Questions about the 2019 Ravens — and how Baltimore coaches answered

October 23, 2019 | Luke Jones

The Ravens are over .500 at their bye week for the first time since 2014, creating plenty of optimism for the rest of the 2019 season and beyond.

Below are some answers to questions posed to Baltimore coaches this week and some thoughts on what they had to say:

What about the current state of the pass rush?

Defensive line coach Joe Cullen: “Hits aren’t good enough. We want to get [quarterbacks] down. Obviously, you want to affect the quarterback. The other day we had one sack, but I thought we affected that quarterback similar to the [Patrick] Mahomes game a year ago when we had a lot of hits, hurries, and it flustered him a little bit. Now, obviously, we’d like to get him down, and we will. We’ll keep working on that, but we just have to keep working together. Sometimes it’s the rush not getting there, and we have great coverage. Sometimes the rush is really good, maybe the coverage [isn’t], but when we hone in on our rush and our coverage is working like it did the other day, the sacks will come. It’s like a hitter. He hits a line drive off the wall, and he’s not going back to the dugout all upset. The home runs will come, just like the sacks will come. As long as you keep doing the little things – getting off the ball, making your moves, powering if you’re a power rusher and then making sure the rush lanes are all involved, and when you blitz, blitz; things of that nature – they’ll come.”

My take: The Ravens are tied for fourth in the NFL with 45 quarterback hits and have five fewer sacks than any other team with at least 40 quarterback hits this season, lending credence to Cullen’s general point about some regression to the mean being inevitable. However, Baltimore entered Week 7 with the highest blitz rate in the NFL while ranking only 23rd in pressure rate, according to Pro Football Focus. Hitting the quarterback after the ball is out doesn’t mean the play was disrupted, a reality that becomes more costly when relying on blitzes that will compromise coverage in the back end of the defense if they don’t get home. The quality of the pass rush is probably better than its No. 25 ranking in sacks (12) would indicate, but the number of hits is likely buoyed with more rushers being sent on average. The Ravens can expect tighter coverage on the back end with the addition of Marcus Peters and the return of Jimmy Smith, but the loss of Pernell McPhee puts even more pressure on Eric DeCosta to try to find some pass-rushing help by Tuesday’s trade deadline.

How impressive is Lamar Jackson’s ability to avoid hard contact when he takes off?

Quarterbacks coach James Urban: “I’m pleased that he’s been able to avoid the big hits, of course. Listen, he has a unique ability. Within that, we talk about getting all you can get, and then get down or get out [of bounds]. And you see him routinely trying to get outside, and we’re trying to do those sorts of things to avoid some of those hits. But for the most part, I would say that it’s him sticking to our game plan and how we talk about things.”

My take: You might be able to count on one hand the number of times Jackson has taken a hard hit as a runner that made you hold your breath this year as he’s been coached to avoid cutting back toward the middle and offensive coordinator Greg Roman rarely calls designed Jackson runs between the tackles. However, Jackson ranks 21st overall in rushing attempts, 17th in pass attempts, and ninth in most sacks taken this season, a high volume of plays in which the ball is in his hands for an extended period of time. It’s worth noting Kyler Murray, Andy Dalton, and Matt Ryan have totaled more plays in which they’ve attempted a pass, taken a sack, or run the ball, which would support Jackson’s workload — while unique — hardly being out of control. Quarterbacks are susceptible to injuries in the pocket or as a runner, but the Ravens have seemingly done a good job trying to minimize risk while understanding anyone can be injured on any given play and not trying to eliminate what makes Jackson so special.

Why is Patrick Onwuasor better at the weak-side inside linebacker spot than at the “Mike” position? 

Linebackers coach Mike Macdonald: “I think he’s just more natural at the dime spot … or “Will” — whatever you want to call it. What happens is when you’re over there, you’re a little bit more on the edge of the defense. There’s a little bit more blitzing to be involved in. He’s a great blitzer, so you’re really asking him to do the things that he’s naturally really gifted at doing, using his length, that sort of thing. Yes, I’d say dime is more of his natural spot, and you can see it in his production.”

My take: The Ravens severely miscalculated what they had at inside linebacker this offseason following the free-agent departure of C.J. Mosley, but the veteran signings of Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort have stabilized the position in a matter of weeks. Macdonald revealed Onwuasor played roughly half of the Pittsburgh game with a high ankle sprain, but the fourth-year linebacker should be back for the New England game. A three-man rotation should keep each player fresh and allow defensive coordinator Wink Martindale to play to each individual’s strengths while continuing to use sub packages with one or even no linebackers on the field. Onwuasor had 5 1/2 sacks last season, so the move back to his original position could be a meaningful boost to the pass rush.

How do you explain Miles Boykin’s slow start after such a strong summer from the third-round rookie wide receiver?

Wide receivers coach David Culley: “During training camp and during the preseason, we didn’t really show a whole lot on offense. As the volume started coming in this offense — and I’ve always felt this way — as a wide receiver, it’s probably the toughest position because of the run game and the pass game when it comes to learning everything that you need to know. I think the volume got him a little bit, which affected him thinking about things instead of just reacting. I think it was more so of him just not being as comfortable as he was early when he was just playing and reacting and not thinking about things. But as the offense got more and more [complex], he started thinking about things, and I think that had a lot to do with that. But I think right now at this point, I think he’s in a good place with that.”

My take: What we’ve seen with Boykin is admittedly what I expected from fellow rookie Marquise Brown after the first-round pick missed the entire spring and a large chunk of the summer recovering from January foot surgery. Wide receivers making the jump from college to the pros is a difficult adjustment, but the good news is Boykin has reeled in his two longest receptions of the season over the last two games. Jackson could really use a steadier No. 3 option behind tight end Mark Andrews and Brown in the passing game, and Boykin is a logical candidate with his combination of size and speed.

How is Bradley Bozeman holding up as the starting left guard?

Offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris: “Bradley has done a heck of a job, one heck of a job. I mean, you look at the people he’s had to block, from Week 1 to last weekend. He had to go against Chris Jones. He had to go against [Cameron] Heyward. He’s had to go against the young man that they activated last week from Alabama (Jarran Reed), his old teammate. He’s had the top inside people and has done one heck of a job. I’ve seen nothing but good growth. He’s improved as a puller. He’s improved as a good pass protector. We all make mistakes — coaches, players. We all have a little flaw here or there. The object is to correct it, and he’s correctable and works hard at it.”

My take: Considering how much concern the coaching staff had after giving lengthy looks to ex-Raven Jermaine Eluemunor and rookie fourth-round pick Ben Powers at left guard over the summer, the Ravens seem satisfied with Bozeman, who’s graded as the NFL’s 45th-best guard by PFF entering Week 8. His four-penalty showing against Cincinnati was ugly, but I don’t sense the same level of disenchantment from the coaching staff that I see from some fans on a weekly basis. The 2018 sixth-round pick from Alabama is far from a Pro Bowl lineman, but the reality around the league is that virtually every team has at least one spot bordering on problematic — or worse — in any given week.

How critical has Earl Thomas’ increasing comfort level been to the recent defensive improvement?

Defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt: “There was a lot of talk out there like he’s been making mistakes or whatever. But the first seven games now, seven games into it, he hasn’t busted any coverages. When he talks about his comfort level, it’s just about him being able to go out there and play free. But he hasn’t busted any coverages. He’s playing good football.”

My take: Any suggestion that Thomas hasn’t played well in his first year with the Ravens would be way off-base, but he’s recorded only one pass breakup since intercepting Ryan Fitzpatrick on the first defensive series of the season. Much of the criticism directed at Eric Weddle last season centered around him needing to make more plays on the ball, but we haven’t seen many splash plays from Thomas, even if chances have been rare. The six-time Pro Bowl safety recently commented that Martindale has given him the “green light” on defense, which you hope will lead to more game-changing plays. Thomas has graded as PFF’s 14th-best safety through Week 7, but his confidence in a more complex defensive system than what he was used to in Seattle appears to be growing, which should pay off in the second half of the season.

Is this the offensive revolution you envisioned prior to the season?

Head coach John Harbaugh: “As a great person once said, ‘Let he who has eyes, he who has ears…’ For those who are paying attention, there’s something pretty cool going on, and it’s right here in Baltimore. So, call it whatever you want. It’s pretty neat.”

My take: Taking nothing away from a coaching staff that wisely built an offensive system that caters to its quarterback’s strengths, Jackson himself is the “revolution” as he leads the NFL in yards per carry at 6.9. If you eliminate the 10 quarterback kneels he’s taken, Jackson is gaining 8.03 yards per rushing attempt. His passing has come back down to earth over the last few weeks, but this is still a 22-year-old quarterback who has already made substantial improvement as a passer and shows impressive intangibles in less than a full season of starts. I can’t wait to watch him for the rest of 2019 and beyond.