Five Takeaways From Ravens HC John Harbaugh’s First Postseason News Conference

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh held his first postseason news conference on Jan. 31, and a few weeks removed from a season that ended with a six-game losing streak and losing record (8-9) for just the second time in his 14-year tenure, Harbaugh appeared relaxed and already focused on 2022.

Since the season ended, Harbaugh made a major coaching change as he parted ways with defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale and replaced him with Mike Macdonald, a former Ravens assistant who worked as defensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh at the University of Michigan this past year.

And after watching two scintillating rounds of the NFL playoffs and seeing the Cincinnati Bengals advance to the Super Bowl, Harbaugh declared that the AFC is “a quarterback conference,” and said that the Bengals’ success will inform the team’s roster-building plan going forward.

Harbaugh also discussed the health of quarterback Lamar Jackson, who missed the final four games of the season with a bone bruise in his ankle. He said Jackson’s injury healed more slowly than the team and Jackson initially expected, but that Jackson is feeling better and expects to begin working out shortly after the Super Bowl in two weeks.

Jackson, coming off his worst season as a pro, is entering the final year of his rookie contract after the Ravens picked up his fifth-year option for 2022. His contract status figures to be a dominant storyline this offseason, and while it was not addressed by Harbaugh, it will surely be a major topic when general manager Eric DeCosta meets with the media on Feb. 4.

Here are five key takeaways from Harbaugh’s roughly 45-minute session with the media:

1. Greg Roman is expected back as offensive coordinator.

Two weeks after making a change atop the defensive staff, Harbaugh said he expects Roman to return as the offensive coordinator.

Roman, the architect of the Ravens’ record-setting rushing attack in 2019, has been a lightning rod for criticism when the offense has scuffled, most notably this year and in early postseason exits in 2018, 2019 and 2020. In addition, Jackson appeared to regress this season even before the ankle injury that cost him the final four games, and as the losses accumulated, so did speculation about Roman’s future.

“Nothing is a lock in life, to use that term, but … I plan on Greg being back,” Harbaugh said. “I believe Greg plans on being back.”

“We’ve done some pretty darn good things here over the past three years offensively,” he added. “I think we have a really good vision and understanding of what we want to build offensively, the players we want to build around and what we need to do it.”

The Ravens’ offense finished No. 6 overall, averaging 378.8 yards a game. They ranked third in rushing and 13th in passing, despite a remarkable run of injuries. Jackson missed five games (one with illness, four with a foot injury), the presumed top three running backs all were lost to season-ending injuries before the season began, All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley played just one game before he was shut down with complications to his surgically repaired ankle, and tight end Nick Boyle missed most of the year recovering from a 2020 knee injury.

Harbaugh said the offense was hurt by penalties and sacks and that the running game lacked the explosive plays that Jackson, J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards had sparked the previous two years.

Ultimately, Harbaugh made clear that he intends to stay the course with this run-first offense led by Jackson, and that Roman still has the keys to the vault.

2. The Ravens will change conditioning and practice methods.

The Ravens had 25 players on injured reserve this year, a staggering number that reverberated across the roster. Before they played a regular-season snap, they had lost their top three running backs, Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters and starting linebacker L.J. Fort to season-ending injuries.

Top draft pick Rashod Bateman missed the first five games after a training camp groin injury, and starting defensive end Derek Wolfe’s preseason hip injury lingered and proved to be season-ending.

Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey and starting safety DeShon Elliott suffered season-ending injuries on the field during the season, and All-Pro tackle Ronnie Stanley and tight end Nick Boyle both experienced significant setbacks in their recoveries from 2020 injuries.

Some of the injuries, such as those sustained by Dobbins and Humphrey, came during competition. (Dobbins’ torn ACL came in the final preseason game, and his participation in that game is a debate for another day.) Others, such as the injuries sustained by running back Gus Edwards and Peters — within minutes of each other on Sept. 9 — came without contact.

The breadth and scope of the injuries called into question conditioning methods, practice plans and even the turf at the team’s Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills.

Harbaugh said he held a four-hour meeting with the sports performance and conditioning staff after the season going over “every aspect of what we’re doing,” including practice schedules, training camp schedules, OTAs and load management during team and individual periods.

“I mean, man, we’re going to look at everything, and we’re going to change a lot,” Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh didn’t offer specifics, but he did say that one thing won’t be changing: Head strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders will return.

3. It was poor execution, not Cover-Zero blitzes, that derailed Lamar Jackson and the offense.

The Ravens were 6-2 when they went to Miami on Nov. 11, positioned as one of the top teams in the AFC. They left Miami with a 22-10 loss, overwhelmed by an aggressive Dolphins blitz scheme that left Jackson visibly frustrated.

That seemed to become a blueprint other teams followed, and Jackson and the Ravens never really recovered from that loss. Jackson missed the next game, a 16-13 win against the Chicago Bears, because of illness, but he never appeared to regain his early-season form.

Jackson, mentioned as an MVP candidate early in the season as the Ravens bolted to a 5-1 start, finished with a career high in interceptions (13) and sacks (38) despite missing five games. His passer rating of 87.0 ranked 23rd among qualified quarterbacks.

Jackson at one point had called the Kansas City Chiefs the Ravens’ “kryptonite” after three straight losses to the AFC West powerhouse, but did the Cover-Zero blitz become this year’s kryptonite?

Harbaugh isn’t buying that narrative. He said that the Ravens’ struggles came down to basic execution.

“We thought we were in good shape with some of our drop-back passing stuff, and we just didn’t hit the plays,” he said. “Sometimes the wrong route was run. Sometimes a guy wasn’t held off long enough on the protection. Sometimes the guy got knocked off his route. There’s always a little thing, but in the end, that’s all execution … and we just weren’t good at handling it.”

He said the Ravens spent considerable time after the Miami game practicing against Cover-Zero pressure, but whether that was misreading a disguised blitz, or failed execution up front or in the pass pattern, offensive rhythm faltered.

“Those are all things that we’ve got to get better at,” he said, “recognizing those things, also beating those things with base plays and just having those answers. … It’s been a priority, but it’s got to show up on the field in execution, for sure.”

4. Harbaugh would make the same call again on the failed two-point conversion plays.

Against both Pittsburgh and Green Bay this year, Harbaugh opted against a game-tying extra-point kick in the final minute of regulation and instead went for the two-point conversion and the lead. The Ravens failed both times. As a result, the Ravens lost each game by one point, and those losses loomed large when the Ravens narrowly missed out on a playoff berth.

Overall, the Ravens finished 2-for-8 on two-point conversions this year, but in retrospect, Harbaugh said, “Not knowing what happened, I would have made [those decisions] again.”

“Would we have won those games in overtime?” he asked. “Nobody knows. So we had probably a 50-50 shot there, and would we have had a 50-50 shot in overtime against some of those quarterbacks we were playing? I don’t know.”

“We’ll continue to be aggressive, but we’re never going to be irresponsibly aggressive,” he added.

At Pittsburgh, with the Ravens trailing 20-19, Lamar Jackson tried to hit tight end Mark Andrews with a pass in the right flat, but pressure from T.J. Watt altered Jackson’s delivery and the ball glanced off Andrews’ fingertips. Two weeks later, quarterback Tyler Huntley attempted a two-point conversion to Andrews that was broken up, and the Ravens lost to Green Bay, 31-30.

“It’s 100 percent you get it, or 100 percent you don’t get it,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a win or a loss, and that’s why it’s never going to be about analytics. It’s going to be about making a decision in the heat of battle, and I believe, in those two situations, that we were going to convert those plays.”

5. The balance of power in the AFC North has shifted toward Cincinnati.

Harbaugh said that in building the roster, the Ravens always have winning the AFC North in mind, but he acknowledged that the balance of power in the division has shifted to Cincinnati, which is in the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1988 season.

With a dynamic offense led by second-year quarterback Joe Burrow and Rookie of the Year candidate Ja’Marr Chase, the Bengals should be a major player for the foreseeable future.

“Cincinnati is the champ,” Harbaugh said. “They’re the defending AFC North champ next year, coming in, and they might be world champions, and they deserve every accolade they get.

“They’re well built. They’ve got a really good team. … Right now, that’s the standard.”

The Bengals routed the Ravens twice this year, breaking open a close game en route to a 41-17 win at M&T Bank Stadium in October, and then shredding the Ravens makeshift defense in a 41-21 Bengals win two months later. Burrow threw for 525 yards in that game, the most ever by a Ravens opponent.

The Steelers, which swept the Ravens and squeaked into the postseason at 9-7-1, must reckon with the retirement of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but Harbaugh said, “Pittsburgh is still going to be Pittsburgh, you can bet on that. And the Browns … are a very talented team.”

“I think our division is really good,” Harbaugh added, “and we’re going to have to measure up.”

They didn’t do it this past year, going 1-5 against the AFC North. For Harbaugh and the Ravens, pointing toward 2022 means figuring out how to reverse that.

“Those are the three teams that you look at first and you say, ‘We have to build a team that can contend with and beat those teams,'” Harbaugh said.

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Bo Smolka

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