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Tribune News Service
Childs Walker

Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 2022 season

The Ravens returned to the playoffs but fell well short of their bigger goals as they finished another season with quarterback Lamar Jackson on the sideline because of injury. Debates over Jackson’s future will dominate the offseason, but the Ravens also have plenty to build on as they look ahead to 2023.

Here are five things we learned from their 2022 season.

The Ravens have reached another inflection point in the history of the franchise.

This last happened in 2018, when the Ravens drafted Jackson after missing the playoffs three straight years with an offense that was stuck in second gear. Owner Steve Bisciotti said he had considered firing coach John Harbaugh, and Harbaugh responded with foundational changes.

Don “Wink” Martindale took over the defense. Jackson stepped in for an injured Joe Flacco midway through the season and led the Ravens back to the playoffs. After that promising relaunch, Harbaugh handed the offensive reins to Greg Roman, asking him to build a “revolutionary” attack around Jackson’s next-generation run-pass skills. Sure enough, the Ravens stormed the league in 2019. Jackson was Most Valuable Player at age 23. Baltimore had its next great sports hero. Another trip to the Super Bowl felt inevitable.

And now, here we are three years later, wondering why the Ravens have won just one playoff game with Jackson at quarterback. Harbaugh replaced Martindale after last season. He’s in the process of replacing Roman. We’re all waiting to see if Jackson and general manager Eric DeCosta will make real progress on a contract extension or if the franchise quarterback will become the next face of the Ravens to pack his bags. Even if Jackson sticks around, he’ll have to kindle a relationship with a new offensive coordinator and find a way to stay on the field after he finished the last two seasons sidelined by injuries.

It’s strange to speak with such anxiety about a Ravens team that just made the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons, that rediscovered its mojo on defense and pushed the Cincinnati Bengals — who might win it all in a few weeks — to the brink.

But we do not know what we will see when they line up for their season opener in eight months. Harbaugh will be in charge on the sideline. The defense, with in-their-prime centerpieces Roquan Smith and Marlon Humphrey and adaptable young coordinator Mike Macdonald, will be good enough to keep them in games. But will it be Jackson, Tyler Huntley or a fresh draft pick operating an offense re-imagined by Roman’s replacement? Until we know the answer to that question, we cannot predict with any confidence where this franchise is headed.

Whatever disconnect existed between Jackson and the Ravens over the knee injury that ended his season, teammates want No. 8 back. From their perspective, you don’t lightly cast off a quarterback with a 45-16 record as a starter. “You can’t let a guy like him go,” said defensive end Calais Campbell, as respected a voice as you’ll find in the locker room.

DeCosta said last week that he sees no reason why Jackson will not be the team’s starting quarterback in 2023, whether he plays under a new deal or under the franchise tag. He and Harbaugh opted for a full-throated endorsement, sweeping past whatever frustrations the Ravens might feel regarding Jackson’s approach to injury rehabilitation, his social media messages or his negotiating stances. But if DeCosta is seriously considering the more disruptive alternative, a monster trade involving the Ravens’ most important player, he has no reason to tip his hand.

By tagging Jackson, the Ravens could push this central dilemma off for another year. The $45 million expense would limit their flexibility to make other roster tweaks, but they’re prepared for that possibility. Even if they kick this can down the road, however, a reckoning is near. The wheels of change are in motion again, and the Ravens have to decide if they’re all-in or all-out on Jackson as their future.

Something had to change on offense.

A team cannot score 10, 16, 3, 17, 13, 16 and 17 points in its last seven games and expect to play deep into January. Those were the Ravens’ totals for the game in which Jackson hurt his knee and the six that followed. Advanced stats tell the same story; they ranked 23rd in Football Outsiders’ offense DVOA and 27th in pass DVOA over that closing span after ranking a healthy fourth in offense DVOA over the first nine games.

We saw a strikingly similar pattern in 2021, when they ranked sixth in offense DVOA in the first half and 22nd in the second half. We could pin this on the ankle and knee injuries that took Jackson out of the lineup, but in reality, the bleeding started when he was still playing.

The Ravens could not risk a three-peat and responded logically by parting ways with Roman, whose offenses, for all their efficiency on the ground, also stagnated during his previous stops in San Francisco and Buffalo. Analysts picked apart his passing designs like they’re pulling the wings off a fly, noting the poor spacing and dull concepts that left Jackson staring at a muddle when he wished to throw downfield.

Beyond schematic concerns, a shake-up is sometimes necessary for its own sake: Athletes need a fresh message or need to hear the old message delivered from a different voice to shock them out of self-defeating patterns. This was Harbaugh’s logic when he fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and turned to Jim Caldwell late in the 2012 season, which ended with the Ravens winning the Super Bowl.

The candidates linked to the Ravens by various reports — Los Angeles Rams passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Zac Robinson, Cleveland Browns passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea, Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks coach Dave Canales, Minnesota Vikings passing game coordinator Brian Angelichio, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and former Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich — would all be expected to tune up a passing game that simply was not working well enough to support a deep playoff run.

At the same time, Harbaugh said at his season-ending news conference with DeCosta that he does not envision a total departure from Roman’s approach. He wants an efficient running game to remain the foundation, which would only make sense if Jackson remains in town to orchestrate it.

There are pieces to be excited about here. J.K. Dobbins, frustrated as he was with his lack of carries in the Ravens’ playoff loss, reestablished himself as a great runner after he returned from a cleanup surgery on his knee. Mark Andrews remains one of the league’s best tight ends, and rookie Isaiah Likely showed he could be a dynamic pass catcher in the games he played without Andrews. Wide receiver Rashod Bateman flashed as a deep threat before a Lisfranc injury cut his second season short. The Ravens sorted out their troubles on the offensive line.

Add Jackson and another viable wide receiver — easier said than done — to that stew, and the right chef would be ready to cook.

Roquan Smith is the defensive leader the Ravens needed, and so is Mike Macdonald.

DeCosta went back to the same formula that worked for him in 2019 when he traded for Smith, who was stuck in contractual no man’s land with the Chicago Bears. As with cornerback Marcus Peters three years earlier, DeCosta thought Smith could make the Ravens stronger contenders in the short term and might kindle a mutual love affair with Baltimore for the long term.

His bet paid off better than he could have imagined.

Smith was going to tackle runners in droves; he had done that ever since his days as a homegrown star at the University of Georgia. But his impact transcended individual statistics. Without him, the Ravens had a middle-of-the-pack defense that was trending in the right direction. With him, they ranked third in defensive DVOA. Every piece of the puzzle seemed to fit better than it had before he arrived. Smith formed a mutually beneficial partnership with 2020 first-round pick Patrick Queen. He made his first Pro Bowl and was named first-team All-Pro. In the locker room, he moved with the ease of a guy who had been with the Ravens for five years. “Uncle Ro,” teammates called him, though he’s still three months from his 26th birthday.

The Ravens and Smith waited less than two months to tack five years onto their union at a reported cost of $100 million, the largest sum ever for an off-ball linebacker. Though most teams choose to make their largest investments elsewhere, Smith plays a position that’s holy to the Ravens, one previously occupied by the franchise’s greatest player, Ray Lewis, and another perennial Pro Bowl selection, C.J. Mosley. DeCosta and Harbaugh see Smith as that kind of galvanizing figure for the next generation.

It’s also worth noting that Harbaugh made an astute choice in handing his defense to the 35-year-old Macdonald, who pulled back from Martindale’s all-out attacking and showed a gift for tailoring his game plan to each opponent. If the Bengals win the Super Bowl, we will remember how Macdonald’s defense stifled Joe Burrow and company three times in three matchups and nearly cut off Cincinnati’s postseason march at its root. The Ravens did not give Burrow obvious looks to attack, and they made Cincinnati’s playmakers feel every tackle.

For all the questions around Jackson and their offense, the Ravens came out of 2022 feeling fine about their defensive future.

The offensive line is again a stable building block.

We talked about the disturbing similarities between the Ravens’ offensive failings in 2021 and 2022, but this was not true in the trenches.

Jackson’s struggles in 2021 traced directly to his diminished confidence in an offensive line that could not overcome the domino effect created by left tackle Ronnie Stanley’s ankle injury.

DeCosta sought to restore stability by signing durable right tackle Morgan Moses and using one of his two first-round picks on the best center prospect in years, Tyler Linderbaum. He and Harbaugh kept their fingers crossed that Stanley, paid to be a franchise centerpiece, would play and play well after losing nearly two years.

If anything, the plan worked better than expected.

Moses played 93% of the team’s offensive snaps and graded as the 12th-best tackle in the league, per Pro Football Focus, using his mobility to pull and clear space for the Ravens’ second-ranked rushing attack. Linderbaum was an elite run blocker out of the gate, and he’ll be a regular Pro Bowl selection if he can hold up slightly better as a pass blocker against the largest, most gifted interior defenders. Stanley returned in the fifth week of the season and was on the field for every offensive snap in five of the Ravens’ last six games. More importantly, he regained his Pro Bowl form as a pass blocker and expects to take another step forward in 2023 as he puts his injury farther in the rearview. At right guard, Kevin Zeitler was against the Ravens’ most consistent lineman and again could have made the Pro Bowl (but didn’t).

Ben Powers was the cherry on the sundae at left guard, seizing his starting role with both hands and putting himself in line for a healthy free-agent payday. Powers’ market value might be the one wrench in the Ravens’ future plans, because with Jackson’s contract and a wide receiver at the top of their offensive to-do list, they probably can’t afford a bidding war at guard.

“That offensive line is going to be wholly intact or almost wholly intact next year coming back,” Harbaugh said, and his almost seemed to account for the possibility of Powers signing elsewhere.

The Ravens hoped 2021 third-round pick Ben Cleveland would be a starting guard by now, but he needs to show up for training camp in optimal condition, avoid nagging injuries and regain the faith of the coaching staff and front office. Trystan Colon played well in relief of Zeitler to put himself in the mix. Patrick Mekari can play anywhere, though the Ravens have preferred using him as their top reserve at tackle and center.

The Ravens need to find a long-term partner for Marlon Humphrey at cornerback.

Peters returned from a torn ACL to start 13 games in 2022. He earned an above-average coverage grade from Pro Football Focus, but his trademark gambles did not pay off with interceptions as they did in his prime. Peters turned 30 earlier this month and is headed for free agency. Though he might be a good short-term solution for the Ravens at a modest price, they need to look for new blood at one of the most important positions on their defense.

Rookies Jalyn Armour-Davis and Damarion “Pepe” Williams and 2021 third-round pick Brandon Stephens auditioned this season, and not one of them looked like an ideal future starter.

Cornerbacks don’t come cheap in free agency, and the Ravens will probably need to use their lone first-round pick on the position if they plan to come out of the draft with a projected starter. Would Peters, one of the smartest players on the team, be comfortable signing a short-term deal and taking on a gifted rookie as his apprentice? That might be optimal for the Ravens if the veteran is game.

Their secondary will be good regardless. Humphrey might be the most versatile cornerback in the league. Safety Marcus Williams dislocated his wrist but looked like the premium playmaker that was promised before that. First-round pick Kyle Hamilton was one of the best players on the defense by season’s end. A young starter at cornerback would complete the picture.

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