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Mike Preston: To make a deep postseason run, Ravens need significant contributions from some young players | COMMENTARY


If the Ravens are to go deep into the postseason in 2022, they will need some young players to make major impacts.

Some call it having a “breakout” or “breakthrough” season, but it’s not worth squabbling over terms. These young players will have to make significant contributions more than ever before in their brief NFL careers.

In the case of the Ravens, it’s the big five of outside linebackers Odafe Oweh and Daelin Hayes, defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, wide receiver Rashod Bateman and running back JK Dobbins who have to play well.

Why three defensive players compared with two on offense?

Defense wins championships.

Plus, this is Baltimore, the city where defense rules. And if you haven’t noticed, maybe the biggest reason the Ravens have won only one playoff game in the past four years is the lack of a consistent pass rush.

Hayes and Oweh have to get different results. They aren’t going to be major forces like the Pittsburgh Steelers’ T.J. Watt or Buffalo Bills’ Von Miller, but they can help change the dynamics of a defense that produced only 34 sacks last season in a pass-happy league.

Oweh, entering his second season out of Penn State, had seven sacks as basically a speed rusher.

Despite having shoulder surgery in January, he has had time to get into the weight room and learn more about techniques even though he wasn’t fully involved in the team’s four offseason minicamps.

The potential has always been there.

“Basically, I’m just extremely raw,” said the 6-foot-5, 251-pound Oweh, the second of two 2021 first-round picks. “I’m a ‘potential’ guy, basically. So, I’m watching the film from last year and I’m like, ‘Oh, I did crazy good. I did all this stuff.’ And then you watch it now in the offseason, and I’m like, ‘There’s so much stuff you can work on.’ So, there’s a lot to build on. I’m so excited, because even next year — or even this year — it’s going to be a crazy jump. And I’m ready.”

The Ravens will need that type of lift, and hopefully Hayes, a fifth-round pick out of Notre Dame in his second season, can provide a similar spark. A year ago, he was sidelined for most of the season with an ankle injury he suffered in Week 3 against the Detroit Lions.

He’s standing out this offseason with his consistent pressure and greater strength, especially in the bottom half of his body. He has caught the attention of coach John Harbaugh.

“The next step will be training camp [and] getting to the quarterback, as much as we allow them to, when the pads come on, and then in the games and all that,” Harbaugh said. “But [Hayes] has flashed. He knows the defense. He’s very confident out there right now.”

If Oweh and Hayes play well early, the Ravens won’t have to rush back outside linebackers Tyus Bowser and rookie David Ojabo, both recovering from torn Achilles tendons.

Madubuike’s situation is different from those of Oweh and Hayes. This is his third season, one year before players realistically need to peak if they’re going to stay around long in the NFL.

The former third-round pick out of Texas A&M has done just about everything necessary to become a dominant player. He has reshaped his body, slimming down but becoming leaner. He is the Ravens’ most explosive lineman off the snap of the ball.

The speed and quickness make him a double threat because the penetration will allow him to disrupt running plays and also cause problems for slow offensive linemen in pass protection.

Madubuike has to complement starting defensive tackle Calais Campbell and at times, take over, because recent history shows that Campbell, 35, will likely miss several games this season due to injury. And, the status and conditioning of nose guard Michael Pierce is unknown at this time.

Madubuike had 36 tackles, including two sacks last year.

“Everybody knows what Justin is capable of,” Ravens inside linebacker Patrick Queen said. “He works his tail off every day, all day, all season. We know what’s expected of him, and it’s big things and nothing less from Justin. So, we’re all behind him, know what he can do, so now it’s just time for him to go out there and do it.”

To which Madubuike added: “I’m excited. I’ve been working hard. So, I’m going to keep working, and I believe all the stars will align.”

If the defense, under first-year coordinator Mike Macdonald performs well, then the running game is the second phase which needs to be at a high level.

Dobbins, who missed his second season in 2021 with a knee injury, doesn’t have to be a star, but just as effective as he was in 2020 when he rushed for 805 yards on 134 carries.

In the Ravens’ scheme, the running back is always the No. 2 option to quarterback Lamar Jackson, but the Ravens need a threat, especially on the outside, to take some pressure off Jackson. The Ravens also should have running back Gus Edwards, who also missed 2021 with a knee injury, back on the field, but he isn’t a multiple threat like Dobbins.

The last of the big five is Bateman. As a rookie and No. 1 draft pick last season, he never really developed much chemistry with Jackson because of injuries both suffered throughout 2021.

Bateman had 46 catches for 515 yards last season and at times was a deep threat, but more of a middle-of-the-field and third-down possession type. Jackson’s top priority in the passing offense will be tight end Mark Andrews, but opposing teams will eventually double-team him.

When that happens, no one has to step up more than Bateman. It’s the major reason the Ravens drafted him in the first round out of Minnesota.

If he plays well, that should give the Ravens more balance, not just on offense, but as far as offense vs. defense. If all these young players perform well, it should put the Ravens on course for a nice run in the postseason if all their starters return from last year’s major injuries.

Good defense and a strong running game has been a winning formula in Baltimore since 2000. It might not get the job done in 2022, but a breakthrough by these players might lead to another breakthrough in the postseason.

Maybe the Ravens won’t be one and done, again.


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