Mailbag: Sizing Up Ravens' Schedule After the Bye

(From left to right) ILB Patrick Queen, OLB Justin Houston, S Kyle Hamilton

Mink: The Ravens are in excellent position at 6-3 and in first place in the AFC North at the bye. Looking at their remaining schedule gives even more optimism that Baltimore is on track to get back into the playoffs and even earn a high seed (and home playoff games). The Ravens' remaining opponents have a combined record of 24-44 and only one team (the Bengals) currently has a winning record.

So, yes, it's certainly conceivable that the Ravens, who are already riding a three-game winning streak, could rattle off seven more straight wins heading into the Week 18 matchup against the Bengals. If Baltimore does that, it will have the division crown already locked up.

This season is giving off 2019 vibes right now. The Ravens started that campaign at 2-2 before rattling off 12 straight victories. Baltimore found its rhythm offensively, jumping out to leads early in games and then battering them in the second half with a punishing ground game. Defensively, the Ravens got a lot of turnovers that season. Sound familiar? This year's Ravens have had double-digit leads in every game, they've run over their last two opponents in the second half, and Baltimore has the third-most takeaways in the league.

With all that said, no games in the NFL are gimmes – especially divisional games. The Ravens still have four AFC North games remaining. Despite the Steelers' troubles this year, it's still the Steelers and they're getting reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt back. The Browns will have Deshaun Watson under center soon. The Bengals just scored their most dominant win of the season and could get hot at any time. While the Ravens will probably be favored in every game (perhaps barring the finale in Cincinnati) from here on out, that doesn't mean every game can be chalked up as an easy win. The Ravens need to keep improving.

Downing:Having an overcrowded backfield would be a much-desired change given the last two years. The Ravens dealt with major injuries to their running backs since before last season started, and it's been a back-and-forth process since then to determine who will be available on a given week. The Ravens expect Gus Edwards to return after the bye and J.K. Dobbins will likely still be a couple more weeks. Head Coach John Harbaugh did tell reporters last week that the scope procedure on Dobbins' knee was a "smashing success," and that he would be back at practice in three or four weeks. 

We're still a little way away from having the entire backfield at full strength, but when that does happen, I still think the Ravens want to keep Kenyan Drake and Justice Hill in the mix. They have proven their worth this year, and Drake in particular seems to be on an upward trajectory as he's developed more of a feel for Greg Roman's offense. My best guess is that Edwards will get the bulk of the carries, as he showed against the Browns in Week 7 that he's still a bulldozer even after the knee injury. Edwards is a perfect fit in this offense, and the Ravens will want to get him as much action as possible. The role for Dobbins depends on how healthy he is once he does return. Even when he played this year, he wasn't at full strength. The purpose of the knee scope was to expedite that process, so if he's back to his 2020 form, then he will push for a heavy dose of the workload. I expect Dobbins and Drake to share carries behind Dobbins, and Hill will continue to get used as a change of pace and in pass-catching situations.

Mink: We didn't get a definitive update from Harbaugh on Tuesday about whether the expectation is that Andrews (knee/shoulder) will be ready to play after the bye. Knowing how much of a competitor Andrews is, he will be itching to come back. Until he is on the field, I expect rookie Isaiah Likely will be the top target in the Ravens offense. He led the Ravens with five targets in New Orleans (Demarcus Robinson had four and nobody else had more than two).

Once Andrews is back, I still expect Likely will be a part of the passing game, but his targets will certainly drop. With Rashod Bateman out for the rest of the year, the Ravens need more players who can move the chains and pick up some yards after catch. DeSean Jackson will do some of that, but he's primarily a big-play deep threat. Likely has the tools to handle a lot of the short-to-intermediate work, and we all know how much Lamar Jackson likes throwing to his tight ends. Likely had nine targets combined in the first two games this season. I expect he could see a similar number, or maybe a little fewer, once Andrews returns. Remember, the Ravens are running the ball so well right now and they probably will remain run heavy down the stretch.

Downing:The prized free-agent acquisition won't be out too much longer. Williams went down with a dislocated wrist on Oct. 9 against the Cincinnati Bengals, and Head Coach John Harbaugh said Tuesday that the safety is expected to return "sometime in December." The Ravens only have two more games until they get to December, so the defense may get the ball hawk back in the rotation somewhat soon. The exact date for his return of course depends on the rehab process, but Harbaugh said the recovery is "pretty straightforward" because it's based on when the bone heals. Geno Stone has filled in nicely since Williams went down, but Williams adds a tremendous playmaking element to this defense that he displayed earlier this year. 

As a side note, the craziest thing about Williams' injury is that he suffered it on the first play of the game against Cincinnati and then played the rest of the half. Williams ultimately came out of the game when the doctors looked at the injury at halftime, but he still played an entire half with the injury, which says a lot about his toughness.

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