'Under-the-Radar' Moves Have Helped Ravens Construct Deep Roster
A couple weeks ago, Football Outsiders ranked the Ravens' roster as the deepest in the NFL. The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec said Baltimore's depth was on full display in Monday night's dominant victory over the New Orleans Saints.
The Ravens controlled the game despite being without top pass-catchers Mark Andrews and Rashod Bateman, top running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, and key defensive starters Marcus Williams and Michael Pierce.
"There's been so much talk this season about what the Ravens, now 6-3 and heading into their bye week atop the AFC North, don't have," Zrebiec wrote. "They lack a No. 1 wide receiver and a healthy game-breaking running back. They lack an in-his-prime defensive player who can take over the game in crunch time. But Monday night, albeit against a Saints team with plenty of its own issues, the Ravens offered a reminder of what they do have: one of the league's deepest rosters."
The Ravens' acquisition of inside linebacker Roquan Smith at the trade deadline paid immediate dividends against the Saints, but Zrebiec said General Manager Eric DeCosta also deserves credit for having "found ways to augment the team's roster with cheap, under-the-radar moves."
Some of those moves include signing running back Kenyan Drake less than weeks before the start of the season after he was released by the Las Vegas Raiders and re-signing ageless outside linebacker Justin Houston late in the offseason after an agreement with big-ticket free agent Za'Darius Smith fell through. Drake and Houston were two of the main stars in the win over the Saints, but they also have been significant contributors in other games.
In his past two games, Drake has rushed for 155 yards, averaged 5 yards per carry, and scored three touchdowns. He also ran for a season-high 119 yards on just 10 carries in Week 6 against the New York Giants.
Houston has 6.5 sacks in his past three games and is tied for second in the league with 8.5 sacks despite missing four games.
Other "under-the-radar" acquisitions who have stepped up include veteran wide receiver Demarcus Robinson and tight end Josh Oliver.
"Robinson, who was let go by the Raiders a few weeks into training camp, has been a serviceable secondary receiving option and could have had a big game Monday had Lamar Jackson not missed him twice for potential touchdowns," Zrebiec wrote. "Tight end Josh Oliver, who DeCosta acquired in a trade before the 2021 season for a conditional seventh-round pick, has emerged as a legitimate contributor, both as a pass catcher and blocker."
What Is the Biggest Question for the Ravens at Midseason?
ESPN's Jamison Hensley took stock of the Ravens at the season’s midway point. He said the biggest question facing the team going forward is whether they can win when Jackson has to throw the ball.
"Jackson ranks fourth with 16 touchdown passes, but he is 18th in passing yards with 1,768. He has lacked consistency hitting his receivers this season," Hensley wrote. "Over the past five games, Jackson has completed less than 60% of his passes four times and has averaged 175 yards passing. Some of the decreased production is the result of injuries to skill position players. But Jackson also hasn't been sharp. His 19.3% off-target rate is the seventh-worst in the league."
Jackson has shown in the past that he can win with his arm. He threw 10 touchdown passes in his first three games this season and led the league in touchdown passes in 2019.
Hensley named Andrews as the Ravens' non-QB midseason MVP.
"Before Andrews missed Monday night's game with shoulder and knee injuries, he accounted for 28% of Baltimore's receptions and receiving yards. He also had tallied one-third of the Ravens' touchdown catches," Hensley wrote. "Even though teams know Jackson is targeting Andrews, the tight end still finds ways to get open. And with No. 1 wide receiver Rashod Bateman out for the season with a foot injury, Jackson is going to rely on Andrews even more."
Looking ahead, Hensley said the game to circle on the Ravens' schedule is the season finale at Cincinnati.
"This looks like the game that will decide the AFC North," Hensley wrote. "The Browns (3-5) have struggled with quarterback Deshaun Watson on suspension, and the Steelers (2-6) have sputtered without Ben Roethlisberger. This division is a two-team race between Baltimore and Cincinnati, which have combined for three of the past four AFC North titles. The Ravens, though, need to reverse history after losing seven of the past 10 games in Cincinnati."
Patrick Ricard Keys Ravens' 'Three-Guard Offense'
While three-wide-receiver offenses and three-tight-end offenses are common, NFL Network's Brian Baldinger said the run-heavy Ravens employ a "three-guard offense" thanks to the presence of fullback Patrick Ricard.
"There's really nobody else quite like him in this league as a lead blocker," Baldinger said. "They're a three-guard offense, and they're really good when they crank it up. Wherever he goes, that's where the ball goes. … The running game is all about Ricard."
The Ravens have rushed for at least 155 yards in eight straight games and averaged 198 rushing yards in their past four games.