Ravens roundtable: Answering questions about regular season, rest vs. rust, playoff weaknesses and more

Save for some self-inflicted wounds early in the schedule, the Ravens exceeded expectations during the regular season, particularly after losing top running back J.K. Dobbins to a season-ending torn Achilles in Week 1 and tight end and security blanket Mark Andrews to an ankle injury in Week 12, as well as a slew of others to less serious injuries the past few months.

Baltimore (13-4) finished with the best record in the NFL to claim the top seed in the AFC, a first-round bye in the playoffs and home-field advantage through the conference championship game. The Ravens also have the presumptive NFL Most Valuable Player in quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is the favorite to win the award for the second time in his career, a historically dominant defense that led the NFL in sacks (60), takeaways (31) and fewest points allowed (16.5) and should be relatively healthy with key starters expected back in time for their divisional round game Jan. 20 or 21.

But the playoffs, of course, are a different animal. One small mistake can end big Super Bowl dreams.

Still, the regular season provided plenty of insight on what awaits the Ravens this postseason. Though Baltimore is just 2-5 in the playoffs and has failed to advance past the divisional round since its last Super Bowl title in the 2012 season, the expectation from fans, rightfully so, is much higher this year.

So with the playoffs about to begin and the Ravens awaiting to see who their opponent will be, Baltimore Sun reporters Brian Wacker and Childs Walker and columnist Mike Preston break down the best and worst from the regular season and look ahead to the postseason.

The Ravens’ 13-4 record surpassed even the most optimistic expectations. What’s your biggest takeaway from the regular season?

Wacker: That this team has been an exquisite blend of hungry, talented veterans often willing to set aside ego for the greater good of chasing a Super Bowl ring, and smart, talented, explosive young players to complement them. Winning helps, of course, but players such as Jadeveon Clowney, Kyle Van Noy and Odell Beckham Jr. have blended seamlessly with rising stars such as Roquan Smith, Kyle Hamilton and Zay Flowers. Jackson, meanwhile, has elevated his game to another level. He’s always been a dynamic generational talent, but his command of the offense seems to have ratcheted up.

Walker: This team can win a lot of different ways and adjusts well within games, traits that will play well in the postseason. The Ravens don’t have a pronounced weakness. Jackson is a more polished passer than he was during his previous MVP season, but coordinator Todd Monken’s offense can still pound out yards on the ground when it’s time to secure a win in the second half. The Ravens’ defense surrendered chunk plays in the first halves of blowout wins over the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins, but coordinator Mike Macdonald made tactical adjustments that paid off against two of the league’s most dangerous offenses.

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Preston: There were two. The first was how the Ravens physically dominated teams. The NFL is filled with average teams but the Ravens just mauled and beat teams that were supposed to be good, such as Detroit, Seattle, San Francisco and Miami. In some cases, they were expected to win, but they took away the other team’s desire to compete. I haven’t seen that in Baltimore since the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2000 with one of the best defenses in league history.

While on the subject of defense, this group carried the team while the offense was a “work in progress.” The Ravens were expected to be strong in the front seven, but the secondary stepped up despite being riddled with injuries to starters such as cornerback Marlon Humphrey and safety Marcus Williams.

The Ravens entered the season without a shutdown cornerback, but Brandon Stephens has stepped up, as has safety Geno Stone. Combined with pass rushers Clowney and Van Noy, tackle Justin Madubuike and linebackers Patrick Queen and Smith, the Ravens had a strong regular season.

What’s more important during the first-round bye: getting extra rest and healing up for a playoff run, or staying sharp after a strong regular season?

Wacker: Rest, rest and more rest. Sure, there’s always a concern about rust whenever there is a long layoff, and it wouldn’t be stunning if that happened again this year. But the makeup of the roster is what to makes that unlikely. There’s too much of a veteran presence and too much high-level, intelligent talent to bungle the opportunity. Only nine players from the 2019 team that was stunned by the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round after going 14-2 in the regular season remain. One of them is Jackson, and he’s been focused on not letting past playoff failures be his defining legacy.

Walker: Healing is goal No. 1. With essential players such as Hamilton, Smith, Humphrey and Flowers banged up, the Ravens needed the extra week to be in fighting form for the playoffs. But players have made the point that rest cannot come at the expense of losing their edge. So those who could practice did so Wednesday, making sure the detail work they have obsessed over for six months is not squandered with the finish line in sight.

Preston: One doesn’t have more importance than the other. Teams play the regular season to earn a first-round bye and the extra week to heal. Some believe that a team, if peaking, needs to play every week to continue the momentum, but football is physically draining. All you need to do is look at the rash of quarterback injuries this season or the current shape of the Dolphins, who are limping into the postseason with several injuries.

There will be rust, but that will go away quickly. Aside from tight end Mark Andrews, the Ravens should be in good shape for their divisional round game. To keep it in perspective, the Ravens have had virtually three weeks off if you count resting several starters in the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh. The Ravens accomplished all their goals of having the league’s best record, winning the AFC North and earning a first-round bye.

Every playoff team has a fatal flaw. What’s the Ravens’ biggest weakness?

Wacker: Run defense. Teams that have had success against the Ravens this year could run the ball well and command the line of scrimmage. See: the Los Angeles Rams. The Cleveland Browns also shredded the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium and came away with a win because of it. Being able to grind out yards on the ground, wear out the defense, control the clock and keep the score close puts all the pressure on Baltimore.

Walker: Macdonald has gone with lighter boxes this year, conceding rushing yards, especially in the first half, in the name of preventing big passing plays and creating takeaways. His calculation paid off as the Ravens allowed the fewest points and third fewest yards per play in the league. But it’s fair to wonder how the Ravens, who allowed 4.5 yards per carry, would hold up against an opponent that builds an early lead and runs relentlessly in the second half. That was the formula the Titans used to beat a different Ravens defense, with a different coordinator, four years ago.

Preston: Their biggest weakness is pass protection, especially at offensive tackle. Both right tackle Morgan Moses and left tackle Ronnie Stanley have struggled, but Jackson has made up for it because of his scrambling ability. Both tackles played well against San Francisco and Miami before having trouble again against the Steelers.

The Ravens have done a good job of getting them help with fullbacks, tight ends and running backs chipping on the edges, but that affects the number of receivers in the passing game. In the playoffs, that will be a key decision for offensive coordinator Todd Monken because the quality of opponents will be stronger.

Besides pass blocking, the other concern is stopping the run. It’s not really a weakness but it is something to keep an eye on in the postseason. Before the Week 18 game, the Ravens were allowing 106.5 yards rushing per game. The Steelers pounded them inside, finishing with 155 yards on 39 attempts. In the postseason, opposing teams will exploit your weaknesses.

Lamar Jackson is expected to win his second NFL Most Valuable Player Award, yet he’s struggled in the postseason so far. Why might this year be different?

Wacker: There are myriad reasons to believe that Jackson will be much better in the playoffs this year than in the past: He’s in the sixth year of his career; he has been empowered to take control of a more dynamic offense; he has considerably better talent around him at wide receiver. Talking to teammates, it’s clear he has also paid attention to small details and made smart decisions that have stacked up to a big impact. Some of his numbers were better when he was the 2019 NFL MVP, but overall he is playing the best football of his career right now.

Walker: Jackson is a better mechanical passer, and as he said this week, he has seen so many more defensive tricks than he had as a 23-year-old, finishing up his first full season as a starter. He has managed games expertly this year, giving the Ravens what they need, when they need it, even against the toughest opponents. If we did not know his playoff history, there would be no reason to think he’s due for a fall based on the way he played in December with a division title and No. 1 seed hanging in the balance.

Preston: There are several reasons why that might not happen. First of all, Jackson is now in his sixth year. He missed virtually the final two months of the past two seasons because of injuries, but this year he has played in big games down the stretch against Miami and San Francisco. That experience will help because Jackson has appeared nervous in previous postseason games.

Then there is the addition of first-year coordinator Monken. Jackson previously ran without a purpose, but now he runs to buy time and allow his receivers to get open. Monken’s running game concepts are similar to his predecessor Greg Roman’s, but the passing game concepts are different, better developed and more sophisticated.

The Ravens have more big-play potential compared with previous years with the additions of Beckham, Flowers, Nelson Agholor and tight end Isaiah Likely. They are the most complete and balanced team in the NFL.

Does this guarantee Jackson will succeed in the playoffs? No. But overall, his chances are better because the team invested a lot in the offense during the offseason. Despite the big contract and MVP awards, Jackson has to win in the postseason to cement a legacy in Baltimore and around the NFL.

Great quarterbacks win big games in the postseason.

Other than Jackson, who is the Ravens’ most important player entering the postseason?

Wacker: No one’s even close to Jackson in terms of importance — without him, the season is over. Next in line, though, is inside linebacker Smith. Hamilton is perhaps just as important given his versatility, but it’s Smith who sets the tone for the league’s best defense and quickly dissects opposing offenses and communicates the call to the rest of the team. He makes everyone around him better.

Walker: If Jackson is the most important player by far, the guys most responsible for keeping him upright, tackles Stanley and Moses, have to be near the top of the list. Both have struggled with injuries (Stanley to his knee and Moses to his shoulder) at times this year, but both did a good job keeping the heat off their quarterback in those dominant wins over the 49ers and Dolphins. It will be interesting to see if the Ravens continue rotating Patrick Mekari and Daniel Faalele to keep the veterans fresh. That unorthodox strategy seemed to pay off, but the offensive line’s ceiling is still highest with Stanley and Moses holding down the edges.

Preston: It’s Smith. He is to the defense what Jackson is to the offense.

Go back and look at the first half of the Steelers game last week. The defense was out of sync and the Ravens were lost without him. As far as leadership, he has become the voice of the team. He is calm and has great wisdom and influence on his teammates. He delivers the pregame speech or “boomalacher,” as Ray Lewis did.

Smith has a quiet charm about him and is a true professional. When he speaks, everybody listens because he commands that kind of respect.