Keyshawn Johnson: Ravens' Offensive Style Is 'Portable' in Playoffs'
The Ravens' sluggish offensive performance in last week's win over the Carolina Panthers has intensified the debate over whether the team's run-heavy approach is conducive to making a deep playoff run.
The naysayers contend that while the Ravens' passing game — or lack thereof — is serviceable enough to get them to the postseason, it will prevent them from getting past top-tier AFC teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills.
ESPN's Stephen A. Smith is firmly in that camp. However, analyst and former Pro Bowl wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson disagreed with his outspoken colleague. Johnson believes the Ravens' potent running attack and strong defense is a recipe for postseason success.
"Their strength is their defense. 'We feel we can win on defense with a short field with our style of quarterback,'" Johnson said. "Does that work in the playoffs? It does work. Once you get into the playoffs, it's portable. You can take what they do and go from city to city and win football games."
Admittedly, Smith has recent history on his side. The Ravens are 1-3 in the playoffs with Lamar Jackson and scored just 32 points in the three losses. It is worth noting that the Ravens had 530 yards of offense, including 345 through the air, in their 28-12 loss to the Tennessee Titans in January 2020.
"If you are Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, you're going to have to show that you can throw that damn football in order for real success to come your way," Smith said. "If they weren't running the football effectively but they were throwing it considerably better, I would feel, far, far, far more confident about what I'm seeing from the Ravens.
"The fact that that still hasn't been the case and your offense is still predicated — of course the greatness of Lamar Jackson is what it is — but I'm saying predicated on his running ability concerns me."
Johnson reiterated that the Ravens don't need to be pass-happy to win in the playoffs.
"What wins in the playoffs is defense and running the football," Johnson said. "If this is truly a Baltimore defense that's gotten back to the old ways, then they're gonna win games by running the football with Lamar Jackson and whoever is at the running back position and playing solid and sound defense.
"That's why they went out there and got Roquan Smith from the Chicago Bears, because they needed to solidify their defense. Their secondary stays healthy, then they can become one of the better secondaries up against the likes of Tyreek Hill and company in Miami, Patrick Mahomes and the receivers [the Chiefs have], or the receivers in the passing game in Cincinnati, or the receivers in the passing game in Buffalo. … So when you look at the teams they may have to face come playoff time, they got a defense that can challenge those offenses. Now it's whether or not they can run the ball effectively and put points on the board."
Josh Oliver Has Emerged As an Unsung Hero for Ravens
When Ravens fans and pundits were making their projections for Baltimore's 53-man roster over the summer, it it's highly doubtful anyone had tight end Josh Oliver making the team. In fact, he wasn't even talked about as a "bubble player."
With a talented and crowded tight end room that included All-Pro Mark Andrews, recuperating blocker extraordinaire Nick Boyle, and promising fourth-round picks Isaiah Likely and Charlie Kolar, there didn't figure to be a spot for Oliver, who had been the Ravens' No. 3 tight end in 2021.
Not only did Oliver make the team, he has become one of the AFC North leader's unsung heroes.
"Oliver, 25, has transformed himself into one of the key blockers for Offensive Coordinator Greg] Roman’s vaunted running attack,” [The Baltimore Sun’s Childs Walker wrote.
This Sunday, Oliver will face the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team that drafted him in the third round in 2019. After two injury-marred seasons in Jacksonville that saw Oliver play in just four games, the Jaguars traded him to the Ravens in 2021 for a conditional seventh-round pick.
For the Ravens, it was a low-risk move that has paid dividends.
"In his new home, coaches talked about him more in terms of potential than expected production: What might he add to an offense if he harnessed all those physical tools?" Walker wrote. "He made the roster and played in 14 games but his nine catches and inconsistent blocking did not add up to a slam-dunk case for remaining on the team in 2022."
Oliver unlocked his potential and transformed himself into an adept blocker.
"Oliver forced his way into the lineup in the role Boyle used to own," Walker wrote. "He has played at least 30% of the team's offensive snaps in every game this season, acting as a run blocker on about 62% of those, according to Pro Football Focus. He grades as the sixth-best run blocker among all tight ends, per PFF. His seven catches on 12 targets won't blow your eyes out the back of your head, but that's not what the Ravens are asking of him."
Oliver said: "I think in a lot of ways, this season has been what I wanted it to be. I'm finally able to be a factor in the way I want to be, and I feel like it's just starting."
Can Odafe Oweh Still Become a 'Game-Wrecker' This Season?
Unlike Oliver, there was a tremendous amount of buzz surrounding outside linebacker Odafe Oweh. The 2021 first-round pick's freakish athleticism was on display throughout the summer and a breakout season was widely expected.
Ten games into the season, however, Oweh has just one sack and six quarterback hits. While those numbers are disappointing, they also are somewhat misleading, according to Russell Street Report’s Darin McCann.
"Now, Oweh hasn't just had the chance to pin back his ears and rush the quarterback this season, to be fair. At least not to a high rate, because he has been handling other responsibilities, particularly while Tyus Bowser was out," McCann wrote. "He has done a nice job of handling his 'wide' responsibilities, directing running backs into the teeth of a formidable Ravens interior, and rushing the quarterback from outside time and time again to keep them from breaking the pocket."
That said, McCann acknowledged that "a team does not invest a first-round pick in an insanely athletic talent just to get yeoman's work out of him. They want, and expect, a game-wrecker." McCann believes that can still happen.
"Oweh has every physical trait you'd want, and every word coming out of Owings Mills is that he is a tireless worker who has high expectations for himself," McCann wrote. "Surrounding him in a unit that features established, successful veterans like Calais Campbell, Justin Houston, Jason Pierre-Paul and Roquan Smith, among others, seems to add another element in his favor in terms of taking his game to that next level.
"Oweh hasn't met those lofty expectations so many have had for him to this point, but a back-half of the season featuring some 'splashes' and some counting stats can change the narrative for him going into season three, and can hopefully elevate this improving Ravens' defense into becoming a true menace for a playoff run."