OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ready or not, the Ravens are about to pull back the curtain on their offense after a summer full of injuries and unanswered questions.
Quarterback Joe Flacco declares that his back feels good and he’s ready to go after missing the entire preseason.
Longtime right guard Marshal Yanda says the Baltimore offense is more committed to the running game than ever after attempting more passes than any team in the NFL the last two seasons.
Wide receiver Mike Wallace believes the group merely needs to trust its abilities.
But even those wearing the deepest tint of purple-colored glasses have to be concerned if they’re being honest, especially with the Ravens opening the season in a place where they haven’t won in nearly six years. To no surprise, head coach John Harbaugh says he believes in his players and their schemes with Marty Mornhinweg in his first full season as offensive coordinator and new senior offensive assistant Greg Roman in charge of fixing a dormant ground attack.
“When you look back at all that stuff, it’s not always completely accurate,” said Harbaugh about outside expectations. “Teams rise up, and they’re better than people thought they’d be. You don’t have to justify it beforehand. You just go and play the games.”
After the Ravens prioritized defense in free agency and the draft and lost a whopping eight offensive players to season-ending injury, suspension, or retirement over the last three months, fans are being asked to take a leap of faith that the offense will be just good enough to complement a defense expected to be one of the best in the NFL this season. Frankly, even that middle-of-the-road standard is a lot to ask considering the personnel losses endured by the league’s 21st-ranked scoring offense from a year ago.
It doesn’t help that the preseason provided no meaningful answers with Flacco sidelined and the projected starting offensive line not playing a single game together. Roman was never going to show his full hand with a running game vowing to be more downhill and physical than in recent years, but a preseason average of 3.1 yards per carry doesn’t spark enthusiasm, either.
The line will have three new starters with two of them — center Ryan Jensen and left guard James Hurst — previously serving as backups and the other — former Oakland right tackle Austin Howard — only arriving in early August. General manager Ozzie Newsome thought so little of his offensive line depth that he acquired two of the Ravens’ three current reserves in separate trades in the last week.
That’s a pretty big leap.
The Ravens lost roughly half of their receiving production from last season while making only two meaningful additions in the skill-position department. Veteran running back Danny Woodhead — if healthy — should help fill the void in the underneath passing game left behind by tight end Dennis Pitta and fullback Kyle Juszczyk while ninth-year receiver Jeremy Maclin fell into Baltimore’s lap in June and will be trusted to become Flacco’s new safety net with Pitta and wide receiver Steve Smith no longer on the roster.
The problem is those two practiced together a total of two days prior to Flacco’s return to the field last weekend. The quarterback acknowledged that their on-field chemistry will be a work in progress in the early weeks of the season.
“Every guy has their own way of doing things, and you build a rapport with guys throughout the course of the year and throughout practice and all of that,” Flacco said. “But the other side of it is that Jeremy is a good player, and he knows how to get open. Things might not be perfect right now, but if he gets open, then I should be able to put the ball on him.
“We have been doing that since we have been six years old. You just have to go back to the basics of things. You can’t overthink things too much.”
No matter how much the Ravens chose to focus on improving their defense in the offseason, they need more from their offense to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. But is there enough to like about this group on paper to believe that will happen?
Though another year removed from his 2015 knee injury, Flacco is coming off back-to-back lackluster seasons and has a lot of catching up to do after being sidelined for more than a month. The aforementioned challenges on the offensive line certainly don’t quell concerns about the quarterback’s back. Backup Ryan Mallett’s play in the preseason made it pretty apparent that the Ravens are going nowhere if Flacco misses meaningful time.
A group of running backs led by starter Terrance West doesn’t appear to have much upside after the season-ending loss of Kenneth Dixon in July. The addition of two running backs to the practice squad certainly appears to reflect that line of thinking.
The current collection of tight ends combined for just six catches last season. Nick Boyle is a dependable blocker, but the Ravens need to get a return on their investments in the 36-year-old Benjamin Watson and 2015 second-round pick Maxx Williams, who are both coming back from serious injuries a year ago.
The wide receiver trio of Maclin, Wallace, and former first-round pick Breshad Perriman probably inspires more confidence than any other offensive position group, but will the offensive line and running game be effective enough for Flacco to effectively utilize these weapons?
And after many called for Harbaugh to replace Mornhinweg since the 2016 offense showed little improvement when he took over for the fired Marc Trestman, the coordinator will be under great pressure to revitalize the downfield passing game and to bring new ideas to the table. He also needs to get more out of his quarterback as he continues to coach that position group.
Much has worked against their offense in the last few months, but the Ravens must find their way on that side of the ball and find it quickly. The Bengals — nor any other early-season opponent — aren’t going to feel sorry for them.
“We’re paid to do a job and paid to do a job at a high level,” Yanda said. “It doesn’t matter how much time you’re taking off, if you’re injured or sick — it doesn’t matter. You have to go out there and produce. We’re expected to go out there and play winning football on Sunday, and we’re preparing to do that.”