(Rob Carr/Getty Images)
(Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Ravens Preview: Sorry Champs—Just Too Many Holes

Baltimore moves straight from a Super Bowl title to a rebuilding year on defense and in the passing game

By
Andy Benoit
· More from Andy·

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.

DEFENSE

With Ray Lewis and Ed Reed gone, it’s Terrell Suggs’s defense now—but he’ll have to do more than just whoop it up if Baltimore is going to continue dominating on D. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)
With Ray Lewis and Ed Reed gone, it’s Terrell Suggs’s defense now—but he’ll have to do more than just whoop it up if Baltimore is going to continue dominating on D. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

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.

First-rounder Matt Elam has huge shoes to fill at safety. (Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMI)
First-rounder Matt Elam has a future Hall of Famer’s shoes to fill at safety. No pressure. (Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMI)

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.

Brandon Williams and Haloti Ngata. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
The new era began at camp, as rookies such as Brandon Williams (98) learned the ropes from veterans like Haloti Ngata. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

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.

OFFENSE

(Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Torrey Smith has game-breaking speed but must improve his overall skill set to become a true No. 1 receiver. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

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.

More on the Ravens

Open Field: Peter King says the Ravens should double down on the ground game.


3Q Interview: Joe Flacco on his not-so-wild offseason.


Film Room: Greg Bedard on Baltimore’s post-Pitta problem.


Film Room: Greg Bedard watches tape with Torrey Smith and learns how the wideout is developing into a more well-rounded receiver.


Video: Peter King talks to rookie Arthur Brown about replacing Ray Lewis.


Video: In his Postcard from Training camp, Peter King says that despite the departures, the Ravens will still play deep into January.


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.

With his edge speed, Bernard Pierce is an ideal complement to jittering power of Ray Rice in the ground game. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)
With his edge speed and deceptive power, Bernard Pierce is an ideal complement to Ray Rice out of the backfield. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

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.

SPECIAL TEAMS

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.

BOTTOM LINE

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.

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11 comments
gthanet
gthanet

Nope sorry.  You totally overlooked the fact that the Ravens have one of the best coaching staffs in the league.  Five straight years in the playoffs in a tough division is about more than just the players on the field.  Cam Cameron was the weak link on this staff, and you saw what happened once he was put out to pasture.  This staff will make sure this team is great, this year.

NilanjanaSamabhasam
NilanjanaSamabhasam

Sorry Andy...Just too many holes in your article...

1. Flacco's salary did not hurt the cap this year in anyway.

2.Defense has been upgraded in many ways as other commenters have pointed out.

3. Only problem I see is if anybody can step up to fill the hole left by trading Anquan Boldin

4. Ravens will go to playoffs for sure

5. You will be sorry that you bad such bad predictions

birdsgirl
birdsgirl

LOL.  I always find it amusing how EVERYONE counts the RAVENS out every year, yet we just keep showing up in the post season.  Last year we won it all even though we were underdogs.  We'll be there again.  Oh..and for the record, Edgar Allan Poe was born in Massachussetts.    He wrote some of his literature in Baltimore and died there but IT WAS not his home town.  

MayerTheMayor
MayerTheMayor

Benoit doesn't get that Lewis and Reed were liabilities-not assets-this past season. The Ravens are younger and more athletic on defense and have upgraded with Dumervil over Kruger. They have chosen the path of the New England Patriots, who wisely have chosen to let big names walk away, instead building a solid core of younger players. The Ravens and Patriots are perennial playoff teams because they don't let their emotions get in the way of assembling a solid 53-man roster. The Browns overpaid for a linebacker/end (Kruger) who wasn't even an every down player. Lewis was 37 and clearly out of gas (did Benoit not watch Vernon Davis eat up yards against him in the Super Bowl?), Reed is 34, constantly battling hip injuries, and prone to give up big plays. Bernard Pollard is famous for his Patriot-killing hits, but the fact is he couldn't defend receivers and Elam and Huff are major upgrades in age, athleticism and salary cap to Reed and Pollard. The Ravens' biggest issue is the receiving corps. Nonetheless, the Ravens are better than last year's team (which really struggled down the stretch losing 4/5 to end regular season, but got hot at the right time). Benoit seems to forget that the most of the recent Super Bowl winners are lower ranked teams who didn't have bye/home game (Ravens, Giants, Packers). If a team makes the playoffs they have a chance to win the Super Bowl.  Benoit seems too focused on player name recognition   as opposed to assessing the team's overal talent.

yzzzerman19
yzzzerman19

benoit's articles so far on this new mmqb are good stuff. I like when he explains formations, plays and coverages using a photo taken prior to snap then discusses it in detail.

M30
M30

It's clear now that Benoit spends about 5 minutes reading articles from other floating heads in preparation to write these pieces.  He clearly doesn't have any true understanding about the current situation and hasn't spent the requisite time to analyze the team truthfully.  This piece is a farce at best.  If SI is struggling to find serious writers, they could have done much better.  

joetiburzi
joetiburzi like.author.displayName 1 Like

this analysis is really thin. i know it's hard to do a "deep dive" on 32 teams, but some of this is the same tired anecdotal, easy nonsense that everyone else is spewing. let me make it easy, at least on defense:

healthy webb > last year's CBs

healthy suggs and dumervil > kruger/unhealthy suggs

d. smith > last year's ray lewis (not career ray lewis, just the 2012 version)

huff will be just as good as ed reed, although they have different skill sets. fewer interceptions, but also fewer blown coverages.

the defense was mediocre to bad last year. they're not going to be worse, despite what everyone believes about leadership. the run defense will be improved and webb's return more than outweighs the loss of reed. 

i don't disagree with the offensive analysis, although, as jb22 points out, flacco's salary didn't hurt anything this year. signing him actually allowed the team to go after canty, dumervil, etc.

i think it's an 11-5 team, at worst.

#31DShell
#31DShell

I find it interesting that Dumervil and Suggs are now together. They were similar, coming out of college, I believe 1 year apart. Both were highly productive college pash rushers who dropped a little in the draft and turned out to be highly productive pass rushers in the pros. I think Michael Bouleware was another example. As a Steeler fan, this evidence favoring productivity over the workout warrior makes me feel good about Jarvis Jones. It also makes me not like those having both those guys healthy on the Ravens.

SnarlyYow
SnarlyYow

Benoit has some great insight here but also some a handful of stretches. For instance, Flacco's salary didn't much affect the team this year. And while there's nothing wrong with pointing to problems in the offensive line, show me a team without problems on the offensive line. Every team in the NFL has unknown quantities at some position on the O-Line. Also, while run  blocking was an issue last year, the addition of Canty and Smith will likely remedy that. The big holes are on the edges, with Dumervil and Suggs presumably rushing the passer as DEs and questionable linebackers on the edges smaller, swifter RBs and mobile QBs pose a considerable threat.

jb22
jb22 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

Um, the roster was decimated to dedicate a massive cap hit of  $6.8 million in 2013 for Flacco?  Laughable.

westcoastbias
westcoastbias like.author.displayName 1 Like

How does he know all this stuff?!?  Who can argue with him?  Some nice phraseology as well.  We're seeing the emergence of the next King/Zimmerman, if he can stay off the PUP.

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