Ravens hoping improvement to the passing game will be a group effort

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Ravens hoping improvement in the passing game will be a team effort originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

The Ravens are well aware that improving their passing game is a key focus of their offseason. To take the next step in the AFC, the entire offense needs to expand upon its historic rushing success by adding a more consistent, dynamic aerial attack.

That was obvious to fans throughout the 2020 season, and in speaking with members of the media on Tuesday, the Ravens themselves made it clear they are taking that challenge to heart. 

"Those guys are balling out. The deep threat, stretching the field, making plays, catching the ball. You know everybody’s incredibly locked in," fourth-year tight end Mark Andrews said of the new additions to the receiving corps in Baltimore. "We’re trying to be the best team we can be. And our passing game is looking really good, to be honest with you. So I’m excited about it. Those young guys are balling out, and the older guys are taking them under their wings and showing them the ropes. So it’s been great to see."

It's not just the highly-anticipated rookie duo of Rashod Bateman (first-round pick) and Tylan Wallace (fourth-round pick) that are getting the Ravens excited about widening the scope of their offense.

Andrews himself has caught 17 touchdowns in 29 games over the past two seasons including his Pro Bowl 2019, but head coach John Harbaugh thinks he's running the best routes of his career. Marquise Brown has shined in the past two postseasons despite up-and-down regular seasons as the team's de facto top wideout.

But it's the running backs that Harbaugh thinks can make a real difference in the passing game. Sophomore rusher JK Dobbins, in particular, has caught the eye of his coach at OTAs.

"He’s made strides," Harbaugh said of Dobbins' role as a pass-catcher. "You know, it’s been one of the main points of emphasis to involve our running backs in the passing game more going forward here. JK’s obviously going to be a focal point of that, and of course, Justice [Hill], and Gus [Edwards] does what he does in the passing game. But I think JK and Justice specifically, that’s what they should be really good at. And that should be a big part of their tool kit. So they’ve both done a great job. That’s something we want to emphasize and continue to improve at."

Designed passes to running backs are an area NFL teams have taken advantage of more and more often in recent years, though the Ravens have lagged behind in that respect. Teams with rushing quarterbacks that like to scramble typically see fewer passes to their backs, as their quarterbacks are more inclined to take off rather than check down.

That's been especially true in Baltimore, as Lamar Jackson is perhaps the most prolific running quarterback in the history of the league. But the Ravens feel like they need to push the issue more often when it comes to utilizing their dynamic running backs.

Gus Edwards, one day after signing a two-year, $10 million extension to keep the Baltimore backfield intact for the next three seasons, agreed. When asked what facet of his game he thought could most stand to be improved, Edwards didn't hesitate.

"I want to be a part of the passing game more," Edwards said. "I think every year I’ve been sneaking my way into that. This year hopefully I can be more a part of it and just keep getting better in that aspect."

Of course, perhaps the biggest addition to the passing game - at least in 2021 - will be former Chiefs receiver Sammy Watkins.

Some fans may be relatively disappointed with the addition of Watkins after the Ravens reportedly struck out on adding bigger names like Kenny Golladay and JuJu Smith-Schuster. But the former top-five overall pick has seven years of experience under his belt and, when healthy, should give Lamar Jackson one of the most well-rounded receiving options he has had yet in his young career.

The coaching staff is certainly excited about Watkins, both in terms of how he has looked on the field at OTAs and how he has adapted in the locker room.

"He looks good. I mean he’s big, he’s fast, he’s got good hands and he’s a veteran guy," Harbaugh said of the team's biggest free agent addition. "I think the thing I’ve noticed about him is he’s really a student of the game. He really wants to improve his game, he’s very much a stickler for the fundamentals, and pushing himself on the fundamentals in and out of routes, angles, eyes, hands, hand placement. All that stuff has just been something that he works at. He asks a lot of questions of his coaches, he always wants to know what he can do better. Boy, you see that in a guy, he’s only 27, 28 years old, I feel like I’m very hopeful that maybe his best football is still ahead of him going forward. And he’s young enough for that to be the case."

Watkins will turn 28 in a matter of days, but his 4,665 career receiving yards is more than twice as much as the rest of the team's receiving corps combined.

There are plenty of avenues for the Ravens to diversify their passing game. Rather than go all in on a single player to help turn things around, the Ravens are turning to veteran free agents, rookies, tight ends and running backs to all carry more of the load.

Wherever they find their help, adding to their passing attack is the best chance they have to take their offense from great to elite and cement themselves as Super Bowl contenders once more.