Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 2023 season (2024)

The Ravens were the best team in football, right up until the last Sunday of their season, when they failed to muster a representative performance against the Kansas City Chiefs with a Super Bowl trip on the line. How do we weigh that final failure against the many successes from their previous 18 games? Where do they go from here?

Here are five things we learned from the 2023 season.

Lamar Jackson still has a hump to get over

We start with the Ravens’ most important player, the man who will almost certainly receive his second NFL Most Valuable Player Award a few days before the Super Bowl he planned to play in.

Jackson seemed to hit a new level of preparedness in the days leading up to his showdown with the Chiefs and the gold standard at his position, Patrick Mahomes. He was eager and intently focused on the task at hand but also loose. Teammates expressed complete faith in his command of an offense that first-year coordinator Todd Monken placed in his hands. He had steered it impeccably in late-season blowouts of the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins and again in the Ravens’ divisional round win over the Houston Texans. He had put to rest old narratives about how you could beat him with relentless blitzes or by forcing him to throw from the pocket.

Which made his flustered performance against the Chiefs all the more puzzling. Yes, Monken could have called a better game, could have attacked a suspect run defense with Jackson’s legs and those of Gus Edwards and Justice Hill, who combined for six carries. Even so, if Jackson had played a normal game, reflective of his 2023 season, the Ravens probably would have won. Instead, we saw him hold the ball too long on some plays, rush throws with sloppy mechanics on others. His downfield radar was off, and with victory still very much in reach in the fourth quarter, he threw a crushing interception into triple coverage. Jackson is an emotive player even when things are going well, but his anger was apparent when he spiked his helmet after that last turnover.

So how do we reconcile that performance with the player who could not have done any more to lift the Ravens to a No. 1 seed? How do we account for the discrepancy between his 58-19 career record and 98 passer rating in the regular season and his 2-4 record and 75.7 rating in the postseason? Will experience help him make that last step, the way great players such as Peyton Manning and John Elway did before him?

If there are demons gnawing at Jackson in relation to his playoff disappointments, he never lets on. He’s always calm in the aftermath — angry about what happened in the game but resolute that he’ll work harder and do better the next time.

It’s fascinating to ponder how the Ravens can help him from here. They built last offseason around Jackson, signing and drafting wide receivers and replacing Greg Roman with Monken, who seemed to click with the quarterback. It all worked right up until the AFC championship game, when it didn’t.

Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 2023 season (1)

There will be changes going into next season. Wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Nelson Agholor are free agents. Rashod Bateman, the team’s 2021 first-round draft pick, did a great job getting open and staying on the field this year, but he and Jackson have yet to find real chemistry. Tight ends Mark Andrews and Isaiah Likely are terrific, but can they both thrive in the same game?

Monken will still call the plays but will face an extra layer of skepticism from fans because of the Chiefs stinker.

And Jackson will be back at the center of an unpleasantly familiar narrative, celebrated for all he does but with a hint of doubt until he does it on the grandest stage.

That final loss sent Ravens fans spiraling, but the team can’t overreact to it

Steve Bisciotti, on the rare occasions he speaks publicly, will tell you he reacts to bad losses with fierce dismay, much like any fan of the team he owns. He’ll add that he does not make major decisions in those hours and days when his emotions are spiking.

His tempered style, which he brought to the franchise and was reinforced by longtime general manager Ozzie Newsome, is by now the official mood of the Ravens. They don’t rush. They don’t reset based on small samples. They aspire to be urgent but never drastic.

And that was the last thing fervent fans wanted to hear in the days after they sat numbly through the Ravens’ tepid performance against the Chiefs. It was the fourth time in the past six seasons the team came up conspicuously small in an elimination game with Jackson as quarterback and Harbaugh as coach. Meanwhile, the one guy who clearly figured it out against the Chiefs, defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, is now the Seahawks’ head coach.

A loud contingent of fans online jumped to an aggressive conclusion: Harbaugh, who had just coached the Ravens to the league’s best record in his 16th season, should be dumped (or “elevated” to a front office job) to clear space for his protege, Macdonald, who might be the next Bill Belichick for all we know. At the very least, they hoped Bisciotti would pony up a hefty salary to keep Macdonald in place as a coach in waiting, much as he had in creating a plan for Eric DeCosta to succeed Newsome.

The following is not meant as a slight on Macdonald, who at age 36 is incredibly impressive in preparation, player relations and game management, but such a move would have violated everything we’ve learned about the way Bisciotti’s Ravens do business.

Harbaugh has made the playoffs 11 times in 16 seasons and has won at least one playoff game in eight of those postseasons. The team he just coached was his best by many analytical measures and came within seven points of reaching the Super Bowl, even on an off day against the best quarterback of our time. Players still respond to him over the six-month grind of a season. Beckham, for example, said Harbaugh would be on his “Mt. Rushmore of coaches” because of the genuine connections he forges. For his part, Harbaugh said during a recent conversation that he still feels “like a young coach” at age 61. He helped build the culture in which Macdonald learned to excel at his craft.

That’s not to dismiss the flaws highlighted by the Kansas City loss. Whatever arrangement Harbaugh maintains with Monken, he was unable to help shock the Ravens’ offense back into rhythm, to bring the team’s powerful ground game to bear against a vulnerable Chiefs defensive front. As good as he is at managing the Ravens’ big picture, Harbaugh’s best teams of the past five years, this one and 2019, proved curiously unable to assert their style in playoff losses.

It’s hard to know what grand lesson to draw from this, especially for a coach whose teams perhaps overperformed in the playoffs early in his career. These disappointments cannot be ignored, but they should not prompt Bisciotti to burn his sturdy castle to the ground. That’s not the owner’s style, and there’s simply not much evidence that a Ravens roster talented enough to make another deep push in 2024 has tuned Harbaugh out.

And, oh by the way, the move to replace Macdonald with Zach Orr — a young, sharp, personable coach who might have gone to work for his old boss in Seattle if Harbaugh had not promoted him — was pure Ravens. They applaud when head coaching chances arise for their assistants and often have a promising in-house candidate primed to step up. It’s a healthy ecosystem.

Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 2023 season (2)

Justin Madubuike is the player who must be kept

DeCosta is in for a busy few months, with more than 20 players — including 2023 standouts Patrick Queen, Jadeveon Clowney, Kevin Zeitler, Kyle Van Noy and Geno Stone — headed for unrestricted free agency.

How painful would it be for the Ravens to wave goodbye to Zeitler, still the team’s most dependable offensive lineman at age 33 and a deeply respected citizen of the locker room, or Queen, who made the Pro Bowl in his fourth season while wincing and limping through injuries? Very.

But one impending free agent nudged ahead of the others on the indispensability power rankings, and that’s Madubuike, who just put together the best interior pass rushing season we’ve seen from a Raven.

This franchise has lined up some magnificent behemoths on the interior, from Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa on the 2000 Super Bowl team to two-time All-Pro Haloti Ngata on Harbaugh’s early teams. None of them got to quarterbacks as persistently as Madubuike did in 2023, when he put himself in a rare class of interior linemen topped by the likes of Aaron Donald and Chris Jones. These guys are so rare that Madubuike could easily command a $100 million deal on the open market.

No one has to tell the Ravens their fourth-year defensive tackle is special. They watched his incremental, dogged improvement over three seasons, even as he achieved big-time results only in flashes. They celebrated with him as all the pieces came together, as he produced multiple pressures in all but two games this season, with seven in the divisional round win over the Texans and six in the loss to the Chiefs. At age 26, Madubuike is just now entering his prime.

Which is why DeCosta cannot let him walk, even if that means using the franchise tag while extension negotiations continue. We’ve watched the Ravens use this tool with foundational talents. They have not developed and kept a great pass rusher since Terrell Suggs, but Madubuike is that guy.

2023 NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Baltimore Ravens

Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 2023 season (3)

It’s time for the Ravens to build their offensive line of the future

DeCosta and Harbaugh have said repeatedly that no offensive tweaks amount to more than a hill of beans without a top offensive line as the foundation.

The Ravens’ line held up its end of the bargain in 2023, even as the coaching staff had to help tackles Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses play through lingering injuries by rotating in Patrick Mekari and Daniel Faalele. But this was a veteran group. Stanley will be 30 and Moses 33 at the start of next season. Zeitler, whom the Ravens would have to re-sign, will be 34.

The Ravens could go the experienced route again in 2024, figuring the short-term play is a smart one for a contender, but the odds of any of these guys being around in 2025 are probably 50-50 at best.

DeCosta could also go the other way and move on from Moses and Zeitler, though they have given the Ravens very good work at a modest cost. Though the Ravens would eat almost $18 million in dead money if they cut Stanley before June 1, he’s also not the foundational piece he was four years ago.

Center Tyler Linderbaum made the Pro Bowl in his second season and is the one guaranteed building block. His locker room sparring buddy, Mekari, is a capable tackle, even if the Ravens prefer him in a super-utility role. Faalele made strides in his second season, but it’s not clear he’s nimble enough as a pass blocker or powerful enough as a run blocker to start. John Simpson performed competently at left guard, but he’s still penalty-prone and headed for free agency regardless.

DeCosta used a 2023 seventh-round pick on Andrew Vorhees and stashed him as an injury redshirt, but it would be a big ask to plug the powerful former USC star in as a day-one starter at guard. Sixth-round pick Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu gave little indication he was ready to help this season after he briefly appeared in line to start ahead of Simpson early in training camp.

Though the stories are different for each player, the collective message is apparent: The Ravens don’t have all the linemen they will need to protect Jackson in 2024, much less 2025 and 2026. DeCosta has to draft blockers who are ready to play right away. There’s no clearer priority for this year’s draft.

Ravens vs. Browns

Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 2023 season (4)

Roquan Smith and Kyle Hamilton will keep the defense humming

In the final tally, we can’t put the Ravens’ 2023 defense ahead of the 2000 edition that carried the franchise to its first Super Bowl with Ray Lewis at his absolute zenith. But it belongs in that next tier with the 2006 crew, which allowed the fewest points and yards in the league while ranking second in sacks and takeaways and sending five players to the Pro Bowl. Like this year’s defense, that one did its part in an agonizing playoff defeat (the infamous divisional round game that Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts won without scoring a touchdown).

Anyhow, the Ravens came at opponents in so many ways, from Madubuike’s relentless inside pressure to Clowney’s still formidable power off the edge to a disciplined secondary that was rarely beaten over the top. Macdonald delighted in mixing and matching all the pieces at his disposal, blitzing cornerbacks while nose tackles dropped into coverage and looping defensive tackles behind oncoming inside linebackers at the line of scrimmage. They had an answer for everyone, even the great Mahomes after he carved them up on the first two drives of the AFC championship game.

For all this group’s versatility and unselfishness, its breakout stars were clear. It’s blasphemy in Baltimore to compare a middle linebacker and a safety with Lewis and Ed Reed, but it’s difficult not to think in those terms with Smith and Hamilton.

Smith has overtly taken up Lewis’ shield with his fiery pregame speeches — he “brought the Ray Lewis juice” back to Baltimore, in Jackson’s words — and sideline-to-sideline hunting of ball carriers. His play slipped a bit at the end of the year as he nursed a significant pectoral injury, but there’s no denying the Ravens’ defense took off when he arrived midway through the 2022 season and has never looked back. Even other star players defer to him as the alpha. Beckham said he’s never had a better teammate. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey said Smith kept his spirits up when he was trying to come back from a calf injury. Smith doesn’t mind a cliche or two about protecting his home when he’s hyping a matchup, but there’s an authenticity to his personal interactions that keeps any of it from feeling hokey.

If Smith is the voice and soul of the defense, Hamilton is its most unique talent. He doesn’t much resemble Reed, who could change a game at any moment by out-thinking the quarterback. But his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame makes him such an unusual weapon around the line of scrimmage, where he blitzes, dives in to drop ball carriers and glides laterally to defend screens with equal facility. All that and he can still cover Travis Kelce step for step. Hamilton was the best Raven on the field against the Chiefs, much as he had been in the team’s playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals a year earlier. It was not uncommon to hear smart evaluators call him the best safety in the sport in recent weeks. He’s whip-smart — remember, secondary coach Chris Hewitt said he never made the same mistake twice, even when he was a struggling rookie — and professional off the field. It will be an upset if Hamilton does not end up in the Ravens’ Ring of Honor.

Orr won’t have all the same players in his first season as defensive coordinator, but he’ll be off to quite a start with this pair of All-Pros.

Insights, advice, suggestions, feedback and comments from experts

As an expert and enthusiast, I have personal experiences or emotions, but I can provide information on the concepts mentioned in this article. Let's break down the key points and discuss each concept:

Lamar Jackson's Performance

The article discusses Lamar Jackson's performance in the Ravens' game against the Kansas City Chiefs. While Jackson had been performing exceptionally well throughout the 2023 season, his performance in that particular game was puzzling and fell short of expectations. The article highlights that Jackson seemed flustered, held the ball too long on some plays, rushed throws with sloppy mechanics, and made an interception in triple coverage. The author questions how to reconcile this performance with Jackson's overall success and whether experience will help him improve in future playoff games.

John Harbaugh's Coaching

The article also discusses the coaching of John Harbaugh, the head coach of the Ravens. Despite leading the Ravens to the best record in the league in the 2023 season, Harbaugh's teams have had difficulties performing well in playoff games in recent years. The article acknowledges Harbaugh's success in making the playoffs multiple times and his ability to forge genuine connections with players. However, it also highlights the challenges he has faced in getting his teams to assert their style in playoff losses. The author suggests that while the Kansas City loss exposed flaws in Harbaugh's coaching, it should not prompt drastic changes or the dismissal of Harbaugh.

Justin Madubuike's Performance

The article praises the performance of Justin Madubuike, a defensive tackle for the Ravens. Madubuike had an impressive season in 2023, particularly in terms of interior pass rushing. The article compares him to elite interior linemen like Aaron Donald and Chris Jones. The author emphasizes the importance of keeping Madubuike on the team and suggests that the Ravens should use the franchise tag if necessary to retain him.

Offensive Line Concerns

The article discusses the Ravens' offensive line and the need to build for the future. While the offensive line performed well in the 2023 season, there are concerns about the age and longevity of some key players. The author suggests that the Ravens should consider drafting linemen who are ready to play immediately to ensure the protection of Lamar Jackson in the upcoming seasons.

Roquan Smith and Kyle Hamilton

The article highlights the breakout performances of Roquan Smith and Kyle Hamilton on the Ravens' defense. Smith, a middle linebacker, has become a leader on the team and is compared to Ray Lewis in terms of his fiery speeches and sideline-to-sideline pursuit of ball carriers. Hamilton, a safety, is praised for his unique talents and versatility, excelling in blitzing, run defense, and coverage. The author suggests that Smith and Hamilton will be key players for the Ravens' defense moving forward.

Please note that the information provided is based on the content of this article.

Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 2023 season (2024)
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