Baltimore Ravens 2019: Underrated Playoff Contender

Baltimore Ravens 2019: Underrated Playoff Contender
Baltimore Ravens 2019: Underrated Playoff Contender

The Crazy Part About the 2018 Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens have a weird season behind them. Right before their bye week, the Ravens were 4-5 and made the switch from QB Joe Flacco to then-rookie Lamar Jackson. With the latter, Baltimore went on to finish the season 6-1 with the only loss occurring in overtime at Kansas City. People might rightfully point to the ‘weak’ schedule with the likes of Oakland, Cincinnati, and Tampa Bay. They also went 3-1 in close games with Jackson. But they also beat the Chargers and were a fumble away from winning over the Chiefs at Arrowhead. The games against the Bengals and Browns were toss-ups. The range of possible outcomes probably went from 4-3 to 7-0.

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Considering their late stretch, here’s the crazy part: the offense wasn’t good at all. And the defense – while playing well – didn’t collect many turnovers. Lamar Jackson ranked 31st in QBR, which was part himself – all scouting reports indicated that he would need time to develop as a passer. At times, his accuracy spread like a shotgun. But it was also part a horrendous receiving corps. Out of 39 passers with at least 150 dropbacks, Jackson ranked 31st in EPA/dropback (-0.04). It wasn’t good at all, but surprise: it was more efficient than fellow rookies Sam Darnold (-0.06), Josh Allen (-0.18), and Josh Rosen (-0.33). Jackson looked to be a generational talent on the ground, but he failed to get his power on the street efficiently.

The Not-So-Efficient Scrambles

RB runs barely matter, but QB runs do. Among 74 players with 50+ designed runs, Lamar Jackson ranked fourth in EPA per rush (0.13). The record season by Cam Newton sits at 0.49. However, on scrambles, which we would tend to believe makes him so dangerous, he ranked 29th out of 31 quarterbacks with at least ten attempts (0.13). Josh Allen had 0.94 EPA per scramble, Trubisky had 0.93 – absurd numbers. Every time Mitch Trubisky or Josh Allen scrambled, they added 2.6 and 2.7% in win probability. Lamar Jackson added 0.75%. Jackson can only regress positively.

If you think the Ravens should regress, you got fooled. They went 3-4 in close games, had a turnover margin of -0.2 and 10.8 Pythagorean wins. Their defense created 17 turnovers (tied-22th), but those weren’t efficient. The Ravens defense created 15.6 expected points through turnovers which ranked 31st last year and 7th-worst since 2009. They only added 6.4% of win probability per turnover – 2nd-worst in 2018. The Ravens still underperformed. It’s a high probability that Baltimore will collect more turnovers next year, which are also going to be more efficient for their win probability.

All Eyes on Greg Roman and Lamar Jackson

Baltimore has one of the best coaching staffs in the league. Greg Roman will take over play-calling duties from Marty Mornhinweg this year, and this is good for Lamar Jackson. Greg Roman spent five seasons with Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor – QBs similar to Lamar Jackson. During those five years from 2012 – 2016, Taylor and Kaepernick produced four top-10 finishes in QBR. The worst season was 58.1 by Kaepernick in 2014. Rookie seasons are tough – quarterbacks usually improve from year one to year two. But even if Lamar Jackson doesn’t improve as a passer AT ALL, he should get more efficiency out of his runs, especially his scrambles – regression.

Baltimore Ravens Projected Offensive Depth Chart
Baltimore Ravens Projected Offensive Depth Chart

The biggest flaw on the offensive side remains the wide receiving corps. Baltimore drafted WR Marquise Brown in the first round, and fellow rookie Myles Boykin was very high on Matt Waldman’s ranking. Both bring intriguing athletic skill sets to the table, but it’s hard to predict any real impact in the first year. If the Ravens get solid production – and separation – out of either one, it will help this offense tremendously. The tight end position is stacked. Second-year players Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews have a season under their belt and should increasingly take over snaps from Nick Boyle. Hurst had some injury issues, but Andrews was the better receiver coming out of college anyway. Andrews had a stat line of 34-552-3 in his first year. With the lack of quality at WR, we should expect Greg Roman to call a lot of sets with two tight ends. Running backs Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards aren’t great receivers. Rookie Justice Hill comes into the league with an elite RAS of 9.35 and could add a speedy layer to the option game.

More Option Runs for Lamar Jackson

The offensive line should rank in the middle of the pack – no player stands out as elite, but neither is anyone awful. Pro Football Focus graded them as the 14th-best pass-blocking unit and the 10th-best run-blocking unit. Right guard Marshal Yanda is a stud, the tackle tandem of Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown seems to be above-average going into their second year together. Left guard Alex Lewis and center Matt Skura are the two weaker spots along the line. All in all, this line shouldn’t hold Lamar Jackson back from making a step forward.

The Baltimore Ravens can’t solely rely on their run game around Lamar Jackson. Greg Roman needs to find ways to stretch defenses vertically and horizontally to create space for Jackson to throw to. Without at least a functional passing game, this offense will die a slow death. I expect Roman to install a lot more option runs and run-pass-options. Baltimore also brought “triple-option guru” Paul Johnson to training camp. I anticipate that Roman is going to present opposing defenses with many different looks, option runs, fake-handoffs and play-action to get Lamar Jackson on the move and cut the field for him.

It’s is a very conservative prediction now. Assuming neither Lamar Jackson improves one bit as a passer nor any of the young receivers has an impact, there is still little chance this offense will be worse than in 2018. Regression-wise, Jackson’s runs, especially the scrambles, should get more efficient. Scheme-wise, the Ravens have a full off-season to build an offense to Lamar Jackson’s strengths. If he improves as a passer or anyone of Marquise Brown or Myles Boykin has a decent impact, this offense will be more efficient than in 2018.

Two-Thirds of the World are Covered by Water

Earl Thomas covers the other third. As Eric Eager and George Chahrouri have pointed out, coverage is more important than pass rush. The Ravens are following this strategy. While their front seven is going to be a grab bag, this defense will likely have the best secondary in the league. Even though he’s coming off a broken leg, Earl Thomas should still be considered the best free safety in the league. He was the centerpiece of the Seahawks defense, consistently defending the deep middle and forcing opposing quarterbacks to go underneath with the football.

Next to Thomas is strong safety Tony Jefferson, who is solid in coverage. A stacked cornerback group consisting of Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith, Tavon Young, and Jimmy Smith round up this great secondary on paper. But each of those players will be in an advantageous position because Earl Thomas covers more ground than everyone else. As soon as Thomas got hurt in 2016, the Seahawks defense turned from a top-10 unit into a bottom-5 unit against the pass.

Baltimore Ravens Projected Defensive Depth Chart
Baltimore Ravens Projected Defensive Depth Chart

I have no clue how this front seven is going to look from snap to snap. Defensive coordinator Don Martindale runs a “complicated scheme” (Earl Thomas) with a lot of blitzes, and he likes to dial up pressure from various angles. Remember the playoff game against the Chargers? I have never seen Philip Rivers correcting, shifting his pass protection and audibling so much in a single game. Now add Earl Thomas into the mix. The coverage will be stellar; the pass rush will be dialed up via scheme. It’s a top-10 defense on paper with upside because of their elite secondary.

The Schedule

The Ravens are expected to play a below average schedule. Based on current NFL regular season win totals at Pinnacle, the Ravens are expected to face the 16th-hardest schedule. According to 2018 EPA per dropback, their program is expected to be the 21st-hardest. A significant advantage is squaring off against the AFC East. The Ravens have seven games on their schedule against quarterbacks with less than a full season under their belt: Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Jimmy Garoppolo, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield 2x, and Kyler Murray. Their two biggest travel games will be at the west coast against the Seahawks and the Rams. After the game at Seattle, Baltimore will have a bye week. Before the Rams game, they have an extra day off, because it’s on a Monday. There are no back-to-back road games. Overall, this schedule is exceptionally fortunate. Here is a spot to circle:

Week 7 at SEA: The Ravens travel across the country to Seattle after a home game against the Bengals. The Hawks will be home after a tough early eastern game at Cleveland. This game could set up as a great spot to fade the Ravens.

The Prediction

The Baltimore Ravens are EXTREMELY underrated. After winning ten games last year, their season total for the upcoming season sits at 8.5 but is shaded towards the under. The implied total is 8.2. I disagree with the market here and would advise a play on the Over at 8.5 +115 (Pinnacle). People are very low on Lamar Jackson, and the Browns hype is for real. Also, some part of the market might only remember their ugly playoff loss at home against Los Angeles. Baltimore feels like the forgotten AFC North team that shouldn’t be worse than last year. They only have the third-best odds to win their division, which feels a bit off, too.

The Ravens are a very well-coached team on all three phases. Their offense shouldn’t be worse than last year but has some upside while they probably got the best secondary in the league. On top of that, they will play a fortunate schedule without a lot of bad spots but with some inexperienced quarterbacks. I believe this team should win nine to ten games and go back to the playoffs.

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Week 3: Denver Broncos @ Baltimore Ravens

Denver Broncos @ Baltimore Ravens (-5.5, 44)

Update: CJ Mosley has practiced and is questionable, but I am having a hard time seeing him play with a bone bruise just ten days later.

Line: The total wasn’t on my radar at the beginning of the week, but I did my research and came up with a play on the over because it is a brilliant setup. Without CJ Mosley and Michael Pierce, my model comes up with a total of 46, but I think Mosley is even more valuable than that. He’s the head of the defense.

Situation: If this game was played in week 8, I wouldn’t touch the over. But this time, the Ravens are without their two most important defensive players and they are coming off extra rest which has been favorable for the over in the past: Games with teams coming off TNF with extra rest are 240-185-15 (56.5%) to the over with 45.7 PPG scored – 46.9 PPG since 2010. Last week, both overs in the Falcons & Eagles game hit with 48 and 55 points scored.

Matchup: The Broncos defense isn’t what it used to be. Not only did they lose players like Malik Jackson, Aqib Talib and TJ Wart, they also lost DC Wade Philips before the 2017 season. Head coach Vance Joseph switched that defense from a man-heavy scheme to a scheme that is zone heavier and that didn’t work out. Their big weakness is over the middle of the field, especially over the short middle: The linebackers Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis struggle in coverage and SS Justin Simmons is much more a run defender than a coverage guy. Through two weeks, Russell Wilson and Derek Carr have combined for 23/27, 319 yards, 1 TD and 0 INTs against this Denver defense over the middle, a passer rating of 128.3 and 11.8 YPA!

And now guess who is very good throwing over the middle, especially in the short/medium range? Joe Flacco. This was his best area last season and he continued this season. Through two games, Flacco is 32/42 for 363 yards and two touchdowns targeting the middle of the field. The middle of the field is generally easier to attack, but the Ravens put a high emphasis on it and try to scheme the MOF open on purpose. With ten days to prepare, I expect Marty Mornhinweg and Joe Flacco to come out with a great game plan and attack the Broncos’ weaknesses early and often because they know their defense is banged up. Ravens should be able to score at least into the 20s, maybe even high 20s.

This brings us to the Ravens defense – Jimmy Smith and CJ Mosley are the two most important players on that defense. Last week, the Bengals shredded the Ravens secondary and consistently picked on Tavon Young in the slot. The Broncos put Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas in the slot which is another terrible matchup for the young cornerback. When the Ravens tried to put Marlon Humphrey on AJ Green in the slot, it didn’t work out either. I truly expect the Broncos – even though I believe their offense isn’t really good with Keenum – to benefit from the Ravens injuries here and be able to score in the low 20s, which will be enough to put this game over the total. 31-24 or 28-24 kind of score wouldn’t surprise me.

The pick: Broncos/Ravens Over 44 -107 (Pinnacle, 09/20 09.15 AM EST)