Joe Flacco and the Ravens finally got over the hump last year. Flacco beat Ben Roethlisberger head-to-head twice, something he had never done once in his career prior. The Ravens won the division with a record of 12-4 and outlasted the Steelers in the playoffs. However, a missed chip shot field goal by kicker Billy Cundiff cost the Ravens a chance at sending the AFC Championship matchup with the Patriots to overtime. The Patriots have gotten the AFC’s top seed in back-to-back seasons and made the Super Bowl out of the AFC last year. Having gotten over the hump that was the Steelers, the Ravens now have another hump to get over.
For as good as their 12-4 record was last year, the Ravens really lacked consistency and really played poorly at times. Joe Flacco actually had arguably the worst season of his career, as his 57.6% completion percentage and 6.7 YPA were career lows and his 20-12 TD:INT ratio was his worst since his rookie year in 2008. His 80.9 QB rating was also his worst since 2008.
As a team, meanwhile, the Ravens lost by double digits to an average Tennessee team, lost to a terrible Jacksonville team, needed a big comeback to beat a then terrible Cardinals team in Baltimore, and lost to non-playoff teams in San Diego and Seattle. As impressive as their 7-1 record against playoff teams (including playoffs) was, the Ravens really seemed to play down to the level of their competition and followed up strong showings with terrible ones. And while they had a pristine 9-0 record at home (including playoffs), they went just 4-5 on the road.
Heading into his 5th season, Flacco is really facing a make or break year. Yes, he got over the Pittsburgh hump last year, but he wasn’t that impressive in doing it and statistically he was pretty average all year. He’s always been a winner, but he’s always had a lot of help. This offseason he proclaimed himself the best quarterback in the NFL and demanded top-5 quarterback money from the Ravens in contract talks, which they pretty much laughed at.
With a weakened supporting cast, particularly on defense due to age and injury, Flacco will have more pressure on him than ever before. If he can thrive in the face of it, he’ll get himself a large contract this offseason and be considered one of the game’s elites. If not, he’ll be lucky to get Alex Smith money as he’ll remain just an average quarterback and a game manager who can’t do it without a strong supporting cast.
Ray Rice is arguably the best running back in the game with Adrian Peterson’s future still up in the air after a torn ACL. Last year, the Ravens let touchdown vulture Willis McGahee go and Rice officially became an every down back and he had an amazing season, rushing for 1364 yards and 12 touchdowns on 291 carries and catching another 76 balls for 704 yards and 3 touchdowns.
The only issue with Rice is that he has yet to sign his franchise tender. He reportedly wants to be paid like Adrian Peterson, which I’m not even sure Adrian Peterson deserves. Rice lacks any real leverage as he can’t sign a long term deal after July 16th, but if he holds out deep into Training Camp he risks becoming out of shape like Chris Johnson was last year. It’s certainly a situation to monitor, but I’m not too worried.
Hopefully offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will remember to give Rice the ball this year. After a pathetically coached loss to the Seahawks, in which star running back Rice carried the ball a mere 5 times, Rice complained to the coaching staff and received 20+ carries in 8 of the team’s final 9 games, including playoffs. He rushed 195 times for 932 yards (4.8 YPC) and 6 touchdowns, while catching 35 passes for 265 yards and another score. Over 16 games, that’s 1657 yards and 11 touchdowns on 347 carries with 62 catches for 471 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Behind Rice, the Ravens have two running backs competing for the #2 job. Bernard Pierce was a 3rd round pick of the Ravens this past April, which suggested that he’d be the primary backup. However, he reportedly hasn’t been impressive in practice thus far while Anthony Allen, a 2011 7th round pick, has been. Allen carried the ball 3 times last year. Whoever wins that job will be a pure backup to Rice like Ricky Williams was last year. He’ll spell Rice for a few carries per game and take over if Rice gets hurt, which rarely happens. In 3 years as a lead back, Rice has never missed a game.
It’s good that Joe Flacco has Ray Rice to lean on in the passing game because he doesn’t have a lot of receiving talent. That’s part of the reason why I say he’ll have to carry this team this year. All of Flacco’s receivers are either unproven and inexperienced or washed up. Torrey Smith is a receiver of the 1st variety. The speedster had a strong rookie year last year with 50 catches for 841 yards and 7 touchdowns after being a 2nd round pick in 2011, despite playing the entire season with a hernia injury. In his last 7 games he was even better, catching 27 balls for 416 yards and 3 touchdowns. Over 16 games, that’s 62 catches for 951 yards and 7 touchdowns.
There’s definitely 1000 yard potential for Smith, but potential is a key word. The 2nd year receiver has never been a #1 receiver yet and may not live up to his potential. At the same time, there’s definitely good upside with him (think Mike Wallace’s 2nd season with the Steelers) so he’s a name to know, especially in the mid rounds of fantasy football drafts.
If Torrey Smith has the potential to have a 2010 Mike Wallace type season then Anquan Boldin has the potential to have a 2010 Hines Ward type season. As a rookie, Wallace caught 39 passes for 756 yards and 6 touchdowns, while the veteran Ward caught 95 passes for 1167 yards and 6 touchdowns. However, in Wallace’s 2nd season, the tables turned and Wallace caught 60 passes for 1257 yards and 10 touchdowns, while an aging Ward caught 59 passes for 755 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Boldin caught 57 passes for 887 yards and 3 touchdowns last year, but he’s 32 in October and has declined noticeably every season since 2008 (when he was 28). That’s definitely not uncommon for receivers. In Boldin’s last 5 games in 2011, he caught 14 balls for 236 yards and a score, good for 45 catches for 762 yards and 3 touchdowns over 16 games.
The Ravens lacked any proven depth behind the starters so they signed veteran Jacoby Jones. Jones was surprisingly signed to a 6.5 million dollar deal over 2 years despite being released by the Texans at a salary of 3 million just a week or so prior. Jones always had great promise in Houston, but never lived up to it. His career highs are 51 catches, 562 yards, and 6 touchdowns. He could never beat out the mediocre Kevin Walter for a starting job and never produced in what was a strong passing offense. He’ll be the #3 receiver, but not a very good one. He was only signed because after him on the depth chart, the other receivers have a combined 4 career catches.
At tight end, the Ravens have a pair of 3rd year players. They drafted Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta in the 3rd and 4th rounds respectively in 2010, trying to do a similar thing to what New England did with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the same draft, but it hasn’t worked out nearly as well. They combined for 94 catches, 933 yards, and 8 touchdowns last year. Those would be great numbers if they were one player, but they played a combined 1539 snaps. Dickson ranked 8th at his position with 968 snaps. They just use a lot of two-tight end sets, but never very effectively. Neither tight end is a good blocker either.
Last year, the Ravens’ offensive line only gave up 33 sacks, after allowing 40 sacks the year before. However, they were stabilized by Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, a player who is no sure thing going forward because of his age (33 in September) and his much publicized battle with weight issues. If McKinnie can’t play at a high level, Michael Oher would have to play on the left side, where he’s never played well as a pro (despite being the star of the “Blindside” novel). That would leave the unproven Jah Reid, a 2011 3rd round pick, to start at right tackle.
The Ravens also lost Ben Grubbs, one of the league’s best guards, in free agency. Grubbs was ProFootballFocus’ 12th rated guard last year, with a 7.3 rating. He allowed 4 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, 6 quarterback pressures, and committed 2 penalties, while also grading out above average as a run blocker. In 2010, Grubbs was even better ranking 9th. 2010 was his last full season as he missed some time with injuries in 2011. Nonetheless, he’ll be missed.
To replace him, the Ravens used a 2nd round pick on Kelechi Osemele. Osemele will likely wait in the wings in his first year as a pro as Bobbie Williams is currently the favorite to start in Grubbs’ old spot, left guard. Williams was unsigned into June because he was coming off a leg injury and because he turns 36 in September. However, the Ravens signed him to a 2 year deal and made him their starter. He played alright last year before getting hurt, with a 1.9 rating in 9 games, but you have to question if he can be effective into the future.
I’ve already mentioned Bryant McKinnie, he surprisingly played pretty well last year, despite being cut after the lockout by the Vikings for weight related concerns. McKinnie allowed 7 sacks, 9 quarterback hits, and 29 quarterback pressures, while committing 7 penalties. He had a -7.6 rating because he sucked as a run blocker, but he was still a solid pass protector. Because of weight and age issues, that could very well not be the case this season.
Opposite him, the Ravens have Michael Oher. I mentioned that Oher has never played well on the blindside in his NFL career. Well, last year he didn’t even play well on the right side. He allowed 10 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, 43 quarterback pressures and committed 10 penalties, while also struggling some as a run blocker. He managed a -18.4 rating. Oher was much better as a rookie in 2009, after being a 1st round pick. He had an 11.8 rating as he played primarily at right tackle. In 2010, he was disastrous on the left side with a -18.9 rating. Though he was expected to bounce back in 2011 back at right tackle, he did not. He could bounce back this year, but it’s fair to question if he’ll ever live up to the hype that his strong rookie year created.
At center and right guard are the Ravens’ two most entrenched offensive linemen. Marshal Yanda is one of the best guards in the league. In fact, the reason they didn’t have the money to resign Grubbs was because they gave Yanda a well deserved contract the year before. That appears to have been the right move. Yanda was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked guard with a 25.3 rating. He allowed just 4 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 8 quarterback pressures in 18 games, with just 3 penalties and a strong rating as a run blocker. He can also play right tackle, but they’re best off using their best offensive lineman at his best position.
Meanwhile, center Matt Birk is almost equally as good. He rated 12th among centers with a 5.1 rating, allowing 3 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 9 quarterback pressures, with 4 penalties and a solid rating as a run blocker. The NFL’s Man of the Year in 2010 turns 36 in July, but centers can be pretty effective into their mid to late 30s. The Ravens used a 4th round pick on a potential successor in Gino Gradkowski. They hopefully won’t have to use him much this year. The Ravens need another strong season from Birk because, aside from Yanda, things are pretty questionable around him. They’ll probably look more like the 2010 version of this offensive line than the 2011 version in terms of level of play.
With a below average receiving corps and a below average offensive line, the pressure will be on Flacco to lead this offense, even with Ray Rice to lean on. They averaged 23.6 points per game last year, good for 12th in the league, but their passing offense was a mere 22nd with 6.7 YPA. It’s a passing league and with what should be an inferior defense, the Ravens will have to pass more to keep up with their opponents. That pressure will fall on Joe Flacco, a below average receiving corps, and a below average offensive line. If they can’t at least match the 12th ranked offense they had last year, they’ll have a lot of trouble competing with an improved Steelers team in the AFC North.
With a pretty average offense, the defense was what really carried this team to 12 wins and a +112 points differential. They ranked 3rd in the league in fewest points allowed, behind only Pittsburgh and San Francisco. However, things may not be as good this year. Terrell Suggs, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is likely out for the season after tearing his Achilles. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are entering their age 37 and 34 seasons respectively. They also lost key members of their front 7 in free agency, including Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding.
The Ravens use a lot of rotation up front because they essentially use a hybrid 3-4/4-3 defensive scheme. On their 3 man defensive line, Terrence Cody is the nose tackle. The massive 2010 2nd round pick is solid against the run, but offers absolutely nothing as a pass rusher. On 230 pass rush snaps, he didn’t sack or hit the quarterback once and only provided 4 pressures for a pathetic 1.7% rate.
On one side of Cody is Haloti Ngata. With Suggs out and Lewis and Reed aging, Ngata might be the new face of their defense. He had a 19.8 rating last year in what was actually a down year for him. He had a 27.8 rating the year before. He’s 340 pounds and plays the run like it, but he’s also got great movement skills for someone of his size. On 528 pass rush snaps, he had 5 sacks, 9 quarterback hits, and 16 quarterback pressures (5.7%).
The opposite defensive end was Cory Redding last year. Redding was a great run stuffer who graded out with a 14.2 rating overall. In his absence, Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee should see more playing time at the position. Jones is an unproven 2010 5th round pick, while McPhee played very well in limited action last year. Playing primarily as a nickel defensive tackle in a 4-3, McPhee only played 389 snaps, but rushed the passer on 325 of them, managing 7 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 21 quarterback pressures (10.5%). His high pass rush rate, especially for his position, earned him a 19.4 rating overall. Becoming more of an every down lineman might have a negative effect on his game, but it could also be what springs him to the next level as a football player.
Along with McPhee on their 4 man line in a 4-3 is Haloti Ngata, who rarely leaves the field, as well as Paul Kruger and probably Courtney Upshaw. Kruger also played well in limited action last year, with 7 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 18 quarterback pressures on 258 pass rush snaps (11.2%). Like McPhee, he should have more of an every down role this season in place of missing front 7 players and, like McPhee, that could either have a negative effect or spring him to the next level as a football player.
Upshaw, meanwhile, is a 2nd round rookie who figures to play Terrell Suggs’ old role in a 4-3. Upshaw is a talented player and was a steal atop the 2nd round, but he’ll be playing probably more than they’re comfortable with. They’ll likely be hoping guys like Sergio Kindle and Arthur Jones can step up. Jones, as I’ve mentioned, is an unproven 2010 5th round pick, while Kindle was a 2nd round pick in 2010. Kindle has barely played in 2 seasons after suffering a nasty head injury off the field shortly after being drafted. He’s in a make or break season and the Ravens may once again not get anything from him.
Like on the defensive line, the Ravens do use quite a bit of rotation in their linebacking corps. Ray Lewis is obviously an every down mainstay. He had a 25.1 rating last year and while he’s 37 now, he should still be a fine player. Jameel McClain is a great two-down run stuffer who plays both inside and out depending on the scheme. He’s pretty bad in coverage though, but managed a 4.6 rating overall.
With Jarret Johnson gone, the Ravens will need either Brendon Ayanbadejo or Dannell Ellerbe to step up. Those were their top two reserves last year in terms of snaps played. Ayanbadejo is a solid 3rd down linebacker who can blitz and cover, while Ellerbe is a 2009 undrafted free agent who has played limited snaps so far in his career.
In a 3-4, Courtney Upshaw and Paul Kruger should get the bulk of the snaps on the edge because those are their two best pass rushers with Suggs out. Ayanbadejo could also be in the mix here as he has some edge rush ability. This is another area where Kindle could also help out, if they can ever get anything out of him. Lewis and McClain will line up inside.
With Cory Redding and Jarret Johnson gone, as well as one of their top reserves Brandon McKinney, and Suggs out, the Ravens are thin in the front 7 this year. They have rotational players who should be able to step up into full time roles, but they’re still unproven (Upshaw, Kruger, McPhee) and they also need guys like Jones, Ayanbadejo, and possibly Kindle to step up in rotational roles. On top of all this, Ray Lewis is now 37.
They had 48 sacks last year, good for 3rd most in the league, but without Suggs that number is bound to go down. Upshaw, Kruger, and McPhee, however are good pass rushers so they could still have a solid total. However, they ranked tied for 1st in the league with 3.5 YPC allowed and with key run stuffers like Redding and Johnson gone and Lewis aging, they should be farther down on that list this year. Neither Kruger nor McPhee are good against the run.
Guys like Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs get most of the hype on Baltimore’s defense, but Lardarius Webb might be their best defensive player, at least last year. Webb, easily one of the league’s most underrated players, had a 20.1 rating according to ProFootballFocus, 2nd only to Darrelle Revis among cornerbacks and his 19.0 coverage rating led all players at all positions (Revis was better than him against the run).
Including playoffs, he was the only cornerback to play more than 75% of his teams snaps and not allow a touchdown. He also had 8 interceptions. Given that, it’s no surprise that he led all cornerbacks who played 75% of their team’s snaps in QB rating allowed with a QB rating allowed of 42.0, more than 20 points lower than the man in 2nd place (Johnathan Joseph: 64.4). He allowed 56 completions on 102 attempts (54.9%) for 656 yards (6.4 YPA), 0 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions. He also deflected 12 passes and committed 5 penalties.
He signed a big time extension this offseason as a restricted free agent, but before that there was some speculation that a team like New England could surrender their 1st round pick and sign him to an offer sheet. The Ravens have to be glad to have him back. In 2010, when he was hurt they really missed him and he was a big part of their 3rd ranked pass defense in 2011 (6.4 YPA). Barring further injury, the 26 year old (27 in November) should remain one of the league’s best shutdown cornerbacks for several years and prove to be well worth his 6 year, 52.74 million dollar contract.
Opposite him, the Ravens started Cary Williams last year. Williams was an inexperienced 2008 7th round pick prior to last year, but he started all 16 games and had a decent -1.2 rating. Still, he could be upgraded so the Ravens are hoping that 2011 1st round pick Jimmy Smith can step up and take the job. Smith actually outplayed Williams last year with a 6.7 rating on 337 snaps and he definitely has more upside than the marginal Williams. Williams, meanwhile, would then line up in the slot as the team’s #3 cornerback.
At safety, everyone knows Ed Reed. Reed mentioned this offseason that he was not 100% committed for this season, which would be his 11th. He also did not report to mandatory minicamp, but the team doesn’t seem too concerned about his availability for this season. Their biggest concern with him is that he’s 34 in September, has some recent injury history, and is a free agent after the season. Reed’s 12.0 rating in 2011 was good for 5th at his position and he should have another solid year in 2012, in spite of his age.
Next to him, the Ravens have Bernard Pollard. Pollard has had an interesting career journey. Not only has he injured three separate Patriot players, Tom Brady, Wes Welker, and Rob Gronkowski, but he’s also been very inconsistent. The Patriot Killer, has always been a solid safety against the run, but had a career best season in coverage last year in his first season in Baltimore, allowing just 30 completions on 49 attempts (61.2%) for 379 yards (7.7 YPA), 1 touchdown, a pick, 9 deflections, and 3 penalties, good for a 1.4 rating.
It’s unclear if he can continue to be that good. Pollard was once a promising young safety in Kansas City after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2006, but lasted just 3 years before being cut in training camp in 2009. He then caught on in Houston in 2009, where he was so good the Texans tendered him at the highest possible level as a restricted free agent in the next offseason, but a year later, he was unwanted once more, as Houston non-tendered him. He was then forced to settle for just 2.7 million over 2 years from Baltimore. However, he played well enough last season to get a 12.3 million dollar extension over 3 years.
He was undoubtedly helped though by the supporting cast. The talent is still there in the back 4, maybe even more so with Jimmy Smith possibly coming into his own, but their front 7 is weaker. Because of this, they probably won’t be a top-3 pass defense again. They also won’t match their 48 sacks and 1st ranked run defense. Because of this, more pressure will fall on the offense.
His brother won Coach of the Year last year, but John Harbaugh is no slouch himself. Taking over a previously 5-11 team following the 2007 season, Harbaugh and his quarterback Joe Flacco have combined for a 44-20 record, including 11+ wins in 3 of 4 seasons and including back-to-back 12-4 seasons. They’ve been to the AFC Championship game twice, coming up short both times. Like his quarterback, Harbaugh will probably need a ring to be considered an elite Head Coach, but he’s up there. Fun fact: Harbaugh is the first coach in NFL history to make the playoffs in his first 4 seasons as Head Coach.
The Ravens took a lot of hits this offseason with the losses of Cory Redding and Jarret Johnson in free agency and Terrell Suggs to injury. They also have some aging players defensively. More pressure will fall on quarterback Joe Flacco than ever before as he has been backed by a top-3 defense in each of his first 4 seasons as a pro. I don’t think Flacco will respond positively, especially since he has a subpar offensive line and receiving corps.
Baltimore actually has a tough division. They sent 3 teams to the playoffs last year. Baltimore went 6-0 in the division last year, but that’s tough to replicate. Teams almost never go 6-0 in the division twice in a row. In fact, since 2002, 11 teams have gone 6-0 in the division. Only 2 of them increased their overall win total the next year. Those 11 teams won on average 3.00 fewer games the next season. Because of familiarity, divisional records are more inconsistent on a yearly basis than non-divisional records.
Expect them to go 4-2 or so in the division. Outside of the division, they host New England, Dallas, Oakland, Denver and the Giants. Oakland will be an easy game, especially at home, but New England will be very tough. The other three will be winnable, but also losable. They are a good home team so they could go 4-1, but 3-2 is also a possibility. In their other 5 games, they go to Philadelphia, Kansas City, San Diego, Houston, and Washington. All 5 of those teams could make the playoffs and the Ravens were not a good road team last year. They could easily go 8-8 next year with that schedule.
Projection: 8-8 2nd in AFC North