Before the 2019 season, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh declared that the Ravens would unveil a “revolutionary” offense led by singularly-talented quarterback Lamar Jackson. The idea generated snickers nationally, but Harbaugh, Jackson and the Ravens were the ones laughing that December after rolling to a 14-2 record.
Now coming off an injury-ravaged 8-9 season, the Ravens have made clear by their offseason moves — and one that wasn’t made — that they hope to reprise that 2019 formula. They want a dominant run game, a complementary passing attack fueled by tight ends, and a stifling, opportunistic defense.
Despite a shocking 28-12 playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans in January 2020, the Ravens remain convinced that their run-first approach can work in an NFL that has skewed heavily toward the passing game in the past two decades.
In fact, this offseason they appear to have doubled down on the idea.
Since their 2021 season ended, the Ravens have:
— Added a veteran and a rookie draft pick at running back;
— Drafted not one, but two receiving-oriented tight ends;
— Ignored, through early June at least, the wide receiver position in the draft and free agency, despite trading away the team’s top wide receiver from last year;
— Signed playmaking safety Marcus Williams to a five-year, $70 million contract; and
— Selected Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton with their first pick of the draft, reinforcing a defensive philosophy centered on coverage and the ability to create turnovers.
In the most obvious endorsement of their 2019 framework, the Ravens retained embattled offensive coordinator Greg Roman, the architect of their record-setting run game but also the target of intense criticism when the offense has scuffled, most notably in early postseason exits in 2019 and 2020.
Can that 2019 formula work again?
In a loaded AFC featuring Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow and other quarterbacks who can light up the scoreboard, can the Ravens keep pace? After trading away Marquise Brown, the Ravens’ returning wide receivers have a combined total of 1,227 career yards — 228 fewer than Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase tallied last season alone.
That 2019 team, though, didn’t rely on fireworks from wide receivers. No wide receiver on that team had more than 600 yards. Their success was built on offensive efficiency, particularly in the red zone. It was built on getting a lead and holding it with a clock-swallowing drive that left the opposing quarterback watching helplessly from the sideline. In 2019, the Ravens had five scoring drives of at least nine minutes; no other team had more than one.
Whatever success the Ravens have this year will depend on Jackson, who did not take part in voluntary team activities in April and May, raising the level of angst and pressure.
In 2019, Jackson set the NFL single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,206), and he threw for 3,127 yards and 36 touchdowns en route to league MVP honors.
This past season, though, Jackson ranked 23rd in passer rating (87.0) and 22nd in completion percentage (.644), and he threw a career-high 13 interceptions despite missing the final four games with a foot injury. Jackson — and Roman — endured that entire season without the team’s presumed top three running backs, a crippling development for a system so dependent on the run game.
This season, J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards — each of whom tore an ACL last preseason — hope to be healthy as the Ravens try to re-create the 2019 ground attack, which featured two 1,000-yard rushers (Jackson, Mark Ingram) en route to an NFL-record 3,296 rushing yards.
The Ravens signed veteran running back Mike Davis and drafted Tyler Badie — who spent part of his childhood at Friends School in Baltimore — and they join Justice Hill, who lost his entire 2021 season to injury, competing for space in the backfield.
Perhaps nothing this spring, though, indicated the Ravens’ desire to rewind to 2019 more than the drafting of two pass-catching tight ends.
In 2018, the Ravens drafted two tight ends as well — Hayden Hurst in the first round (seven spots before Lamar Jackson) and Mark Andrews in the third. It quickly became apparent that the passing attack conceived by Roman would run through the tight ends.
“He’s always loved his tight ends,” Andrews said early that season.
In 2019, Ravens tight ends totaled 1,522 receiving yards — more than their wide receivers (1,419) and the second most in the league at that position. Andrews led the team with 64 catches for 852 yards, while Hurst had 30 for 349 and Nick Boyle added 31 for 321.
Hurst was traded away after that season, unhappy with his role in an offense in which the running game and Andrews had top billing.
This past season, the All-Pro Andrews set a franchise record with 1,361 receiving yards — and all other tight ends totaled 75.
Receiver Marquise Brown topped 1,000 yards as well, but he, like Hurst, asked to be traded. Of all the criticisms leveled at Roman, the most telling might be that two first-round picks at skill positions grew disenchanted in Roman’s system and wanted out.
Looking for more production at tight end, the Ravens in the fourth round drafted Charlie Kolar from Iowa State and Isaiah Likely from Coastal Carolina. Kolar led Big 12 tight ends this past season in catches (62) and receiving yards (756), while Likely tallied 912 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“You can put them in the slot, and they’re going to give a safety a challenge,” Ravens director of player personnel Joe Hortiz said. “They’re going to make a safety work. They’ve got size to be a mismatch for a nickel.”
In another callback to 2019, the Ravens have prioritized game-changing defensive backs.
The Ravens scored five defensive touchdowns in 2019, including two each by Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey. Peters — whose 31 career interceptions are the most in the NFL since 2015 — missed all of last season with a torn ACL. Humphrey, who set a franchise record with eight forced fumbles in 2020, missed the final five games of the 2021 season with a torn pectoral muscle.
Forced to play backups of backups at times, the Ravens finished the 2021 season with 15 takeaways, the second-lowest total in team history. At least five would-be interceptions bounced off hands.
“Our inability this year to create turnovers was probably an issue for us,” general manager Eric DeCosta said at his season-ending news conference, “and I would love to see us make the play this year … intercept more passes, cause more fumbles, be more disruptive.”
It was no surprise, then, that Williams became the team’s top free-agent acquisition this spring. He has 15 career interceptions, including one touchdown, and three forced fumbles.
The Ravens then selected Hamilton with their first pick of the draft. The versatile 6-foot-4 safety returned an interception for a touchdown on his first collegiate play.
“He’s a playmaker at multiple levels of the defense,” Hortiz said.
To be sure, the Ravens need other factors to fall into place for this season to replicate 2019. They need dominant offensive line play to protect Jackson and sustain drives. They need a pass rush that can induce quarterbacks into mistakes. And, as they painfully saw last year, they need to stay healthy.
Four years later, this system may no longer be revolutionary, but the Ravens still think it can take them to the Super Bowl.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Coastal Carolina and Iowa State Athletics