The Baltimore Ravens had bigger and better plans for their 2020 season than to find themselves sitting at 6-5 through 12 weeks and on the cusp of getting knocked around and out of the AFC playoff field. With five games left to be played, the Ravens are still a strong contender to lock down a playoff position thanks to the NFL's easiest remaining schedule this season. Baltimore will lock horns with four teams with a combined 10 wins entering Week 13 (Jacksonville, Cincinnati, Dallas, and the New York Giants) plus the 8-3 Cleveland Browns, who Baltimore shelled 38-6 early in the season. Granted, both the Browns and Ravens look like vastly different football teams in December, but the discrepancy between the two was wide and undeniable early on.
Even giving Baltimore another loss, they're still well positioned to finish with 10 wins this season and that should (could?) be enough to get them into the expanded playoff field in 2020. They won't catch the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North, so Baltimore is looking at a road game in the postseason if they manage to make the big dance.
But Baltimore's biggest problems no longer reside in 2020, but rather how this team chooses to progress from here in their bid to getting back to the dominant team that they were for so much of 2019.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson has taken a step backward this season, which is never a fun place to find yourself as a franchise. Baltimore has, thus far, done well to construct an offense and a team that is tailored to the strengths of their franchise quarterback. But the personnel losses that the Ravens endured in 2020 are showing up in ways that make Baltimore's pathway to returned success clear and obvious:
That Ravens must double down on their 2019 formula of two and three tight end sets and become the mismatch conundrum that they were last season. All of the stress Baltimore put on opposing teams when fielding tight ends Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst, and Nick Boyle simultaneously? That's out the window this season. And while we could theorize that Baltimore would benefit from better boundary receiver play to put more of the field at Jackson's disposal as a passer, the Ravens should instead focus on getting back to the winning formula that they had last season and get better, more capable personnel to flood the field with height/weight/speed mismatches to force opposing teams into heavy defensive sets and then attack with speed to the perimeter and use that size in between the numbers in the passing game.
Last week, Trevor Sikkema profiled the changes the Ravens' personnel has undergone last season—mainly the departures of guard Marshall Yanda and Hurst plus the injuries to offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and Boyle earlier this season. And inside, he revealed some of the biggest changes to Baltimore's personnel usage.
"Last season, Baltimore ran 12 personnel (two tight ends on the field) on 18% of their dropbacks. They ran 13 personnel (three tight ends) on 6% of their dropbacks. Both of those numbers are down this year at 15% for 12 personnel and 0% for 13 personnel. The fact of the matter is, even if the Ravens wanted to do what they did last year, they can’t without the likes of Yanda, Stanley, Boyle, and, to an extent, Hurst." - Trevor Sikkema, The Draft Network
Sikkema is right. The Ravens can't replicate last year's model because they don't have the firepower and the horses to get it done. Attrition has taken its toll on Baltimore's formula and the Ravens, to make the most out of Jackson, must assertively push back against the whittling away of their best dynamic from 2019.
Don't try to make Jackson into something he's not and stock up on boundary receivers. Don't look to space the field more. Instead, target one of the 2021 NFL Draft's prime tight end targets (hello, Kyle Pitts) and make sure Boyle is on pace to recover and return to the field of play for the start of 2021. Take advantage of a deep group of physical interior lineman and target someone like Tennessee's Trey Smith or Alabama's Deonte Brown to step into the void up front left by Yanda. Yes, Baltimore drafted Tyre Phillips in the third round of the 2020 draft, but good prospects shouldn't prevent you from targeting great prospects—especially for historically successful teams like the Ravens.
So while Baltimore's 2020 season is far from over and the team is still very much in the thick of the playoff chase, their biggest problems await them once this season is over, whether that comes after Week 17 or after a playoff exit. This team lacks the conflict and identity on offense that the 2019 Ravens did, and they'll need to act fast to regain their swagger in time for their next push for a deep playoff run in 2021.
That's the problem with being a team as successful as the Ravens have been. You're not measured by playoff appearances or 10-win seasons. You're measured in championship hardware. This year's team is no where near as close as the 2019 team to achieving that goal and they're in a critical window of their lifecycle as a team to be able to finish the job. To give themselves the best chance, it is time to go back to what got them there in the first place: the more tight ends, the better.