It has been an eventful ride since week one of the season. Ironically, that might have been the least surprising outcome of the entire season as the Houston Texans predictably faded down the stretch in the second half. Still, it was C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson’s first games and the entire offense looks different. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens went on to clinch the top seed in the AFC with a remarkable 13-4 campaign.
We spoke with Kyle Barber of Baltimore Beatdown before that game and we do so here again. While these two teams have met before, these are entirely new teams with improvements and key injuries to consider. As per usual, our discussion began with the quarterbacks.
Battle Red Blog: Lamar Jackson is 1-3 as a playoff starter and 0-2 at home. What is different this time around? Are you worried about him feeling added pressure to perform well?
Kyle Barber: The differences are the coaching staff and players assembled around Jackson. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken has built a system that isn’t solely predicated on running the football. They still run the football, obviously, as they’re the best rushing team, but it isn’t their entire offensive philosophy. And for the most part, Monken doesn’t get too frightened to run the ball when things get hairy. That was something former offensive coordinator Greg Roman did in the playoffs. He would shy from running the ball when they were down only one score or possession, and they didn’t have the weapons to go downfield by air.
Speaking of weapons, that’s another area of significance this time around. The offense isn’t solely on Jackson, tight end Mark Andrews and a single receiver. In previous iterations, it was Jackson, Andrews and Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown. This year, they have wide receivers Zay Flowers, Odell Beckham Jr., Rashod Bateman and Nelson Agholor, who have all contributed to varying degrees. At tight end they have multiple threats, including Andrews, Isaiah Likely and Charlie Kolar. Hell, even tight end/fullback Patrick Ricard is a receiving threat. This offense has a sturdy offensive line and weapons are around Jackson. They have both a creative and disciplined coordinator.
All of this is without mentioning Jackson, who is a top-tier quarterback in this league. He’s matured a lot over the past few seasons. He’s wiser and its shown on the gridiron. His freedom at the line of scrimmage has been noticed and delivered. His passing has matured.
This all said, yes, there is a bit of worry. I think all Ravens fans would be lying if they said they’re completely without worry. Jackson, at times, has pressed as a player trying to force things. He’s so damn good that when things aren’t going his way, he has a minor tendency to press. Most times, it’s successful, if we’re being honest. But mistakes happen when you’re trying so damn hard. It’s like going in for a layup. You want to will the ball to go in so damn bad that you’re now ringing it off the backboard or clipping it into the rim instead of remaining disciplined in your fundamentals.
But, Jackson has had pressure all his career. This is a bit more and a bit different, but I’m expecting him to perform this Saturday.
BRB: As a whole, how has the Ravens offense looked as compared to the Greg Roman offenses of the past?
KB: I’ve talked about this a few times and it’s been asked often. The biggest change has to do with their touchdown scoring rate in the red zone. Near the end of Roman’s tenure, the Ravens couldn’t buy their way into a touchdown. Settling for field goals was the norm and you can’t win football games that way.
Now, the Ravens are scoring touchdowns 61.8% of the time in the red zone, which is seventh-best in the NFL. That’s a far distance last season when they scored touchdowns in the RZ on fewer than half of their trips (44.44%). Some of that is due to the Ravens not having Jackson for the late half of the season, but nonetheless, you must figure out ways to find six.
Other ways include how the passing game is more complementary to the passing offense and the utilization of weapons. But, that’s in part due to who they have as weapons in the passing game.
BRB: Roquan Smith has been mentioned as a defensive player of the year candidate. What is the best case you can make for him?
KB: Well, he wouldn’t be my pick. He’s an outstanding linebacker and he’s deserving of being First Team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler, but DPOY hasn’t been for him this season. That award now feels like it’s only possible if you’re a sack artist or a takeaway machine.
But I will take this time to compliment Smith’s game. He’s the next iteration of Ray Lewis. No, they’re not the same player and this is a different era than it was two decades ago. But Smith’s sideline speed, his rapid diagnosis of plays and ability to lead the 11-man squad is of incredible quality. Many have downplayed the impact off-ball linebackers have in the modern NFL, but the counterpoint are guys like Smith.
Watch defenses without playmaking linebackers. See how tight ends and receivers spray the middle of the field with receptions and gash running games into the second level. That’s not the case against Baltimore with their duo of Patrick Queen and Smith.
BRB: Injuries are always a huge deal this time of year. We know Mark Andrews has been activated. Are there any other Ravens players you are keeping an eye on from the injury report?
KB: Andrews has been activated to practice from injured reserve. He has not been added to the roster... yet. It would appear he’s on the path to playing this week, but we’ll not know until late Friday.
[Ed. Note: This was written well before Mark Andrews and Marlon Humphrey were ruled inactive for Saturday.]
But, it’s trending in that direction. I watched him in practice last week and this week and he’s looking more like himself. And, in a locker room of hard workers, Andrews, I’d argue, is the most determined. His competitive nature is visible just being in the same room. I’ve heard some describe the switch he flips as going from a focused person into a “psycho” for how he just pushes himself and others.
As for the others:
It’s a worry that cornerback Marlon Humphrey has not been practicing. He is their best CB and it’s bizarre that he’s not getting in work. He has two days to get back on the field and get involved in their game preparation for Saturday. He may be a guy that can just hop right in but that’s not ideal when going up against the likes of quarterback C.J. Stroud and the Texans’ offense.
As for the others, there are no big names on the sidelines. They are missing inside linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips, a good special teams player and wide receiver Tylan Wallace who was the starting returner after Devin Duvernay’s injury. Now, Duvernay is working back and is expected to be activated before Saturday and the Ravens, who have such an affinity for special teams, have backups who can fill in for Phillips if need be.
BRB: The Ravens are heavy favorites (-9) according to DraftKings Sportsbook. Do you see them covering that? Are there any other prop bets you feel comfortable recommending?
KB: I’m stressed about the line because the last time the Ravens were such high favorites was 2019. They were 10-point favorites over a tough, AFC South team who caught fire and came into M&T Bank Stadium and set the place ablaze. Hopefully, the Ravens can take care of business.
They are, objectively, the better team. As the Texans have grown and developed over the course of the season from Week 1, so too have the Ravens. They’re far more improved. But, they have to damn well show it and the two weeks off will bring to light if they’re rested or rusted. For Baltimore’s sake, I’m hoping it’s the former.
I think nine points is too much, but I do believe this team is ready to win on Saturday. Texans cover, but Ravens win.
We want to thank Kyle for taking the time to answer our questions and give us as much information on how the Ravens currently shape up as he did. We remind you to check out his work at Baltimore Beatdown and wanted to wish him and the Ravens the best of luck for the remainder of the season.