Going into the 2012 playoffs, many people believed that the Baltimore Ravens were one of the weakest playoff teams and one of the most unlikely to go all the way. Some people even thought they were the worst playoff team and they had good reason to believe so. No playoff team had fewer than the Ravens’ 10 wins. They were coming from the weaker conference (the AFC was 25-39 against the NFC on the season and AFC division winners did not beat a single NFC playoff team in the regular season). No playoff team was “colder” than the Ravens were, having lost 4 of their final 5 games and having just fired their offensive coordinator a few weeks ago. And even when they had a strong record at 9-2, they had done so by winning 5 games by a field goal or less. They were a Ray Rice 4th and 29 conversion (and a questionable call to boot) and a Ben Roethlisberger injury away from not even making the playoffs.
However, at the end of the day, it was the Ravens hoisting the Lombardi, going through Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, as well as hotshot 1st year starting quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Colin Kaepernick in the process. All 4 of the quarterbacks they beat were perceived to be better quarterbacks than Joe Flacco, the Ravens’ 5th year starting quarterback, a maddeningly inconsistent and boringly nondescript signal caller who was in the final year of his contract after the Ravens didn’t lock him up lock-term the previous off-season. Flacco outplayed all 4 of them in their matchups, completing 57.9% of his passes for an average of 9.1 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and no interceptions.
Of course, the Ravens wouldn’t have been even in the AFC Championship if Rahim Moore had stayed in his assignment on a routine prevent play, but they were hardly the first team to need a “miracle” type play to eventually win the Super Bowl. From the Tuck Rule ruling to the David Tyree catch, it seems like this type of thing has become more the norm than a fluke in recent years. What the Ravens really proved at the end of it all was, once again, that the playoffs are a completely new season. Once you make the playoffs, the regular season doesn’t matter. Most playoff teams are very evenly matched and it all comes down to game to game execution and who gets hot at the right time. It’s what makes the NFL so hard to predict, even more so than other sports, and why you can never write any playoff team off.
So what led to the Ravens’ transformation from the regular season to the post-season? It was partially just getting hot, but there is much more to it than that. The way I see it, it was 5 things. The first one is the most recognized by the media, the return of Ray Lewis. Lewis didn’t play particularly well, contrary to what his tackle total said. All tackles are not created equal, or at least they should not be, and Lewis only had 11 tackles within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd and 4th down. He also got toasted in coverage on several occasions. However, his presence on the field and in the locker room coming back from what was supposed to be a season ending injury had a huge intangible value.
The second reason was the habitually inconsistent Joe Flacco just purely playing 4 straight games of very strong football. The third, fourth, and fifth reasons have to do with Flacco’s strong play and were contributing factors to it, in addition to just what Flacco was able to accomplish on his own. The third reason was the strong play of Anquan Boldin, who made at least a half dozen amazing catches and Flacco could not have won the Super Bowl without him.
The 4th reason was Bryant McKinnie. The veteran left tackle barely played in the regular season because of weight issues, but he got his weight right for the playoffs and made his first start of the season in the first round of the playoffs. This allowed Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele to shift to their more natural positions of right tackle and left guard respectively. This led to Joe Flacco being sacked on just 4.5% of his drop backs in the post-season and pressured on just 27.6%. For comparison, he was sacked on 6.1% of his drop backs and pressured 32.4% of his drop backs in the regular season.
The 5th reason was offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. Ordinarily, firing your offensive coordinator after week 14, as the Ravens did in 2012 after an overtime home loss to the Redskins, is the equivalent of waving a white flag. However, for the Ravens it was a move that had needed to be done for years as Cam Cameron was consistently overmatched as a play caller on a weekly basis. That was obvious. What was not obvious was how much of an upgrade Jim Caldwell, a first time signal caller, would be.
The biggest thing Caldwell did was letting Flacco unleash and throw downfield most often, rather than forcing him to run a more conservative offense. It had looked for years like Flacco was always holding something back and he might actually be more accurate 15 yards downfield than 5-10 yards downfield. In 6 full games with Caldwell as his offensive coordinator, Flacco threw downfield 20+ yards or more 41 times, an average of 6.8 times per game. In 13 games with Cam Cameron, he threw downfield 20+ yards or more 80 times, an average of 6.2 times per game. Of those 41 throws, he completed 20 for 714 yards and 6 touchdowns, with no interceptions.
Of course, he would not be able to load up for that many throws downfield if it weren’t for his offensive line giving him better protection and he would not have completed that many if it weren’t for Anquan Boldin and his own improved consistency, so it all really works together. Anquan Boldin is now gone, as is Ray Lewis, and Flacco might not be able to keep up that level of consistency for 16 games, but Jim Caldwell returns, as does Bryant McKinnie, and Flacco may have turned a corner as a quarterback. He probably won’t become the type of player Aaron Rodgers did after he got hot late in the season and in the post-season en route to winning the Super Bowl, but he could easily become the type of player Eli Manning became after doing so the first time in 2007.
All of that is a big part of the reason why I believe the Ravens will be a better team in 2013 than 2012. The other part of the reason is that I actually believe they have a more talented roster. This might sound ridiculous considering all they lost early in free agency. Ray Lewis retired, as did long time starting center Matt Birk. Ed Reed signed with the Texans and linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger, who came on big time in their playoff run, signed with the Dolphins and Ravens respectively. For cap reasons, Anquan Boldin was traded to the 49ers and Bernard Pollard and Vonta Leach were cut. Also gone are defensive starters, Cary Williams and Ma’ake Kemoeatu, making it a total of 10 starters gone from their Super Bowl winning team.
However, the Ravens did not panic and let the off-season come to them, as could have been expected from GM Ozzie Newsome, one of the best in the business. Super Bowls are never won on the first day of free agency. That’s when mediocre teams like the Dolphins panic and overspend, but the good teams like the Ravens, Patriots, Steelers, 49ers, Giants, Packers, Saints, and Falcons never make big moves on that day and instead focus on smart signings, strong drafting, and careful cap management. You can say that it’s because those teams don’t need as much because they are already good, but none of them were built on big free agent signings.
The Ravens drafted very well, adding two first round prospects in the first 2 rounds of the draft in Matt Elam and Arthur Jones, who will replace Ed Reed and Ray Lewis respectively (technically Elam will play strong safety and replace Bernard Pollard, but safeties are so interchangeable these days that I think the statement still counts as true given than Elam is the future of the Ravens’ safety position).
Jones, their 2nd round pick, might actually be the better of the two football players. A borderline 1st round prospect before a hernia injury hurt his stock, the Ravens moved up for him in the later part of the 2nd round and very well could have had a 1st round grade on him. Jones was one of my favorite draft prospects this year. He’s undersized, but like 2nd round picks Bobby Wagner and Lavonte David last year, he does everything else so well that it doesn’t matter so much. Remember, Ray Lewis was once considered undersized. It’s an unfair comparison at this point, but it’s worth noting. They also added defensive lineman Brandon Williams and fullback Kyle Juszczyk in the 3rd round and 4th rounds respectively, who will replace Ma’ake Kemoeatu and Vonta Leach respectively.
In addition to their strong draft, they made a number of smart free agency signings. Michael Huff was signed to a cheap 3 year deal to play safety next to Matt Elam. He was a cap casualty by the Raiders, but he is still a solid starter and a great value. Daryl Smith was signed to a one year deal from Jacksonville. He’s going into his age 31 season and missed most of last year with injury, but was one of the best linebackers in the league in 2011. He’ll play inside with Arthur Brown. Chris Canty was signed after being cut by the Giants to provide defensive line depth. They also traded a conditional late round pick to the Colts for AQ Shipley, who played well in place of injury at center last year. He’ll compete with 2012 4th round pick Gino Gradkowski to replace Matt Birk.
Even when the Ravens made a big money signing it was a good value. After the Broncos made him a cap casualty, the Ravens signed Elvis Dumervil to a 5 year, 26 million dollar deal (with an extra 9 million available through incentives). It was a great value considering Paul Kruger got 40.5 million over 5 years from the Browns, despite the fact that he was only a one year starter. Dumervil, meanwhile, has 42 sacks in his last 3 healthy seasons, including playoffs, and is only 2 years older, going into just his age 29 season. He’s very one dimensional, but he’s better in a 3-4, having his career best year in 2009 under Mike Nolan in Denver, and should play even better in Baltimore’s scheme (similar to a Mike Nolan type defense) than he did in the last 2 seasons in Denver.
While I believe the Ravens are a better team this season, I don’t believe they’ll repeat as Super Bowl champs. I don’t think they were the most talented team in the league last year, but you don’t have to be. The regular season is about talent level. The post-season is about getting hot and executing. It’s the nature of a single elimination post-season. It’s very, very tough to be that one team out of 32 teams to win it all and there are more talented teams than them out there. They’ll also have everyone gunning for them and giving them their best as Super Bowl champs. There’s a reason why no defending Super Bowl champ has won a single playoff game since the 2004 Patriots.
However, they will have a strong regular season and prove the doubters about their off-season wrong. Their over/under of 8.5 wins is a joke and they should easily finish over .500. I do believe they’ll exceed their 10 win total from 2012 and go into the post-season in better standing than they did last year. Once they get there, it’ll all be about executing the best over a 5 week span like they did last year.
I already went into depth about Joe Flacco in the extended intro. Throughout his 5 year career, he’s been a very inconsistent week to week quarterback, but an incredibly consistent year to year quarterback, proving himself to be a slightly above average quarterback and nothing more. His completion percentages have always fallen between 57.6% and 63.1%. His YPAs have always fallen between 6.7 and 7.4. His touchdowns have always fallen between 20 and 25 (with the exception of his rookie year) and his interceptions have always fallen between 10 and 12.
Of course, that all changed in the post-season and while I don’t expect him to keep that up, I do expect him to have his career best regular season this year. Bryant McKinnie and Jim Caldwell will continue to have a big impact. He’s not a top level quarterback like Manning or Brady or Rodgers, but I consider him an elite quarterback comparable to guys like Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. One concern here is if Flacco were to get hurt, backups Tyrod Taylor and Caleb Hanie are not very good. They are arguably among the worst backup quarterbacks in the NFL. However, Flacco hasn’t missed a game in 5 seasons and what good team wouldn’t be screwed if their quarterback were to get hurt.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
If there’s one thing that’s going to prevent Flacco from having his best regular season, it’s his receiving corps. Anquan Boldin is the most important player that they didn’t replace at all. With the exception of Aaron Mellette in the 7th round of the draft, they didn’t add a single receiver this off-season. Jacoby Jones will start in Boldin’s absence. While he had that memorable play against Denver to send it to overtime, Jones should be nothing more than a depth receiver. He’s had chances to start in his career, but has never had more than 51 catches for 562 yards in a season.
The Ravens will need Torrey Smith to step up opposite him as the new #1 receiver with Anquan Boldin gone. Smith has flashed in his first two years in the league after the Ravens took him in the 2nd round in 2011, catching 50 passes for 841 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2011 and 49 passes for 855 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2012, but he’s yet to put it all together as a consistent receiver and something more than just an inconsistent deep threat. Game to game consistency is his biggest issue. In 38 career games (including playoffs), he’s gone over 50 yards just 16 times, but he does have 5 games of 120 yards or more. However, going into his 3rd year in the league, a year when young receivers typically breakout, he’s got a very good chance to. With Boldin gone, he should get a career high in targets and have his best statistical season, possibly going over 1000 yards.
Dennis Pitta is another receiver that will have to step up in Boldin’s absence. The “other” tight end from the 2010 class that featured Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Aaron Hernandez (oops), Pitta really came on down the stretch, catching 44 passes for 518 yards and 8 touchdowns in his final 10 games (excluding week 11 and week 17 when he barely played), including playoffs, which extrapolates to 70 catches for 829 yards and 13 touchdowns over 16 games. He’ll be their #2 receiver this year and take over as the primary possession receiver to Torrey Smith’s deep threat. Pitta’s only weakness is run blocking, which he doesn’t do very well.
Ed Dickson is the other tight end, but he’s not nearly as good. Not only does he provide very little as a receiver, catching just 21 passes for 225 yards and no touchdowns, but he was an awful run blocker, grading as ProFootballFocus’ 6th worst run blocking tight end, 2nd worst if you take the post-season into account. That’s especially bad considering he’s supposed to be the blocking tight end, coming in primarily on running plays and two-tight end sets. He was better as a pass catcher in 2011, catching 54 passes for 528 yards and 5 touchdowns, but he’s never been a good run blocker. The higher drafted of the Ravens two tight ends from the 2010 draft class, Dickson is clearly the inferior and a pure backup caliber player.
The 3rd receiver is Deonte Thompson, an undrafted free agent who caught just 5 passes as a rookie. The Ravens like his 4.32 speed at 6-0 206 and have been encouraged by his off-season. They are hoping he’ll eventually beat out the marginal Jacoby Jones for the starting job at some point this season, but that might be shooting a little high for him. The fact that he’s the 3rd receiver right now shows just how thin this receiving corps is and is a problem considering how much 3-wide sets have become a part of the league these days. Young receivers David Reed, Tommy Streeter, and Tandon Doss are also in the mix, but none have established themselves like Thompson this off-season. The receivers comprising that trio are all mid to late round picks from the 2010-2012 drafts who have yet to do much as pros.
While his receiving corps is a concern, Joe Flacco’s running backs are anything but. Not only is Ray Rice one of the best starting running backs in the NFL, but Bernard Pierce might be the best backup running back in the NFL. Pierce came on big time down the stretch as a 3rd round pick rookie. Playoffs included, he rushed for 734 yards on 147 carries last year, a 5.0 YPC clip. In his final 12 games, including playoffs, he rushed for 586 yards on 117 carries.
He took carries away from Ray Rice, whose 257 carries were his lowest since 2009, when Willis McGahee was still around, and he’ll probably take more away from him this season. However, Rice has publicly said he doesn’t mind and it’ll probably be good for both of them as it’ll keep them both fresh. That’ll be important for Rice as he heads into his late 20s. It might sound weird, but he’s already at 1216 career carries, which is more than halfway to the point where even great running backs see their abilities fall off a cliff and that doesn’t take into account the extra 311 touches he’s had from catches. He’s never had a serious injury in his career, but father time is undefeated and Pierce will help him lengthen his career.
Expect Pierce to get about a third of the carries between the duo, maybe 120-125 to Rice’s 240-250. Rice will still get plenty of catches though, especially with Boldin gone. He’s averaged 69.5 catches per season over the past 4 years, but will probably be closer to the 78 he had in 2009 or the 76 he had in 2011 than the 63 he had in 2010 or the 61 he had in 2012. I expect him to be 2nd on the team in catches.
The one concern for their running game is the loss of Vonta Leach. Leach was a cap casualty after they drafted Kyle Juszczyk in the 4th round. Juszyzck is a great fullback prospect (it’s very rare that one goes in the 4th round), but he’s still just a rookie. Leach was ProFootballFocus’ top ranked fullback in each of the past two seasons and the 3rd ranked in 2010. He was cut because he was making a ridiculous amount for a fullback on a cap scrapped team, but he’s still a very good player. Just ask Arian Foster, who has seen his YPA drop from 4.9 to 4.4 to 4.1 since Leach left Houston two years ago. It’s worth mentioning that Rice’s highest career YPA came in 2009 (5.3), when Leach was not around and when McGahee served as a capable complement.
Fortunately for the running backs, the Ravens have a very good offensive line, which is also fortunate for Joe Flacco. I already went into detail about how Bryant McKinnie’s presence at left tackle helped this offensive ine in pass protection in the playoffs, but they were a very good run blocking offensive line as well. McKinnie’s weight and age (34) are both concerns, but also long as he’s in shape, he should be able to solidify the much important blindside.
Michael Oher will play right tackle, where he’s been much more comfortable in his career (ironic for the star of The Blindside). Kelechi Osemele will play left guard, where the 2012 2nd round pick looks like he could be on his way to being a very good player given his skill set and the way he played last post-season. Marshal Yanda is the other guard and probably their best offensive lineman. He started his career as a right tackle, but since moving to right guard, Yanda has ranked 3rd and 2nd among ProFootballFocus’ guards in the past 2 seasons respectively and heading into just his age 29 season I don’t see why he can’t continue to do so and make his 3rd straight All-Pro. He’s equally good in pass protection and run blocking.
The lone new starter from their post-season offensive line will be at center, where one of Gino Gradkowski or AQ Shipley will take over for Matt Birk. Gradkowski played just 89 snaps as a rookie after being taken in the 4th round, but he was drafted to be Birk’s heir apparent and should win the starting job. Shipley was brought in to give them another option just in case.
He came cheap both in salary and draft pick compensation and he actually graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 15th ranked center in 2012, despite just starting 5 games (and playing half of 2 others) in place of an injured Samson Satele for the Colts. Though he’s an inexperienced player, I believe he could be a solid starter if given a chance. He run blocked well and gave up just 5 total pressures (0 sacks). Center is the most concerning spot on the line and along with McKinnie’s possible weight and age problems, they are the only real concerns on a very good overall offensive line for the Ravens.
Of the 10 starters they lost this off-season, 7 were on defense, but, as mentioned in the opening, they did a good job adding talent to replace them. While they lost 3 starters in the secondary and 3 in the linebacking corps, their defensive line is going to very much resemble the one they had last season. The Ravens play a base 3-4 defense with 3 down linemen, though they use a lot of sub packages and hybrid schemes.
One significant difference is that the Ravens will be having Haloti Ngata play more nose tackle, at least in 3-4 sets. He won’t be just a true nose tackle though and he’ll continue to be an every down defensive lineman. He led the whole front 7 in snaps played last season and could easily do so again this year. He struggled a bit through injuries and wasn’t quite as good as he normally is, but he was still ProFootballFocus’ 11th ranked 3-4 defensive end, 9th if you include playoffs.
His strength is stopping the run, which is why he is a natural fit to play the nose, but he generates some pass rush too, grading out above average and totaling 6 sacks, 14 hits, and 28 hurries on 609 pass rush snaps, a 7.9% pass rush rate. That’s why he’s able to stay on the field every down. With Lewis and Reed gone, the 29-year-old will be counted on to be a leader and he should have a better 2013 than 2012 now that he’s fully healthy.
The reason Ngata will be able to focus on playing nose tackle is because the Ravens added Chris Canty to rotate at 3-4 defensive end with Pernell McPhee and Arthur Jones. They did this rather than signing a pure nose tackle like veteran Ma’ake Kemoeatu was for them last year. He’s gone, but he won’t be a big loss as he’s a 34-year-old who graded out below average overall last year and who still remains a free agent as of this writing. 2010 2nd round pick Terrence Cody was also deemed not fit to start by the Ravens. He’ll be a pure rotation player on the inside at best.
Canty comes over from New York, where he was a cap casualty. He missed the first 6 weeks of the season with a knee injury and only played 300 snaps overall, but he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 19th ranked defensive tackle regardless. He’s scheme versatile, playing in both a 4-3 and a 3-4 in his career and doing so well, which makes him a good fit for the Ravens’ scheme. He should be a solid starter, assuming he doesn’t get hurt again, as he’s just in his age 31 season. Marcus Spears is another free agent edition, but he won’t play as much, if he even makes the roster. He’s a pure backup player who graded out below average on 394 snaps for the Cowboys last season.
Spears will slot behind holdovers Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee, along with Canty. McPhee and Jones both graded out above average as starting 3-4 defensive ends, ranking 18th and 16th respectively at the position on ProFootballFocus, 13th and 12th respectively if you take into account their strong post-seasons. Both can play defensive tackle and defensive end in 4-3 packages. Brandon Williams is the other player who figures to be on the defensive line rotation. The 3rd round pick rookie will compete with Terrence Cody to be the primary backup nose tackle and could cost Cody his roster spot. The Ravens have a lot of players who will rotate on their defensive line and overall I like their base defensive line more than last year’s with Canty taking Kemoeatu’s snaps and Ngata getting healthier.
In 4-3 packages, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will serve as the defensive ends, but in base 3-4 packages, they’ll be the rush linebackers. Courtney Upshaw will be the primary backup at that position and Pernell McPhee has also been taking some snaps at rush linebacker, for what it’s worth, despite being around 280 pounds. Upshaw is also around 280 pounds as well, though they want him to lose weight. If he has a serious role in his 2nd year after being taken in the 2nd round out of Alabama, it will be as a pure two down run stopper, much like Jarret Johnson used to be.
He was an awful pass rusher as a rookie, showing no burst off the snap and recording just 2 sacks, 7 hits, and 13 hurries on 364 pass rush snaps, a 6.3% rate. Only 2 players graded out worse among 3-4 outside linebackers as a pass rusher and he also struggled in coverage, as you could expect at his size. However, he was the highest rated player at the position in terms of stopping the run. There won’t be a lot of snaps available behind Dumervil and Suggs though. The only reason Upshaw saw a significant amount of snaps last season was because Suggs missed 6 games with injury. In the post-season, he was a clear backup.
I already spoke about Dumervil in the opening. I think he’s a perfect fit in Baltimore. He excelled in a hybrid type scheme in 2009 under Mike Nolan, with 17 sacks, 7 hits, and 31 hurries on 419 pass rush snaps, a 13.1% rate. In 2011 and 2012 (after missing 2010 with injury), he wasn’t quite as good in Denver’s pure 4-3. He totaled 25 sacks, 18 hits, and 72 hurries on 1121 pass rush snaps in those 2 seasons, a 10.3% pass rush rate. He struggles against the run, but that won’t be as big of a deal in a base 3-4 and so did Paul Kruger. Dumervil should be able to at least come close to replacing Kruger’s pass rush production. Kruger had 15 sacks, 17 hits, and 43 hurries on 528 pass rush snaps, a 14.3% pass rush rate.
The other thing that will be huge for the Ravens is Suggs getting back to full health. Suggs essentially played through 2 season ending injuries last season, an incredibly valiant effort, but really did not produce, certainly not like the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year was used to. He played the run well, but had just 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 16 hurries on 379 pass rush snaps, a 6.8% rate. Post-season included, he was ProFootballFocus’ 26th ranked rush linebacker out of 33.
That was a far cry from 2011, when he ranked 3rd at his position, leading the position against the run and accumulating 14 sacks, 12 hits, and 37 hurries on 600 pass rush snaps, a 10.5% rate. He’s always been better against the run than rushing the passer, but he can also get after the quarterback. Assuming the soon to be 31-year-old didn’t wreck his body doing what he did last year, he should bounce back and the duo of him and Dumervil should actually give the Ravens an improved pass rush, despite losing Kruger, who was still relatively unproven and definitely overpaid by Cleveland.
On the inside, Daryl Smith and Arthur Brown will start, with Jameel McClain as the primary reserve and Upshaw maybe making an occasional cameo, considering he has been working out inside at times this off-season. Brown is a 2nd round pick rookie, but he’s incredibly talented and as long as he’s healthy, I don’t see why he can’t be an above average starter and maybe even Defensive Rookie of the Year. Linebackers don’t usually have much of a transition period.
Smith, meanwhile, was ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2011, but has never played inside in a 3-4 before and played in just 117 snaps last year due to injury and is 31. The former concern should be eased by the fact that the Ravens run a hybrid, but the latter two are legitimate concerns. Still, it was a worthwhile signing and could easily get them a cheap, above average starter. McClain, as the top reserve, is a mediocre player coming off a serious neck injury. Upshaw might be their best option here in case of injury considering his run stuffing ability.
While Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe are gone at middle linebacker, Smith and Brown aren’t a real downgrade. Lewis barely played last season until the playoffs and when he was on the field, he didn’t play well. His leadership will be missed, but his on the field play can easily be replaced. Ellerbe, meanwhile, was a solid starter, ranking 14th among middle linebackers, but again I think he can be replaced. With Suggs healthy, I think this will be a better linebacking corps than it was last year.
One lost defensive starter that the Ravens didn’t replace is Cary Williams, but they could do even better than replacing him as Lardarius Webb is set to return from a torn ACL. While Williams is a very average starter who has graded out slightly below league average overall in the past 2 seasons, Webb was ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked cornerback in 2011, allowing a 54.9% completion rate, 6.4 YPA, and no touchdowns, while picking off 8 interceptions, deflecting 12 passes, and committing 5 penalties.
He was off to another good start in 2012, allowing 11 catches on 24 attempts for 111 yards, no touchdowns, 1 interception, 3 deflections, and 2 penalties, but he tore his ACL week 6. He tore his other ACL earlier in his career, so it’s a concern, but he’s only heading into his age 28 season and if he comes back recovered and doesn’t get hurt again, he should be a more than capable #1 cornerback, something they lacked last season.
Opposite him, it will be a battle between Jimmy Smith and Corey Graham, a battle the Ravens are likely rooting for Smith to win. Smith was their first round pick in 2011, but he hasn’t played well in his first 2 years in the league. He’s got more natural talent though, while Graham is more of a slot cornerback than anything, and he’s reportedly finally gotten himself into shape going into a crucial 3rd year in the league. If he can establish himself as a solid starter opposite Webb with Graham on the slot, this is a very good cornerback group. A positive sign from Smith: he allowed just 10 catches for 85 yards on 17 attempts with 3 deflections from week 15 on, after returning from an injury.
At safety, Michael Huff will take Ed Reed’s old free safety spot. Huff isn’t a future Hall of Famer like Reed is, but he might actually be an upgrade. He’s younger, going into his age 30 season, and he’s a solid starter. Last year, he played cornerback because of injuries and graded out slightly above average. In 2011, he was slightly below average at safety and in 2010 he was great at safety, grading out 2nd at the position on ProFootballFocus. Meanwhile, Reed ranked 50th out of 82 eligible safeties on ProFootballFocus. An aging player, Reed is close to done, while Huff can provide at least a year or two of solid starter caliber play. He also came at 6 million over 3 years, while Reed signed in Houston for 15 million over 3 years.
Matt Elam will replace Bernard Pollard at strong safety. Pollard rated 56th out of 82 eligible safeties, something Elam should be able to at least do as a rookie. Overall, like the other 2 units of their defense, I think the secondary will be better than it was last year. Webb’s return will be a big part of that. The Ravens ranked an uncharacteristic 12th in points allowed last year, allowing 21.5 points per game. I like their chances to get back in the top-10 this year. Offensively, they were a top-10 team, scoring 24.9 points per game, a number I think they can improve on slightly as well.
John Harbaugh is just 1 of 5 active Head Coaches with a Super Bowl ring (Belichick, McCarthy, Tomlin, Coughlin) and the Ravens have made the playoffs in each of his first 5 years with the team, winning 67.7% of his games, including a 9-4 post-season record. They’ve won a playoff game in each of those 5 seasons and made 3 AFC championships. No NFL Head Coach has won more playoff games, overall games, and made more conference championships in his first 5 years as a Head Coach than John Harbaugh. He’s still slightly overshadowed by his brother Jim, even in victory, but he more than deserves his due.
I mentioned in the opening that I think the Ravens win more regular season games than they did last year. In the division, I think they win at least 4 or 5 games. They’ll probably beat Cleveland both times and Pittsburgh at least once. Cincinnati has talent, but Andy Dalton has shown a severe inability to beat playoff caliber teams. Assuming they play their starters in both games against the Bengals, they should win both of those games, but they do play them week 17 and could rest starters in the right situation, as they did last year in an eventual loss.
Outside of the division, they host Houston, Green Bay, Minnesota, New England, and the Jets. The Jets should be an easy home victory and I think Minnesota is going to have a tougher season this year than last. Houston, Green Bay, and New England are very tough opponents and they probably won’t win all 3, though they are a good home team. I think they come out of those 5 games with 3 or 4 wins, which puts them at 8-3 through the 11 mentioned games.
The road has been a trickier place for them, as they’re just .500 on the road in the past 4 seasons. They go to Denver, Miami, Buffalo, Chicago, and Detroit. I think they have a very good chance to win in Denver considering how well Super Bowl champs do week 1 and how disrespected they’ll probably feel as underdogs of more than a touchdown, but I don’t see more than 3-2 in those 5 games. Overall, I have them at 11-5 and winning their division for the 3rd straight year. I don’t think they should be considered the Super Bowl favorite, but they’re a better team than they were last year. Once again, it’ll be all about executing in January and February. They’ll be in the mix, but I think Denver and New England both have more talent and possibly Houston as well.
Prediction: 11-5 1st in AFC North