Ravens Preview: Sorry Champs—Just Too Many Holes
Visiting the White House with his Super Bowl Champion Ravens, John Harbaugh told President Obama, “We have plans to be here next year, too.” With all due respect, the sixth-year head coach would be hard-pressed to find many who share his optimism.
No Super Bowl champ in recent memory has seen its roster ravaged like these Ravens. Starting defenders Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Dannell Ellerbe, Cary Williams and Paul Kruger are gone. So are key offensive veterans Matt Birk and Anquan Boldin.
Even if all of those players were still around, the Ravens wouldn’t be considered a particularly strong defending champion. There’s a reason they were 9.5-point underdogs in the divisional and championship rounds. In 2012 they went 10-6 in the regular season, ranked 10th in offensive scoring and 16th in yards and had a defense that was 12th in scoring and 17th in yards.
This isn’t to say the Ravens don’t deserve their rings. They actually did what every sports team in history has claimed it must do: step it up in the postseason. For years the defense always carried the heavy load in Baltimore. While the D was solid if not spectacular in the run to New Orleans—holding the Colts, Broncos and Patriots offenses to an average of 14.3 points per game—it was the 30 points per game scored on offense that propelled this team.
The offense’s outstanding postseason played a role in the roster’s decimation, as general manager Ozzie Newsome was compelled to dedicate a sizeable chunk of the cap to Joe Flacco’s new six-year, $120.6 million contract ($52 million guaranteed). Some Ravens fans have been febrile over this, but they should realize that compensating a Super Bowl MVP quarterback is the exact problem every team strives to have.
The mission was accomplished in Baltimore. Now a new mission begins. And for the first time since this franchise moved to Edgar Allen Poe’s hometown, its albatross is the defense.
It will be weird seeing the Ravens without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Their absence leaves a sizeable leadership void. Filling it off the field won’t be a big deal; there are enough supporting veterans still around, including the boisterous Terrell Suggs. Besides, “off-field” leadership in pro sports can be grossly overrated. On the field is a different story. Lewis and Reed both had remarkably high football IQs.
What made them future Hall of Famers was the way they used those IQs to benefit their teammates. Lewis directed the front seven, Reed the back four. Often, both understood their opponents’ tendencies better than their opponent did.
That said, the time was ripe for change. Lewis had worn down and become an athletic liability. Reed, though still an elite safety, had also lost a step and was not worth the cap consequences his re-signing would bring. True to form, Newsome immediately used the draft to replace both icons, selecting Florida safety Matt Elam late in the first round and Kansas State inside linebacker Arthur Brown late in the second. Both will bring more athleticism to this aging defense, but obviously neither will bring the awareness and long-cultivated instincts of their predecessors.
The 208-pound Elam is slated to start ahead of James Ihedigbo at strong safety, which means he’s actually filling Bernard Pollard’s old spot. In Reed’s old centerfield spot will be Michael Huff. The former Raider is a versatile pass-defender with range, but he’s hit-or-miss in identifying routes and taking angles. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees won’t be able to call as much Quarters or deep, rotating Cover 3 zones because Huff can’t begin to disguise coverages the way Reed did.
As for Brown, he won’t have the benefit of playing alongside a dynamic force. With Dannell Ellerbe being too expensive to re-sign, the Ravens were going to turn back to Jameel McClain, but he’s on the PUP list after recovering slower than expected from a spinal cord contusion suffered last December. Before getting hurt, the undrafted sixth-year pro had not looked good in run defense, and he’s never been a particularly comfortable pass defender.
When Brown missed some offseason work due to a sports hernia surgery, the Ravens signed ex-Jaguar Daryl Smith to keep the position afloat. Given third-year undrafted backup Josh Bynes’s inherent ceiling and the fact that strong outside backer Albert McClellan has not fared well when forced to play the inside stack position, Smith—barring a recurrence of the hamstring problems that hounded him in 2012—is the most sensible option to start, ideally alongside Brown (pending his early development).
With the back middle of this defense so obviously weakened, Baltimore must get more noise up front in 2013. Too often last season this defensive line floundered against the run (particularly versus zone-blocking). And against the pass the Ravens had one of the most anemic four-man rushes in football. It’s imperative that Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs regain their star form. Both have been quiet for stretches while battling injuries. If they can’t find their familiar explosiveness and down-to-down strength, they could be the next iconic players shown the door, even though neither is over 30. Ngata is due to count a team-high $16 million against the cap next year; Suggs is due to count $12.4 million.
The addition of Chris Canty may help this front line regain its bite. The ninth-year veteran’s experience as a 3-4 end in Dallas and a 4-3 tackle in New York will serve him well in Pees’s hybrid three- and four-man fronts. Canty has a good burst and feel for taking on blocks. His performance in OTAs drew rave reviews. He won’t have to shoulder a super heavy burden here, either, because there is good depth behind him in Marcus Spears, his old Dallas teammate, and fourth-year man Arthur Jones, who could see starter type reps.
As for the rest of the depth, third-round rookie Brandon Williams can likely play at nose or an interior end spot, much like 2010 second-rounder Terrence Cody. Cody has the size and athletic suddenness to make an impact, but he doesn’t always play with enough burst. He can be particularly lethargic on passing downs, though that won’t be a problem if dynamic third-year nickel defensive lineman Pernell McPhee stays healthy.
In addition to McPhee, the Ravens are also buttressing their pass-rush with fourth-round rookie John Simon, who played a multitude of positions at Ohio State. And they’re hoping to get an increased pass-rushing presence from last year’s No. 35 overall pick, Courtney Upshaw. He played the run well from both the strong and weak side as a rookie, and he showed surprising versatility in lining up at defensive tackle, defensive end and even over the slot.
Intriguing as Upshaw looked at times, the Ravens must believe he is still destined for some growing pains. Otherwise they would have tapped him to replace the departed Paul Kruger instead of spending $8.5 million in guarantees on ex-Bronco Elvis Dumervil. Kruger, who signed with Cleveland, was a player on the rise, but Dumervil brings more speed off the edge and will deliver better bang for his buck.
Rounding out the pass defense, the Ravens will be spared a lot of headaches if 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith can recognize his potential at outside corner. Smith struggled with groin injuries last year. When he was healthy, he looked disconcertingly unpolished in his off-coverage mechanics. That might be why some of his snaps went to 2011 fifth-rounder Chykie Brown. If Smith can’t fill Cary Williams’s starting spot, Corey Graham will get a shot. Graham was a very pleasant surprise last season, particularly in the slot. This year he’ll stay outside, as Lardarius Webb is recovered from his October ACL injury and looking to regain his status as one of the league’s preeminent inside corners. It’s worth noting that Webb is also a quality outside cover man, especially against deep balls.
As his contract implicitly states, Joe Flacco is a superstar. The analytics gurus may beg to differ. After all, only once in five seasons has Flacco finished with a passer rating above 89, and he has never thrown for 4,000 yards or gone to a Pro Bowl. Other doubters might argue—not incorrectly—that his contract is a function of current market price as much as his actual play. But the bottom line is: The Ravens have won at least one playoff game every year since drafting Flacco 18th overall in 2008. They lost the AFC title game his rookie year and again in the 2011 season—though they wouldn’t have if Lee Evans had held onto Flacco’s game-winning touchdown pass in the final seconds. In 2012 they won the Super Bowl.
Yes, one could argue that Flacco has been the beneficiary of a great defense and run game, but not this past year. The Ravens offense featured a heavy dose of isolation routes, with few man-beater concepts and pre-snap wrinkles. The front five was very average, and the ground game was often an afterthought. Basically, then-coordinator Cam Cameron’s game plans were built around Flacco’s ability to make the type of contested strong-armed throws that few quarterbacks can even attempt. After Jim Caldwell replaced the fired Cameron in December, the Ravens’ designs got a little more sophisticated, but not much. The onus was still on Flacco to make big plays. And he did.
Flacco might have to do even more in 2013. The loss of Anquan Boldin weakens an already so-so receiving corps. If you think third-year pro Torrey Smith can step up as the true No. 1—no, not even close. Smith is unable to consistently separate from quality press coverage. He’s also too mechanical in his change-of-direction and doesn’t have the most natural hands (though he’s improving here). Really, Smith is best described as an average receiver who happens to have very good top-end speed. At least he’s playing with the right style of quarterback. Flacco was second in the league last year in attempts (92) and completions (35) of 20-plus yards, and he threw a league-best 11 touchdowns versus zero interceptions on such plays.
Jacoby Jones, who will start in Boldin’s place, is essentially a more sinewy version of Smith. As he showed against Denver and in the Super Bowl, he has tremendous big-play capability. But the sustainability that Boldin gave this offense was unspeakably valuable and one that Jones—who has never had more than 562 receiving yards in any of his six seasons—can’t offer.
It was surprising that the only new receiver the Ravens had brought in this offseason was seventh-round pick Aaron Mellette. They were showing a lot of faith in Tandon Doss, a talented 2011 fourth-rounder who has just seven catches in the NFL. That faith may have dwindled in training camp, as eventually the Ravens signed 37-year-old slot man Brandon Stokley, who could vie for No. 3 duties. Also, the Ravens are reportedly high on Deonte Thompson, whom some say offers the most complete skill set. There were whispers that he could compete for a starting job, though he had just five catches as a rookie last season.
Presumably, when Newsome chose to trade Boldin instead of pay him, he was thinking tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson would assume larger roles. That plan, however, combusted when Pitta was lost for what could be the entire season after dislocating his hip early in camp. The Ravens are suddenly weak at tight end, as Dickson, a modestly flexible receiver and subpar blocker, is more equipped to be a complementary piece than a featured starting weapon. (He’s also been nursing a bad hamstring.) The new No. 2 tight end will either Dallas Clark, who has shown marked signs of decline, veteran Billy Bajema, who is far from special, or Matt Furstenburg, an undrafted rookie.
Weak tight end blocking could have proven even more problematic to the run game if fourth-round rookie Kyle Juszczyk (who went to Harvard, perhaps just to learn how to pronounce his own last name) had struggled to fill the tall order of replacing All-Pro fullback Vontae Leach. But instead of waiting to find out, the team just re-signed Leach at a reduced rate in late July.
As on defense, the Ravens will have to compensate for downgrades on offense with more vociferousness up front. That could prove tough because the two most important positions, left tackle and center, are filled with question marks. Legions of fans believe Bryant McKinnie had a resurgence last season because the Ravens started winning when he was inserted at left tackle. In reality, this offense had to go out of its way to hide McKinnie’s shortcomings in pass protection. Stat crunchers might trumpet the team’s rushing yards with McKinnie in the lineup, but what the metrics can’t show are the five-yard runs to his side that should have gone for 20. There were more than a few. Validating this is the fact that McKinnie remained unsigned in free agency for nearly two months.
As for center, the hope is that last year’s fourth-round pick, Gino Gradkowski, can fill Matt Birk’s shoes. For insurance, the Ravens traded for backup center A.Q. Shipley and spent a sixth-round pick on Ryan Jensen. Shipley has pushed Gradkowski for the starting job in a competition that has yet to be decided. Regardless of who wins out, the Ravens will lack experience at this position.
Fortunately, Baltimore’s other three offensive line spots are solid and on the come. Last year’s second-round pick, Kelechi Osemele, has the range and strength to become an elite left guard. He just needs to keep honing his pass-blocking, particularly against defenders’ redirect moves inside. Marshal Yanda is one of the league’s best right guards. Next to him, Michael Oher is back at his more-fitting right tackle spot. He still struggles with penalties and, at times, pass protection, but offers a lot more athleticism than most players at his position. Depth-wise, the Ravens are thin, as Jah Reid is the only familiar entity.
Improvements in the ground game must be the focus for this zone-blocking line. With limited receiving weapons and a backfield duo like Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, you’d expect the Ravens to climb from 12th in rushing attempts back to somewhere in the top eight, as they were in each of Flacco’s first four seasons. At 26, Rice is smack in the middle of his prime. His scintillating lateral agility and cutback vision make him perfect for this scheme. His acumen in the passing game—he has averaged 69 catches and 610 yards per season over the last four years—pushes him into football’s highest echelon of dynamic ball-handlers. It is a little concerning, however, that the three-time Pro Bowler uncharacteristically floundered in so many blitz pickups last season.
Pierce, entering his second season, is not fine-tuned in pass protection, which is why it’s doubtful he’ll split carries 50-50 with Rice as some have speculated. The 2012 third-rounder from Temple is, however, an excellent downhill back. He has light feet for someone with his size (6-0, 218) and power, and deceptive speed that helps him turn corners that don’t appear to be there. Expect him to keep replacing Rice at least every third series as he did in the second half of last season.
Twenty-three-year-old kicker Justin Tucker has good range and was successful on 30 of his 33 field goal tries last season. He also didn’t miss a kick in the playoffs. Punter Sam Koch is solid, but it’s still irritating that he gets away with pronouncing his name “cook.” In the return game, Jacoby Jones has become the type of weapon opponents kick away from.
There’s a chance the remade defensive front seven can come to life and actually give the Ravens a better unit than the veteran one they rode to a title last season. But there’s a greater chance this defense will struggle in a transition year. On offense, it’s hard to be optimistic about a passing game that has so few weapons around its superstar quarterback.
Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team’s prospects for 2013. Read all 32 here.