32 Teams in 32 Days: Baltimore Ravens
The other 31 teams in the NFL head into the 2013 season aiming to emulate what the Baltimore Ravens did in 2012. In a season that saw them fire offensive co-ordinator Cam Cameron late in the year and had them limping into the playoffs like a wounded animal, they found a way to overcome two tough road games in Denver and New England before winning the Super Bowl in New Orleans. The downside is that, barring an undefeated season, it’s hard for them to top 2012. The upside however, is they get to open the year as the defending champions, and look to have rebuilt the roster well enough to contend again.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Jim Caldwell Turning Things Around for Joe Flacco
While Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco earned himself a massive contract with his performance in January, many believe his success was due to the influence of former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell who set him on his way after taking over as offensive co-ordinator late in the year. The move was enough to boost Flacco into the best stretch of play in his career, and helped the Ravens hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February. In the 13 games before the switch Flacco had a PFF grade of +3.2, throwing 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions. That sky-rocketed with Caldwell at the helm, with the eventual Super Bowl MVP throwing 15 touchdowns to just one interception and accumulating a PFF grade of +13.2 from Week 15 onward. The big question is if he can keep that going into 2013, but more on that later.
2. A Dominant Interior Offensive Line?
The co-ordinator change wasn’t the only important move the Ravens made late in the year, with a switch along the offensive line moving Michael Oher back to right tackle when Bryant McKinnie took his spot on the left. More importantly though, that allowed them to move rookie lineman Kelechi Osemele to left guard, a position where many expected him to excel. He took his lumps in his first three starts, but it was in the biggest game of the year where he proved those people right. At times handling Justin Smith, and the rest of the 49ers defensive line, with ease, Osemele delivered a performance good enough to earn the PFF game ball for the Super Bowl. Heading into 2013 it looks like he’ll be staying at guard, pairing with the best right guard in the game in Marshal Yanda and, if he can play like he did in the Super Bowl, they’ll challenge the San Francisco 49ers for the best starting duo in the league. The question mark, however, is between those two and, with Matt Birk retiring, it looks like Gino Gradkowski will get the first shot at the starting job. If he struggles however, don’t sleep on A.Q. Shipley, whom they acquired from the Indianapolis Colts for a late-round draft pick. Playing well when thrust into the starting role for the Colts, it was a bit of a head scratcher that they allowed him to leave so cheaply, and a move they’ll likely come to regret.
3. Replacements for the Old Guard
It would be hard to overstate the importance of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in terms of what they meant to the franchise since arriving, but it’s also true that, at least on paper, the Ravens are a better team defensively now they are gone. Lewis will go down in history as one of the greatest players of all time, yet throughout last season it was obvious that father time had finally caught up with him. Too often he found himself chasing an opposing tight end 3 yards behind in coverage, to the point that he had become a liability. Reed was still feared by opposing quarterbacks in coverage, with just one extra pass thrown into his coverage compared with the 37 he saw in 2011. The problem was that he allowed a higher completion percentage (63.2% compared with 53.1% the year before) and saw a considerable increase in yards allowed (416 to 244). Add to that his 21 missed tackles and it’s easy to see why the Ravens weren’t willing to overpay to keep him around. Their replacements, in Daryl Smith and Michael Huff, didn’t get a lot of publicity in signing, but look for them to make their mark on the field in 2013.
4. Two-Headed Monster At Running Back
Ray Rice has been one of the better all-around running backs since early in his career and, while he’s solid as a runner, it’s as a receiver where his value to the Ravens really shows. That miracle fourth-down dump-off that saved the Ravens in San Diego got plenty of attention, but Rice has made his money in the league as a reliable outlet for Flacco as a receiver, with his 12 missed tackle forced as a receiver fourth among running backs. While Rice was a known commodity heading into the 2012 season, the emergence of rookie Bernard Pierce was something that grew more obvious as the season wore on. With 25 missed tackles forced from 115 touches on offense, and an average of 3.48 yards after contact per attempt, he had an Elusive Rating of 75.7, trailing just C.J. Spiller and Isaac Redman among running backs.
5. The Return Of Lardarius Webb
While we’ve yet to see if he is all the way back, reports are that cornerback Lardarius Webb will be good to go by the time Week 1 rolls around. That’s huge for the Ravens, considering he was their best defensive player over the past two years before getting hurt. Outstanding in the slot, where he allowed an average of just 0.57 yards per coverage snap on 121 snaps in 2012, Webb hasn’t allowed a touchdown in his coverage since Week 17 of the 2010 season. Good enough to track receivers if required, Baltimore will need him as A.J. Green continues to emerge as one of the best receivers in the league for the division rival Cincinnati Bengals.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. The Tough AFC North
Remember the days when this division was essentially just about the Ravens and the Steelers? Not anymore, with the Bengals amassing a wealth of talent including, but not limited to, the ever-dominant defensive tackle Geno Atkins. They’ve made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons despite the struggles of quarterback Andy Dalton, and if he can continue to make use of Green they’ll remain tough to beat. Add to that the improvements made in Cleveland over the past couple of years and the addition of Ray Horton as defensive co-ordinator, and it’s clear the Ravens won’t have an easy games in Ohio in 2013. Reports of the Steelers’ demise have been greatly exaggerated and, as long as they can keep Ben Roethlisberger healthy, they’ll surely be in contention again with young talent like nose tackle Steve McLendon and cornerback Cortez Allen.
2. Trouble in the Slot
The role of slot receiver was always going to be an area of concern the moment the team traded Anquan Boldin to the 49ers, a move that seems to have been almost entirely due to salary. However, it got even worse when tight end Dennis Pitta went down injured this past weekend and is now out for the season. It might not seem like a big deal to lose those two, but consider this stat tweeted out by PFF’s Pete Damilatis — The pair combined for 72.3% of the team’s yards, and 14 of their 16 receiving touchdowns from the slot in 2012. It seems the team has belief in their younger receivers given that they didn’t look to bring anyone in to replace Boldin, but the pressure is really on for someone like Tandon Doss to step up now.
3. Can Jimmy Smith Step Up
No, that isn’t just Cary Williams giving an even bigger cushion in coverage than before, he’s actually left Baltimore and signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. However, while fans will be relieved to see the bust side of his boom-or-bust style of play gone, they are now relying on Jimmy Smith stepping up, something which he hasn’t convinced us he can do yet. He has periodically flashed the ability that saw him drafted in the first round in 2011 but, injured or not, he didn’t live up to expectations in 2012. Too often beaten by a double move and guilty of not knowing when to release contact with a receiver, there were times in 2012 when he looked completely out of his depth. The good news is he stepped up when it mattered most and had his best game of the year in the Super Bowl. With him slated to be no worse than third on the depth chart, that level of play needs to become the norm, as opposed to the exception.
4. Can the Offensive Tackles be Trusted
News that McKinnie had turned up to training camp out of shape was met with a sigh of resignation in Baltimore, with fans and media alike disappointed if not surprised. His weight has been an issue throughout his career and was again last year when he performed well in the playoffs, but that lack of discipline is not what you need to open camp. On the right, Oher enters a contract year after an underwhelming career so far in Baltimore. He was particularly poor as a run blocker in the playoffs, but the fact that he allowed Flacco to be sacked or knocked down 20 times is equally concerning.
5. Is this the Real Joe Flacco?
While Caldwell helped Flacco to a historic playoff run, the doubt remains for some that he will revert back to the skittish, flaky play that has plagued his career. Nobody is doubting that when he’s at his best he’s very good, it’s just that it’s hard to ignore the five awful games he produced in 2012. Avoiding games like that is just as important for Flacco in 2013 as it for him to continue to find success throwing downfield, and the combination of the two will play a key role in how the Ravens get on in defending their title.
What to Expect
While winning a Super Bowl comes with the price of painting a target on your back for the other 31 teams in the league, let’s not forget that this is a team that John Harbaugh has lead to the playoffs in each of his five seasons as head coach, with three AFC Championship Game appearances in that span. They face some tough battles just to survive their division, and the losses of Boldin and Pitta hurt, but defensively they look to be much improved.
How Flacco follows up his Super Bowl MVP appearance will be key, and it won’t be easy with the likes of New England and Denver in the conference (should the Ravens even get out of the division). But, this is a team with enough talent to contend for another Super Bowl straight away.
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