Eisenberg: Poppers Are What Could Push Ravens Into Playoffs


For discussion's sake, let's say the Ravens end up fielding a playoff team this season. You won't quibble with the thought, I'm guessing.

Not a playoff-caliber team, mind you. They were close enough to the postseason last year, basically one fourth-and-12 stop away, that I think they get credit for already being in the vicinity.

I'm talking about the next level up, being a team that earns one of the AFC's six postseason berths. If that is, indeed, the happy fate awaiting this year's Ravens, what combination of positives will take them there? How will they do it?

There's no way to know, of course. But we can make educated guesses.

A strong season from Joe Flacco, for instance, almost surely would be integral to a playoff push, as would better team-wide health compared to recent seasons. I think an uptick in the rushing defense would be part of the blueprint, along with an improved passing game.

It's a tough goal. Although the Ravens came oh-so-close to a wild-card berth last year, they finished four games behind the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North. They have some ground to make up on the AFC's elites.

With that in mind, I think a key part of a playoff blueprint could be a couple of players who "pop." Let's call them poppers – guys who weren't necessarily being counted on but emerge as key contributors. That can really help a team's prospects.

The Ravens benefitted a year ago when Alex Collins popped and became a bona fide No. 1 running back after getting cut by the Seattle Seahawks before the season. No one saw it coming but Collins ended up as the offense's most dynamic playmaker.

Justin Forsett was a similar surprise in 2014, earning a Pro Bowl invitation after starting the season at the bottom of the running back depth chart.

Who could pop along the same lines in 2018? Predicting the future is a dangerous game, but some possibilities are crystallizing after weeks of training camp practices and two preseason games.

A first-round draft pick can't come out of nowhere, but Hayden Hurst, the rookie tight end, shows a lot of promise. He's big, agile, catches everything. He scored a touchdown in the preseason opener and dominated the middle of the field in the joint practices with the Los Angeles Rams.

Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome passed on drafting a couple wide receivers before selecting Hurst at No. 25 overall because the 2017 offense sorely lacked a dangerous middle-of-the-field target – an asset Joe Flacco has long relied on. Newsome, who knows a bit about tight ends, believed Hurst could become that target right away. If he does, it would be a major boost for the passing game.

So would the emergence of rookie Orlando Brown Jr. as the starting right tackle. He looks the part through two preseason games, albeit while playing against backups, so we'll see. But if he can handle the job, he becomes an immense edge-sealer with a quick first step, a nice addition that could elevate the entire O-line.

Chris Moore, the speedy third-year receiver, looks like another player who could pop. Although currently No. 4 on the positional depth chart, he is making big catches in both practices and games, most recently a 36-yard grab from Lamar Jackson Thursday night against the Los Angeles Rams. If he keeps it up, he is going to elbow his way onto the field, giving him an opportunity. That's how these things start.

I hesitate to include Jackson as a player who could pop because, as a backup, he is unlikely to get that many snaps. But if the coaches figure out how best to use his unique skills, he certainly could become a difference-maker, especially in the red zone.

On the other side of the ball, a potential popper is Tim Williams, the second-year linebacker who came out of Alabama with a big reputation for getting to quarterbacks. He did little as a rookie, but Defensive Coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale keeps mentioning him in press conferences this year because now he's playing fast and doing just what he did at Alabama – getting to quarterbacks.

With Terrell Suggs and Matthew Judon entrenched, Williams doesn't have a starting job to aim for, at least not this year. But a coach will always play any edge defender who can get into the backfield. If Williams can, it would add a dangerous new element to the defense.

Production from any of these potential poppers would certainly boost a playoff push. Production from all of them would be nothing short of huge.

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