A Baltimore Ravens trip to Miami for Super Bowl LIV was all but assured. 14 wins in a row. Weeks of rest before a home playoff game against a 9-7 wild card upset winner. It was right there on a tee. It was a wide open layup. It was a 20-yard field goal.
Until, it wasn't.
The 2019 Baltimore Ravens might be the best team I've seen up close since I've began covering the Texans in 2007. Quarterback Lamar Jackson was the runaway MVP of the league, figuratively and literally. They were clearly the class of the NFL and it was such a fait accompli that they were going to the Super Bowl that players were discussing with the media who they would see in the game in Miami. More confidently, though, they wondered aloud what team would lose to them in Miami. Yet, that trip to Miami never came, neither did an AFC Championship trip due to a 16 point loss on Saturday night of Divisional playoff weekend to the Tennessee Titans. It was as shocking a loss as a great team has had in quite some time.
When the Texans traveled to Baltimore in November, the Ravens were smack dab in the middle of a 12 game winning streak. They were scalding hot and they never let up in a 41-7 Ravens win that was seemingly a precursor of things to come for the rest of the Ravens' 2019 season. In 2020, though, the Ravens travel to NRG Stadium and the last time that they stepped into the building, the shoe was certainly on the other foot as the Texans completely dismantled John Harbaugh's crew. But, these two teams couldn't be more different than they were six years ago. Case in point, there are just two position playing starters, on either side, that played in that game - J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. Now, six years in the NFL is like an eternity, but the point is that these teams are completely different from the last time Baltimore came to town.
Unfortunately, Baltimore isn't much different from the last time that the Texans stood on the opposite sideline. This will be a massive "measuring stick" sort of game for the Texans and it'll be the first time the Texans set foot in NRG Stadium since that thrilling Wild Card playoff win over Buffalo last January. As such, it stands to be an incredibly intense afternoon when Jackson and company show up to take on Deshaun and the Texans. Let's get to Know our Week 2 Foe - the Baltimore Ravens.
2019 Schedule - Record 14-2, lost to Tennessee in AFC Divisional playoff
W, @ Miami Dolphins 59-10
W, Arizona Cardinals 23-17
L, @ Kansas City Chiefs 33-28
L, Cleveland Browns 40-25
W, @ Pittsburgh Steelers 26-23
W, Cincinnati Bengals 23-17
W, @ Seattle Seahawks 30-16
W, New England Patriots 37-20
W, @ Cincinnati Bengals 49-13
W, Houston Texans 41-7
W, @ Los Angeles Rams 45-6
W, San Francisco 49ers 20-17
W, @ Buffalo Bills 24-17
W, New York Jets 42-21
W, @ Cleveland Browns 31-15
W, Pittsburgh Steelers 28-10
L, Tennessee Titans 28-12
Ravens OFFENSE (in 2019 regular season)
Rushing Yards Per game - 206.0 ypg (1st in the NFL)
Passing Yards Per game - 201.6 ypg (27th)
Total offense per game - 407.6 ypg (2nd)
Turnovers lost - 15 (8 INT, 7 Fumbles lost)
Projected Ravens starting offense in 2020
QB - Lamar Jackson - league MVP in 2019
RB - Mark Ingram II - Pro Bowl
WR - Marquise Brown
WR - Miles Boykin
TE - Mark Andrews - Pro Bowl
TE - Nick Boyle
LT - Ronnie Stanley - Pro Bowl
LG - Bradley Bozeman
C - Matt Skura
RG - BEN POWERS (replaces future Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda - retired)
RT - Orlando 'Zeus' Brown - Pro Bowl
Other Key Offensive pieces
WR - Willie Snead
WR - Devin Duvernay
RB - Gus Edwards
RB - J.K. Dobbins (Rookie)
FB/TE/DE - Patrick Ricard - Pro Bowl fullback/two way defensive player
OG -Tyre Phillips
** - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New starter in 2020
The Ravens offense could do no wrong in 2019, led by the out-of-this-world talents of Jackson, the 2019 league MVP. To recap, he threw for 3,127 yards, 36 touchdowns and just six INT. He ran for 1,206 yards, averaging nearly SEVEN yards per attempt. He totaled 43 touchdowns during his 15 starts (sitting out in week 16 to rest for the playoffs) and drove this team with his "all gas, no brakes" sort of mentality. We should expect no different in 2020.
Jackson has few peers in this league at the quarterback position, but Deshaun Watson is one. The trilogy matchup with Jackson v. Watson should have the nation clamoring to watch them tangle in week two. 2011 Heisman winner and former Baylor product Robert Griffin III will continue to back up Jackson, giving the Ravens as solid a quarterback situation as any team in the league. But, Jackson is the straw stirring this drink and he's scary enough to think of on his own.
Veteran Mark Ingam II was rejuvenated on arrival in Baltimore and earned a Pro Bowl berth after running for 1,018 yards and ten touchdowns. However, in the matchup with the Texans, the leading rusher was neither Ingram II nor Jackson; it was Gus Edwards who ran for 112 yards on just eight carries. Neither Ingram II nor Edwards was the most explosive back in the stable in 2019; that was Justice Hill, who made contributions as a rookie. So, what did GM Eric DeCosta do in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft? He went best player available on his draft board and that happened to be Ohio State star J.K. Dobbins (2,003 yards as a junior in 2019). Oh wow! So, the Ravens backfield now includes Ingram II, Edwards, Hill AND Dobbins? And that doesn't even count the best, uh, "ball carrier" on the team - Jackson. I don't like the looks of that group, coming into NRG, inside, weather controlled...on turf?!? Time to saddle up, defense.
Wide receivers/Tight ends
The Ravens need second year wide out Marquise 'Hollywood' Brown (46 receptions, 584 yards and seven touchdowns) to make a DeSean Jackson-like leap. Outside of Brown, the wide receiver group isn't going to scare anyone, really, especially for the Texans after facing Kansas City in week one. Now, the overall perception of this receiver group depends on how you classify Pro Bowl "tight end" Mark Andrews (64 receptions, 852 yards and ten touchdowns). He's a tight end in name only, really, and last year, he was dominant in the passing game. He complicates secondary coverage because defenses struggle to find the right type of player to cover him, given the Ravens' running game diversity. If this group plays with, say, a non-MVP type candidate at quarterback, no one bats an eye at the pieces within this group. But, with Jackson under center, this group creates a myriad of issues for defenses.
The Ravens offensive line has one of the best tackle combinations in the league with Pro Bowlers Ronnie Stanley and Orlando 'Zeus Jr.' Brown. But, on the inside, they're not as blessed, in large part due to the retirement of future Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda. Bradley Bozeman started all 16 games at left guard and Matt Skura was the starter at center for 11 games. However, finding a competent replacement for Yanda has to be of the highest priority heading into the 2020 season. If the Ravens don't find that player initially, how does the offense gel early in the season? How is the overall run game disrupted?
Ravens DEFENSE (in 2019 regular season)
Rushing Yards Allowed Per game - 93.4 ypg (5th in the NFL)
Passing Yards Allowed Per game - 207.2 ypg (6th)
Total offense Allowed per game - 300.6 ypg (4th)
Turnovers generated - 25 (13 INT, 12 Fumble recoveries - Ravens were +10 in TO margin)
Projected Ravens starting defense in 2020
DE - CALAIS CAMPBELL
DT - Brandon Williams
DE - DEREK WOLFE
Rush end - Jaylon Ferguson/Pernell McPhee
LB - PATRICK QUEEN
LB -MALIK HARRISON
Edge - Matt Judon
CB - Marlon Humphrey
S - Earl Thomas
S - Chuck Clark
CB - Marcus Peters
Other Key Defensive pieces
DE - Justin Madubuike
DT - Daylon Mack
DT -Broderick Washington
LB - Tyus Bowser
LB - L.J. Fort
Nickel - Tavon Young
S - Anthony Levine
** - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New starter in 2020
When looking at the Ravens offense, it's clear to see short term success with long term potential. Outside of Mark Ingram II, there's not a starter older than 26 years old. In other words, it's a group that can be together for a while. Defensively? There's a bit more of an "All in!" sort of feel with multiple 30+ year old starters and a pair of aging veterans added to the roster this offseason. Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe have some good football left, but not much beyond the next two years. Safety Earl Thomas is 30 so is defensive tackle Brandon Williams. So, this group has a strong veteran presence, but is it, also, an aging group that can handle the grind of a 16-game season another season?
Campbell and Wolfe will start on either side of stud Brandon Williams (1.0 sack) and that's a trio that'll strike fear into any opposing offense. However, there's not a ton of depth beyond those vets, other than rookie Justin Madubuike and another Texas A&M star Daylon Mack. On the edge, Jaylon Ferguson (2.5 sacks) progressed nicely as a rookie, but more will be expected from him as teams focus on stopping Pro Bowler Matt Judon, who had 9.5 sacks in 2019. If Ferguson, college football's all-time leader in sacks, is truly ready to take the next step, this Ravens front will be nearly impossible to keep under control consistently.
If the Ravens have a question mark in 2020, it's going to be at inside linebacker. But, don't expect them to struggle long. As such, facing 2020 first rounder Patrick Queen and fellow third rounder Malik Harrison in week two might be the best thing for the experienced Texans offense. Now, the Ravens can play a ton of nickel and dime with the gaggle of defensive backs on the roster and the stout defensive line on hand. Regardless, there's going to be a ton of pressure on Queen and Harrison to get up to speed quickly to make a significant impact in September of their rookie campaigns.
The back end is experienced, loaded with talent and ready to nearly run it all back. The trade for Pro Bowler Marcus Peters was THE transaction of the year, giving defensive coordinator Don 'Wink' Martindale another lockdown cornerback on the perimeter. But, the secondary really came into shape when Chuck Clark was added to the starting lineup at safety and Marlon Humphrey evolved into one of the best cornerbacks in the league. That intersection occurred in about week five or six and the Ravens secondary never looked back. The Earl Thomas off-the field situation could be nothing at all or a huge hurdle, so it bears watching, if nothing else. If the Texans want to move the ball more effectively than it did last November, it has to attack this secondary and dictate to it, not vice versa.