played perfectly fine. Coming into the league, I’m going to be strong, I’m going to be fast, and I’m going to be smart.”
The day after drafting Queen, the Ravens added the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Harrison, who, DeCosta said, “really looks like an NFL linebacker.”
“I can do everything that the smaller ‘backers [can do],” Harrison said, “plus be physical.”
“You get the best of both worlds with … me and Patrick,” Harrison added. “He’s the lighter one, and I’m the heavy linebacker. So it’s like a one-two punch.”
The challenge for all these newcomers, veterans and rookies alike, will be to acclimate to the Ravens’ system without traditional OTA practices because of the coronavirus pandemic that has shuttered NFL facilities. They will rely on virtual meetings and individual workouts until the team can finally convene at the Ravens’ facility in Owings Mills, Md.
Harbaugh, though, said he embraced the challenge.
“[I’m] looking at it as an opportunity,” he said. “We’re all going to be in the same boat. None of us are going to have an advantage over anybody else. So whoever makes use of whatever the situation is the best, gets their team ready the best … that’s who is going to win the most games.”
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Ohio State and LSU Athletics