Every January, the NFL playoffs become a referendum on the teams that weren’t good enough to get there and the teams that weren’t great enough to survive until February. Every January, the same questions are asked: What went wrong? What do they need? Where were they unlucky? What happens next?
Sometimes the most obvious conclusions are the most unhelpful. In the case of every AFC team outside Kansas City, there’s only one Patrick Mahomes, and he’s not expected to play for anyone but the Chiefs until roughly 2050.
But there are lessons the Ravens can learn from the paths the Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals took to get to Sunday’s AFC championship game, as well as those the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers took to get to the NFC championship game. As the Ravens look to move past a disappointing 8-9 season, here’s how they can model their 2022 team after the NFL’s final four.
Not a lot of teams had worse injury luck than the 2021 Ravens. In just over a two-week span, running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, cornerback Marcus Peters and left tackle Ronnie Stanley suffered season-ending injuries. Rookie wide receiver Rashod Bateman, their top draft pick, missed most of training camp, then the Ravens’ first five games. Cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Anthony Averett and safety DeShon Elliott were lost over the season’s second half.
Oh, and quarterback Lamar Jackson, their most dynamic piece and 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player, missed five games because of illness and an ankle injury.
One team that definitely had it worse, though? The 2020 49ers. San Francisco got six games out of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, eight out of tight end George Kittle and two out of defensive end Nick Bosa. Running back Raheem Mostert (eight games), wide receiver Deebo Samuel (five) and defensive end Dee Ford (one) were also diminished. According to Football Outsiders, the 49ers’ injury and coronavirus-related losses were among the most impactful for any team over the past two decades.
Neither team crumbled until late, though. San Francisco entered December 2020 at a respectable 5-6, just as the Ravens entered December with an 8-3 record and the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
The 49ers’ turnaround, not surprisingly, has coincided with a positive injury regression. They’re not alone, either. The Chiefs rebuilt their depleted offensive line and finished with the NFL’s fourth-best adjusted sack rate, according to Football Outsiders. In Cincinnati, quarterback Joe Burrow is back from the knee injury that ended his rookie season, and running back Joe Mixon, left tackle Jonah Williams and defensive tackle D.J. Reader, all limited in 2020, have helped out.
Only the Rams’ injury luck this season has been worse off, and they’ve made up for that with the arrival of quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and outside linebacker Von Miller.
There’s no guaranteeing that the Ravens stay healthy in 2022, because no team stays healthy over an NFL season. But it sure would help them to have an end-of-year injury report without All-Pros on it.
Stretch the field
If you’re looking for deep shots Sunday, you’re in luck … unless it’s Garoppolo who’s dropping back.
The Rams’ Matthew Stafford (14 completions), Bengals’ Burrow (12) and Chiefs’ Mahomes (nine) finished first, tied for second and tied for 12th in the NFL this season, respectively, in completions of 30-plus air yards, according to Sports Info Solutions. (Garoppolo has a quick trigger but not a bazooka; he went just 1-for-5 on throws of at least 30 yards downfield.)
The trio were among the league’s more accurate long-ball passers, too. Among quarterbacks with at least 10 such attempts in 2021, Stafford finished fourth in the NFL with 43.8% accuracy. Burrow was ninth (36.4%). Mahomes was 15th (29%).
They can be high-risk throws, but with enough success, the rewards often trickle down. Defenses can cover only so much ground. The more an offense can stress a secondary vertically, the more space it’ll be rewarded with on short and intermediate routes.
Sometimes it doesn’t even matter how conservatively a secondary lines up. Late in the third quarter of the Buffalo Bills’ loss Sunday to Kansas City, quarterback Josh Allen had tight end Dawson Knox open over the middle, but fired downfield to wide receiver Gabriel Davis anyway. The ball traveled 48 yards through the air, and Davis, who’d run past safety Juan Thornhill, turned it into a 75-yard score.
Jackson and the Ravens are still looking for that kind of downfield connection. His accuracy on attempts of at least 30 air yards has fallen from 36.8% in 2019 to 27.8% in 2020 to 21.7% this season. On deep throws when he wasn’t pressured, according to SIS, Jackson went 2-for-13 in 2020 and 3-for-15 in 2021.
And when Jackson was unavailable, the Ravens’ vertical passing game all but disappeared. Tyler Huntley and Josh Johnson combined to go 0-for-6 on long balls last season. On throws of 20 to 29 air yards, Huntley was 2-for-8.
Find a dominant pass rusher
There’s not a lot of philosophical overlap among the four semifinalists in how to stir up pressure. Under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the Chiefs are typically one of the NFL’s more blitz-happy teams. The 49ers, meanwhile, helmed by first-year coordinator Demeco Ryans, rarely send more than four pass rushers.
However they do it, it helps to have matchup nightmares up front. Every team still standing does.
In San Francisco, Bosa had 15 ½ sacks and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ No. 5 edge rusher. On the other side of the line, Arden Key had 6 ½ sacks over the final 10 regular-season games. Among interior linemen, Arik Armstead (six sacks) had PFF’s eighth-best pass-rushing grade.
In Los Angeles, the Rams surrounded tackle Aaron Donald (12 ½ sacks), a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, with outside linebackers Leonard Floyd (9 ½ sacks) and Von Miller, who after a slow start has seven sacks over the past six games.
In Kansas City, Chris Jones (nine sacks) trails only Donald among tackles in ESPN’s pass-rush win rate, which measures how often a pass rusher is able to beat his block within 2.5 seconds. Defensive end Melvin Ingram has just one sack since the Pittsburgh Steelers traded him to Kansas City, but he’s contributed 11 pressures and six hurries in nine games.
And in Cincinnati, defensive end Trey Hendrickson finished with a career-high and franchise-record 14 sacks, including at least a half-sack in 11 straight games. Sam Hubbard added 7 ½ sacks from the other side, and tackle Larry Ogunjobi finished with seven.
The Ravens don’t have a pass-rush star. Not yet. Coaches have stressed that sacks should not define the group’s play — “Our No. 1 ingredient to winning games, playing winning defense, is execution,” outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins said before the season — but a tepid pass rush handcuffed the defense at times in 2021. The Ravens finished with 34 sacks in 17 games and the NFL’s ninth-worst pressure rate (23%), according to Pro Football Reference, despite posting one of the league’s highest blitz rates.
There are high hopes for first-round pick Odafe Oweh, who had five sacks in a developmental rookie year. But fellow outside linebacker Justin Houston is a pending free agent, and Tyus Bowser (team-high seven sacks) is reportedly recovering from an Achilles tendon injury that could delay his return until midseason.
Build up the offensive line
PFF’s final offensive line rankings for the 2021 season doubled as a guide for how to pave a playoff path. Seven of the top 10 teams made the postseason, including the third-ranked 49ers (headlined by All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams), fifth-ranked Chiefs (highlighted by left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and star rookies Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith) and seventh-ranked Rams (led by stout bookend tackles Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein).
The Bengals — well, they finished No. 22 overall, dragged down by a dreadful right side of the line. Burrow’s quick reads and pinpoint accuracy, more often than not, were Cincinnati’s salvation on drop-backs.
The Ravens used to have an offensive line worthy of a deep playoff run. In 2019, they had three Pro Bowl selections up front in Brown, Stanley and guard Marshal Yanda.
Then their troubles started. Yanda retired after a Hall of Fame-worthy career. Stanley suffered a season-ending ankle injury. Brown took over at left tackle, made the Pro Bowl again and demanded a trade to a team that’d play him there. Stanley got hurt again. Draft picks and signings not named Kevin Zeitler struggled to plug the gaps.
The Ravens finished with PFF’s No. 21 line in 2021, and it’s unclear how much room for improvement there is in 2022. Bradley Bozeman, one of the NFL’s most consistent centers, is a pending free agent. Stanley’s injury history has cast doubt on whether he can regain his All-Pro form. Fellow tackles Alejandro Villanueva and Ja’Wuan James have struggled with performance and injuries, respectively. Ben Cleveland had an uneven rookie year at left guard.
If protecting Jackson is the Ravens’ top priority, their line will need to be addressed. Like a lot of teams, they have a long offseason to-do list.