Mike Preston: The Ravens’ offense can still be effective without TE Mark Andrews. Here’s how. | COMMENTARY

Ravens tight end Mark Andrews is invaluable, but he isn’t irreplaceable.

The Ravens have been working since their star tight end injured his ankle in the first quarter of Thursday night’s game against the Bengals on how to prepare for life without the sixth-year, three-time Pro Bowl performer.

Coach John Harbaugh said Monday afternoon there is an “outside chance” that Andrews could return before the end of the season. Until then, the Ravens have to figure out who will fill his shoes.

That won’t be easy.

Andrews has been quarterback Lamar Jackson’s primary target since the two were rookies in 2018. He has been Jackson’s favorite receiver both in the middle of the field and inside the red zone, with his 381 catches for 4,857 yards and 40 touchdowns as proof.

“We have a lot of guys that can step up and make plays — wide receivers, tight ends, running backs,” Harbaugh said. “I feel really good about the guys that are going to — all together — fill in for Mark Andrews. Mark is such a competitor [and] such a talent. He’s a superstar player.

“It’s impossible to replace him, per se; we have to replace him together, as a group, and I really believe we can do it. And then when he gets back, we’ll just be that much stronger for it — whenever that is.”

The toughest part of Andrews’ game to replace isn’t his ability as a receiver but his blocking. He had worked hard to improve since his rookie season and is one of the main reasons that the Ravens enter Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers averaging 155 yards rushing yards per game.

Harbaugh spent a lot of time recently building up reserve tight ends Isaiah Likely and Charlie Kolar, noting that both had improved their blocking in-line, on the perimeter and in pass protection, but that was only to build their confidence.

Neither second-year tight end has blocked well. Likely has struggled to stay on blocks, and Kolar hasn’t been physical at the point of attack despite his 6-foot-6 frame and weighing 257 pounds.

The next best option might be the Ravens’ best.

They can use versatile 6-3, 305-pound fullback Patrick Ricard as a tight end or In the backfield. He loves contact and can still serve as a lead or “wham” blocker and is ideal for goal-line or short-yardage situations.

There is a certain amount of predictability when Ricard enters a game, but the loss of Andrews is far from ideal. Ricard isn’t going to fool anyone with his pass-catching ability downfield, but both Likely and Kolar have been inconsistent holding onto the ball.

With Likely, it seems to be more about his confidence. He was the star of the 2022 preseason until Harbaugh openly criticized him for missing blocks, and then he disappeared for most of the regular season.

He had four catches for 42 yards in the Ravens’ 33-31 loss to Cleveland on Nov. 12 then disappeared after he missed a block on what turned into a 7-yard loss on a reverse to running back Keaton Mitchell.

Likely wasn’t targeted at all in the 34-20 win against the Bengals on Thursday night. Kolar had one reception for 13 yards.

Unlike previous years, though, when the Ravens had veterans such as Demarcus Robinson and DeSean Jackson who were past their primes, Baltimore has options.

They should keep Rashod Bateman outside because of his height and speed. They should keep Odell Beckham Jr. in the slot because, even though he doesn’t have the speed he once had, he is still a tough matchup for any No. 3 or 4 cornerbacks or safeties.

The Ravens can do anything they want with rookie receiver Zay Flowers, who can line up inside or outside and share a spot with either Nelson Agholor or Devin Duvernay, depending on the matchup.

The Ravens have an abundance of speed, and that’s the element that can’t be coached in any sport. Harbaugh hasn’t ruled out using different receiver packages, either.

“Everything is on the table, for sure — more wide receivers,” he said. “We’re going to play those guys [and] those tight ends more than they have played, for sure. [We’re] going to mix it up.

“You get forced into certain kinds of groups based on what your roster looks like. But really, I do believe, more than we have been in recent memory, we’re probably more prepared to deal with something like this than we have been.”

The Ravens need to keep getting the ball to their receivers and to Mitchell in space. They need to keep running those slants, hitches and quick passes — passes that Jackson has been accurate with.

It doesn’t have to be a high-octane passing game, but it needs to provide a threat and give the Ravens some semblance of balance.

In years past, the loss of Andrews would be devastating. It’s still significant, but nowhere near as costly.

They can still win.


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