Ravens have to become ‘more in sync’ in Todd Monken’s offensive system

The running backs weren’t involved much in the passing game. The pace was quicker, but there were still a few sequences where the play clock was a factor and pre-snap penalties surfaced. The Baltimore Ravens were in 11 personnel — one running back, three wide receivers, one tight end — more often than they were last season, but perhaps not as much as was initially expected. Big plays were lacking.

For much of Sunday’s injury marred 25-9 win over the Houston Texans at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens’ best play was quarterback Lamar Jackson getting out of the pocket and running (six carries for 38 yards). That probably sounds familiar, which is why a postgame quote from Texans defensive end Jonathan Greenard struck a nerve with Ravens fans.

“He wanted to sit in the pocket as much as he could, more than he wanted to run,” Greenard said. “He was trying to stay in the pocket. It kind of worked to our advantage at times. We wanted to attack him going into the game, and him staying in the pocket, it made our job easier.”

The debut of Todd Monken’s new offense certainly lacked sizzle and didn’t yield a whole lot beyond the one area that truly mattered Sunday: the scoreboard.


Injuries overshadow Ravens’ sloppy victory over Texans

The Ravens had just 265 yards of total offense and averaged just 4.6 yards per play. Just two of their 58 plays grossed over 20 yards. Of Baltimore’s four scoring drives, two of them started at Houston’s 42-yard line, one started at the Ravens’ 42 and the other from their own 29. Only two of the team’s 11 drives lasted eight plays or more.

“I think the guys on the team and in this organization have a high standard, and I think we know that standard probably wasn’t lived up to,” guard Kevin Zeitler said. “We got the win, but I think everyone knows what we want to be. In terms of the Ravens’ style, we’re going to go and get better as fast as we can.”

Ravens coach John Harbaugh acknowledged Monday that there are “a lot of moving parts and we have to get the parts more in sync.”

It always felt likely the Ravens would start slow offensively, so it makes little sense to overreact to anything we saw Sunday from that perspective. Executing an entirely new offensive system takes time. The only Ravens offensive starter who played in the preseason was left guard John Simpson, so the group has had little time together on the field in game situations. Rust was going to be a factor for some, and Jackson acknowledged after the game that he certainly felt it.

There’s also the possibility that Baltimore was intent on keeping things pretty vanilla, feeling like it wanted to hold things back with road games against Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh on tap in three of the next four weeks. Harbaugh would never admit that publicly because that could be construed as a sign of disrespect to Houston, but it would make sense if the Ravens didn’t feel they needed to go deep into their playbook to get a win against a young team. Monken’s history suggests that not getting the backs and tight ends more involved is an aberration rather than a sign of things to come.

Because of those factors, it’s far too early to overreact and start giving Monken the Greg Roman treatment. But it goes without saying that the offensive performance Sunday probably isn’t going to beat too many teams the rest of the way, and the players weren’t hiding from that.

“I feel like we had our up-and-down moments,” said Jackson. “You can see where my ceiling would be, and then some moments it’s like, ‘What were we just doing? What are we doing questioning ourselves out there?’ Like I said, it’s the first game — a little hiccup the first time we’re with each other on that field. I feel like the sky’s the limit, though.”

For one, the offensive line must play better, and that could be complicated if left tackle Ronnie Stanley (knee sprain) and center Tyler Linderbaum (ankle sprain) have to miss an extended stretch. Harbaugh, who called Stanley and Linderbaum “week to week,” has consistently touted the offensive line as one of the strengths of the team. However, the Texans sacked Jackson four times and hit him seven times. In the first half alone, Jackson was pressured on seven of his 12 dropbacks, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. When Jackson was protected, he had little trouble finding open receivers. There didn’t appear to be a whole lot of running room for the team’s backs, either.

Two, Monken will obviously have to mix things up and find ways to decrease the learning curve with a new offense. There was plenty of pre-snap confusion and missed assignments on Sunday. Some of those struggles should fade with more opportunities for the starters to play together. Getting tight end Mark Andrews back, which could happen as early as this week, should settle Jackson down a bit, too.

Then, much of the onus will fall on Jackson, as it usually does with NFL quarterbacks. Jackson has repeatedly said he wants to throw more, run less and beat teams from the pocket. That’s all well and good, and you can’t blame him if he didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks in a Week 1 game against an opponent the Ravens figured to handle. But Jackson also had clear lanes to take off and run Sunday and rarely took them.

Limiting Jackson’s running, particularly early in the season, makes sense. But the Ravens and Jackson still have to remember that the quarterback’s speed, elusiveness and athleticism are what help make the offense so dangerous. Greenard made that clear with his comments Sunday, and it’s naive if you don’t think that’s a widely held opinion around the NFL. Defenses would much rather face Jackson in the pocket than try to chase him down and wonder what he’ll do next.

There was no secret what was on the line for Dobbins this season. He was playing for his next contract, and in order to get the kind of deal he sought, he was going to have to prove he could stay healthy.

Everybody knew it, and that’s why Baltimore’s players didn’t seem to begrudge Dobbins’ decision to sit out for the first few weeks of camp to increase the chances that he got to the regular season healthy. He did, but his season lasted less than three full quarters as he tore his left Achilles tendon while making a catch on a Ravens touchdown drive. He’ll have surgery later this week.

The emotion that came out in the locker room from guys such as Patrick Queen, Justin Madubuike and Odell Beckham Jr. speaks to how much players were hurting for him. Dobbins is a passionate and confident player with plenty of charisma. He takes his craft extremely seriously and works hard to prepare himself for the season. He’s just had a devastating run of terrible injury luck that will cost him 43 of 67 possible games over his first four NFL seasons.

Dobbins will almost certainly be back. He has plenty of teammates he can consult, including fellow running back Justice Hill, about returning from an Achilles injury. He probably will have to accept a short-term incentive-laden deal for 2024. The Ravens love Dobbins, the player and person, and will probably be first in line. However, you couldn’t blame Dobbins if he felt like he needed a change of scenery to try to reverse his luck. Either way, it would be foolish to dismiss Dobbins’ chances of returning, whether it’s in Baltimore or elsewhere, and having an extremely productive career.

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Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins will have missed 43 of a possible 67 regular-season games in his four-year career. (Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

10 random thoughts, observations

1. Dobbins is the most dynamic back the Ravens have, so he’ll clearly be missed. But it doesn’t sound like the Ravens will overreact and make a significant move at the position, like trading for Jonathan Taylor or signing Kareem Hunt. They seem more likely to lean heavier on Hill and Gus Edwards, elevate Melvin Gordon from the practice squad to be the No. 3 back, and see how undrafted rookie Keaton Mitchell can help if he’s ready to return from a shoulder sprain and play when eligible in Week 5. Injury protection for Dobbins and Edwards is one of the main reasons Baltimore wanted Gordon.

2. Harbaugh said safety Marcus Williams will be out “a while” with a torn pectoral muscle, but he’s still hopeful the veteran can return at some point this season. Williams is currently consulting doctors and weighing his options. Either way, an injured reserve stint for Williams and an extended absence seem inevitable. I don’t think you can undersell the potential impact of his loss. One, the Ravens have prioritized taking away big plays as much as possible. Williams in that center-field role with his range gives them the best chance of doing that. Two, Williams is a playmaker who can take the ball away. If the Ravens are going to be a bend-but-don’t-break defense this season, they’re going to need somebody to create turnovers. Losing Williams, who has 22 career takeaways, hurts in that area. And three, Williams’ presence gave defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald the license to move fellow starting safety Kyle Hamilton around and play him closer to the line of scrimmage. The Ravens may not have that luxury anymore. Geno Stone is a solid player, but Baltimore loses a lot with Williams down.

3. Jackson played well at times Sunday and was under duress throughout. However, one area he needs to clean up is his ball security. His interception to Steven Nelson was an ill-advised throw and a bad decision at a time when the Ravens at least had three points in their back pockets. You could excuse Jackson for the third-quarter lost fumble because Hill hit his arm. But Jackson was extremely careless earlier in the quarter, allowing Tavierre Thomas to knock the ball out of his hands on a scramble. Zeitler bailed him out with the recovery. The Ravens can’t afford such mistakes, especially when they’re not clicking on all cylinders offensively.

4. Are we done with the Marquise Brown–Zay Flowers comparisons? They were never fair to begin with, and that’s not a diss to Brown, who played really well at times for the Ravens and was at his best in the biggest games. But Flowers is extremely comfortable working in traffic and is always looking to break tackles and get upfield. That was on full display Sunday. Per Pro Football Focus, Flowers broke four tackles. No NFL player broke more in Week 1. Flowers also got 11 total touches (two handoffs and nine receptions). Brown didn’t get that many in any of his 46 career games in Baltimore.

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Ravens rookie Zay Flowers had 11 touches (nine receptions, two rushes) in his NFL regular-season debut vs. the Texans. (Rob Carr / Getty Images)

5. Given the magnitude of the contract he got (one year, $15 million), there probably is an expectation that Beckham will put up reasonably big numbers. I’ve said all along that Beckham’s value, behind what we’ve already seen, would be justified less by volume and more by what he’s able to do in big moments. Whether that’s on key third downs, in the red zone or even late in games, the Ravens need Beckham to be at his best in crucial situations. In his return to the field, Beckham had two catches for 37 yards and drew two pass interference penalties. On one of his catches, he converted on third-and-7 deep in Ravens territory to get Baltimore a first down. On his second one, he made a 29-yard catch on third-and-6 to set up an eventual Justin Tucker field goal that all but put the game away. I’m sure the Ravens will want to get Beckham more involved, but he’ll be plenty valuable to them if he keeps making key third-down receptions.

6. There were some questions about why the Ravens were intent on elevating center Sam Mustipher from the practice squad when their 53-man roster already included Patrick Mekari, who has starting center experience. Sunday showed why. Mekari is the top reserve tackle and was needed to come into the game for an injured Stanley. When Linderbaum went down a few minutes later, the Ravens had Mustipher come in at center. They also have Daniel Faalele as a reserve tackle option, but given Stanley’s perennial struggles to remain healthy and Morgan Moses’ age (32), it seems prudent to go into every game with two reserve tackles and a natural backup center. With Mustipher and Mekari now likely needing to start in Linderbaum and Stanley’s absences, the Ravens may need to add another offensive lineman to the mix.

7. The tests will get much more difficult in the weeks ahead, but corners Brandon Stephens, Ronald Darby and Ar’Darius Washington held up pretty well. Stephens, in particular, was very physical and aggressive as an open-field tackler and was an eyelash away from a pick six along the sideline. Rock Ya-Sin is still working his way back from a knee injury. Marlon Humphrey has still not returned. The Ravens may not be too far away from having some serviceable cornerback depth.

8. I didn’t expect Devin Duvernay to have a significant role on offense with Beckham, Flowers, Nelson Agholor and Rashod Bateman seemingly ahead of him on the depth chart. I am surprised, however, that Duvernay played only seven snaps, especially in a Week 1 game. It would behoove the Ravens to get Duvernay the ball on offense at least a few times per game. It could be a way to help the Dobbins-less rushing attack, too.

9. Remember all the questions about where fullback Patrick Ricard fit in a Monken offense? You probably got your answer Sunday when Ricard played 44 percent of the team’s offensive snaps and was often used as an extra blocker. There were times when Ricard was asked to single-block one of the Texans’ edge rushers and, per usual, he held up well. With potentially no Stanley and Linderbaum, the Ravens will likely be more dependent on Ricard to help up front.

10. You hate to overreact to one play, but that was a bad drop by Charlie Kolar. You wonder if the Ravens will still find a place for him on the game day roster if Andrews returns. They’re already loading up in the defensive backfield with so many players coming off summer injuries, and they’re probably going to have to do something similar on the offensive line over the next couple of weeks with their injury situation at the position. Keeping three tight ends and a fullback active could be tough.

(Top photo: Rob Carr / Getty Images)

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