As we head towards the start of the new season, it’s time to take a look at a team that came within a completed pass of a Super Bowl appearance last year.
The Baltimore Ravens made the playoffs for the fourth straight year under John Harbaugh, and their second AFC Championship Game in that span. It could have been so much more however. All the “what ifs” surrounding Billy Cundiff’s missed field goal and the end zone incompletion to Lee Evans have likely haunted Ravens fans all offseason.
It’s been an up and down offseason in Baltimore, so let’s take a look at the reasons why fans should be optimistic, and reasons why they should be concerned heading into the coming season.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) Lardarius’ Web
We’re used to hearing all about Revis Island in New York but, if 2011 was anything to go by, get ready to hear about receivers struggling to escape Lardarius’ Web in 2012. Alright, it’s an awful pun, but Webb was nothing short of sensational last season. He didn’t allow a single touchdown throughout the regular and postseason, while picking off eight passes and breaking up 12 more. That, coupled with his ability to play so effectively in the slot, is what makes him so valuable to the Ravens defense.
2) Pressure from Pernell
Regular visitors to Pro Football Focus will already know just how excited we are about Pernell McPhee after his rookie season. No interior defensive lineman delivered as much pressure on a per snap basis, as measured by our Pass Rush Productivity Signature Stat, than the fifth-round draft pick from Mississippi St last season. The departure of Cory Redding, and the injury to Terrell Suggs, looks set to give McPhee the opportunity to prove his ability on more snaps. Provided that leads to a similar level of production, we can expect to see an increase in the seven sacks, six hits and 21 hurries we saw in 2011.
3) Still the Lewis and Reed Show
Yes they are both getting older, and neither is playing at quite the high level they established for so long, but both Ray Lewis and Ed Reed remain among the best at their positions. Lewis, while not at the level of our highest graded inside linebacker, San Francisco’s NaVorro Bowman, still graded positively against the run, in coverage and as a pass rusher. His career might be winding down, but Lewis is still good enough to avoid any worry for Ravens fans. Reed on the other hand, did see his performance dip a little at the end of the regular season. However, he came on strong in the playoffs including a fantastic game in coverage against the Houston Texans in the Divisional Round. Targeted four times in coverage, Reed picked off one pass and broke up the other three. This is a defense loaded with talent, but Lewis and Reed are still good enough to lead by example.
4) Finally Finding a Deep Threat
It feels like the Ravens have spent years trying to find a deep threat to stretch opposing defenses and find someone to take advantage of Joe Flacco’s big arm. That search appears to be over after Torrey Smith’s first season in the league, where he hauled in eight touchdowns and put up an impressive yards per catch average of 17.3 through the regular season and playoffs. The knock on Smith from many outsiders is the perception that he needs to work on his hands. The truth is that he had one really bad game in Pittsburgh where he dropped as many passes, four, as he did in the rest of the season combined. The hope in 2012 is that he can become more than a deep threat and grow into being Flacco’s main target. At the very least, his speed is enough to give most defensive backs problems.
5) Rice and Leach
Getting Ray Rice signed to a new contract this month was huge for the Ravens, considering just how important he is to the offense (38.2% of the Ravens offensive yards in 2011). In the running game Rice is solid, if unspectacular, forcing just 18 missed tackles as a runner last season. His true value however is in the passing game, where he led all running backs with a grade of +11.7 as a receiver. Here he forced 14 missed tackles on 81 receptions, while averaging an impressive 8.9 yards after the catch. Relying on your blockers as a running back is far easier when you have the league’s best fullback leading the way, and that’s exactly what Rice and the Ravens have in Vonta Leach. Devastating as a blocker, Leach led the way for Rice as one of the few true blocking fullbacks around.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) Will the Real Joe Flacco Please Stand Up?
The Joe Flacco we saw at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs made me consider him as a reason to be optimistic this season. However, I still can’t shake the feeling that I just don’t trust which Joe Flacco will turn up on a weekly basis. Will we see the player we saw in Week 9 on the road in Pittsburgh, the one who drove the Ravens down the field for the winning score with precision and poise? Or the player we saw the very next week in Seattle who completed just six of the 16 passes that he attempted of 10 yards or more? There’s no doubting that Flacco has a cannon arm, but he needs to find more consistency with his deep ball. Far too often we saw him over or underthrow Torrey Smith streaking down the sideline. I was really encouraged by the improvement and consistency we saw from Flacco late in the year, but it will take a consistent 2012 for me to not consider him a concern anymore.
2) Putting the Offensive in Offensive Tackles
With all the players and positions on the Ravens roster to be impressed with, it seems strange to see that they haven’t really addressed their issues at Offensive Tackle. Even before Bryant McKinnie’s absence from the first few days of training camp there was plenty to be concerned about. At left tackle last season, he allowed seven sacks, nine hits and 29 hurries while offering little of merit as a run blocker, save for an impressive outing in the Divisional Round of the playoffs against the Texans. His absence has prompted the team to move Michael Oher back to the left side and, if that holds true, will mark the third straight offseason that the former first-round pick has switched sides. This inability to settle in at one spot and be allowed to develop may have led to his poor play, considering his impressive rookie season at right tackle. Regardless of the reason, Oher’s play last season simply wasn’t good enough. His 10 sacks, seven hits and 43 hurries don’t exactly fill you with much confidence when the likes of Trent Cole, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Pierre-Paul (who all finished 26th or better in our Top 101 of 2011 list) loom large on the schedule.
3) Who Sizzles in Suggs’ Absence?
When Terrell Suggs went down with a potentially season ending injury in the offseason, there was plenty of reasons to be concerned. The 7th ranked player on our PFF Top 101, Suggs services as a pass rusher will be a big loss. The team has the players to partially make up for that loss though, with the likes of McPhee and Paul Kruger showing their ability as pass rushers last season. The real concern is the loss of Suggs’ utter dominance against the run as, since 2008, he has never ranked worse than third among 4-3 defensive ends in this regard. While the previously mentioned players have shown that they can help replace his presence as a pass rusher, we’ve yet to see anyone show that they can do the same in the run game.
4) Understated Losses in Free Agency
Two losses on the Ravens roster which haven’t generated much noise will be noticed in a big way on the field in 2012 unless their replacements can step up. We already highlighted how good Terrell Suggs was against the run from the 4-3 DE spot, and new San Diego Charger Jarret Johnson showed a similar level of dominance from his outside linebacker position over the past four years, as he also never ranked worse than third at his position. His departure, coupled with Suggs’ injury, will see the Ravens opening day defense without two of the very best edge setters in the league and it’s a big task for second-round draft pick Courtney Upshaw to step into Johnson’s large shoes straight away. Along the defensive line, Cory Redding’s departure to Indianapolis is an easier void to fill with the combination of McPhee and Arthur Jones waiting in the wings. That being said, Redding is coming off his best season since we began grading, so it would be foolish to assume he won’t be missed.
5) Depth at Receiver
While Torrey Smith’s emergence and Anquan Boldin’s continued solid play solidifies the top two spots on the depth chart at wide receiver, there’s still not much beyond those two to be excited about. Lee Evans wasn’t re-signed after a disappointing season while LaQuan Williams and Tandon Doss (abdominal injuries) got onto the field for just 151 snaps combined last season. The team added Jacoby Jones in free agency but while the former Houston Texan has over 500 yards receiving in each of the past two seasons, he has also shown a tendency to drop passes. If neither Jones, nor any of the others, can step up; don’t be surprised to see tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson spend more time in the slot.
What to Expect?
The Ravens should be quite focused after how their 2011 season ended. Before the Ravens can think about the playoffs again, they know that they’ll have to slug it out with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the divisional crown once again, not to mention an improving Bengals team that made the playoffs last year. The concern for their Super Bowl aspirations would be that while teams like the New England Patriots look to have gotten stronger (and have an easier schedule), the Ravens appear a little weaker due to Suggs’ injury and the departures on defense in free agency. How they handle those losses, and how Joe Flacco plays, will determine whether or not this is a championship caliber team.