Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (0-0) at Baltimore Ravens (0-0)

The Ravens finished last season as far and away the top team in the league in first down rate differential at +8.87%, a significant edge over the 2nd ranked 49ers at 5.29%. They were even better after making some defensive additions, including cornerback Marcus Peters, with a 13.32% first down rate differential from week 7 (their first week with Peters) to week 16 (their last meaningful regular season game). 

That all fell apart in their first playoff game, when they lost 28-12 at home to the Titans, but that game was a lot closer than the final score suggested, with the game swinging on a -3 turnover margin and an 0 for 4 on 4th downs by the Ravens, two things that were both very uncharacteristic for the Ravens and that are highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. The Ravens only lost the first down rate differential by 3.24% in that game and they were facing a Titans team that was playing at a high level at the time, so I don’t really hold that against them much.

The oddsmakers don’t seem to hold that against them much either, as the Ravens enter the season with the 2nd best odds to win the Super Bowl at +650 according to SBD, right behind the defending champion Chiefs who are at +600. I would like the Ravens’ chances better if they didn’t have to cut Earl Thomas for disciplinary reasons, but on paper the Ravens are clearly one of the top few teams in the league and I have them representing the AFC in the Super Bowl in my season preview

That being said, I do think the Ravens are a little overvalued in this one as 7.5-point home favorites over the Browns, without any fans in the stadium. I have the Browns as a top-15 team going into the season and about 5 points behind the Ravens in my rankings, as they should benefit from improved offensive line play and coaching. I have this line calculated at around 6, so we’re getting some line value with the Browns, though I wouldn’t be eager to bet on them in this one because of how the Ravens ended last year’s regular season.

Baltimore Ravens 30 Cleveland Browns 24

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +7.5

Confidence: Low

Baltimore Ravens 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Ravens took a big risk at the end of the first round of the draft two years ago. With veteran Joe Flacco coming off multiple consecutive disappointing seasons and not getting any younger or cheaper, the Ravens decided to package together a pair of second round picks to move back into the first round to select quarterback Lamar Jackson at #32 overall. Jackson drew mixed reviews coming out of college because he had unparalleled athletic ability, but was very raw as a passer. Even the Ravens didn’t seem to be totally sold on him, opting to take tight end Hayden Hurst with their original first round pick before trading back up to get Jackson with the last pick in the first round when he continued slipping.

As a rookie, Jackson mostly sat on the bench for the first 9 games of his career behind Flacco as the backup quarterback, though he did see some limited action in ways that made use of his unique abilities (12 pass attempts, 28 carries, 2 pass targets in those 9 games). When Flacco injured his hip, Jackson then took over as the starter the rest of the way. The Ravens made the post-season, but Jackson very much seemed to fit his pre-draft scouting report, rushing for 695 yards and 5 touchdowns on 147 carries (4.73 YPC), but completing just 58.2% of his passes for an average of 7.06 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, despite defenses selling out to stop the run. 

Overall, the Ravens ‘offense was actually slightly more effective with Flacco (36.46% first down rate) than it was with Jackson (34.48% first down rate), even though Jackson faced bottom-10 defenses in 5 of his 7 regular season starts. In the post-season against a much tougher Chargers defense, Jackson seemed especially overmatched, as the Ravens were held to 5 first downs through the first three and a half quarters of the game before garbage time. The Ravens moved on from the expensive Flacco last off-season and made Jackson the full-time starter, but there were still a lot of questions about Jackson’s ability to consistently lead a team if he did not improve as a passer.

Jackson answered those questions by improving as a passer arguably as much as any quarterback ever from one year to the next and the results were obvious. Jackson led the Ravens to the best record in the AFC at 14-2 and the NFL’s best first down rate differential at 41.73% and he won the MVP by completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 36 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, while still adding an NFL quarterback record 1,206 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns on 176 carries (6.85 YPC). He also seemed to get better as the season went on, leading the Ravens to a 39.11% first down rate in his first 7 starts of the season and a 46.00% first down rate in his final 8 starts of the season. 

Jackson isn’t an exceptional passer by any means, but he is able to produce big numbers in the passing game anyway because he is able to create easier passing lanes with his mobility inside and outside the pocket. Many will say that Jackson proved the pre-draft scouting reports wrong, but in reality the scouting reports were right at the time. Even Jackson admitted he didn’t really know how to throw a football properly as a rookie. Jackson simply has gotten significantly better in two seasons in the league and that’s a credit to him and his work ethic.  It’s also a testament to how difficult drafting and pre-draft scouting can be that almost the whole league, including the Ravens, passed on Jackson at least once on draft day.

Credit should also be given to the Ravens for being willing to build their offense around Jackson’s unique skill set and it’s a big boost to this team’s chances of continuing to dominate on offense going forward that they were able to keep offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who understandably attracted head coaching interest this off-season. Roman has a history of working with dual threat quarterbacks in the past, getting the best years of their career out of both Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor, and he’s an excellent fit as this team’s offensive coordinator.

After winning an MVP in his age 22 season, the question for Jackson becomes what comes next. Many expect he’ll continue to get better as he gets more experience, but that’s not always the case. In fact, Jackson could have a Hall-of-Fame caliber career and still only match his 2019 season a couple times. He should remain among the top quarterbacks in the league, but he’s technically still a one-year wonder and I wouldn’t consider him the MVP favorite over guys like Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson or even Drew Brees, who have proven it over multiple high level seasons.

Jackson also has a higher chance than usual for a quarterback of getting hurt, as his playing style leads him to taking significantly more hits. Obviously, the Ravens’ would take a big hit if Jackson were to go down. Backup quarterback Robert Griffin has at least somewhat similar of a skillset to Jackson, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked quarterback out of 39 qualifiers in his most recent season as a starter in 2016 and he’s thrown just 44 passes since, with 21 of those coming in an underwhelming start during a meaningless week 17 game last season, with the Ravens locked into the #1 seed. Griffin is probably in the best offense for his skill set, but would likely struggle if he had to start for an extended period of time. The Ravens are obviously hoping that doesn’t happen.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The most noticeable feature of the offense the Ravens have built around Jackson is that they run the ball a lot, they run the ball in all situations, and they run the ball in a variety of different ways. That doesn’t just include Jackson’s 176 carries, as the Ravens’ 596 team carries were most in the NFL by a whopping 98 carries and they also ranked first in rushing yards (3,296), and YPC (5.53) by a wide margin, meaning that running backs were a big part of this offensive attack as well.

Lead back Mark Ingram rushed for 1,018 yards and 10 scores on 202 carries (5.04 YPC). Top backup Gus Edwards was very much involved as well with 133 carries for 711 yards and 2 touchdowns (5.35 YPC). Even #3 running back Justice Hill got into some action, with 58 carries for 225 yards and 2 scores (3.88 YPC), though it’s worth noting that 10 of those carries came in the meaningless season finale and that he was by far the least effective of the three backs. Jackson’s rushing ability develops makes life easier for the running backs because defenses are preoccupied with Jackson faking the handoff and running with it himself, but the running backs deserve plenty of credit as well.

The Ravens added further to their running back depth this off-season by using a 2nd round pick on Ohio State’s JK Dobbins. That may seem like a strange addition given that they were already pretty deep at the position, but Dobbins was a good value at #55 overall and, even as a rookie, he could be the Ravens’ 2nd most talented back overall behind Ingram, who is no spring chicken, now heading into his age 31 season. His addition is also likely a sign of how they feel about Hill long-term, as they don’t seem to be willing to make him the #2 back in this run heavy offense if there was ever an injury ahead of him on the depth chart.

Ingram figures to remain the lead back, even though running backs do tend to drop off pretty quickly in their early 30s. A first round pick by the Saints in 2011, Ingram dealt with injury problems early in his career, missing 18 games in his first 5 seasons in the league combined, but he’s missed just 1 game due to injury over the past 4 seasons and in his career he’s averaged 929 yards and 8 touchdowns on 201 carries (4.61 YPC) per 16 games, including a 4.94 YPC average and 34 touchdowns on 775 carries over the past 4 seasons. He’s had the benefit of playing on some of the best offenses in the league over the past 4 seasons with the Saints and Ravens, but he’s played well in his own right, finishing in the top-22 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, including an 8th ranked finish in 2019. Even if he isn’t quite as good this season due to age related regression, he should still be a useful back.

With Ingram likely locked in as the lead back, that leaves JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards competing for #2 back work and it’s possible both backs see carries on an offense that gave 181 carries to backup running backs last season, even with Ingram only sidelined for one game. 133 of those carries went to Edwards, who has been a bit of a revelation as a runner in two seasons since the Ravens signed him as an undrafted rookie, rushing for 5.30 YPC on 270 carries in the two seasons combined. That’s the best in the NFL over that span among running backs with at least 200 carries, as is his 60% carry success rate.

Edwards has benefitted from playing almost all of his career with Jackson under center, but 62.4% of his rushing yards (3.30 YPC) have come after contact and he has finished in the top-14 among running backs on PFF in rushing grade in both seasons. He doesn’t do anything in the passing game (9 career catches), which is likely why the Ravens added Dobbins as a long-term every down back, but Edwards is a perfect fit as a powerful north to south runner (6-1 238) on an offense that spreads defenses out with probably the fastest sideline to sideline quarterback in NFL history. Ingram also is a great fit for this offense because he’s a power back as well at 5-9 215. 

Given how well Edwards fits this offense as a runner and how well he’s run over the past two seasons, it could be difficult for Dobbins to unseat him as 2nd to line to carries as a rookie, even if Dobbins does play more snaps than Edwards because he plays in passing situations. Realistically, it could be something close to a three man rotation at running back for carries, with Ingram and Dobbins splitting passing down work. Justice Hill, meanwhile, will need to show value on special teams to keep his job in arguably the deepest running back group in the NFL.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Along with being the run heaviest team in the league, another key feature of the Ravens’ offense last season was featuring tight ends in the passing game rather than wide receivers. The Ravens had a pair of tight ends in Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst who were mismatches in the passing game and could hold their own as blockers as well and they had Nick Boyle, a dominant blocking tight end who was also a reliable possession receiver in the passing game. These three tight ends allowed them to regularly use two and three tight end sets and to both run out of these sets and to fake play action off of them and try to hit a mismatched tight end or a speedy wide receiver that sneaks behind the defense.

The Ravens traded Hurst to the Falcons this off-season for a 2nd round pick (eventually used to select JK Dobbins), a good return for a former first round pick who had fallen to 3rd on the depth chart and played just 457 snaps last season, but it’s surprising the Ravens didn’t do anything to replace him, given how important the tight end position is to this offense. Without him, the Ravens won’t be able to run three tight end sets effectively like they did last season and, if either Andrews or Boyle was to get hurt, the Ravens wouldn’t be able to effectively run two tight end sets either.

As long as they are healthy, however, Andrews and Boyle are arguably the top tight end duo in the league, especially given how their skill sets complement each other. Andrews led the team with a 64/852/10 slash line and was even better than that suggested, as he did that on a run heavy team, despite not playing every down. He ranked 2nd among tight ends in both yards per route run (2.89) and in overall grade on Pro Football Focus, behind only George Kittle in both categories. That comes after averaging 2.01 yards per route run (4th among tight ends) and ranking 6th among tight ends on PFF as a 3rd round rookie in 2018. Only going into his age 25 season, Andrews looks likely to be one of the best tight ends in the league for years to come and he could easily exceed last year’s receiving totals with Hurst now gone.

Boyle, meanwhile, is basically a 6th offensive lineman as a blocker, as he’s consistently been of the best blocking tight ends in the league throughout his 5-year career, but, despite his speed limitations (5.00 40), he’s not a bad pass catcher either, catching 73.1% of his career targets, though for just 8.81 yards per catch. Still, his ability to be an underneath target off play action is very valuable for this team and it’s no surprise he’s coming off the best receiving year of his career (31/321/2) and a career best 12th ranked finish among tight ends on PFF in an offense that fits his skill set so well. He’ll still primarily be a blocker, so I wouldn’t expect him to drastically exceed last year’s receiving totals even without Hurst, but he should still be a very valuable part of this offense.

The Ravens need their two tight ends to stay healthy, otherwise their lack of depth at wide receiver would be exposed, as it was in their surprising post-season home loss to the Tennessee Titans. In that game, the Ravens uncharacteristically got down big early because of turnovers, forcing Lamar Jackson into a career high 59 pass attempts, and, with such an underwhelming receiving corps, Jackson was unable to get the Ravens back into it in an eventual 16 point loss. 

The Ravens were better in first down rate differential in their post-season loss than the final score suggested at -3.24%, losing big primarily because of a -3 turnover margin, which is almost an entirely unpredictable stat from week-to-week, but the point remains that their wide receivers were a problem last season, with just one wide receiver topping 339 receiving yards in the regular season. Not much changed this off-season, however, with the Ravens only replacing veteran Seth Roberts with 3rd round rookie Devin Duvarney. The Ravens will be counting on young players taking a step forward at the position in 2020, including Duvarney, who should compete for playing time in this group, despite being a raw rookie. 

Last year’s first round pick Marquise Brown and last year’s 3rd round pick Myles Boykin will also be in the mix for playing time, with Brown obviously having more upside, after averaging 1.81 yards per route run as a rookie (compared to 1.10 for Boykin), despite being in and out of the lineup with injuries. Brown might not be that durable at 5-9 179, but he has the upside to breakout as a legitimate #1 receiver in his 2nd season in the league and he’ll likely remain their top option regardless, after leading Ravens wideouts with a 46/584/7 slash line. Boykin, meanwhile, could take a step forward as well, but doesn’t have the same upside.

Willie Snead is the veteran of the group, going into his 7th season in the league, and he should be in the mix for a role as well, even if only by default. Primarily an underneath slot receiver, Snead is a bit of an odd fit with Jackson. Snead put up 69/984/3 and 72/895/4 slash lines in 2015 and 2016 and was on his way to a 80/796/2 slash line in 2018 before Flacco got hurt (with an injury plagued 2017 season in between), but Snead has caught just 48 passes for 542 yards and 5 touchdowns in 25 career games with Jackson. The Ravens extended him with a one-year, 6 million dollar extension during last season, so they seem to still value him despite his recent underwhelming production, but I wouldn’t expect him to produce significantly better in 2020. The Ravens will need #1 receiver Marquise Brown and talented tight end duo Mark Andrews/Nick Boyle to stay healthy to mask their lack of depth in the receiving corps.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

If there’s any one thing that could derail the Ravens’ chances of being a dominant offense again, it’s the retirement of right guard Marshal Yanda, who still finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked guard, despite being in his age 35 season. The Ravens used a 3rd round pick (Tyre Phillips) and a 4th round pick (Ben Bredeson) on guards and they have last year’s 4th round pick Ben Powers, who saw 30 snaps meaningless in the meaningless finale, but their most likely option is DJ Fluker, who has 88 career starts, but has never been more than a middling starter.

Center is also a position of uncertainty. Matt Skura started 11 games there last season and finished 16th out of 35 qualifying centers on PFF, but the 2016 undrafted free agent struggled in the first two seasons of his career in 2017 and 2018 and his 2019 season ended with a torn ACL that makes him questionable for the start of the 2020 season. Even if he’s ready for the start of the season, Skura is no guarantee to repeat his solid 2019 season. It’s also possible Skura could lose his starting job entirely to 2019 undrafted free agent Patrick Mekari, who flashed on 431 snaps as an injury replacement for Skura last season. Mekari could also potentially be in the mix to start at right guard, where he has a little bit of experience.

Along with Yanda, left tackle Ronnie Stanley had a dominant year on an offensive line that was a big part of the Ravens’ offensive success last season. Unlike Yanda, Stanley is fortunately still around and, only going into his age 26 season, he’s very much in the prime of his career and could even keep getting better. The 6th overall pick in 2016, Stanley has improved in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, finishing 29th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2016, 21st in 2017, 15th in 2018, and 3rd last season. He could easily remain one of the top few left tackles in the league for years to come and is immensely valuable protecting Lamar Jackson’s blindside.

Orlando Brown remains as the starter on the opposite side at right tackle. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Brown took over as the starter in week 7 of his rookie year and has provided them with above average play since then (26 starts), including a 28th ranked finish among offensive tackles on PFF in 2019. Still only going into his age 24 season, Brown could easily keep getting better over the next few seasons.

Finishing off this offensive line is left guard, where 2018 6th round pick Bradley Bozeman is going into his 2nd full season as the starter. Despite his relative inexperience (17 career starts), Bozeman doesn’t have a high ceiling, as he was an old rookie who is already going into his age 26 season and he’s athletically limited. He could remain a solid starter in 2020 and beyond, but it’s worth noting he’s a former late round pick who has made just 17 career starts at this point. This is still a talented offensive line, but the loss of Yanda will be very significant and they might not get the same level of play at center or left guard either.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

In 2018, the Ravens made the playoffs with a raw Lamar Jackson at quarterback on the strength of a defense that finished the season with the 2nd lowest first down rate allowed in the league at 32.65%, but they suffered significant losses from 2018 to 2019. They lost 5 of their top-12 in snaps played on defense in free agency, including key players like Za’Darius Smith, CJ Mosley, and Terrell Suggs, and they then lost another two of those top-12 (Tavon Young and Tony Jefferson) to season ending injuries. All of their losses seemed to take their toll on this defense, as they ranked just 24th in first down rate allowed through the first 6 weeks of the season at 37.95%, despite facing a relatively easy schedule that included games against the Dolphins, Chiefs, Steelers, Browns, and Bengals, and Cardinals.

However, seemingly overnight, the Ravens became one of the best defenses in the league again. Despite the schedule getting tougher, the Ravens ranked 2nd in the NFL after week 6 in first down rate allowed after at 30.00%. Even after their slow start, they still managed to finish 5th in the NFL on the season in first down rate allowed at 32.86%. Along with their top ranked offense, the Ravens finished in the top-5 on both sides of the ball, the only team in the league to do so and just one of two teams (49ers) to finish in the top-10. 

Unsurprisingly, their +8.87% first down rate differential on the season was the best in the NFL by a wide margin, with the 49ers 2nd at +5.29%. The Ravens were especially dominant from week 9 to week 16, with a ridiculous +15.28% first down rate differential over that stretch. Of course, that didn’t matter when they lost at home in their first playoff game to the Titans in a game in which they didn’t give themselves a real chance because of a -3 turnover margin, but the fact remains that the Ravens were for most of the second half of last season close to a historically good team on both sides of the ball.

The primary reasons for significant defensive improvement are in the secondary and linebacking corps, so I’ll get into those later, but it’s worth mentioning upfront that the Ravens, much like they do on offense, run defensive schemes that are different than most of what the league runs. They run both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts in base packages, they frequently use 6 defensive backs on the field at the same time in sub packages, and, the most notable feature, they blitz more than any team in the league, sending a 5th rusher 45% of the time last season.

Despite that and despite playing with frequent leads, the Ravens actually didn’t sack the quarterback that often. They ranked just 21st in the NFL with 37 sacks and had just one player with more than 5 sacks on the season. They especially struggled from the interior, as they didn’t have a single interior defender who played more than 150 snaps who earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus for rushing the passer. The Ravens clearly viewed improving this area as a priority this off-season, allowing Michael Pierce, a big 6-0 340 pounder with a 5.2% pressure rate last season, to leave in free agency and trading rotational reserve Chris Wormley (6.4% pressure rate last season) to the Steelers, while adding a pair of more pass rush oriented types in Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe.

Campbell is the big prize, even though he was acquired for just a 6th round pick in a trade from the Jaguars. Campbell is going into his age 34 season and was owed 15 million for 2020, so he was acquired by the Ravens largely as a salary dump. It’s understandable the Jaguars would want to move on from Campbell given that they are rebuilding and shedding salary, but it’s a surprise that they couldn’t get more than a 6th round pick for him. Despite Campbell’s age, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, finishing 3rd among interior defenders on PFF last season, his 8th straight season in the top-19 at his position on PFF, including 4 straight seasons in the top-3. 

Over those past four seasons, he has totaled 39.5 sacks, 62 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate, while dominating against the run as well. He’s also a perfect fit for the Ravens’ defense because of his versatility. Not only does he have experience as a base end in both a 4-3 and a 3-4 defense, but he can also rush the passer effectively from the edge and from the interior. Even if he declines over the next couple seasons, he was well worth the 6th round pick and 2-year, 25 million dollar extension (20 million guaranteed) that the Ravens gave up to get him, given that the Ravens are in win now mode and can afford to add expensive talent, with their franchise quarterback still on an inexpensive rookie deal. He should remain an effective player, at the very least.

Wolfe, meanwhile, is kind of a lesser version of Campbell. He’s played defensive end in a base scheme 3-4 in Denver for the past five seasons, but he also spent some time earlier in his career in a 4-3 defense, playing both inside at defensive tackle and outside at defensive end. In 8 seasons total with the Broncos, Wolfe averaged 48.1 snaps per game and earned average or better grades from PFF in each of his final 6 seasons with the team. He was better against the run than as a pass rusher, but added a 7.4% pressure rate as well and mostly played every down. 

Wolfe is going into his age 30 season, but should have at least another couple solid seasons left in the tank, so he was a worthwhile addition on a 1-year, 6 million dollar deal. He and Campbell give the Broncos a pair of versatile defensive linemen who can play every down and play both inside and outside, giving them more versatility and pass rush than they had last season. Campbell may play more outside than Wolfe and is obviously the better player overall, but both should have significant roles.

With Campbell and Wolfe coming in as interior rush options in sub packages, that should allow holdover Brandon Williams to play more of a base package role, taking over for Michael Pierce at nose tackle, after playing out of position somewhat last season. Williams has earned an above average grade as a run stuffer in all 7 seasons he’s been in the league, but he’s finished average or worse as a pass rusher in all 7 seasons and has just a 5.0% pressure rate for his career. That’s unsurprising, considering Williams is a big 6-1 335 pounder. 

Now going into his age 31 season, Williams is who he is at this point and could easily be on the decline, posting the lowest PFF of his career last year and finishing as PFF’s 54th ranked interior defender overall. He’ll be a better fit as primarily a base package player though and should see fewer than the 37.5 snaps per game he played last season in a better position group. He may still see some sub package snaps, especially when Campbell lines up outside, but he’s not someone you want playing significant sub package snaps and I wouldn’t expect him to do so.

Jihad Ward played 398 snaps as a reserve last season, but he struggled, as he has throughout his 4-year career, so he’s not guaranteed a significant role again. He has the ability to play both inside and outside in sub packages, but Campbell and Wolfe can both do so as well, and the Ravens used a 3rd round pick on Texas A&M defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, who will likely compete to be the primary reserve on the interior, which could leave Ward without much of a role. This is a more talented, more versatile, and deeper group than last season.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

Edge defender Matt Judon was the only Ravens defender to have a significant sack total last season, leading the team with 9.5. Not only that, but he added 25 hits and a 14.1% pressure rate as well. His pressure rate is inflated because of how often the Ravens blitzed and because he was frequently the blitzer, frequently lining up inside at off ball linebacker in sub packages and blitzing up the middle, but he also had to drop back into coverage on 19.9% of the pass snaps he played because of the different blitz schemes the Ravens ran, which limited his pass rush opportunities. Judon earned Pro Football Focus’ 18th highest grade among edge defenders in pass rush grade and was clearly much better as a pass rusher than in coverage, where he struggled mightily. 

With the Ravens adding interior rushers that will help them get to the quarterback with four more easily and with the Ravens adding better coverage off ball linebackers (more on that later), it’s very possible the Ravens blitz less often this season and that Judon will play more of a traditional edge defender role and not move around the formation and drop into coverage as often, which should be a better role, even if fewer blitzes reduces his overall pressure rate. 

Judon is a one-year wonder in terms of getting to the quarterback at the rate he did last season, but he’s been at least a solid starter for 3 seasons in a row and he has a career 12.2% pressure rate in 4 years in the league. Going into his age 28 season, Judon should be in his prime for at least another couple seasons, though he’s yet to agree to a long-term extension after being franchise tagged as a free agent this off-season.

Tyus Bowser was essentially Judon’s backup last season, playing 389 snaps total and dropping into coverage on 26.5% of his pass snaps. Second on the team with 5 sacks, Bowser also had a 11.3% pressure rate and he wasn’t bad in coverage either, as the 6-3 242 pounder is a much more natural coverage athlete than the 6-4 264 Judon. Bowser hasn’t played much in 3 seasons in the league (715 snaps total) and snaps will be harder to come by in a deeper position group, but he’s a former 2nd round pick who is going into his age 25 season and his versatility should earn him at least a rotational role.

At the edge defender spot opposite Judon, veteran Pernell McPhee was the starter for the first 7 games of the season, but he tore his triceps and missed the rest of the season, leaving 3rd round rookie Jaylon Ferguson to start the rest of the way, after he played just 82 snaps in the first 6 weeks of the season. Ferguson didn’t fare all that well, but he was just a 3rd round rookie, so he could still develop into a capable starter long-term. His role is uncertain going into this season, however, as not only can Campbell and Wolfe play on the edge, but McPhee is also returning from injury.

McPhee is only going into his age 32 season and was once one of the most efficient pass rushers in the league, posting a 18.0% pressure rate in 2014 and 2015 combined, but his career has been completely derailed by injury, as he hasn’t played more than 385 snaps in a season since 2015 and has missed 22 games total over the past 4 seasons combined. Last season, he played 41.3 snaps per game in the 6 games he finished without getting hurt, but then he got injured in week 7 and missed the rest of the season.

McPhee wasn’t particularly effective last season before the injury either (8.0% pressure rate and a middling grade from PFF) and now, another year older, it would be a surprise if he was able to bounce back to anything close to his prime form, even if he were to stay healthy. His versatility to play inside and outside is valuable, but he’s unlikely to have a significant impact. With Campbell and Wolfe able to play on the edge in addition to on the interior, the Ravens have improved their depth at this position this off-season and they have a pair of young players in Bowser and Ferguson who could take a step forward as well.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

As I mentioned, the Ravens did a good job of getting better coverage off ball linebackers this season, which, along with their improved pass rush, will likely lead to them blitzing not quite as much and should lead to them playing players out of position less frequently. The Ravens’ off ball linebackers were not bad last season and in fact the mid-season additions of LJ Fort and Josh Bynes actually coincided directly with their defensive turnaround, though there were other factors. 

The big problem was that, while Fort and Bynes both earned above average grades against the run from Pro Football Focus, they played just 391 snaps and 254 snaps respectively and struggled in coverage and that no Ravens off ball linebacker played more than 473 snaps (Patrick Onwausor). The Ravens compensated for this by playing edge defenders like Judon and Bowser out of position in sub packages or using 3 safeties and dropping strong safety Chuck Clark near the line of scrimmage as a coverage linebacker, but their moves this off-season suggest they want to be a little more traditional in 2020.

LJ Fort still remains, but Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwausor are gone and, while Bynes was PFF’s 12th ranked off ball linebacker against the run last season, Onwausor ranked 82nd in overall grade out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers and the Ravens did a good job adding potential three down off ball linebackers through the draft. At 28 overall they got a steal with arguably the top off ball linebacker in the draft in Patrick Queen, who could play almost every snap every as a rookie and compete for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and then they got another potential three down talent in the 3rd round in Malik Harrison. 

Harrison is rawer and not as much of a sure thing, but he still figures to compete for playing time immediately next to Queen. LJ Fort could remain an option in base packages and he’s earned an above average grade from PFF for his run stopping ability in back-to-back seasons, although he’s going into his age 30 season and has never played more than 305 snaps in a season. The Ravens also have enough depth in the secondary that they could still frequently play with 3 safeties in sub packages, but, unlike last season, they have enough depth at linebacker that it won’t be totally necessary to play a 3rd safety in sub packages.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The single biggest reason for the Ravens defensive improvement last season was the secondary. At cornerback, the Ravens lost slot cornerback Tavon Young for the season with injury before the year began and then lost cornerback Jimmy Smith indefinitely week 1, but then they traded for Marcus Peters from the Rams before week 7 and got Smith back healthy for week 9. Peters and Smith playing outside allowed them to move Marlon Humphrey to the slot in sub packages, giving the Ravens a talented trio of cornerbacks, and it allowed 4th cornerback Brandon Carr to play more safety down the stretch, which allowed them to drop safety Chuck Clark down to linebacker in sub packages, to compensate for their lack of depth at the position. 

Carr was let go this off-season, owed 6 million non-guaranteed in his age 34 season in 2020, while Tavon Young returns from injury, so the Ravens will have to re-shuffle their cornerbacks a little bit, but it’s still a very strong group. Young’s best position is on the slot, so he figures to play there primarily, moving Humphrey outside every down outside Peters. That would leave the aging Jimmy Smith (age 32 season) as the 4th cornerback and a potential part-time safety.

Humphrey wasn’t bad on the slot and made not just his first career Pro Bowl, but also the All-Pro team last season, but he actually earned the lowest grade of his 3-year career from Pro Football Focus. He still ranked 33rd among cornerbacks overall, but he ranked 16th in 2018 and he is probably a more natural fit outside, even if he can play inside if needed in a pinch. The former first round pick still has a huge upside, only going into his age 24 season, and, now going into his 4th season in the league, back in a more natural spot outside, he could easily have the highest ranked season of his career.

Marcus Peters was the single biggest reason for their defensive turnaround, as he was PFF’s 5th ranked cornerback from his arrival in week 7 and beyond and finished as their 4th ranked cornerback overall. It’s hard to believe the Ravens acquired Peters for a mere fifth round pick, but he was going into the final year of his deal with the Rams, who needed to clear cap space for the recently acquired Jalen Ramsey, and Peters has been inconsistent enough in the past that it’s understandable why the Rams would want to go with Ramsey instead. Peters also finished 16th among cornerbacks in 2016 and 14th in 2017, but on the flip side of that he finished 81st in 2015 and 98th in 2018. His history of inconsistency didn’t scare the Ravens off from giving him a 3-year, 42 million dollar extension and that’s not a bad value for him, but it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be the quite same player this season, especially with 21 million guaranteed in his pocket.

Tavon Young should be locked in on the slot, but his injury history is pretty concerning, as he’s now missed 2 of 4 full seasons. A 4th round pick in 2016, Young burst onto the season as a rookie, finishing as PFF’s 17th ranked cornerback on 833 snaps, but then he missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL and didn’t seem to be quite the same in 2018, earning a middling grade from PFF. That didn’t stop the Ravens from giving him a 3-year, 25.8 million dollar extension that made him one of the highest paid slot cornerbacks in the league last off-season and it was reasonable to assume he’d bounce back in 2019, another year removed from the torn ACL, but then he missed all of 2019 with a neck injury. Still only going into his age 26 season, Young has some bounce back potential, but it’s worth noting his last high level season was 4 years ago.

Jimmy Smith is the odd man out at cornerback for now, but he’s expected to see some action at safety. Smith has rarely played safety in his 9-year career (83 starts, all at cornerback), but he has good size at 6-2 210 and would hardly be the first cornerback to make a successful late career switch to safety. Smith has had a lot of injuries over the years (20 games missed over the past 4 seasons) and hasn’t been the same player in recent years, but he was still a capable starter in 9 games last season and he’s probably overqualified as a 6th defensive back, which is what he’ll essentially be. Smith might not have a significant role to start the season, but he figures see significant playing time at one point or another, even if it’s only as an injury replacement.

Along with the positive changes at cornerback mid-season, the Ravens also got a positive change at safety when starting safety Tony Jefferson tore his ACL week 5. Jefferson was a solid starter in 2018, so may seem weird that his absence would be a benefit, but Jefferson was off to a terrible start in 2019, ranking 76th out of 89 qualifying safeties on PFF at the time of his injury, and his replacement Chuck Clark wound up being better than Jefferson was even in 2018, as Clark finished 28th among safeties on PFF in 2019. 

Clark’s impressive play led to the Ravens cutting Jefferson ahead of a non-guaranteed 7 million dollar salary this off-season and locking up Clark long-term on a 3-year, 15.3 million dollar extension. A 6th round pick in 2017, Clark is a one-year wonder who played just 315 mediocre snaps in his first 2 seasons combined in 2017 and 2018, but he’s still only going into his age 25 season and has plenty of upside going forward. He’s also particularly valuable because of his ability to play both safety and linebacker and to both stop the run in the box and to cover backs and tight ends one-on-one. He could prove to be a real value signing if he continues to develop.

With Clark working as a box safety, Earl Thomas is the primary deep safety, a role he spent 9 seasons in with the Seahawks (125 starts), prior to signing with the Ravens last off-season. In his first season in Baltimore, Thomas had his lowest rated season on PFF since 2012, which is slightly concerning as he now heads into his age 31 season, but he still finished 14th after a stretch of 4 out of 5 seasons in the top-5, so even a declining Earl Thomas is still one of the better safeties in the league. This is a deep and talented secondary once again, arguably even deeper, with Tavon Young returning from injury.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Ravens were one of the best teams in the league on both sides of the ball last season and entered the post-season as the most complete team in the league. It all fell apart in a divisional round home loss to the Titans by 16, but that game was much closer than the final score suggested, as the game entirely swung on a -3 turnover margin by the Ravens and a highly uncharacteristic 0 for 4 on 4th down. The Ravens have made some changes into 2020, but still look like one of the top few teams in the league going into the season. No one should be surprised if they claim the AFC’s top seed again and finish it off with a Super Bowl this time around, though I’m not sure I’d consider them the outright favorite. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Final Update: The Ravens were dealt a big blow when they had to release safety Earl Thomas following an altercation with a teammate. He will be replaced by unproven 2018 6th round pick DeShon Elliott. The Ravens should still be one of the top contenders in the AFC, but safety is now an obvious hole for them and they can’t afford to lose more depth in the secondary.

Projection: 12-4 (1st in AFC North)

Tennessee Titans at Baltimore Ravens: 2019 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Tennessee Titans (10-7) at Baltimore Ravens (14-2)

The Titans looked in the middle of a lost season when they started 2-4, bottoming out with a shutout loss in Denver week 6. That loss ended up being a blessing in disguise, however, as that was the performance they needed to pull the trigger on the switch from former #2 overall pick Marcus Mariota to veteran off-season acquisition Ryan Tannehill under center. Since making that move, the Titans rank 4th among playoff qualifiers with a +4.47% first down rate differential.

Tannehill hasn’t just been game-managing this team either, as their defense has actually fallen off significantly since Tannehill took off, allowing a 37.43% first down rate over Tannehill’s 11 starts, as opposed to a 30.93% first down rate in the first 6 games of the season, in large part due to injuries to key players like defensive linemen Jurrell Casey (2 games) and Jeffery Simmons (7 games), linebacker Jayon Brown (2 games), edge rusher Cameron Wake (7 games), and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler (7 games) and Adoree Jackson (5 games). Tannehill and the offense have carried this team, picking up first downs at a 41.90% rate in Tannehill’s 11 starts, only behind the Ravens over that stretch, as opposed to 32.69% in the first 6 games of the season. Tannehill also finished the regular season as the league leader in QB rating. 

The switch to Tannehill took this team from seemingly dead in the water at 2-4 to not only qualifying for the post-season at 9-7, after winning 7 of their final 10 regular season games, but also winning a playoff game last week in New England against the Patriots. Tannehill didn’t do much in a game in which the Titans called 40 run plays to 17 pass plays to attack a Patriots defense that is significantly better against air attacks than ground attacks, but this offense is much more than just Tannehill, as they have a strong offensive line, a great feature back in Derrick Henry, and a downfield #1 receiver in AJ Brown. They’re multi-dimensional and can have offensive success in different ways.

This should be where the Titans’ season ends though and they could really struggle in this game in Baltimore, for several reasons. For one, Tannehill probably won’t be quite as good as he’s been going forward, as it’s unlikely he’s suddenly become an elite quarterback in his 8th season in the league. Tannehill won’t necessarily struggle going forward, but if he’s not the quarterback that led the NFL in QB rating going forward, that will have a noticeable effect on a team that has been so reliant on their offense in recent weeks with their defense struggling.

Speaking of that defense, the Titans still have a lot of injury concerns on that side of the ball. Even with starting cornerback Malcolm Butler and key edge rusher Cameron Wake out for the season, things appeared to be looking up last week when they got top cornerback Adoree Jackson back from a 5-game absence, but they lost top linebacker Jayon Brown with an injury in the first minute of their win in New England, which is a huge absence, as Brown was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked off linebacker during the regular season.

The Patriots, who have been stagnant on offense for months and couldn’t take it to another level in the post-season, were unable to exploit Brown’s absence in any significant way, but the Ravens should have a much easier time. In fact, given the way the Ravens run their offense, Brown is probably the worst possible player the Titans could be missing on defense for this matchup. Brown not only is the one Titans linebacker with the speed to contain Lamar Jackson in the open field, but he’s also easily their best coverage linebacker, a big absence against a team that relies heavily on tight ends in the passing game.

Even if Brown was playing, the Titans would have a tough time slowing down a Ravens offense that not only lead the league with a 41.73% first down rate, but that has actually been even better than that over the past few months, as Jackson and company have gotten more comfortable in the scheme. Over their past 10 games since week 7, the Ravens have a 42.47% first down rate, despite resting their key players in a meaningless week 17 game against the Steelers. The Ravens have won 12 straight games overall, but have been especially dominant over their past 10 games, covering in all but one game and winning by an average of 20.5 points per game, including an 18-point week 17 win with backups against a capable Steelers team.

That impressive stretch isn’t just because of the offense either, as their defense has allowed just a 30.00% first down rate over those 10 games and ranks 1st among playoff qualifiers in first down rate allowed over that stretch. That’s in comparison to a 37.95% first down rate that ranked 24th in the NFL over the first 6 games of the season. It’s easy to point to the acquisition of cornerback Marcus Peters between week 6 and week 7 as the reason for their drastic improvement and certainly he has been a big part of the reason, but the Ravens also added key linebacker Josh Bynes between week 4 and week 5 and have gotten significantly better play at safety since Tony Jefferson got hurt and was replaced with breakout player Chuck Clark. With an elite offense and defense, the Ravens are obvious Super Bowl favorites and I don’t expect this game to be close. There’s not quite enough here to bet the Ravens with confidence as 9.5-point favorites, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Baltimore Ravens 31 Tennessee Titans 20

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -9.5

Confidence: Low

Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7) at Baltimore Ravens (13-2)

The Ravens’ season got off to an unspectacular start, as they were just 2-2 through 4 games, including a blowout week 4 loss against the Browns, but they have won 11 straight games since then and have the #1 seed in the AFC already locked up before week 17, allowing them to rest key players in a game that is meaningless for them. For the Steelers, this game is the opposite, as they are one of three teams still alive for the 2nd wild card spot in the AFC. Losing this game won’t eliminate the Steelers, as they can still make the post-season if the Titans and Raiders lose and the Colts win, and winning this game won’t guarantee them a post-season spot, as the Titans would hold the tiebreaker over the Steelers if both teams win, but the Steelers’ path to the post-season is certainly easier with a win. 

The common logic seems to be that because the Steelers need this game and the Ravens don’t that the Steelers will be able to prevail and, as a result, they are favored by 2 points on the road in Baltimore. It’s difficult to come up with a calculated line for a game in which one side will be playing several unproven backups, but I have this line calculated at Baltimore -1.5. For this line to be accurate at Pittsburgh -2, the Ravens would have to rank around 27th or 28th in my roster rankings and even at far less than 100% I don’t think they are that bad. They can’t rest everyone and this is a deep roster with great schemes on both sides of the ball.

The Steelers obviously have the edge on defense, as they have one of the top stop units in the NFL, ranking 3rd in first down rate allowed at 32.64%, but Baltimore’s offense is still better than the Steelers offense even with backups in the lineup. As good as the Steelers defense is, their offense is equally bad, maybe even more so. They rank 30th in the NFL in first down rate at 31.42% and are starting overmatched undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges at quarterback. 

Baltimore backup quarterback Robert Griffin is far more experienced and proven at the NFL level, even if he is just a backup caliber talent. I’m not expecting Griffin to suddenly become the quarterback he was when he won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 over Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, but I’m excited to see how he performs in extended action in a scheme that actually fits his abilities and what we’ve seen from him in limited action and the pre-season has been promising. I don’t want to bet on the Ravens because of the uncertainty over how some of their backups will perform, but they should be the right side in this one.

Baltimore Ravens 17 Pittsburgh Steelers 16 Upset Pick +110

Pick against the spread: Baltimore +2

Confidence: Low

Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (12-2) at Cleveland Browns (6-8)

When these two division rivals met back in week 4, the Browns won somewhat easily by a final score of 40-25, resulting in both teams being 2-2 after 4 games. At the time, it looked like a sign of things to come, as the Browns were the pre-season favorite to win the division. However, while the Browns have fallen to 6-8 and out of the playoff race entirely, the Ravens haven’t lost since that first matchup against the Browns way back in week 4.

I would expect this matchup to be much more similar to how these teams have played in the past 10 games than how they played in week 4. While the Browns rank just 23rd in first down rate differential on the season at -2.31% and are the without talented defensive end duo of Myles Garrett (suspension) and Olivier Vernon (injury), the Ravens have completely reinvented their defense since the start of the season and are the most complete team in football. They have added cornerback Marcus Peters and middle linebacker Josh Bynes, have gotten breakout play from edge defender Tyus Bowser and safety Chuck Clark, and have gotten cornerback Jimmy Smith back from injury.

Peters was their most important addition and since adding him in week 7, the Ravens rank 2nd in first down rate allowed at 30.18%, after ranking 24th in first down rate differential through the first 6 games of the season at 37.95%. Lamar Jackson and this offense gets by far the most attention on this team, but they’ve been a dominant unit the whole season, ranking 5th in first down rate through the first 6 games of the season at 40.68% and 1st in the past 8 games at 43.30%. The defensive improvement is the reason why this team now looks unbeatable. Since week 7, the Ravens have a ridiculous +13.11% first down rate differential, which is best in the NFL by a wide margin (the second ranked team is at +5.32%).

With the Ravens playing as well as they are and the Browns treading water at best, I have this line calculated at Baltimore -11. The Browns have recognizable stars on both sides of the ball, but are a top heavy roster with poor depth, so they might still be a little overrated, even with the way their season has gone. Some think that their previous victory over the Ravens is proof that they are the Ravens’ Achilles heel, but these are not the same teams as the last time and history suggests the Ravens actually have a better chance of covering this spread because they lost the previous matchup. Divisional road favorites of 3+ are 39-27 ATS since 1989 in a same season, regular season rematch against a team that beat them previously as home favorites. There’s not enough here to for the Ravens to be worth betting, but I like them for pick ‘em purposes.

Baltimore Ravens 33 Cleveland Browns 20

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -10

Confidence: Low

New York Jets at Baltimore Ravens: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

New York Jets (5-8) at Baltimore Ravens (11-2)

The Ravens were 4-2 through the first 6 weeks of the season, but they had just one win by more than a touchdown, despite playing a trio of teams that currently have three wins or fewer (Miami, Arizona, Cincinnati). Since then, however, they have won all 7 games, despite only playing one losing team during that stretch, and 5 of those wins have come by more than a touchdown. They also have a first down rate of +11.79% over that stretch, easily the best in the NFL (2nd best over that stretch is +6.71%). 

Lamar Jackson and this offense get a lot of attention, but they ranked 5th in first down rate through those first 6 games at 40.68% and have actually only been marginally better in their past 7 games at 42.49%, 2nd in the NFL during that stretch. The big difference has been the defense, which went from 24th in the NFL through the first 6 games of the season at 37.95% to 3rd over the past 7 games at 30.70%. The addition of cornerback Marcus Peters, acquired between week 6 and week 7, is a big part of the reason why, but the Ravens have also gotten great play from mid-season signing Josh Bynes, they’ve gotten cornerback Jimmy Smith back from injury, and they’ve gotten breakout performances from safety Chuck Clark and edge defender Tyus Bowser. With strong play on both sides of the ball, this is arguably the most complete team in the NFL.

The Jets have also been better since week 7, ranking 13th in the NFL in first down rate differential over that stretch at +1.40%, but they remarkably haven’t faced a single team during that stretch that ranks better than 25th in first down rate differential on the season and they’re just 4-3 during that stretch, so they haven’t stood out as significantly better than the bottom of the league teams they’ve faced. Overall, the Jets have had the easiest schedule in the NFL this season at 38% (2nd easiest is 42%) and they still rank 24th in the NFL on the season in first down rate differential at -2.85%. Part of that is because quarterback Sam Darnold missed time early in the year, but even with him healthy this miserable offense ranks just 27th in first down rate since week 7, despite a pathetic schedule.

The Jets’ last game against a challenging opponent was their embarrassing week 6 home shutout loss to the Patriots. The Ravens, who handled the Patriots pretty easily, shouldn’t have much trouble with the Jets, especially at home on a short week. It’s very tough for an inferior team to travel on a short week and face a superior team, especially if it’s an unfamiliar non-divisional opponent. Over the past 30 years, when both teams are on short rest on a Thursday night, non-divisional home favorites are 36-18 ATS, including 10-2 ATS as double digit favorites.

I wish the Ravens were coming into this game healthier, with left tackle Ronnie Stanley out and quarterback Lamar Jackson and his #1 receiving option Mark Andrews both dealing with injuries that could limit them or knock them out of the game on a short week, but the Jets aren’t in a good injury situation either, with talented rookie defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, starting wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, starting tight end Ryan Griffin, talented cornerback Brian Poole, and Pro-Bowl safety Jamal Adams all expected out for this one and we’re still getting line value with the Ravens (my calculated line is -17.5) in a good spot. This is just a small bet, but barring Jackson being knocked out of the game early, I can’t imagine this game being close.

Baltimore Ravens 31 New York Jets 10

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -15.5

Confidence: Medium

Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (10-2) at Buffalo Bills (9-3)

The Bills got a statement win on Thanksgiving in Dallas, but that wasn’t as impressive as it seemed, so the Bills are a little overrated right now. Not only have the Cowboys since been beaten rather easily by the Bears, but, while the Bills won that game by 11, they lost the first down rate battle by 7.54%. The Cowboys picked up 32 first downs in the game and got into Buffalo territory on 8 of 10 drives, but managed just 15 points because they missed a pair of field goals, turned it over twice, and got stopped on 4th down twice late in the game when they were forced to go for it. 

The Bills have a first down rate differential of +3.44% on the season, 6th in the NFL, but they’ve faced the easiest schedule in the NFL by far, with their opponents having a combined winning percentage of 38%. No one else has faced a schedule easier than 42%. Aside from last week, their only win over a team with more than 4 wins came against the Titans by 7 in a game in which the Titans missed 4 field goals. Excluding the Cowboys and Titans, the Bills have 7 wins against teams that are a combined 20-64.

The Bills’ schedule gets much tougher this week, as they host the Baltimore Ravens, arguably the top team in the league right now. The Ravens beat another top team candidate last week, the San Francisco 49ers, but this line still shifted from Baltimore -7 on the early line last week to Baltimore -6 this week, as a result of Buffalo’s win over Dallas. About 10% of games are decided by exactly a field goal, so that’s a significant one-point shift. 

I was hoping for an even better line with Baltimore, but I like the Ravens a good amount this week. They’ve blown their competition out of the water for about two months, ranking 1st in first down rate differential since week 7 at +11.83% (no one else is higher than +5.65%), despite facing teams that are 7-5 or better in 5 of 6 games. The Ravens got off to a relatively slow start, but still rank 2nd in first down rate differential on the season at +7.28%. The Bills, meanwhile, are going in the opposite direction, with just a +0.02% first down rate since week 7, 18th in the NFL over that time period, despite facing opponents with a combined 29-56 record. Everyone knows the Ravens are good so it’s hard to get value with them, but we’re getting some this week (Baltimore -8.5 is my calculated line) because the Bills are overrated, so the Ravens are worth betting this week. 

Baltimore Ravens 27 Buffalo Bills 17

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -6

Confidence: Medium

San Francisco 49ers at Baltimore Ravens: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (10-1) at Baltimore Ravens (9-2)

The Ravens are on some kind of a run right now, winning 5 straight games by at least 14 points or more, becoming just the 6th team to do so in the past 30 years (1993 49ers, 1999 Rams, 2005 Colts, 2007 Patriots, 2009 Saints). Over that stretch, they lead the NFL in first down rate differential by a mile, with a +13.31% rate that dwarfs the second ranked 49ers +7.22% rate. The Ravens aren’t doing this against a cupcake schedule either, with 4 of their last 5 opponents currently having winning records.

What makes evaluating the Ravens tough is how deciding how much value should be put into some of their underwhelming early season performances. Prior to their current stretch, the Ravens lost games against the Browns and Chiefs that they never had a real chance to win and they won by less than a touchdown against a pair of last place teams in the Cardinals and Bengals. They had just a +2.73% first down rate differential through week 6, despite a relatively easy schedule. Their only win by more than 6 points during that stretch came week 1 against a hapless Dolphins team. 

If we include their earlier season performance into the equation, it’s hard to argue that the Ravens should be favored by 6 points over a 49ers team that would be undefeated right now if they hadn’t missed a makeable field goal in overtime against the Seahawks, but it’s very possible a switch flipped for this team after week 6 with Lamar Jackson growing more comfortable in this offense every week. If we more or less ignore how the Ravens played prior to their current 5-game run, then this line is certainly understandable, even with the 49ers leading the NFL with a +9.02% first down rate on the season. I typically don’t like to throw out early season results and only focus on a shorter stretch, especially since doing so in this case would mean throwing out 6 games to focus on 5, so I’m taking the 49ers for pick ‘em purposes, but I have no intention of betting on this.

Baltimore Ravens 24 San Francisco 49ers 20

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +6

Confidence: None

Baltimore Ravens at Los Angeles Rams: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (8-2) at Los Angeles Rams (6-4)

The Ravens are the hottest team in the NFL right now, having won four straight games by 14+ points, making them the 24th team to do so in the past 30 years. The common thinking is that makes them a great bet, but in reality it’s much more likely to be the opposite. Of the previous 23 teams to do so, just 7 of them covered in their next game and 11 of them lost straight up, including 8 upset losses. Favorites are just 3-14 ATS in this spot in the past 30 years. Ironically, the last team to win four straight games by 14+ were the Patriots, who lost in this spot to the Ravens a few weeks ago. 

The problem is when a team is as hot as the Ravens are right now, oddsmakers know they can boost their spread significantly and casual bettors will still want to bet on them.That’s definitely the case here, as the Ravens are 3.5 point favorites on the road against the Rams. A week ago on the early line, this line was even, a drastic shift considering about 1 in 4 games are decided by 3 points or fewer, and 2-3 weeks ago the Rams likely would have been favored by a field goal here at home. 

With the Rams, a lot of attention has been given to their underwhelming offense, which has fallen from 3rd in first down rate at 43.02% in 2018 to 18th in 2019 at 35.09%, due primarily to major issues on the offensive line, but their defense has quietly been one of the better stop units in the league this season, allowing a first down rate of 32.34% that is 4th best in the NFL. They’re not as good overall as last season, but they still rank 7th in first down rate differential at +2.75%, just a few spots behind the Ravens, who rank 3rd at +6.23%. I have this line calculated at Baltimore -1.5 and, while two points of line value might not seem like much, about 20% of games are decided by 2 or 3 points, so that’s a pretty significant two points. 

The Rams are also in a couple good betting spots this week. For one, they’re a west coast team in a night game against an east coast team, a spot that covers about 66% of the time due to differences in internal clocks. On top of that, the Rams only have a trip to Arizona on deck, while the Ravens have another tough game on deck against the 49ers. The Ravens are expected to be favored in that game, but there could still be a little bit of split focus for them this week with the league’s best team by record on deck next week. Meanwhile, home underdogs like the Rams are 25-53 ATS since 2012 before being road favorites, which they almost definitely will be in Arizona. I like the Rams’ chances of not just covering this spread, but winning this game straight up, so they’re one of my top picks of the week at +3.5 (and still betable at +3).

Los Angeles Rams 26 Baltimore Ravens 24 Upset Pick +145

Pick against the spread: LA Rams +3.5

Confidence: High

Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens: 2019 Week 11 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (6-3) at Baltimore Ravens (7-2)

In a key matchup in the AFC, the Ravens enter one game better in the standings than the Texans, but the Texans have arguably the more impressive resume. These two teams are about even in first down rate differential, with the Ravens ranking 4th at +5.08% and the Texans ranking 5th at +4.67%, but the Texans have faced the 8th toughest schedule in the NFL in terms of opponents DVOA, while the Ravens have faced the 5th easiest. 

Unfortunately for the Texans, these two teams are trending in opposite directions. While the Ravens are improved on defense due to mid-season additions of Marcus Peters and Josh Bynes, the Texans lost their top defensive player JJ Watt for the season. The Ravens hold the slight edge in my roster rankings, suggesting this line favoring the Ravens by 4.5 points at home is about right. I have the Ravens calculated as 3.5 point favorites, but that’s insignificant line value with the Texans, who aren’t in a good spot with another key game on deck against the Colts on Thursday Night Football. The Texans are still my pick, but for no confidence.

Baltimore Ravens 31 Houston Texans 27

Pick against the spread: Houston +4.5

Confidence: None