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Exit Interview: Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens had one of the best offensive seasons in NFL history. How do they pick up the pieces after their embarrassing divisional-round loss to the Titans?

As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Baltimore Ravens, who were shocked by the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round on Saturday.

What Went Right

The Baltimore Ravens started an offensive revolution this year. The team tossed aside the West Coast passing concepts that have dominated football since the 1980s and developed an offense built around rushing concepts from the past century that were updated for the modern game. They were they only team that ran more than they passed, and the result was the greatest rushing season ever: The Ravens had 3,296 yards on the ground on 5.5 yards per carry, both the highest marks in the Super Bowl era. Baltimore had more rushing yards than a quarter of the league had passing yards. That they did it in 2019, when so much of the game is built around passing, is truly absurd.

This doesn’t happen without second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, the presumptive MVP. The former Heisman winner shattered Michael Vick’s record for rushing yards by a QB in a season and set a new franchise mark for passing touchdowns (36, which led the league). Just look at how elusive he can be:

But for all the credit he gets as a rusher, he’s still a great passer. Even in Saturday’s stomping by Tennessee, he flashed his immense passing talents on plays like this one to Marquise Brown.

Lamar and coach John Harbaugh’s offensive revolution powered the Ravens to 14 wins (including 12 straight) and the 1-seed in the AFC, but there’s plenty of talent throughout this roster. Baltimore had five All-Pro selections and 12 players voted into the Pro Bowl in 2019. The defense was particularly great down the stretch; after a rough start to the season—this team gave up 40 points to the Browns in Week 4—the Ravens never allowed an opponent to score more than 23 points the rest of the regular season. Weeks 11 and 12 were the crown jewels of the defense’s performance, as the Ravens held the Texans to seven points and the Rams to six. During that 12-game win streak, Baltimore allowed the NFL’s fewest points per game (15.2) and the NFL’s fewest net yards per game (268.9).

The midseason acquisition of Marcus Peters paid dividends, as he finished as Pro Football Focus’s fourth-ranked cornerback and paired with Marlon Humphrey to form one of the league’s most fearsome defensive back pairings. Safety Earl Thomas looked every bit the world destroyer he had in Seattle, while defensive end Matt Judon broke out with 9.5 sacks. All four of these defenders earned Pro Bowl nods.

This was a dominant team on both sides of the ball, and Football Outsiders’ DVOA agreed: The Ravens finished first overall (with the seventh-best rating ever), with the top offense and fourth-ranked defense.

What Went Wrong

Regular-season accolades mean only so much when you lose in the divisional round as the 1-seed, particularly in the embarrassing fashion the Ravens did on Saturday night. In the 28-12 loss to the Titans, Harbaugh’s team looked wholly unprepared. One week after Tennessee running back Derrick Henry bulldozed through the defending champions in New England, he did the same to the Ravens, rushing for 195 yards. Ryan Tannehill threw for just 88 yards, with 45 coming on a single play; it was his second straight week winning a game while throwing for less than 100 yards. But with Henry playing like he has, the quarterback didn’t need to do much else. The Titans’ game plan was virtually identical to what they used to beat the Patriots, and somehow it worked again even though the Ravens stacked the box against Henry for most of the night.

The Ravens fell behind early, and when they couldn’t execute on offense like they wanted, they were unable to catch up. Much of that comes back to their issues at receiver. First-round rookie Marquise Brown was impressive at times this season—he had 147 yards and two highlight-reel TDs in his debut against the Dolphins in Week 1—but there wasn’t much depth behind him. Jackson had to throw a career-high 59 times on Saturday, with eight targets going to Willie Snead, seven to Miles Boykin, and four to Seth Roberts, hardly a group befitting a Super Bowl. Jackson’s leading receiver this year was tight end Mark Andrews, whose name became synonymous with drops this season. (He was largely responsible for the Titans’ first interception on Saturday, which set the tone for the rest of the game.) Baltimore must address its pass-catching group this offseason.

The Ravens became the first 1-seed to lose in the divisional round since January 2011, when both the Falcons and Patriots bowed out in their first postseason games. There was plenty to love about this Baltimore season, but getting bounced in the way they did will sting for a long time.

Free Agency

The Ravens enter the offseason with $34.7 million in cap space. The biggest question they face is how much of that should be dedicated to Judon, who is due a big raise over his 2019 salary of $2 million.

The top two Ravens free agents by 2019 salary are Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr, both of whom had been reduced to backup roles this season. With both players north of 30 and the performances of Peters and Humphrey, it would be shocking to see Smith and Carr back on this team next season.

Most of the key pieces are set to return in 2020, but the Ravens could be without one big name: guard Marshal Yanda, who remains one of the league’s best linemen at 35 years old. Yanda, who allowed one sack in his past 2,258 pass-blocking attempts entering Saturday, was reluctant to discuss his future after the loss to the Titans. He’s under contract for next season, but there’s a chance the future Hall of Famer will call it a career.

The Draft

The Ravens currently have 10 picks in April’s draft, including their own first-rounder, which will fall in the mid-20s. Despite the wealth of talent on this roster, they have several key needs to address. If Yanda retires, someone like Georgia’s Solomon Kindley or Oregon’s Shane Lemieux may make a lot of sense on the first night of the draft, should either be available. The pass rush could also use a boost—no Raven besides Judon had more than five sacks in 2019—and a player like Alabama’s Terrell Lewis could slot right in, should he fall that far due to injury concerns. Also expect the Ravens to add receiver and cornerback depth throughout the draft.