The Baltimore Ravens season came to an abrupt end in the 2011 AFC Championship Game, falling to the Patriots 23-20 on a chilly night last January. In the waning moments, a flick of the wrist by Joe Flacco, floated a pass to Lee Evans streaking down the right sideline into the end zone for the apparent winning score. With that pass sailed the hope and promise of the Baltimore Ravens… First the fate of the 2011 season. Then the promise that Joe Flacco would finally become the big game quarterback his lofty draft status calls for that so far had been unfulfilled. Another promise that the Ravens could come through on offense and be the equal to their decade long excellent defensive counterparts. Finally Lee Evans had the chance to show he was the big play receiver everyone expected him to be after he was drafted out of Wisconsin. The ball cradled in Evans hands with his feet in bounds for a fleeting moment…and then… Sterling Moore knocked the potential game winning touchdown out of his hands. The ball falling harmlessly to the Foxborough turf. All the air had gone out of the Ravens balloon. They were a defeated team before Billy Cundiff shanked the 32 yarder that could have sent the game into overtime.
So the question has to be asked: For an aging team where do they go from here?? All of this psychologically before the setback of having All Pro linebacker Terrell Suggs tearing his achille’s tendon in the offseason. With several AFC North teams on the rise: Did the Baltimore Ravens let a golden opportunity slip away??
Quarterback: There are games that define careers in the NFL and it’s going to be difficult for Joe Flacco to shake the stigma that he isn’t a big game quarterback. He had that opportunity in last year’s AFC Championship Game. He had outplayed Tom Brady on that fateful night throwing for 22 of 36 for 306 yards and 2TDs, to Brady’s 22 of 36 for 239 yards and 2 interceptions. Yet again playing it too close to the vest, the Ravens allowed the Patriots to stay close and score late to win it. It’s here where Flacco detractors such as our CEO ask: Where were the down field throws to get the Ravens a 2 score advantage in the 4th quarter?? Why does he not play with urgency to score during the middle part of games?? He’s often made great late throws like the one to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the final minutes a season earlier. Then his pass to Evans was… The sense of de ja vu’ in how the Ravens came scrambling downfield as they had in the 2008 AFC Championship Game came to mind. Then that of the 2010 playoffs when TJ Houshmanzadeh dropped a vital third down attempt, both playoff losses to Pittsburgh. Why does Flacco continue to put them in that position??
It may well be a systemic problem for the Ravens. The curse of Trent Dilfer still lingers for a team that plays too cautious and not take chances so they can turn it over to the defense. Subsequently, they never build big enough leads. Why are we bringing it up under quarterback?? It changes the quarterbacks mindset to one of not attacking the defense and taking the safe route. The best evidence of this is he takes his check down way too soon and way too much. He doesn’t wait for that second window (routes beyond the linebackers) to open and immediately throws it to Ray Rice on a check down route. Rice led the team in receptions with 76. Now think about that for a second… Throws to the running back are high percentage passes and in a year where most significant passing records fell, Flacco only completed 57.6% of his passes last year. In fact his 2011 stats show regression… In 2010 completed 306 of 489 (62%) for 3,622 yards, 25 TDs to just 10 interceptions. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/rav/2010.htm Last year those numbers declined to 312 of 542 for 3,610 yards with 20TDs and 12 interceptions. So now the Ravens bring in a new quarterback coach in longtime Colt assistant and former Head Coach Jim Caldwell to help restructure his game. It’s year 5 of the Flacco era and could be his last. His fight or flight mechanism has been damaged from playing too much Trent “Dilfer-ized” football. Those throws where he didn’t wait for the second level receivers to get open weren’t the coaches fault, those were his decisions. At quarterback the Ravens are very average.
Offensive Backfield: Last year Ray Rice did everything for this team offensively. He was second in the NFL with 1,364 yards rushing with a 4.7 yard average while scoring 12 TDs from the ground. As we specified earlier, out of the backfield he led the team with 76 receptions for 704 yards and another 3 scores. As we approach year five, this team is on the verge of burning the hard charging Rice out. This generation’s Wilbert Montgomery. This might be why the Ravens have used the Franchise Tag where Rice wants a multi-year extension. The deadline for his signing is July 16th! The Ravens are thinking about their long-term future and Rice has some serious wear and tear in his first four years.
Rice is a small tough runner who plays bigger than his 5’9 195 lbs. stature. He has little wiggle and plows straight ahead as a shifty power runner. He may go another year or two with the present workload. The wear and tear on Rice could show up quickly with his taking a lot of hits. Why do you think the Ravens are so reluctant to offer an extension to a player that was nearly 40% of their yardage from scrimmage last year?? Read between the lines… Yet last year the team had former Dolphin Ricky Williams to take some heat off Rice. He rushed for 444 yards and 2 scores in a relief role yet has retired. The team has drafted a bigger running back with the selection of Bernard Pierce out of Temple. At 6’0 218lbs, he has a bigger frame and should be the second option and will play special teams. He’s also the insurance policy if this contract issue lingers with Rice. At running back this team is Super Bowl quality with Rice for another season but not after that.
Receivers: An adequate group of receivers that have shown flashes of being better than they are. Anquan Boldin had a solid year with 57 receptions for 887 yards and 3 touchdowns, yet we can’t help but feel Ravens brass envisioned better production from him. Torrey Smith had 50 receptions for 841 yards and led the team with 7 scores. To add to an average set of receivers they drafted under developed Tommy Streeter from Miami. He’s 6’5 and runs a 4.4 in the 40 and could be the deep threat the Ravens need. Smith can get deep but Streeter’s size may give Flacco more confidence to throw deep. As a group their average at best and gets you to wonder is it the receivers or Flacco holding back the Ravens passing game??
Offensive Line: A line grounded by former All Pro Center Matt Birk, who was re-signed in March, is a solid one. There were only 5 linemen brought in this offseason which includes 4th round draft pick Gino Gradkowski from Delaware. Last year they had LT Bryant McKinnie fall to them after having a weight issue with the Vikings and they should get 3 more years of production out of a solid 9 year player. Overall this team was 10th in the league in rushing with 1,996 yards and both Ray Rice and Ricky Williams topped 4 yards per carry. They ranked in the upper tier when rushing the football on either goal line or 3rd /4th and short situations. Gaining the first down or touchdown 65% of the time to the weak side, and 63% rushing to the strong side.
When it comes to protecting the passer they could use some improvement. The Ravens line was 12th in sacks allowed with 33 yet were 21st in quarterback hits with 78. Keep in mind that’s with Flacco dumping off the ball to the running backs or this number could have been higher. With a full season with McKinnie from training camp on they may get their blocking audibles down. If Flacco is to make more downfield throws this will be a necessary fix and the line overall grades slightly above average.
Defensive Line: This begins with the heft that is Pro Bowl Nose Tackle Haloti Ngata. Having played in the last three straight Pro Bowls and second consecutive All Pro season, this 335 lbs. demon is the best in the game today. Last season he amassed 68 total tackles, had 5 sacks, forced 2 fumbles and recovered 3. All this from a man who is supposed to protect Ray Lewis by chewing up double teams and holding the middle?? Yikes! Compare his stats to NFC Pro Bowl NT B.J. Raji of the Green Bay Packers (24 tackles/3 sacks) and you can see Ngata is the gold standard. He even had 6 pass defenses which was only 1 behind Ray Lewis who had 7. He could be up for NFL Defensive Player of the Year this season with Suggs not 100% and with Lewis slowing down. He will get more attention.
Ravens brass is hoping his play will rub off on Terrence “Mount” Cody who made 40 tackles yet needs to help push the pocket also. He didn’t register a sack yet did make improvement in his second year. This could be his breakout year and if he does this line is Super Bowl quality. This is before we get to steady Cory Redding who garnered 45 tackles with 4.5 sacks himself. This should be the best defensive line in all of football in 2012.
Linebackers: The biggest story this offseason was the injury to Terrell Suggs achille’s tendon. Originally thought to be gone for the year, Suggs and the team’s front office have steadfast held to the belief that he’ll be ready to go in 2012. Our question is: To what capacity?? This is the defending NFL Defensive Player of the Year who will need to push-off that achille’s and go after the quarterback to the tune of 75 tackles & 14 sacks last year. Usually this injury sidelines one for a year and even if he does play, we think it would be in a diminished capacity. He is going into his 10th season and it takes longer to heal in your 30s. As for other outside rushers, don’t forget Pernell McPhee and Paul Kruger combined for 11 sacks last year.
However the Ravens will still be solid on defense with future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis still leading the charge. Despite missing 4 games he still had 107 tackles 2 sacks and an interception. His strong play and the further improvement from Jameel McClain (83 tackles /1 sack) should keep the middle steady. However they did draft Courtney Upshaw as their #1 pick and possible Ray Lewis heir apparent. They may want to get him onto the field to get him ready for a succession to take place a year or two from now. For one more year this is a Super Bowl quality group.
Secondary: Unlike previous years, this secondary wasn’t just future Hall of Famer Ed Reed. Several youngsters stepped up to make this defense a formidable one ranking 4th in the NFL against the pass which vaulted the defense as a whole to a #3 ranking overall.
SS Bernard Pollard turned in a solid year with 87 tackles, 1 interception and 1 sack last year after coming over from the Houston Texans. He complemented Ed Reed well and should be even more productive just entering his 8th season. Next to Ed Reed he has the perfect ball hawk center fielder. Reed’s stats should return to loftier numbers (56 tackles / 3 ints. / 1 sack) as his mates play keep improving, quarterbacks won’t be able to avoid throwing into his area anymore.
The Ravens cut ties with CB Dominique Foxworthy, who couldn’t get on the field due to the impressive play of LarDarius Webb (74 tackles /5 ints /21 passes defensed) and solid play from Cary Williams (84 tackles /16 passes defensed). While Williams didn’t produce an interception he was 3rd on the team in tackles. Webb could make the Pro Bowl in 2012 with another season like 2011. However the Ravens signed 4 free agent corners to push Williams and should aid in fielding solid nickle and dimebacks. They also drafted a corner in the 5th round in Cal Poly’s Asa Jackson. Don’t doubt him because of his coming from a small school, remember Webb came from Nicholls State and we can’t tell you where that school is. This is a really good secondary and could be Super Bowl quality with a little improvement from Pollard and the corner position opposite Webb.
Overall: This is a year that will see the team’s defensive line become the focal point of the defense instead of its linebackers. In their 3-4 they have perfected drafting the defensive tackle and coaching them into defensive ends specific to this defense. The Ravens benefit from a division that should see some flux this year and may have a surprise champion. This team needs its offense to come of age this year or the team will be building with a new quarterback next year. Our crystal ball tells us more of the same on offense and with their first four games against the Bengals, at Eagles, then home to the Patriots and Browns. If they don’t come out of there 3-1 or better, this will be a 10-6 team at best. They finish with Peyton Manning’s Broncos, the world champion Giants, then finish at Cincinnati with the division title on the line. The Chancellor is looking at this team as a late entrant to the playoffs as a lower record division winner or wildcard. They won’t make it back to the AFC Championship Game.
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