The Ravens' 2021 season can be summed up by Lightning McQueen's opening race in the original Cars movie. Like the Ravens, McQueen started out strong before stumbling to the finish line. The difference was that while McQueen's rocky finish was self-inflicted, there wasn't much the Ravens could do to stop their free fall.
After an 8-3 start, the Ravens faltered to a 8-9 finish to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2017. Five of their final six losses were in one possession games. Despite their slide, the Ravens still had playoff hope entering this past Sunday's game against the Steelers. But any chance of a postseason berth was extinguished by Ben Roethlisberger, who provided one last headache to Ravens fans in leading Pittsburgh's game-winning drive in overtime.
With the Ravens at home for the playoffs, let's take a look at the things they can do this offseason to ensure that they are back in the postseason in 2022.
1. Get healthy
Sure, the Ravens' season may have been different had a few of their two-point conversion attempts late in the year gone their way. But Baltimore's 8-9 finish after an 8-3 start was mostly due to the team's alarming injury rate. Over 20 Ravens players went on injured reserve during the season that included running backs J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill; cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey; offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley; guard Tyre Phillips; and defensive end Derek Wolfe. Baltimore largely weathered the storm until Lamar Jackson's ankle injury sidelined him for the season's final four weeks.
Getting their injured players back will be a big boost for the 2022 season. And while these injuries ultimately doomed their 2021 season, the Ravens received significant contributions from several other players who will likely be back in 2022. Tyler Huntley proved to be a very capable backup quarterback, as he became the first quarterback in franchise history to throw and run for two touchdowns in one game. He developed a rapport with rookie receiver Rashod Bateman, who finished the season as the Ravens' third-leading receiver after starting the year on injured reserve. The defensive received solid play from linebackers Tyus Bowser, Patrick Queen and rookie Odafe Oweh. Bowser's offseason will unfortunately start with him recovering from a torn Achilles sustained in Week 18.
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2. Improved pass protection
Injuries certainly contributed to the Ravens' dip in offensive line production. But the fact remains that the Ravens allowed their quarterbacks to be sacked 57 times this season. Last offseason's departure of tackle Orlando Brown Jr. created a void that remains unfilled. Baltimore will likely use multiple draft picks to improve its offensive line that may include the 16th overall pick.
In his most recent mock draft, CBS Sports NFL Draft expert Josh Edwards has the Ravens using their first-round pick to select former Texas A&M lineman Kenyon Green. One of the draft's top offensive line prospects, Green was an immediate starter in college while showing the ability to play tackle as well as both guard positions.
3. Strengthen the pass rush
This was a known weakness entering the 2021 season. Baltimore tried to mask this deficiency by signing veteran Justin Houston, who finished third on the team with 4.5 sacks. While Houston helped, the Ravens nonetheless finished with just 34 sacks. Their lack of pass rush was evident in Week 18, as Roethlisberger had plenty of time to scan the field during Pittsburgh's game-winning drive in overtime.
Look for the Ravens to bolster their pass rush in both the draft as well as in free agency. Chandler Jones would be an ideal fit but may be too costly. Von Miller, Jadeveon Clowney, Randy Gregory, Haason Reddick, Harold Landry III, and Jerry Hughes are among the other possible free agent options the Ravens could explore to improve their pass rush.
4. Secondary help
Like many of their units, injuries took a toll on Baltimore's secondary in 2021. The Ravens finished dead last in the NFL in pass defense after allowing opposing quarterbacks to throw for a combined 4,472 yards in 17 games. Along with giving up a ton of yards, the unit recorded just nine interceptions while often failing to make a big play in a pivotal spot.
The Ravens may try to retain cornerback Anthony Averett, the team's leader with three interceptions. Baltimore may also address the secondary with its first-round pick. CBS draft expert Ryan Wilson currently has the Ravens using the 16th overall pick on Florida cornerback Kaiir Elam. Fellow draft expert Chris Trapasso has the Ravens using the pick to select former Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner. Possible free agent targets include Joe Haden, J.C. Jackson, Marcus Williams, Jessie Bates III, and Stephon Gilmore.
5. Add JuJu?
The Ravens reportedly tried to lure JuJu Smith-Schuster away from the Steelers last offseason before he decided to return to Pittsburgh on a one-year deal. The market is pretty unclear as it relates to Smith-Schuster, who missed all but five games this season after undergoing shoulder surgery.
The Ravens can choose to either re-sign Sammy Watkins or bring in another veteran to round out their receiving corps. Watkins was productive last season, but Smith-Schuster would add a different dimension to Baltimore's passing attack. In Pittsburgh, Smith-Schuster flourished as a slot receiver opposite Antonio Brown. While his stats fell off following Brown's departure, Smith-Schuster reinvented himself as a possession receiver who when healthy served as a security blanket for Roethlisberger. Smith-Schuster is also a physical receiver who often helped created space for the Steelers' running backs and other receivers.
The still just 25-year-old Smith-Schuster could serve as a dependable target for Jackson while also bringing some added toughness to the Ravens offense. It may also help return the rivalry's balance of power back to Baltimore after residing in Pittsburgh over the last two years.