In any other year, Ravens coach John Harbaugh and his staff would be in the midst of their spring OTA workouts, with a mandatory three-day minicamp looming and then a five-week break before training camp begins.
This, of course, is not like any other season. In the midst of the coronavirus that has shuttered NFL facilities and kept players and coaches scattered, Harbaugh is working from home, trying to conduct virtual meetings and workouts with his team as the Ravens prepare for a 2020 season that could look unlike any in NFL history.
“It’s not quite the same, for sure as being back with the guys and back in the building,” Harbaugh said. “I just want to get back on the grass.”
On a conference call with season-ticket holders May 28, Harbaugh joked that he asked his wife, Ingrid, if he could join her on an errands run just to get out of the house.
But joking aside, Harbaugh touched on several issues in an hour-long session with the fans. Here are a few highlights:
1. Harbaugh echoed Eric DeCosta’s comments about creating an ‘undefendable’ offense.
After watching his team set the all-time NFL record for rushing yardage, Harbaugh expects opponents will stack the box to try to stop the run. If that happens, Harbaugh said, “We absolutely have to make them pay.”
The Ravens know that in those cases, they should have 1-on-1 coverage outside and the chance to exploit mismatches in the secondary with an improved downfield passing game. “That’s the next step for this offense,” Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh said he expects second-year receiver Miles Boykin to take a big step forward this year and praised the potential of third-round rookie Devin Duvernay.
Don’t expect the Ravens, though, to suddenly become a pass-happy team. Harbaugh said this offense will continue to defy NFL convention, saying the Ravens didn’t draft Lamar Jackson to operate a conventional offense. “That’s the last thing we want to do,” he said.
This will still be a run-first offense but now features an improved arsenal of weapons benefiting from Jackson’s continued development as a downfield passer. And Jackson’s superb execution and deception in the read option, Harbaugh said, keeps defenses guessing until well after the ball is snapped.
Harbaugh’s message dovetailed nicely with general manager Eric DeCosta’s stated goal earlier this spring to create an “undefendable” offense.
2. Four talented running backs is a nice problem to have.
The addition of second-round running back J.K. Dobbins has created a crowded backfield behind starter Mark Ingram, who rushed for 1,018 yards last season, but asked about the deep backfield that now features Ingram, Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill, Harbaugh said, “Is that really a problem? To have four guys that are capable of breaking off big runs and making guys miss?”
Dobbins figures to ascend quickly to a prominent role, although the loss of OTAs and minicamp might factor in the rotation early in the season. Edwards remains more of a situational, short-yardage battering ram. Asked specifically about Hill, Harbaugh praised how the second-year back came on late in his rookie year. Hill finished with 58 carries for 225 yards and two touchdowns.
“There’s certainly going to be competition for carries,” he added.
3. Problems defending the outside run dictated offseason strategy.
Harbaugh essentially confirmed that one of the Ravens’ top offseason priorities was improving the run defense, particularly against stretch runs that hurt them repeatedly last season.
The addition of Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell, defensive lineman Derek Wolfe should help the Ravens cut off outside runs, and Harbaugh praised the explosiveness and power of rookie defensive linemen Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington Jr. It should be a quicker, more disruptive line, with Brandon Williams stuffing the middle as a nose guard.
The Ravens are still smarting from the way teams ran over them in their three losses last season, and these moves — along with the additions of first-round draft pick Patrick Queen and third-rounder Malik Harrison at inside linebacker — are designed to keep that from happening again.
4. Jimmy Smith could move to safety.
Harbaugh said veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith could play some safety this season, and that makes sense. Last training camp, veteran cornerback Brandon Carr took a lot reps at safety and then spent considerable time there during the season.
Smith, who turns 32 this summer, signed a new one-year deal with the Ravens and he figures to be a backup behind Pro Bowl cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters. Tavon Young is expected to return as top slot corner, leaving Smith as the presumptive No. 4 cornerback.
The Ravens are thinner at safety, and Smith making a partial transition there at this stage of his career, just as Carr and Lardarius Webb had done, gives the Ravens more versatility. “The more you can do,” Carr liked to say, and that applies to Smith as well.
5. There is unfinished business this season.
Harbaugh noted that players are still “pissed” about the way last season ended with a stunning playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans. “They’re not happy about it. They’re disappointed about it. They came up short and they learn from it.”
Harbaugh likened last year’s team to an iceberg that posed an unseen, unpredictable hazard to opponents. But that won’t be the case this year, coming off a 14-2 record, a runaway AFC North title and featuring the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player.
“We’re going to be everybody’s most important game,” he said.
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