After (roughly) 240 days, Ravens fans will finally be able to see the progress of their team that has been building ever since the wild card round. Ravens fans will finally get to see their new fan favorites, like Earl Thomas and Marquise Brown, take the field and fully embody what it means to be a Baltimore Raven. But most importantly, Ravens fans will be able to see the Ravens return to a winning culture of football, led by no other than second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Without further ado, let us take a look at the story lines and the match-ups that will lead the Baltimore Ravens to victory over the Miami Dolphins in week one.
How Does Lamar Jackson Look Against the Miami Dolphins Secondary?:
All offseason long we have heard about how Lamar Jackson has been improving as a passer and working on the accuracy issues that plagued him in his rookie season. Lamar Jackson spent most of the offseason working with private trainers and quarterbacks coaches, when he was not working with the Ravens coaches, of course, working on his footwork, his grip and hand placement, and setting his base when throwing, three things that could drastically improve Jackson’s ability to put the ball where he wants to. This Sunday, Jackson will finally be able to show in a full game worth of action that he has in fact improved and prove to the doubters that he is indeed a real quarterback.
The test on Sunday will be a tough one for Jackson. Despite a lack of talent across the board at almost all other positions, the Miami Dolphins do sport some really good players in the secondary by the names of Xavien Howard and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Howard was rewarded this offseason with a brand new, fat contract that made him the highest paid cornerback in the NFL, rewarding the young man for a season that saw him snag seven interceptions, a league high, a Pro Bowl nod, and a 2nd team All-Pro nomination. Fitzpatrick, the Dolphins 2018 first round draft pick, did not have the same accolades awarded to him, but he was a true jack of all trades, master of all. Fitzpatrick spent time at outside cornerback, slot cornerback, and free safety last year, excelling at all three spots, but truly making his mark by having one of the greatest slot cornerback seasons the NFL has ever seen from a rookie. With all of that said, an NFL secondary is more than just two players.
While it may have sounded a little bit like Jackson will be limited in his opportunities to pass the ball due to the blanket coverage of Howard and Fitzpatrick, this is not true at all- in fact, Jackson will have plenty of chances. For as great as Howard’s 2018 season was on paper, he is still a player that struggles mightily with penalties, getting too grabby at the top of routes, especially when matched up with receivers in press man coverage. Can he keep his hands to himself when facing off with someone as fast and as quick as Marquise Brown? Eric Rowe, the poster boy for an injury waiting to happen, is largely just a mediocre corner. A journey-man at this point, Rowe has never truly made a splash in the NFL to this point. Bobby McCain is making the transition to be a safety, a position he has never played at the NFL level. And while Dolphins fans LOVE to hype him up, Reshad Jones has not been the same player that he was in 2016 and prior. Jones is still an amazing box defender and a great run stuffer, but he has regressed as an all-around safety these past two years to the point that many speculated that he could be cut. For all the talent the Dolphins have on the backend, they still have their fair share of weaknesses.
There are definitely holes in this Miami Dolphins secondary; it will be up to Lamar Jackson to expose them.
Can the Baltimore Ravens Manufacture a Pass Rush Against a Porous Miami Dolphins Offensive Line?:
If there was one area of concern that stood out above all else for the 2019 Baltimore Ravens, it would have to be the pass rush. The Ravens failed to effectively build upon and improve a lackluster pass rush and actually seemingly regressed on paper.
I know what everyone is going to say- the Ravens pass rush was not mediocre in 2018! I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it truly was. That 11th overall ranking and 43 sack finish is a bit misleading when you consider the Tennessee Titans gifted the Ravens an 11 sack performance. That performance was an absolute anomaly and boosted the rankings to a place that possibly created a false sense of how good the pass rush was. But for as lackluster as 2018 was, 2019, on paper, looks drastically worse. The Ravens lost Terrell Suggs and Z’Darius Smith. Smith played just about everywhere on the Ravens defense as a pass rusher and led the team in sacks with 8.5. Suggs, while he may have massively regressed as the year progressed, contributed another 7.0 sacks on the year. Between the two, the Ravens lost 15.5 sacks and over one-third of the pass rush from 2018.
So surely the Ravens would go heavy in investing in the pass rush and really attempt to rectify the issue that was seemingly growing worse every day, right? Wrong. The only notable move the Ravens made was bringing back Pernell McPhee, a former Ravens favorite who played with the team from 2011 to 2014. Is McPhee going to solve the Ravens pass rushing woes? Not likely. McPhee, after leaving Baltimore, failed to top his career high of 7.5 sacks, accumulating 6.0, 4.0, and 4.0 sacks in three injury plagued seasons with the Chicago Bears before being ultimately cut. McPhee then had an opportunity to show that he still had it with the Washington Redskins, whom he played in 13 games for in 2018. Did he take full advantage of this opportunity? Nope. Instead, McPhee failed to record a single sack. Yikes. Yep… that was the Ravens only real move of the 2018 offseason as far as the pass rush was concerned. For now, the Ravens will be relying on Matthew Judon, who has a career high of 8.0 sacks in 2017, and Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser to step up, two third year players with a combined 5.5 sacks between them. It will take A LOT of creativity on the part of Wink Martindale to form any semblance of a pass rush this year.
Martindale, however, may not have to reach too far into his bag of tricks because the Miami Dolphins are going to be trotting out five traffic cones, I mean offensive lineman, that could rival the 2018 Houston Texans or Arizona Cardinals in terms of sheer putridness. After the trade of star left tackle Laremy Tunsil and the departure of former first round right tackle Ju’Wuan James, the Miami Dolphins, from left to right, will be sending out: Julien Davenport-Michael Dieter-Daniel Kilgore-Shaq Calhoun-Jesse Davis. To be fair, that offensive line would still be horrendous with Laremy Tunsil and Ju’Wuan James, but without one of the best pass blocking left tackles in the NFL and a steady presence at right tackle, this offensive line might actually get a player killed. I do not know if it will be Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh Rosen (RIP: after coming from the Cardinals in 2018, this is what he gets for a team?), or Kenyan Drake, but there is a chance that at least one does not last the season behind this offensive line.
Let us just break down how bad this offensive line is for a second: Davenport was formerly a member of the Houston Texans who led the league in sacks allowed in 2018 and finished second in sacks allowed in 2017. Dieter, along with Calhoun, is a rookie being thrust into action likely before he is ready. Kilgore was traded along with a seventh round pick to the Dolphins in 2018 in exchange for a seventh round pick. How many spots did the San Francisco 49ers move up as a part of this trade? Four spots… in the seventh round. Kilgore would play four games for the Dolphins before tearing his pectoral muscle and finishing the year on IR. Lastly, we have Davis- a career guard who briefly started half a season at right tackle for the Dolphins in 2017, but has otherwise been a career guard on one of the worst pass blocking offensive lines in the NFL. Simply put, the Miami Dolphins 2019 offensive line is BAD.
The Baltimore Ravens pass rush should have a field day and hopefully use this game as a confidence booster for the young players. Hopefully a weak offensive line to face off against to start the season acts as a stepping stone for the rest of the season.
Which Quarterback Shows Up for the Miami Dolphins: Ryan Fitzmagic or Ryan Fitztragic?:
Let me start this off by saying that the Baltimore Ravens secondary is the positional grouping I am 100% the most excited for, after Lamar Jackson, of course. The newly signed Earl Thomas has the potential to push the Ravens secondary into the record books. No, really, the secondary is that good. The Ravens will be returning a top 10 cornerback in Marlon Humphrey, a former top 10, when healthy, cornerback in Jimmy Smith, who really came on strong to finish out 2018, and a top 32 cornerback and iron man in Brandon Carr. Opposite Thomas, Tony Jefferson will finally get the chance to return to his role as more of a box safety who supports the run and covers tight ends man to man. In 2018, the lack of athleticism from Eric Weddle often left the Ravens using Jefferson in a deep centerfielder role and while it clearly worked out okay for Jefferson, it was just that: okay. Now, the Ravens are able to put Thomas into the true centerfielder role that he has excelled at throughout his career and return Jefferson to the role that brought him stardom as a member of the Arizona Cardinals.
Now, with all of that said… None of it actually matters. Ryan Fitzpatrick is such an oddity in the sense that who he is facing on any given Sunday does not seem to make a bit of difference to his play. It is what has kept him in the NFL for 14 years, despite playing for a whopping eight teams. Despite being a total coin flip player, Fitzpatrick has continued to show something that keeps teams coming and that something is “Fitzmagic.” Fitzmagic is the quarterback that leads a red hot offense to inexplicable highs and throws dimes all over the opposing defense, slinging the ball like a generational talent. Fitzmagic plays far above his expected level and leads his teams to wins that really should not be happening. However, Fitzmagic always gives yield to “Fitztragic.” Fitztragic is the quarterback that takes over when the magic has worn off. Fitztragic, despite being a Harvard graduate, makes dumb, boneheaded decisions and makes NFL fans ask the question of, “Why is he even on the team? How is he still in the NFL?” Much like Thanos, Fitztragic is inevitable.
So which Fitzpatrick shows up this Sunday? Is it going to be Fitzmagic who lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a week one victory over the rivaled New Orleans Saints while throwing for over 400 yards and four touchdowns? Is it going to be the Fitzmagic that showed up the very next week and threw for 400 yards, again, and four more touchdowns against the Philadelphia Eagles? Will it be the Fitztragic that eventually slowed down and threw for just 126 yards and an interception against the Chicago Bears in week four? Will it be the Fitztragic that threw for 400 yards against the Washington Redskins, but had three interceptions? Or will it be that weird hybrid that threw for 400 yards and three touchdowns against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but really hindered his team’s chances of winning with three interceptions?
The short answer is that I have no idea, but if I were a betting man, I would bet on Fitztragic showing up on Sunday. In Tampa Bay, Fitzmagic had Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, OJ Howard, and Cameron Brate to throw to. And while the offensive line was far from amazing, they were hardly the worst unit in the league. In Miami, Fitztragic will be throwing to DeVante Parker, Jakeem Grant, Albert Wilson, and Mike Gisecki. Well, I suppose he might be throwing, but his offensive line allowing him enough time to actually complete a pass is up in the air.
Final Score Prediction:
Unless you are truly the biggest of Miami Dolphins homers or the biggest of Baltimore Ravens haters, I cannot reasonably see anyone thinking the Ravens will not win this game, handily. I said it once before and I will say it again- the Dolphins might have the least talented roster in the NFL. Expect the Ravens to more than cover the seven point spread.
Baltimore Ravens: 31, Miami Dolphins: 6
Stat of the Game Prediction:
Much has been made of Lamar Jackson’s rookie season in which he only threw for over 200 yards a single time and averaged roughly 16 rushes per game in games he started. Most people are very quick to call Jackson a running back and are very quick to dismiss his talent as a passer. On Sunday, I expect Jackson to begin shutting up the haters.
I predict Lamar Jackson will complete at least 60% of his passes for at least 250 yards and three total touchdowns, two passing touchdowns, all while running 10 or less times for less than 60 yards. Belee dat.