2014 Preview: Baltimore Ravens
2013 was not only a disappointing campaign for the Baltimore Ravens, it was also an unexpected one – for the first time in the Joe Flacco/John Harbaugh era (beginning in 2008) they missed the playoffs. After a prolific 2012 postseason run and a nice contract extension, Joe Flacco’s performance last year was perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of their 8-8 season… along with their suddenly slipping run game.
Given that they won the franchises’ second Championship in their team’s relatively short history the year before, last year wasn’t that big of a blow. Nonetheless, they don’t want those types of mediocre campaigns becoming a trend. Here’s a deeper look at some aspects of the Ravens’ upcoming season.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Receiving Corp
In 2013, Flacco and company lost their leading receiver, Anquan Boldin. They also missed tight end Dennis Pitta (75 catches, 832 yards and 10 TDs playing every 2012 contest) for all but a mere four games in 2013. To help fill that void they brought in aging veterans like Brandon Stokley (who retired following a week 14 concussion) and Dallas Clark (more drops than TD catches). They also lost the speedy Jacoby Jones for four games after a ‘friendly fire’ injury in Week 1.
Flacco’s receiving weapons this year look better, at least on paper. Back are Jones, Torrey Smith, and a healthy Pitta, along with emerging talent 2013 UFA Marlon Brown (49 catches and seven scores last year) and veteran star Steve Smith (+5.2 ‘pass’ grade last season despite his age). This group is certainly an improvement over what the Ravens started with last year.
2. Dumervil + Suggs
The ‘Fax Machine Incident’ that led to Elvis Dumervil’s release from Denver drew a lot of headlines, but perhaps his 2013 performance as a Raven should’ve drawn more. He was a monster, earning the highest pass rushing grade and the second-highest Pass Rushing Productivty mark among his 3-4 OLB peers. What he does to the right tackle with 1:32 left to go in the second quarter of the Lions game is a personal favorite.
Then there’s Dumervil’s counterpart, long-tenured Raven Terrell Suggs. Suggs isn’t getting any younger, but his run defense proved to be a good complement to Dumervil’s menacing rush – he earned the highest Run Stop Percentage among 3-4 OLBs. No reason to think these two shouldn’t continue wrecking havoc on opposing offenses this season.
3. Daryl Smith
The passing game is more prevalent every season in the NFL, which makes having a valuable LB in coverage a priority. That makes ex-Jaguars LB Daryl Smith a key for this D. Despite being consistently bad against the run last year, he had the fourth-best coverage grade for ILBs (tied with Karlos Dansby) which included three picks (including a pick-six vs. the Texans) and eight passes defensed; QBs throwing at him earned an overall 76.0 NFL QB Rating. He actually would have had at least two more picks had he held on (13:13 left in 2nd Q of Week 1 and 13:18 left in 4th Q of Week 2). He also proved to be an asset blitzing, registering six sacks, two QB knockdowns and 10 hurries.
It’s not often you’ll see a kicker make his way onto one of these preview articles, but Pro Bowler Justin Tucker deserves the nod. With Baltimore’s offense struggling for much of the year, Tucker’s accurate leg was desperately needed – he made 38 of 41 field goals, including six of seven tries from 50+ yards. The best example of his worth came in the Week 15 Monday night game in Detroit where he tied a franchise record with six field goals, including a clutch 61-yard game-winner; also notable is the fact that Baltimore’s 18 points in that contest all came from him. The Ravens have to hope they won’t need to rely on their kicker so much this year, but if they do, they’re confident he can come through.
5. Monroe + Yanda – Oher
Baltimore’s offensive line went through major changes last season and this off-season, including veteran LT Bryant McKinnie being traded away after an awful first five weeks, replaced by ex-Jaguar Eugene Monroe. From Week 6 on, Monroe stabilized the LT position, allowing only four sacks, three QB hits and 17 hurries. Flacco has to be thrilled Monroe was re-signed, and that RT Michael Oher was not. Known best as the inspiration behind the popular movie, Oher has consistently been poor with the exception of his 2009 rookie year; his moving on to Tennessee is addition by subtraction. Another positive on the line is long-tenured, reliable Marshal Yanda who’s play last season wasn’t as exceptional as it had been (he didn’t give up a sack in 18 games in 2012 but did concede two in 16 games last year), but was still well above league average.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Can Flacco Bounce Back?
Joe Flacco has never been a standout passer under pressure; only in his 2009 sophomore season did he avoid earning a ‘red’ grade for plays under pressure (and it was still negative). In 2013 he had the third-lowest grade when pressured. For the first time in his career he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and had a staggering seven games with multiple picks (including a ridiculous five against the Bills). You can blame the lack of a running game, the lack of Boldin and a healthy Pitta, etc., but the bottom line is Flacco has to do better. He doesn’t even need to replicate his dominate 11 TD/0 INT 2012 postseason to do so.
2. CB Depth
Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith proved to be a solid CB duo last season, and both will once again be manning Baltimore’s backfield. However, there are concerns here. Webb has had an injury-filled career and, while he did recover from his most recent ACL tear to play in all 16 games last season, he’s currently dealing with a back injury that is threatening to keep him out of the preseason. Not playing in exhibitions is not the worst news, but back injuries can linger. And Smith, who’s play vastly improved last season, currently has a chest injury, though at this time it seems that is not serious. Nonetheless, if either of these two goes down, who steps in for them? Corey Graham, who could play outside or in the slot, enjoyed a +3.6 coverage grade last year, but departed for Buffalo this offseason, leaving Chykie Brown (-1.2 coverage grade on just 39 snaps last year), ex-Falcon Dominique Franks (-0.3 in just 13 snaps), 2012 fifth-round pick Asa Jackson (who’s never played DB in a regular season game), and who else? Ex-Giant Aaron Ross was supposed to help here but tore his Achilles during a conditioning test.
As Neil pointed out in the Ravens’ 2014 Depth Chart, the Ravens basically had two strong safeties last year instead of a strong and a free safety. It seems second-year former first-round pick Matt Elam will now be playing the SS spot that journeyman James Ihedigbo vacated in the offseason, leaving a void. Rookie third-rounder Terrence Brooks is in the running, but leaving a rookie to protect the back end of your defense could be trouble. It seems the FS spot may go to ex-Ram Darian Stewart, who has never embarrassed himself in coverage, but has never played a full season, either. There’s also talented ex-Giant Will Hill. He won’t be available for six games due to his third suspension since being in the league, though he could prove to be valuable in the latter half of the season.
4. The Running Game
Everyone knows the Ravens’ running game was awful last season. They ended with 1,328 yards on the ground, the lowest yardage total in franchise history, while their 83 rushing yards per game was the third-worst in the NFL. Some of this was down to the performance of the offense (they had the sixth-worst run blocking grade as a unit) and some of this was bizarre play-calling (ex: the Buffalo game, where they threw the ball 50 times and ran it a mere nine times!). With Gary Kubiak as the new offensive coordinator, thinking is the run game should improve, but we’ll have to wait and see.
5. The AFC North
One of the Ravens’ biggest obstacles will be the perennially challenging division they play in. The Cincinnati Bengals still haven’t ended their playoff-win drought, but they have secured a postseason spot the last three years and actually won the division last year. The Cleveland Browns seem set to be at least better than their lowly four-win record last year; even at just four wins, one of those was still over the Ravens, the first time that had happened since 2007, a year before Flacco and Harbaugh arrived. And, of course, there’s still the Pittsburgh Steelers who, despite back-to-back 8-8 campaigns, are always a threat to win the division. Can the Ravens improve on their 3-3 2013 AFC North record?
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