Every January, the NFL playoffs turn into a referendum on teams that weren’t good enough to get there and teams that weren’t good enough to make it to February. Every January the same questions are asked: what went wrong? What do they need? Where are they unlucky? What will happen next?
Sometimes the most obvious conclusions are the most useless. In the case of every AFC team outside of Kansas City, there is only one Patrick Mahomes and he is not expected to play for anyone other than the Chiefs until around 2050.
But there are lessons the Ravens can learn from the path the Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals took to get to Sunday’s AFC Championship game, as well as from what the Los Angeles Rams and Suns took. Francisco 49ers to get to the NFC championship game. As the Ravens look to get past a disappointing 8-9 season, here’s how they can model their 2022 team after the NFL’s Final Four.
Few teams have had worse injury luck than the 2021 Ravens. In just two weeks, running back J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, cornerback Marcus Peters and left tackle Ronnie Stanley were injured at the end of the season. Rookie wide receiver Rashod Bateman, their top pick in the draft, missed most of training camp and then the Ravens’ first five games. Cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Anthony Averett, as well as defenseman DeSean Elliott, were lost in the second half of the season.
Yes, and quarterback Lamar Jackson, their most dynamic player and 2019 NFL MVP, has missed five games with an ankle injury and illness.
However, is there one team that definitely had worse? 49ers 2020. San Francisco won six games with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, eight with tight end George Kittle, and two with defenseman Nick Boza. Running back Raheem Mostert (eight games), wide receiver Deebo Samuel (five) and quarterback Dee Ford (one) also declined. The 49ers’ coronavirus-related injuries and losses have been among the most significant for any team in the past two decades, according to Football Outsiders.
However, none of the teams gave up until late. San Francisco entered December 2020 with a respectable 5–6 record, just as the Ravens entered December with an 8–3 record and the #1 seed in the AFC.
The 49ers’ turn, unsurprisingly, coincided with a positive regression of injuries. They are not alone either. The Chiefs rebuilt their depleted offensive line and finished with the fourth best sacking in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. In Cincinnati, quarterback Joe Barrow returned from a knee injury that ended his rookie season, assisted by running back Joe Mixon, left tackle Jonah Williams and defenseman DJ Reeder, all limited in 2020.
This season alone, the Rams have been unlucky with injuries and have made up for it with the arrival of quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and outside linebacker Von Miller.
There is no guarantee that the Ravens will stay healthy in 2022 because no team stays healthy during the NFL season. But it certainly would have helped them have a year-end injury record without the All-Pros.
If you’re looking for deep hits on Sunday, you’re in luck… unless it’s Garoppolo, who’s backing down.
Matthew Stafford of the Rams (14 completions), Burrow of the Bengals (12) and Mahomes of the Chiefs (nine) finished first, tied for second and 12th in the NFL this season respectively, completing over 30 yards. according to Sports Info Solutions. (Garoppolo has a quick trigger, but no bazooka; he only did 1 in 5 on throws at least 30 yards downfield.)
The trio were also among the most accurate passers in the league. Among quarterbacks with at least 10 such attempts in 2021, Stafford ranked fourth in the NFL with a 43.8% accuracy rate. Burrow was ninth (36.4%). Mahomes was 15th (29%).
These can be high-risk rolls, but with enough success, the reward often seeps down. Defense can only cover a limited area. The more the attack can hit the secondary vertical, the more space it will gain on short and intermediate routes.
Sometimes it doesn’t even matter how conservative the minor player is. Late in the Buffalo Bills’ third quarter loss to Kansas City on Sunday, quarterback Josh Allen opened a tight end to Dawson Knox over the middle, but still hit wide receiver Gabriel Davis. The ball traveled 48 yards through the air and Davis, who ran past defenseman Juan Thornhill, scored 75 yards.
Jackson and the Ravens are still looking for that connection down the field. His accuracy on attempts of at least 30 air yards has dropped from 36.8% in 2019 to 27.8% in 2020 and to 21.7% this season. On deep throws where he wasn’t under pressure, Jackson went 2-of-13 in 2020 and 3-of-15 in 2021, according to SIS.
And when Jackson was unavailable, the Ravens’ vertical passing game all but disappeared. Tyler Huntley and Josh Johnson combined 0-for-6 long balls last season. From 20 to 29 air yards, Huntley was 2 for 8.
Find a dominant pass rusher
There isn’t much philosophical overlap between the four semi-finalists on how to increase the pressure. Led by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnolo, the Chiefs are typically one of the most successful teams in the NFL. Meanwhile, the 49ers, led by freshman coordinator Demeco Ryans, rarely send more than four pass rushers.
However they do it, it helps to have nightmares about matches ahead. Every remaining team does this.
In San Francisco, Boza had 15 ½ sacks and became the fifth player in Pro Football Focus. On the other hand, Arden Key had 6 ½ sacks in the last 10 games of the regular season. Among inside linemen, Arik Armstead (six sacks) ranked eighth in the PFF passing rankings.
In Los Angeles, the Rams surrounded tackle Aaron Donald (12 ½ sacks), a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, as well as outside linebackers Leonard Floyd (9 ½ sacks) and Von Miller, who had seven sacks after a slow start. last six games.
In Kansas City, Chris Jones (nine sacks) is second only to Donald in tackles in ESPN’s winning pass ranking, which measures how often a pass rusher can break his block in 2.5 seconds. Melvin Ingram has only one sack since the Pittsburgh Steelers traded him to Kansas City, but he has put in 11 presses and six rushes in nine games.
And in Cincinnati, defenseman Trey Hendrickson retired with a franchise-record 14 sacks, including at least a half-sec in 11 straight games. Sam Hubbard added 7 ½ sacks on the other side and tackle Larry Ogunjobi finished with seven.
The Ravens don’t have a pass rush star. Not yet. Coaches stress that sacks shouldn’t define group play: “Our number one ingredient for winning games and playing defense is execution,” outside linebacker coach Drew Wilkins said before the start of the season, but a tepid pass rush bogged down the defense at times. in 2021. According to the Pro Football Reference, the Ravens finished with 34 sacks in 17 games and had the ninth highest pressure in the NFL (23%), despite having one of the highest blitz numbers in the league.
There are high hopes for first-pick Odafe Ove, who had five sacks in his rookie year. But fellow linebacker Justin Houston is under consideration as a free agent, and Tyus Bowser (seven sacks on the team) is reportedly recovering from an Achilles tendon injury that could delay his return until midseason.
Line up the line of attack
PFF’s final offensive line ranking for the 2021 season has been a guide to how to pave the way to the playoffs. Seven of the top 10 teams advanced to the postseason, including the third-place 49ers (led by All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams), the fifth-place Chiefs (highlighted by left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and star rookies Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith). and the Rams, who finished seventh (led by burly tackles Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein).
The Bengals – well, they finished 22nd overall, dragged along by a terrible right flank. Burrow’s quick reading and impeccable accuracy were more often than not Cincinnati’s salvation during retreats.
The Ravens used to have an offensive line worthy of deep playoff play. They had three Pro Bowl picks in 2019 in Brown, Stanley and defenseman Marshal Yanda.
Then their troubles began. Yanda retired after a Hall of Fame-worthy career. Stanley suffered an ankle injury at the end of the season. Brown took over the left tackle, went back to the Pro Bowl and demanded a trade for a team that would play him there. Stanley got hurt again. The draft picks and no-name Kevin Zeitler signatures struggled to fill in the blanks.
The Ravens finished with the PFF No. 21 in 2021, and it’s unclear if there’s room for improvement in 2022. Bradley Bozeman, one of the NFL’s most consistent centers, is under consideration as a free agent. Stanley’s injury history cast doubt on whether he would be able to regain his All-Pro form. Fellow tackle Alejandro Villanueva and Ja’Vuan James struggled with performance and injury respectively. Ben Cleveland had an uneven rookie year at left back.
If protecting Jackson is the Ravens’ top priority, their line should be considered. Like many teams, they have a long off-season to-do list.