The 2021 season will go down as one of the strangest in NFL history, especially in Baltimore.
The Ravens lost their top three running backs, J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill, and Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters before the start of the season. And then they lost Ronnie Stanley, one of the top left tackles in the NFL, after the season opener against the Raiders in Las Vegas.
Regardless, the Ravens kept plugging through the season even as the injuries kept mounting. Some games they won on their own; in others, they were lucky. It didn’t matter. Fans will tell you, “a win is a win is a win.”
That’s true, at least in the early part of the season, but not going into December and January. Contending teams want to win, but they also want style points because that means they are getting better. The idea is to peak going into the postseason, not keep surviving.
After improving to 8-3 after a 16-10 win against the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 28, the Ravens went on a six-game losing streak. They went from being the top seed in the AFC at one point to not making the expanded field after a 16-13 loss overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
It was only a matter of time before luck or fate turned its back on the Ravens. A team can’t depend on an NFL record 66-yard field goal, a fumble, a blocked field goal or missed 2-point conversion plays to win every week. Sooner or later, talent takes over, especially when the opposing quarterbacks are, in succession, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Burrow, Matthew Stafford and Ben Roethlisberger, and the receivers are Davante Adams, Ja’Marr Chase, Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr.
If the Ravens thoroughly examine their program — trainers, offseason conditioning programs, doctors, coaches — and make the proper modifications, they should be a serious contender in 2022.
“I really only have one message for all of the questions, you know what I’m saying?,” asked Ravens safety Chuck Clark after the season-ending loss to Pittsburgh. “So, every question that is going to come after this, as respectfully as I can say as possible, just watch how we bounce back. That’s all I have to say.”
That’s all we needed to hear.
But before we move away from 2021, here is my final report card of the season:
Starter Lamar Jackson played well for nearly a half of the season but started to have accuracy problems in Week 7, a 41-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals that signaled the beginning of his downward spiral. The 22-10 loss to Miami on Nov. 11 showed that he had problems reading blitzes, coping with pressure and being able to get rid of the ball quickly. Compared to 2020, Jackson regressed a little despite completing 246 of 382 passes for 2,882 yards and 16 touchdowns. He was also sacked 38 times and threw 13 interceptions, both career highs. Tyler Huntley proved he was serviceable as a backup, completing 122 of 188 passes for 1,081 yards and three touchdowns, but also showed he needs more playing time. He has to learn to go through his progressions. Josh Johnson was a late-season addition and was impressive during the limited time he played, completing 28 of 40 passes for 304 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in his only start against the Bengals.. Grade: B-
The Ravens were without their top three performers all season because of injuries, and they got as much out of this group as possible. Neither Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray had the consistent speed and acceleration to bounce outside, but occasionally would fool teams and both got better in the second half of the season. Freeman finished with 576 yards and five touchdowns on 133 carries and Murray had 501 yards and six touchdowns on 119 carries. The player who had the speed to get outside was Ty’Son Williams, but he fell out of favor with coach John Harbaugh. Williams had 35 carries for 185 yards and one touchdown and might have gotten more playing time if he worked and practiced harder. Grade: C+
This was a group general manager Eric DeCosta hoped to improve on during the offseason, but it didn’t work out. Quarterbacks were often under duress and sacked 57 times. Stanley was expected to be the cornerstone but played in only one game because he wasn’t fully recovered from an ankle injury suffered last November and had to undergo another surgery. The Ravens anticipated that Alejandro Villanueva would provide stability at right tackle but had to move him to the other side to replace Stanley. It didn’t make a difference. Villanueva, the long-time Steeler, had problems with knee bend, lateral movement and struggled with speed rushers. Kevin Zeitler, a free agent acquisition, played well at right guard and Bradley Bozeman was solid at center, even though he occasionally struggled snapping out of the shotgun formation. The Ravens tried several players at left guard, but none worked. Overall, this group could run block, but lack of athleticism was a problem in pass blocking. Grade: C-
This group has potential but was underused. Jackson struggled with pressure and the changes at quarterback hurt continuity. Tight end Mark Andrews was one of the best at his position in the NFL, catching 107 passes for 1,361 yards and nine touchdowns. He was a factor all over the field in the short, mid- and long-range passing attack. The quarterbacks, though, focused too much on Andrews and seldom went to the second receiver in their progressions. Marquise Brown had 91 catches for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns, but wasn’t dependable, especially after Jackson suffered an ankle injury late in the season. The Ravens drafted Rashod Bateman in the first round in April but he often disappeared after the first half of a lot of games. Bateman, though, still finished with 46 catches for 515 yards and a touchdown. The Ravens had a lot of speed in Brown and Devin Duvernay but never took advantage of it with Duvernay catching only 33 passes for 272 yards and two touchdowns. Sammy Watkins had 27 catches for 394 yards but became another free agent wideout who contributed little in this run-first offense. Grade: C+
Few teams can run against the Ravens and 2021 was no exception. The Ravens allowed only 1,436 yards and 3.8 yards per carry. Despite injuries, both end Calais Campbell and tackle Brandon Williams were forces in the middle, even though Williams didn’t play well until the second half of the season. Campbell was eighth on the team in tackles with 49 and Williams was 12th with 35. The problem for both is their age, as Campbell is 35 and Williams is 32. The Ravens need an infusion of young talent. Campbell will probably be invited back if he chooses but the Ravens might part ways with Williams. Justin Madubuike, who finished his second season, might be able to step into a starting position. He had 36 tackles last season but it’s questionable if tackles Justin Ellis (18 tackles) and Broderick Washington (16 tackles) are ready to become full-time starters. The Ravens might look to the draft to find starters, especially pass rushers, because only Madubuike and Campbell provided pressure. Derek Wolfe, expected to start at end, never got onto the field in 2021 because of injuries. Grade: B-
If this defense was going to play well, the linebackers and linemen had to take control and dominate. The linemen did their jobs. The linebackers struggled. Outside linebacker Tyus Bowser (59 tackles) was playing well up until the last game against Pittsburgh when he suffered an Achilles heel injury. Veteran Josh Bynes (76) came in and did a decent job taking over for Patrick Queen (team-leading 97) in the middle. Bynes, though, was a liability in pass coverage. No linebacker had more of a disappointing season than Queen. He played poorly at middle linebacker to start the season but was moved to the weak side several games into the schedule. He flourished for a game or two but then went back to missing tackles and not being able to cover in passing situations. Queen missed a lot of tackles, most from trying to arm tackle instead of putting his body on the ball carrier. Justin Houston had 34 tackles and 4 ½ sacks but didn’t give the Ravens the type of pass rush they needed. Third-year outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson gave the team little and veteran Pernell McPhee gave them even less. Grade: C-
The Ravens will point to injuries being the problems for the miscommunication on the back end, but this unit struggled in the same areas when three of the four starters opened the season. There is something missing, especially when receivers consistently run wide open, especially in the middle of the field. The Ravens started the season without Peters, and then it just kept getting worse with season-ending injuries to cornerback Marlon Humphrey and safety DeShon Elliott Humphrey, though he wasn’t playing well before he suffered a torn pectoral muscle in a Week 13 loss in Pittsburgh. Safety Chuck Clark (80 tackles) was playing well at the end of the season and was starting to emerge as a team leader. But the Ravens couldn’t matchup physically at the end of the year, not with cornerbacks like Chris Westry and Kevon Seymour. Who? That’s my point. The Pittsburgh game might have been the last for veterans Jimmy Smith, a cornerback, and safety Anthony Levine Sr. Grade: D
Justin Tucker continues to prove he might be the best placekicker in NFL history. He made 35 of 37 field goals, his two missed coming in the 40- to 49-yard range. But he was six of six from beyond 50 yards, including the NFL record 66-yard game-winner he kicked in Detroit. Overall, the Ravens kicking game was sound. Punter Sam Koch averaged 44.4 yards a punt on 71 attempts and put 26 inside the 20-yard line. Koch, though, didn’t get as much distance in the final four games compared to earlier in the season. Duvernay averaged 24.1 yards on 28 kickoff returns and had a 13.9 average on 26 punt returns. Grade: B+
Harbaugh and his staff deserve a lot of credit for keeping this team together despite a depleted roster. They played hard and competed every week and came within a game of going to the playoffs. A head coach’s job is to get his players to the final four minutes of a game and then playmakers have to make plays. Well, the Ravens didn’t have many playmakers left, so the coaching staff had to come up big. On game days, this staff didn’t. “We fell short in numerous games here down the stretch in the sense that we just couldn’t find a play,” said Harbaugh. “We couldn’t find a play that we needed. We couldn’t find a way to put them in position to make the play that would make the difference in the game, and that’s what I feel worse about as a coach.” He got that one right. Grade: C
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