Sunday marks the official beginning of a new era for the Ravens.
Of course, the soft opening of the Lamar Jackson era last year brought the first AFC North championship since 2012 and a return to the playoffs after a three-year absence, but the Ravens have since said farewell to future Hall of Famer Terrell Suggs, four-time Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley, six-time Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle, and 2018 team sacks leader Za’Darius Smith in addition to former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco. The mass exodus from the NFL’s top-ranked defense leaves Baltimore without a former first-round pick at outside linebacker or in its entire front seven for the first time in franchise history, putting more pressure on a deep and talented secondary to account for concerns about the pass rush.
How quickly a younger defense adjusts and a rebuilt offense grows will determine how successful John Harbaugh’s team will be in 2019. The first test comes against Miami, a rebuilding team with no immediate direction beyond collecting assets for the future.
It’s time to go on the record as the Dolphins play the Ravens for the sixth time in the last seven seasons with the latter winning four of the previous five meetings. Baltimore leads the all-time regular-season series 7-6 despite a 3-5 record at what is now called Hard Rock Stadium. That doesn’t include the Ravens’ two postseason victories in Miami during the 2001 and 2008 campaigns.
Below are five predictions for Sunday:
1. Lamar Jackson will start fast with a touchdown pass and a run for a score. I’m really looking forward to watching Jackson in his first full year as a starter and expect the Ravens to be more aggressive passing the ball in the first half, especially on first downs when he completed just under 68 percent of his throws and produced a 100.6 passer rating on 56 attempts last year. That said, there isn’t much experience in that Miami front seven to expect the discipline to contain Jackson’s mobility on zone-read plays and run-pass options, which will lead to some rushing opportunities off the edge.
2. A communication breakdown will lead to a Ryan Fitzpatrick touchdown to Albert Wilson. We all know the story with Fitzpatrick, who is capable of getting into a groove in which he torches opponents and then reverts to looking like one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. Meanwhile, Wink Martindale has said the biggest challenge in replacing the veterans on his defense has been communication with the pre-snap adjustments and disguise the Ravens use. Even against a below-average offense, a hiccup won’t be surprising considering how little starters played in the preseason.
3. Tight coverage will contribute to four sacks and an Earl Thomas pick in his Ravens debut. I’m admittedly not a believer in the pass rush going into 2019, but that won’t be a problem Sunday with the Dolphins replacing both of their starting offensive tackles and coming off a season in which they surrendered 52 sacks. Strong pass coverage will again help create sacks for the Ravens this season, but Thomas reminded this week he was brought to Baltimore to help create more turnovers. He’ll get one against an overly-aggressive and desperate Fitzpatrick in the second half.
4. Mark Ingram will headline a 215-yard effort from the Baltimore ground game. We’ll see more offensive balance from the Ravens this season, but not when they have a lead in the second half as they will Sunday. The Dolphins ranked 31st in run defense and 26th in yards per carry allowed at 4.8 last year, and there’s little reason to think that will markedly improve under new head coach Brian Flores. Ingram will carry the workload in the first half, but Greg Roman will mix in more carries to Gus Edwards and rookie Justice Hill after intermission to shorten the game.
5. The Ravens do what they’re supposed to do in a 30-10 win over a bad football team. You gladly take this kind of road game on your schedule, but there’s little upside from an eyeball test perspective with the Dolphins front office tanking in 2019. The Ravens simply need to play a clean football game in which they take care of the ball, minimize penalties, and take what Miami gives them. It’s in Martindale’s nature to be aggressive on defense, but Fitzpatrick is the kind of quarterback who will eventually give you the game the longer you remain disciplined. We know anything can happen in the NFL and Miami still has some talented football players on both sides of the ball, but there’s little excuse for Harbaugh’s team to leave South Florida without a season-opening win.