2013 Baltimore Ravens Preview – A New Frontier

Baltimore's trophy case holding the Super Bowl XXXV & XLVII Trophies along with the AFC Championship units.

Baltimore’s trophy case holding the Super Bowl XXXV & XLVII Trophies along with the AFC Championship units.

When you hold up the trophy at the end of the season, everyone comes gunning for you the following season. However in Baltimore’s case they’re unsure as to who they’re going to be. As the confetti fell, the ink was drying on the retirement papers for Ray Lewis. Friday morning the inked signature of C Matt Birk was scrolled across retirement paperwork as well. Super Bowl XLVII hero Anquan Boldin has said he would retire from the NFL if the Ravens released him. He will not play for another team. Yet a contract restructure should keep his services in Baltimore.

All of this before we find out the fate of S Ed Reed and Linebackers Paul Kruger &  Danell Ellerbe with their unrestricted free agent status. Will one of them be franchised if they sign Joe Flacco to a long term deal or will Flacco be franchised and one of them walk away as a free agent?? Not since the 1997 MLB champion Florida Marlins have we seen defending champion with so many roster questions going into the next season. In that situation they were having a fire sale for half their roster, in this one it’s all the team leaders with half already gone and the spiritual / emotional leader in Lewis already out of the complex. These next few weeks leading into free agency will tell the tale. Who will the 2013 Baltimore Ravens be??

Even as late as this weekend at the combine, they are still negotiating Flacco's contract.

Even as late as this weekend at the combine, they are still negotiating Flacco’s contract.

Quarterback: Well, well, well… Looks like The Chancellor along with LaMarr Woodley had to eat their words when it came down to assessing Joe Flacco’s projected ability to win the big game. Where last year it looked like his career would be defined by the incompletion to Lee Evans in the AFC Championship, a new Flacco emerged gunning his team to a 28-7 3rd quarter Super Bowl lead. Even when things got tight he drove them to the game clinching field goal while eating up valuable time.

He finally came through and out-dueled Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to get to that Super Bowl victory. The traces Flacco’s transformation began in that divisional playoff against Denver.

Last year our CEO challenged that Flacco wasn’t going through his progressions and just dumping the ball to Ray Rice where there were throws down-field that could have been made. For the season Rice was second on the team with 61 receptions. However in the playoffs, Rice only had 1 reception on a screen against the Colts, none in Denver, 3 in the championship against New England, and 4 in the Super Bowl. Three of those were when the 49ers were coming back and he started to regress a bit. Compare that to Boldin’s postseason, 22 rec. for 380 yards and 4TDs, and you could see how his play improved. He jelled with new play calling coach Jim Caldwell in the playoffs to the tune of 11TDs with zero interceptions in the postseason.

Finally, the Ravens are Super Bowl quality at the quarterback position.

Offensive Backfield: Now if it hit you during the playoffs that Bernard Pierce was getting almost as many carries as Ray Rice you weren’t seeing things. If you go back to the final two games and go through the playoffs, Pierce had 70 car. for 400 yards to Rice’s 108 car. for 521 yards and 1 touchdown. Pierce was the more physical runner as the season concluded and had an eye popping 5.7 yards per carry. He ran with good body lean and fell forward. Yet with Rice with the big contract he’ll get the majority of the carries in the upcoming season.

Bernard Pierce ran hard toward the end of the season averaging 5.7 yards per carry.

Bernard Pierce ran hard toward the end of the season averaging 5.7 yards per carry.

With 1,527 touches in his first five years, the Ravens were coming close to burning Ray Rice out. Truth be told it’s good that Pierce has emerged to take a load off for various drives or even games where they can afford to rest him. As they did in the season finale against Cincinnati. For the season he did rush for 1,143 yards and 9TDs on 257 carries. However they can trim his work load thanks to second year back in Pierce.

They will rely on their running game a little bit more to offset a defense that won’t be as stout as it had in year’s past. The Ravens are in great shape if either were to go down for a stretch in the upcoming season. Depending on how they strategically need to be used to rest the defense.  The Chacellor sees a season where Rice / Pierce should see a 60/40 mix as the runners this season. They may want to re-work his contract but that will be going into 2014. As for now the Ravens are playoff quality at the running back position.

Receivers: Here is where the first of the question marks show up for the Baltimore Ravens. Restrictive free agent TE Dennis Pitta (61 rec. / 669 yards / 7TDs) and WR Anquan Boldin (65 rec /921 yards / 4 TDs) have question marks at the present time. Right now it looks like they’ll be able to re-sign Pitta, whom Flacco developed a bond with, but Boldin is another scenario. From his free agent contract after leaving the Cardinals, Boldin is due $7.5 million this year and the consensus is he’ll be released. Boldin has said if that happens he’ll retire from the game. Although he was clutch in the AFC Championship & Super Bowl, he would be going into his 11th season and gets by on will. He is going to have to take a drastic pay cut to remain a Raven which we think he’ll do. We’ll have to wait and see.

The difference in this team winning the Super Bowl and watching it was Jacoby Jones. While Torrey Smith has emerged as a bonafide playmaker with 8 touchdowns on 49 receptions, it was Jones who was a game changer. When the team needed a charge in the game against Dallas he broke through with a 106 yard kick return touchdown that was the margin of victory that swung momentum in a 31-29 win. When the Ravens took the field in Denver with a little over a minute to go, it was Jones who got behind the defense for the 70 yard touchdown to force overtime. In the Super Bowl when the question was if the 49ers could come back?? Boom he goes 108 on a kick return to boost the lead to 28-6.  He is the missing element that the Houston Texans lost when they let him get away as a free agent.  Jones will have a bigger role this season even with the return of Boldin. Look for Offensive Co-ordinator Jim Caldwell to unleash formations with Smith and Jones in bunch formations often in 2013. If they get Boldin back this is a Super Bowl caliber group. Without they are still playoff caliber.

Michael Oher should return to his native LT spot in 2013.

Michael Oher should return to his native LT spot in 2013.

Offensive Line: This is where the 2013 questions on the Ravens are the loudest. First of which, how do you replace a team leader and center in the retired Matt Birk?? Are they going to come to terms or even re-sign T Bryant McKinnie?? The Ravens had to shuffle Michael Oher from LT to RT and moved rookie RT Kelechi Osemele to LG and insert McKinnie at LT to replace an injured guard. For the season the team was 20th in sacks allowed with 38. There is no way that Osemele didn’t benefit from learning from Birk as he learned a new position on the fly. It takes more than coaching to do that.

This unit paved the way for 444 rushing attempts 1,901 yards and 17 touchdowns. The yardage was good enough for 11th in all of pro football but they could use a little more muscle in the middle. When it came to 3rd or 4th and two or fewer, or even 1st or 2nd down at the goal line, they pushed for a first down or touchdown 58% of the time as compared to 79% on the right. Up the middle is where they can improve on this to keep drives sustained with a younger center. Look for the Ravens to use a couple of draft picks on the offensive line and a pick up or two in free agency at either Center or Tackle. It’s not a given that McKinnie will come back. Until we know what they do once free agency begins we have to give them a below average grade. Replacing a center means to replace the man responsible for blocking audibles. Doubtful they would leave that to a rookie.

Defensive Line: For years The Chancellor has said that Haloti Ngata is the best defensive lineman in the NFL. Never was it as evident as in the Super Bowl a month ago. The comeback by the 49ers coincided with his leaving the game with an injury. Up until that point the 49ers were unable to sustain the run on the front side of their read-option. Once he went down you saw the Niners mount their comeback and Frank Gore gained the majority of his 110 yards rushing.

In 2012 Ngata made his presence felt again with 50 total tackles and 5 sacks while making his 4th straight Pro Bowl. However you have to worry about the mileage on Ngata’s knees now that he’s turning 30. It’s also time for Terrence “Mount” Cody to start performing like the high draft pick he was out of Alabama. He only started 3 games and had 25 total tackles yet is about to become labeled as a “bust”. Having been beat out by a 33 year old journeyman in Ma’ake Kemoeatu. The Ravens gave up a lot of yards against the run in 2012 and these guys were allowing offensive linemen to get out on linebackers as Baltimore finished 20th against the run.

The Ravens need to make a move here in free agency or the draft. Without a great camp it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Cody be released. Lets face it the line in Baltimore is there to stop the run more than rush the passer but they can’t give ground and need to get off blocks. There Cody has struggled. They have to get younger and healthier on the line. If not they will be really beat up toward the end of last season. Right now the Ravens are average on the defensive line.

They need to re-sign Paul Kruger.

Can the Ravens retain Paul Kruger??

Linebacker: Did you ever think that we’d ever say the Ravens are weakest at the linebacker position??  Well with Paul Kruger, Danell Ellerbe both about to test the free agency market. That leaves Terrell Suggs as the lone cornerstone linebacker on the roster and let’s face it, he was a shell of his former self. He was only getting a quarterback pressure once every 14.5 rushes. That is not enough. Not for a former defensive player of the year. He came in with 8 games to go and only had 2 sacks on the season and 23 tackles on the year. Last year teams were able to block him one on one.

The most important re-signs are Kruger and Ellerbe. Kruger had 42 tackles, 6 passes defensed, and 9 sacks. Even in the Super Bowl when San Francisco made it in close to the goal line in the second quarter, Kruger made the sack to force SF to kick a field goal. He made plays from the outside. Ellerbe (89 tackles / 4.5 sacks) on the inside is crucial to maintain some continuity along with Jameel McClain 78 tackles. This is another place where the team may make a move to pick up a free agent linebacker and draft someone for the middle.

We see them re-signing Ellerbe and re-signing Kruger is a wish. They do have Shaun Phillips (Chargers), Anthony Spencer (Cowboys), Dwight Freeney (Colts), and possibly Osi Yumeniora (Giants) could be situational pass rushers if they can’t bring back Kruger and they await Suggs to get to full strength. With the questions they have at linebacker we have to say this group is below average if they don’t get Ellerbe back.

Secondary: Here is another position where the Ravens come in less than they were a month ago.  The looming loss of future Hall of Fame S Ed Reed is a big loss. However there are two safeties in Dashon Goldston (49ers) and William Moore (Falcons) are available for less money. At SS Bernard Pollard is ready to be a pro bowl player after last year’s 99 tackles 2 sacks, and an interception. They may lose CB Cary Williams who wants more than the 3 yrs and $15 million dollar contract that is being offered. The truth is LarDarius Webb and Jimmy Smith and Corey Graham are solid enough at the corner position. They are very good cover corners but they need to get more interceptions. Webb is their best corner but he is coming back from injury. If they can solidify the FS this group can be Super Bowl caliber. If they need to draft a FS they will drop down to playoff level at best…

Overall: Where other prognosticators are saying the Ravens have a legitimate chance to defend their Super Bowl title isn’t looking at projecting out to next year. This team is going to miss the leadership of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and C Matt Birk beyond what can be quantified. This team hasn’t had to motivate itself or get emotionally ready to play for the last 17 years. The coaching staff and the team will search to find those next leaders. This team had lost 4 out of 5 coming down the stretch before Lewis brought the team motivation with his retirement announcement. They do have holes in their defense and in the first year without a strong defense, The Chancellor doesn’t think the offense is ready to pick up the slack. The Ravens will really slip this year and they may be a 7-9 or an 8-8 team. They won’t come close to getting back to the Super Bowl.

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Super Bowl XLVII Recap: Ravens 34 – 49ers 31

Super Bowl XLVII

Super Bowl XLVII

Finally Super Sunday dawned like Christmas day for football fans and of course the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers. However once the game kicked off the 49ers inexperience immediately hampered early success. After forcing a 3rd and nine where the Ravens didn’t convert, Ahmad Brooks jumped offsides giving the Ravens new life. The Ravens converted and scored with Flacco hitting Anquan Boldin from 13 yards out to make it 7-0 Baltimore.

As expected the 49ers came out in the Pistol offense and moved the ball for the next couple of drives but went 1 of 3 on their first third downs and kicked the ball several times to the Ravens. They did have Ray Lewis and the Ravens befuddled as they drove the football and kicked a field goal to cut it to 7-3 before inexperience hit San Francisco again. On a quick outside play, LeMichael James instead of going down, fought for more yards and had the football knocked loose and the Ravens recovered.

The subsequent drive had one of the highlights in Flacco’s career. While holding a pensive 7-3 lead Joe was flushed by a blitzing Aldon Smith and scrambled to his right. Where it seemed like a perfect time to throw it away, the new Joe Flacco heaved it for 30 yards where Anquan came up with the football. A huge first down that allowed the Ravens to keep the momentum and take a 14-3 lead. Even if you go back to the first play of the game, Kaepernick hit Vernon Davis with a 20 yard gain. It was called back with an illegal formation and they stayed a step behind Baltimore ever since.

Torrey Smith and the prettiest Ravens in the building.

Torrey Smith and the prettiest Ravens in the building.

Then the quarterback that swore he was never nervous about the Super Bowl, showed his nerves as he overthrew his receiver and S Ed Reed picked it off on the San Francisco end of the field. Frustration boiled over as a fight ensued. The 49ers have played on the edge being a defensive bully on the NFC block and they were getting beaten by a team that has been an NFL bully for 13 years. The 49ers thought they were the more physcial team and found out they had run smack into a buzzsaw. They were down 14-3 and were starting to sweat. After a botched fake field goal gave the Niners the ball back Kaepernick was jittery and nearly threw a second interception to a diving Cary Williams. Then the Jacoby Jones highlight reel started.

First Flacco hits him with a 56 yard bomb to put the Ravens up 21-3 and he totally had blown by the secondary for the catch. He then got up and raced into the end-zone and the Ravens were up 21-3 and it looked like they were headed to hoist the trophy. After a field goal by the 49ers to cut the lead to 21-6, the momentum was clearly Baltimore’s as the teams left the field.

Coming from halftime, the first thoughts were for the 49ers to stop the Ravens who were going to get the ball after the kick. Get the Ravens to  go 3 and…..ooops!! Jacoby Jones sets a league record by bringing the second half kick 109 yards for a touchdown to make it 28-6 and the ballon of confidence popped on the San Francisco sideline!!  A few plays later the lights went out…literally! We had a 36 minute play stoppage but the Niners were about to be blown out of the stadium.  Or so it appeared… It was eery watching the players try to keep warmed up in a semi-dark Super Dome. The only delay that was close to this was the “Fan-Man” incident during a Riddick Bowe v. Evander Holyfield championship match in 1993.

Ravens Brass holding the hardware.

Ravens Owner Steve Biscotti and Head Coach Jim Harbaugh hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy while CBS’ Jim Nantz looks on.

After the outage, the Ravens came out flat and the 49ers seized the momentum, outscoring the Ravens 17-0. First a touchdown throw from Kaepernick to Crabtree for 31 yards to first cut the lead to 28-13. On the next series Flacco is swallowed by Ahmad Brooks on third down forcing a punt. Then the game swung big time! First Ted Ginn Jr took the punt around midfield and ran it back to the Raven 20 yard line. Couple plays later Frank Gore took a handoff around right end on a counter and the 49ers had cut the game to 28-20. Over the next few minutes the 49ers had all the momentum and it looked like the Ravens were hanging on for dear life.

In a wild second half Colin Kaepernick found his groove. He eventually completed 16 of 28 for 302 yards and 1TD to Michael Crabtree. He also rushed 6 times for 62 yards and the touchdown to cut the Ravens lead to 31-29 with just over 7 minutes to go in the game. Kaepernick’s game was transcendent and elevated this Super Bowl into one of the greatest ever. He completed all the throws and shook off his second quarter jitters and being down 34-29 after a Ravens field goal, everyone held their breath as the Niners raced downfield.  With just over two minutes to go, Frank Gore burst around left end and gave the Niners a first and goal from inside the 10 yard line. San Francisco was on the brink of the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. They just needed 8 yards…

The last play of Ray Lewis career. A 4th down incompletion in Super Bowl XLVII.

The last play of Ray Lewis career. A 4th down incompletion in Super Bowl XLVII.

That’s when the heart of a champion showed up in the form of the Baltimore Ravens defense. They stuffed one running play and played discipline football in stringing out two passes to the sideline. There were no openings for Kaepernick to throw the football. Then as it had on a two point attempt earlier, the Ravens blitzed on 4th down, Kaepernick lofted the ball for Michael Crabtree but the throw was errant thanks to the pressure. Baltimore escaped with a World Title thanks to a goal line stand to end Ray Lewis’ story career.

The MVP of the game was Joe Flacco and it could be argued that he almost played his way out of it. In the first half he was brilliant throwing for 192 yards with 3TDs on 13 of 20 passes. Once he was sacked by Brooks during the 49ers furious 3rd quarter rally he stopped throwing downfield and started to look like “the old Joe Flacco”. Yet once the Niners cut the lead to 31-29, Joe drove the Ravens on a 10 play 59 yard drive and gave the Ravens defense 5:29 of possession time to rest. On the drive he hit Anquan Boldin with three passes, one a critical third down that kept the chains moving. The subsequent 38 yard field goal by Tucker put the Ravens up by 5, 34-29 and no one was safe.

Ray Lewis, from The [[_]] hoists the Lombardi Trophy for the second time in his last NFL game.

Ray Lewis, from The [[_]] hoists the Lombardi Trophy for the second time in his last NFL game.

In the end, the Ravens gutted it out in that goal line stand and the difference could have been borne from the rest Flacco and the offense gave them from the previous drive. After three plays the Ravens took a ceremonious safety that gave them a 34-31 lead while effectively running out the clock.

World Champion Baltimore Ravens! The victors in one of the most exciting Super Bowls ever. The vanquished 49ers had to exit the field as the purple and gold confetti fell on one of the most unlikely NFL champions ever. In one of our Super Bowl articles, our CEO said to “never underestimate what it means for a man to motivate other men.” Inside the 10 with just 1 minute to go, Ray got his guys to focus on those 4 plays. This team was flat coming down the stretch losing 4 of 5 to finish the season and it looked like another mid playoff exit was brewing.

Ray announces this would be his last go ’round and everything changed for the Baltimore Ravens. Cell phones were left out of meetings and players focused that much more on the game. The miracle double overtime win was one of the greatest in NFL history and one Flacco had to throw a 70 yard touchdown with less than a minute to go to tie it. In a year where former Owner Art Modell passes earlier in the season, OJ Brigance fighting ALS while working in the Ravens front office, Torrey Smith losing his brother and coming back to play for the Ravens with a heavy heart, they drew inspiration from within. Once Lewis admission to retire at the end of these playoffs and they were playing for something bigger than themselves. They needed every bit of spirit and motivation to upset the favored San Francisco 49ers by 8 yards.

The game won’t be the same without Ray Lewis but he leaves with another championship ring.

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Super Bowl XLVII Preview:….And The Winner Is??

Super Bowl XLVII

Super Bowl XLVII

Three nights from now, the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens will try to get some sleep knowing their lives will be different by the end of Sunday night. The boy-hood dream of becoming a Super Bowl champion will be realized by one group where the other will be roped off as the trophy presentation begins.  What color will the confetti be as the league assembles the champion’s podium??

For the most part the sporting world wants to know why Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers is not nervous. Its relatively easy, he’s playing the same offense he did in college. Under normal circumstances a young quarterback is spending his time learning a new offense along with learning the pro game. This game will be decided by the read option and the execution of it. Can the Baltimore defense squeeze this play down and minimize it’s effectiveness??

As we told you in the Ray Lewis Super Bowl preview article….this is the key to this game: In the Ravens defense, when they see this play, Lewis needs to stay on Frank Gore and the outside guys in Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, and Bernard Pollard have to be there to hit Kaepernick early to get his attention. Lewis out in space would definitely be a liability at this time. He, Haloti Ngata, and Terrence Cody have to take care of Frank Gore at the point of this play.

Dannell Ellerbe, Haloti Ngata, and Paul Kruger are as key as Ray Lewis in Super Bowl XLVII

Dannell Ellerbe, Haloti Ngata, and Paul Kruger are as key as Ray Lewis in Super Bowl XLVII

If the Ravens can prove to use the front 3 to eat up the blockers and limit Gore’s effectiveness on the read option, Lewis will be able to scrape from inside out if Ellerbe and Kruger can keep containment. This will have to be later in the game once the read option has been neutralized up front. This game may be won or lost on this premise. Lewis needs to flow from his Inside Linebacker position to the cut back point of this play with containment. If the 49ers can stretch the outside, Lewis will not be able to make it to that point to stop Kaepernick.

One wild card the 49er offense can play is RB LeMichael James, he lends a cutback ability and a bounce in or out of a running play that might be harder for Lewis to track. However will he be in enough plays to be that effective a decoy and make that much of an impact on this game. One of the 49er’s strengths is their offensive line. The movement they got on BJ Raji of the Packers in the divisional round was embarrassing. They moved him from left to right where RT Anthony Davis, and Guards Mike Iupati, and Alex Boone rooted him out of there playing too high. This group can move and they can block. If ever there was a game where Terrence “Mount” Cody needs to hold ground next to Haloti Ngata, this is it. Our CEO has often said Ngata is the best defensive lineman in the NFL for his ability to take on double team blocks low, defeat them and make the tackle in the backfield, while keeping blockers off Ray Lewis. Even if he doesn’t make the tackle, occupies the double team allowing Lewis to make the tackle, he’s done his job. Anything more is extra. Understand that Ngata had 50 tackles and 5 sacks from the interior. That is down from 2011’s 64 tackle performance but still enough to make his presence felt this Sunday.

The best linebacker on the field for Super Bowl XLVII won't be Patrick Willis or Ray Lewis. It's Navorro Bowman.

The best linebacker on the field for Super Bowl XLVII won’t be Patrick Willis or Ray Lewis. It’s Navorro Bowman.

The San Francisco 49ers front seven is as good as the Super Bowl has seen in the last ten years. Their linebackers are better than that Tampa unit that won Super Bowl XXXVII. Navorro Bowman just may be the best linebacker in the NFL although Patrick Willis gets most of the ink. If you’re not a Taylor Blitz Times regular it may come as a shock to you that Bowman has been  an All Pro now for back to back seasons even though he just made the Pro Bowl for the first time. Coaches and those that know like The Chancellor of football know this tackling machine can play the run (144 tackles) or the pass. It was Bowman that knocked down the 4th and 4 attempted pass to Roddy White at the end of the NFC Championship Game. He is going to be all over Ray Rice in this football game, whether its a flare pass or run. Willis will be there along with DT Justin Smith (64 tackles) to keep Raven rushing attempts to minimal gains. Watch for RB Bernard Pierce #30 to get a series or two as the lead back if Rice is ineffective early. The 49ers front seven is hard to crack.

Which brings us to the passing attack and the way that Super Bowl XLVII will be won. Coming into this game we have two front sevens playing heads up football but what about the back seven?? The 49ers passing game saved the day with the re-emergence of TE Vernon Davis in the NFC Championship Game. The question was was it a new wrinkle in the offense or an aberration. On a whole is the passing game enough to carry the 49ers to victory on a team that just made Peyton Manning and Tom Brady look pedestrian in back to back playoff games on the road?? The Ravens picked off those two Hall of Famers 5 times combined while on the road. Now they face a quarterback in his 10th start with Hall of Fame S Ed Reed lurking back there disguising his coverages. We don’t see it.

Ed Reed's crafty play at safety is a wildcard in Super Bowl XLVII. He will force Kaepernick into one mis-read interception in this game.

Ed Reed’s crafty play at safety is a wildcard in Super Bowl XLVII. He will force Kaepernick into one mis-read interception in this game.

The other hot hand in these playoffs is Joe Flacco. He’s passed for over 800 yards and 8 touchdowns in the three playoff games leading to this one. He has found the most success in the three receiver sets which have simplified his reads. One of the changes to the Ravens offense that no one is talking about is the firing of Cam Cameron and the play calling of former Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell. He used to shape the game plan for the Colts also so he knows what to call having participated in Super Bowl XLI & XLIV. Through this play selection, Flacco has been confident and delivered the football to TE Denni Pitta, WR Anquan Boldin, and WR Torrey Smith. Boldin provides a power mismatch on the outside with his experience but it’s his muscle in the slot that showed in the playoffs. He just bullied Patriot DBs when the ball was in the air.

In the end, the Ravens will force Kaepernick to win this game passing, unfortunately the Ravens should have the lead from being successful passing the football first, winning the game 31-27. The Baltimore Ravens will be the winners of Super Bowl XLVII

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2012 Baltimore Ravens Preview

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??

Will Joe Flacco return the Ravens to the AFC Championship or beyond??

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.

Ray Rice was the Baltimore Ravens offense in 2011.

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??

Steady center and a team leader, Matt Birk was one of the first free agents signed this offseason. He should finish his career a Raven.

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.

Haloti Ngata is the NFL’s best defensive lineman.

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.

The Ravens are still led by future hall of famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

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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NEXT UP: Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos

2011 Baltimore Ravens Preview

Well, well, well…. How much did a forced fumble alter the course of the Baltimore Ravens franchise??  It was late in the fourth quarter and the host Ravens were up 9-3 in a tough, tough football game.   It was week 13 with the AFC North on the line during a Sunday night tilt with their hated rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers.  A win would lock up the division and probably the number 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, setting themselves up for a legitimate Super Bowl run.  With less than 7 minutes left in the game; Flacco drops back and doesn’t read the blitz,  Troy Palamalu comes unblocked and….

Quarterback: There are reservations about Joe Flacco.  There were some points of improvement but there are times he just doesn’t pass the eyeball test in the big games.  I’ll have to go back to that fumble by Joe Flacco no matter how hard it pains Ravens fans.  That was one where he needs to read the defense and get rid of the football within 3 steps.  In his 3rd season, all as a starter, he should been able to detect a blitz as the Steelers were getting into desperate times.  That fumble could have been the difference between this team playing in Super Bowl XLV and watching it.

Going into his 4th season, Flacco has improved steadily each year and in  2010 was the 7th rated passer in the NFL.  He completed 62.6% of his passes for 3,622 yards, 25TDs and only 10 interceptions.  He did have a game winning throw to T.J. Houshmanzadeh against Pittsburgh in week 4 but let face a few facts:  Against playoff teams in 2010, Flacco had a 2-4 record against playoff bound teams.  In 3 of those games the offense could only muster 10, 14, and 10 points while averaging 17.5 points against playoff teams.  With the signing of Anquan Boldin and Dontae Stallworth a little more firepower from Flacco was expected during these games.  He showed up in games against Buffalo with a 3 TD performance in an overtime win yet could only throw for 1 TD against the Steelers in both games.  He disappears too often against  strong competition and needs to show he can win games and not just rely on the defense. Has to become a leader.

His game lacks confidence and has to go downfield and use his receivers more.  Too many check down throws to Ray Rice.    Quarterback in Baltimore is average at best.

Running Back: The Ravens parted ways with Willis McGahee who has slowed down in recent years.  Ray Rice could use some help with the overall workload yet had an outstanding year.  The fireplug ran for 1,220 yards on 307 carries and was also second on the team with 62 receptions and another 556  yards.  With nearly 370 touches could only reach the endzone 6 times (5 rushing / 1 receiving) and could burn out like Wilbert Montgomery from overuse.  Although he is a willing warrior it would be in his best interest if the Ravens drafted some help here for him.  There could be additional carries for LeRon McClain #33 who is a straight forward running fullback.  He may have to step in and replace the 6 touchdowns McGahee ran in from short yardage.

Right now Ray Rice is a chain moving first down machine who averaged 4.0 yards per carry. If Flacco doesn’t develop further, teams can gang up on him and the mounting hits could slow him down.  Its imperative that they get him some help and possibly more of a break away threat.  Ravens are solid at running back

Receivers: Last year they brought in Anquan Boldin and Dontae Stallworth to bolster this position which produced minimal returns.  Although Boldin led the team with 64 receptions, his 837 yards and 7 touchdowns, were less than Raven fans had hoped for.   A physical and tough receiver who will catch the tough passes over the middle had too few passes thrown his way.  Stallworth was a disappointment in only catching 2 passes in an injury plagued year.  Yet Derrick Mason was there to pick up the slack with 61 receptions for 802 yards and 7 touchdowns to match Boldin.

The Ravens need a boost in the arm here and needs a deep threat at receiver to stretch the field.  The departed Houshmanzadeh, Stallworth and incumbent Boldin and TE Todd Heap are all intermediate threats.  This allowed teams to gang up on all pass routes 20 yards and under which was one of the reasons the ball was checked down so much.  Definite upgrade needed to develop as an offense and there has been talk that the team is going after Santonio Holmes.

Offensive Line: A mixed review for the offensive line in 2010.  For a running team this team had problems pushing the ball into the endzone with only 11 touchdowns on the season, which ranked 18th in the NFL.  Further issues arise when you look at the numbers for Flacco’s passing. Although Flacco ranked 13th in passing attempts with 489, he was sacked 40 times and hit 79 times.  Each of those numbers ranked 23rd in the NFL and they need to improve on those clearly.  Compare that to Peyton Manning who passed 679  times and was only sacked 16 times or rookie Sam Bradford who threw 590 times and was sacked just 34 times. The question is: What does this line do well??

When it comes to power rushing plays on 3rd /4th and 2 or fewer?  This team converted less than 50% of the time running to the left or the right.  They were able to plow forward for the 1st down 75% of the time going up the middle.  The line gets blame for this because if the blocks are performed up front, even a marginal back should get 3-4 yards where the good back can get beyond that.  Matt Birk, is the elder statesman of this line entering his 13th year and anchors the Ravens at center.  At LG and LT is Ben Grubs and Michael Oher respectively, each need to play lower to get more push in the running game.  The same can be said for RG Chris Chester and RT Marshall Yanda who being on the strong side need to provide the impetus to convert those 3rd and 2s coming off tackle.

This line is young with every player on the line aside from Birk all with less than 4 years in the league.  Yet the coaching staff need to get these guys on the 7 man sled and get low and root out the opposing defense.  They play too high which tells us at Taylor Blitz that they spend most of their practice time passing the football.  With a little luck, Harbaugh will push his offensive line to get more in the running game and rest a Super Bowl quality defense.  Offensive Line is slightly below average right now.  Could see a draft pick or two coming to light a fire under these players.

Defensive Line: Lets face it, in the 3-4 defense its these men that have to hold their ground and not be pushed off the ball allowing the inside linebackers to make most of the tackles.  Mission accomplished with Ray Lewis and Jameel McClain combining for an astounding 236 tackles. It starts up front with 6’0, 310 lb. Kelly Gregg at NT.  He ties up blockers with his low play allowing the aforementioned Lewis and McClain to scrape into punish ball carriers.  Ends Haloti Ngata and Cory Redding are also hard to move off the ball aiding in the Ravens overall ranking of 10th in the NFL and 5th against the run.  Redding and Ngata also combined for 8.5 sacks also. At 6’4 and 335 lbs., Ngata is in his prime, has made the last two Pro Bowls along with the distinction of being voted 1st team all pro.

Now don’t forget this team last year drafted 6’4 370lbs. Terrence “Mount” Cody from 2009 National Champion Alabama.  He played some during his rookie year and I expect to see him hit the field even more this year to spell Gregg.  In two years at Alabama they were ranked 2nd in the nation against the run! If he replaces Gregg that gives the Ravens 700 lbs of immovable object in he and Ngata…yikes! Ray Lewis could chase down runners another 5 years behind that.


Linebackers:
Again the heart and soul of the defense is Ray Lewis, from the U, is the NFL’s best ever Middle Linebacker.  Although he is going into his 16th season, he has shown exceptional range in the passing game as well as defending the run.  The majority of it is he rarely takes a false step and his exceptional film study has him a step ahead of the offense.  Amazingly he is still the emotional sparkplug of the defense which is a rarity in a player who is an elder statesman.  Again he led the Ravens with 145 tackles, had 2 sacks and 2 interceptions.  He forced 2 fumbles and recovered 3 more.  The only question is when is this future Hall of Famer going to slow down.   He has to be on borrowed time…How long can he play at such a high level??

Which brings us to Terrell Suggs. The Ravens pass rushing ace once again led the team with 11.5 sacks and was terrorizing Ben Roethlisberger with 3 sacks and a forced fumble in the playoff loss to Pittsburgh.  The heir apparent to Lewis’ emotional leading mantle for Baltimore is in the prime of his career and is in perfect position to mentor young Sergio Kindle from Texas.  Suggs is entering his 9th season, has made the Pro Bowl 4 times, is second in all time sacks for the Ravens franchise with 68.5.  He could benefit with another strong pass rusher on the other side and not command so many double teams.  If Kindle can come in and provide that, a 15 -18 sack season for Suggs isn’t out of the question.

Which brings us to Sergio Kindle…Kindle missed his entire rookie season due to injury.  At 6’3 and 250lbs, Kindle could give the Ravens the best set of outside linebackers this side of Pittsburgh if he can rush the passer.  He was a defensive end in college so the transition should be a smoother one with Suggs to show him the ropes.  Kindle was a 5 star blue chip recruit going into Texas yet has had a few injuries.  He was the Texas Longhorns defensive star in the 2009 National Championship Game opposite Alabama’s Cody.  If, and thats a nice sized if, he can hit the field running this team can really bolster its pass rush.  Not to be pushed aside is Jameel McClain #53 at the other inside linebacker spot, who was a solid tracker and recorded 91 tackles in a breakout season in 2010.  Throw in a developing Dannell Ellerbe #59 and you have Super Bowl quality linebackers as they are.  Improvement with Kindle will turn this group into a special unit.

Secondary: Sigh… How in the hell do you give up a 59 yard bomb in the 4th quarter of a playoff game when the Steelers are facing 3rd and 17?? Would like to see the Ravens use a few draft picks here.  Dominique Foxworth, Chris Carr, and Fabian Washington at corner.  Improvement is needed here for the defense that ranked 21st against the pass and get a jam on the receiver on 3rd and 17!!  This team is still hasn’t replaced Jim Leonard who moved on with Rex Ryan to the Jets.  Dawan Landry is a faster and stronger SS yet doesn’t get any interceptions.  He is stout against the run as evidenced by his 111 tackles which ranked 2nd on the team to Lewis, yet didn’t pick off a pass.   He defensed 3 passes but couldn’t corral 1 interception.  That number needs to improve and should with an improved pass rush.

Which brings us to future Hall of Famer, former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and former NFL Defensive Rookie of the year Ed Reed (from The U).  This tremendous talent missed 6 games and still led the league with 8 interceptions and is creeping up on the all time interceptions list with 54.  He is 46 interception return yards from breaking the all time record by Rod Woodoson with 1,483 yards. He has tied or broken 5 NFL records including the two longest interception returns in league history with 106 and 107 yard returns. A seven time Pro Bowler who is going into his 10th season is getting better with age.  He is cagey and fools quarterbacks into throwing into regions that look uncovered and Reed swoops in and turns those plays into instant offense for Baltimore.  As for 2010 he finished with 39 tackles along with his 16 passes defensed and 1 forced fumble.

As a secondary there should be improvement in Landry’s third season as a starter yet this team needs to get their hands on a few good cornerbacks.  They need to play the younger corners and see what they have or draft a few more.  Weak at the corner and monster at the safety makes this an above average secondary as long as Ed Reed can make plays.  Although the wear and tear is mounting on Reed who had hinted at retirement before the season.

Overall: A golden opportunity slipped away last January in the form of Antonio Brown’s 59 yard reception late in the fourth quarter in the playoffs.  This team had a few key drops by their recievers in Boldin and the 4th down drop by Houshmanzadeh.  The offense couldn’t run the ball with consistency against Pittsburgh.  These issues manifested themselves clearly in the playoffs.  Improvement is needed in these key areas for this team to return to the AFC elite.  They have another year where they are among the top definitely, but this is the last year for this team to get Ray Lewis another ring.  Belichick is about to rebuild on the run with 6 draft picks in New England and this team along with Pittsburgh should fall behind the Jets also this year.

Offensive firepower is needed to offset this tremendous defense in case there is a slip in Reed or Lewis’ play.  What is interesting is that in 2010 there was a youth movement with 10 rookies that made the team as compared to 1 in ’09.  Yet much of that talent is unproven including Sergio Kindle and Terrence “Mount” Cody.  Well we shall soon see what they do with next months draft.

Next Up: Philadelphia Eagles