The Ravens just missed the playoffs the past two years with mediocre records of 9-7 and 8-8. Defense has always been their strong suit, so, in his final year as general manager, Ozzie Newsome went all in on offense. In the first round of the draft, the Ravens had two picks. They selected Hayden Hurst, a tight end from South Carolina, and then later chose Lamar Jackson, Louisville’s former Heisman Trophy winner, projected to be the quarterback of the future. In free agency, the Ravens focused on playmakers, so they brought in receivers Michael Crabtree (Oakland), Willie Snead (New Orleans) and John Brown (Arizona).
Jackson pushes incumbent Joe Flacco to his best season since 2014, when the veteran set career highs in touchdowns (27) and QBR. The Ravens went 10-6 that year. Crabtree steps in and becomes the number-one target. He caught the eighth-most touchdown receptions in the league in 2017 after catching the ninth-most in 2016. He becomes Flacco’s most productive receiver since Steve Smith Sr. in 2014 (79 receptions and six touchdowns).
The offensive line gets a boost with Marshal Yanda returning. He missed the final 14 games last year with an ankle injury, but, he comes back this year and earns his seventh Pro-Bowl selection. 2017 All-Rookie guard Jermaine Eluemunor and third-year tackle Ronnie Stanley both improve and help bolster the line beside Yanda.
Ideally, running back Alex Collins reduces his turnovers and maintains his yardage production, which was tenth-best in the NFL last year.
The Defense stays sharp after a solid 2017. They get top cornerback Jimmy Smith for the season opener after he missed the final four games in 2017 with an Achilles injury. He bounces back and replicates his early season form from last season. The Ravens led the NFL in takeaways, three of which were Smith interceptions (He had a pick-six and a fumble returned for a touchdown).
Baltimore gave up the tenth-fewest passing yards last year, and with the turnovers they forced, were ranked the second-best pass defense by NFL.com. With returning linebacker stars Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley able to control the run and disrupt the pass game, they continue to force takeaways and smother opponents on defense.
The Ravens sweep the Bengals for the first time since 2012 and they take both games from Cleveland for the third straight year. They split with Pittsburgh and finish with an 11-5 record, winning their first AFC North title since 2012, their Super Bowl season.
Flacco sputters and Jackson does not appear to be ready to start. Flacco’s QBR in 2017 was his worst since his rookie year in 2008. He gets off to another mediocre start, putting Head Coach John Harbaugh in a difficult position where he has to bench the quarterback who has started in each of Harbaugh’s seasons in charge. It takes a while for Jackson to get used to running a pro-style offense, and early losses bury the Ravens’ chances at the postseason.
The rest of the offensive weaponry doesn’t live up to expectations. Brown and Snead both have poor outings after they struggled in 2017. Without another quality receiver, Crabtree gets smothered by defenses. Collins’ fumbling issues do not go away. He was third in the NFL in fumbles for running backs last season, and this year, due to poor quarterback play, he gets extra action and fumbles more often.
Unfortunately, the Ravens’ past strength, defense, takes a hit after coordinator Dean Pees retired, unretired and then took a job with Tennessee. During six years in Baltimore, Pees led three top-ten scoring defenses.
Age also factors in the defensive production. The 35-year-old Terrell Suggs starts to slow down after a Pro-Bowl year, and with their outspoken leader struggling, the rest of the defense loses some edge. With their offensive woes, the defense spends a lot of time on the field, which taxes them later in the season, leaving them vulnerable.
The Ravens miss the postseason for the fourth year in a row with a 6-10 record, and Coach Harbaugh’s seat starts to heat up.