Patrick Semansky/AP
Patrick Semansky/AP

Baltimore Bounce-Back?

A disappointing, 8-8 defense of their Super Bowl title in the rearview, the Ravens entered the offseason on a mission: Improve the disastrous offense. A look at the progress, plus notes on Alex Mack, the 2015 QB draft class and more

By
Greg A. Bedard
· More from Greg·

It’s hard not to be impressed by what the Ravens have done so far this offseason in improving the weak link of the team: offense.

They were able to reach contract extensions with tight end Dennis Pitta, left tackle Eugene Monroe and receiver Jacoby Jones. Then they scooped up receiver Steve Smith (Panthers), tight end Owen Daniels (Texans) and running back Justin Forsett (Jaguars) after they were released from their former clubs. The Ravens traded for center Jeremy Zuttah from the Buccaneers. Not to mention the addition of former Houston coach Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator.

That’s a lot of changes that make the Ravens much better on offense. They certainly had room to improve. Here’s a sampling of where Baltimore ranked in some offensive categories: 

  • 32nd: Yards per play
  • 32nd: Yards per rush
  • 31st: Passing yards per play 
  • 31st: Red zone percentage 
  • 28th: Interception rate 
  • 25th: Points per game
  • 24th: First downs 

No wonder coach John Harbaugh was practically giddy when announcing the additions of Daniels (to pair with Pitta) and Forsett.

“To me, the sky is the limit,” Harbaugh said. “We’re not going to try to downplay anything that we’re capable of accomplishing.

“These are two of the best tight ends in the National Football League who fit this offense really, really well. That’s what we’re looking at. Hey, no promises; we have to go out and do it, and we have to prove it. … Use your imagination. You guys know football; you can see where this is going.”

Ray Rice didn't find much room to run in 2013, earning a career-worst 3.1 yards per carry. (David Banks/Getty Images)
Ray Rice didn’t find much room to run in 2013, earning a career-worst 3.1 yards per carry. (David Banks/Getty Images)

Certainly the arrow is pointing up on the Ravens’ offense after what has transpired this offseason. But here’s the reality with the 2014 Ravens: all these bright, shiny additions won’t mean anything unless the offensive line gets its act together under line coach Juan Castillo. The unit was a borderline disaster last season. As the Ravens’ “run game” coordinator in ’13, Castillo’s portion of the unit had the least productive running game in franchise history. Now he gets the title of directing the entire line, which was basically his responsibility last season.

“I can understand why Juan is a lightning rod right now because the way we set up the structure and then we go into the season and we have our worst ever year running the ball and he’s got that title,” Harbaugh said right after the season. “So, that’s on me. When we hired Juan, the idea was to add another great coach into our mix. Juan functioned as the lead offensive line coach last year. That was his job. … We didn’t get the result that we wanted to get but Juan was the offensive line coach and that’s his title going forward.”

The problems on the Ravens’ offensive line weren’t created by Castillo. He didn’t pick Gino Gradkowski to be overwhelmed trying to succeed the retired Matt Birk. It wasn’t Castillo’s fault that second-year left guard Kelechi Osemele took a big step back because of a back injury, and running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce were beaten up. Or that tackles Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher were declining players. But at the end of the day, like all positional coaches, Castillo was in charge of his unit, and it failed miserably.

Now given a second chance to show that he’s still the top-notch line coach he was with Eagles, Castillo now only has the Ravens’ ultimate success landing on his shoulders this season.

The Ravens have always had a rock in right guard Marshal Yanda, who had the unenviable task of playing next to two players (Gradkowski and Oher) who were not up to par. Getting Monroe in a trade from the Jaguars, and then holding onto him, was a major coup; he’s an ascending player. Now it’s up to Castillo to get the rest of the line to complement Yanda and Monroe. Zuttah has been a solid starter in his career, but the Ravens need him to be better. Left guard and right tackle are in flux. On paper, Osemele is certainly talented enough to be a good left guard if he returns from injury. Right tackle would be between 2013 fifth-round pick Ricky Wager and former third-round pick Jah Reid.

“Rick probably goes in as the starting right tackle right now. That’s the way I see it,” Harbaugh said at the league meetings. “We aren’t playing a game right now so it really doesn’t matter. He and Jah will be competing and Jah is very determined right now as he should be.It’s going to be a good battle and we’ll see if we add somebody in the mix.

The addition of Eugene Monroe was one of the only bright spots for the Ravens' offensive line last season. (David Banks/Getty Images)
The addition of Eugene Monroe was one of the only bright spots for the Ravens’ offensive line last season. (David Banks/Getty Images)

“Rick played well (last season). He didn’t play well early. I think he was kind of overwhelmed by it. Rick’s the kind of guy that it seems like his personality is where he really needs to know what he’s doing before he really can cut it loose. I think he’s going to be a guy that’s going to need a lot of reps to gain his confidence. And once he gains confidence in his techniques, he’ll be really good at it. Juan is a great trainer of offensive linemen, one of the best in the league if not the best at training guys in techniques. We think that Rick’s going to really benefit from that.”

There are two other possibilities. Gradkowski could play well enough, or the Ravens could draft a guard high, to allow the team to kick Osemele to right tackle, where he started as a rookie.

“He can do both,” Harbaugh said of Osemele. “Right now, the plan is to play him at left guard. That’s where I see him playing next year. Could that change? Certainly, with the draft and that kind of thing. But let’s keep him in there at left guard. He’s got a lot of experience in there right now, he’s comfortable there, he likes playing on the left side. It provides us with some real size inside, some length inside, which is good. We can run all those twists and games and things in there, keep the pocket deep for Joe. That’s where we’re going right now and we’ll see how it plays out.”

The same could be said of the Ravens overall. They could still use some help at safety, and with depth on the defensive line, but most of the solid defense returns. Quarterback Joe Flacco now can drop back to pass and eye a plethora of targets like Pitta, Daniels, Torrey Smith, Steve Smith and Jones. Baltimore has a full house backfield in Rice, Pierce and Forsett.

The Ravens look to have rebounded nicely from their disappointing 8-8 Super Bowl title defense—if the offensive line and Castillo comes through. 

NICKEL PACKAGE

Florida State's Jameis Winston will be eligible to declare for the draft in 2015. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Florida State’s Jameis Winston will be eligible to declare for the draft in 2015. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

1. Asked five league executives, who are happy with their starting quarterbacks, what they would do if they needed a quarterback in this year’s draft. Two said they would take the player who fit their system best and not worry about how high they took them. Three had surprising opinions that I hadn’t really considered. Basically, they’d trade down in this draft, pick up another in the 2015 draft and take their chances with what appears to be a much better group. Among those that could be available: Sean Mannion (Oregon State), Marcus Mariota (Oregon), Bryce Petty (Baylor), Brett Hundley (UCLA), Connor Cook (Michigan State), Kevin Hogan (Stanford), Jameis Winston (Florida State), Braxton Miller (Ohio State) and Cole Stoudt (Clemson). The more I look at that talented list, the more I’m on board with it.

2. Surprise, surprise. With Browns free-agent center Alex Mack set to sign a five-year, $42 million offer from the Jaguars, according to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport, it appears Jacksonville has done what appeared to be a long shot: make this a tough call for Cleveland. The key provision is that after two years, Mack can opt out of the contract, and whichever teams signs him can’t use the franchise or transition tag. That’s big. I actually thought the transition tag, which carries no compensation should the player sign elsewhere, was a smart move for the Browns because it assured them they would pay exactly the market rate for Mack, and not a penny more. I still believe that’s the case.

3. I don’t put much stock in some of the reports about how Mack was impressed with the Jaguars and doesn’t want the Browns to match. If I’ve learned anything covering this league, it’s that the color of money has the magical ability to soothe and tough feelings almost immediately. And while Mack could feel indebted to the Jaguars for getting him his money, and bolt for them after two years, that’s an eternity in the NFL. In two years, the Browns could be good. The Jaguars could have their franchise center at a much cheaper rate. Mack could be injured. A lot of things can happen. If you’re the Browns, and you don’t have to pay big money for a veteran quarterback anytime soon, you match the deal if you believe a center is that important. If I had a stud quarterback who made most of the line calls and adjustments, I would not. But considering the quarterback quandary the Browns appear stuck in for at least a couple of years, Mack is extremely important. You need him helping out a rookie quarterback.

4. It was good to hear Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill tell ESPN that he has “to make a big jump” in his third season. He could have used excuses like his offensive line and getting used to receiver Mike Wallace, but Tannehill didn’t. He knows there were stretches where he was subpar at reading defenses and reacting to pressure, although he did improve as the season went along. That’s a good sign for Tannehill and the Dolphins.

5. The demise of cornerback Champ Bailey, who signed this week with the Saints, has been somewhat exaggerated. There’s no question he’s had trouble staying on the field, and he can’t man up against the elite receivers like he once did. But if healthy, Bailey is still a better player than some want to give him credit. He played solid once he returned from missing most of the season in Week 16. This could be a key signing for the Saints if Bailey isn’t completely breaking down physicality. Only Bailey and the Saints doctors have a good idea about that.

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39 comments
MarkGately
MarkGately

The harsh criticism of Joe Flacco never ceases to amaze me. He is been in the NFL for grand total of six years. Goring those six years, he is been a good enough quarterback to take his team to the playoffs five times, to get them to 3 AFC Championship games, and to one Super Bowl, which he wanted against an extremely good 49ers team. Hadley abends not drop the pass in the end zone in one of the three AFC championship games, Flacco would've twice gotten to the Super Bowl.


This is not to say he's perfect, but to constantly hear how he is, at best, an average quarterback is beyond absurd in view of his record. Matt Ryan, who is a very good quarterback, and two is constantly praise, has been in the league for exactly the same lifetime is Joe Flacco. He is been able to achieve one, that's right, one playoff victory. This is not all to say that Matt Ryan is not a very good quarterback, he is. It does show, however, that it is extremely difficult to achieve what Joe Flacco has achieved and for anyone to think that this could've happened without him being very very talented can only occur if his actual record is ignored.

AnnabelLee
AnnabelLee

Ravens should be much better this year.  Making a lot of under-the-radar moves that will add up, just like they always do under Newsome.  Steve Smith is biggest FA,  I don't care if he only catches a few passes, his leadership and attitude will make a very positive difference.  However, I would like to see more than 2 SB in 13 years.  Must be fashionable to dump on Flacco but there are only a handful of QBs better. I see another SB with him as long as he has the weapons and an offensive line.  You don't win SBs without an excellent QB (see Ravens 2012), unless your defense is lights out (see Ravens in 2000).  So for you Flacco haters, just shut up.

Jason1988
Jason1988

Ravens aren't much better; they still have Flacco under center. We saw how he handled himself when asked to run an offense on his own last season. Rice and Pierce will continue their downfall. They don't have any offensive tackles to speak of. That defense is still not that great, with Ngata on an obvious decline. Matt Elam needs to make a big jump as he under performed miserably last season. Not to mention, the Ravens are still without a true #1 WR. The Smith signing was solid, I like his leadership and grit, but he is old as hell and certainly not a long-term answer. 


A playoff berth will elude the Ravens once again this season. 

Raiderforlife
Raiderforlife

I think the Ravens are the most improved team this off season

mgranadosv
mgranadosv

"If I had a stud quarterback who made most of the line calls and adjustments, I would not." give Payton Manning Gino Gradkowski and watch how soon you pay whatever a good center asks for.


ArchMage
ArchMage

Great assessment of the Ravens. 
What was not talked about was leadership; is there someone on the team who makes others better?  Q and Ray Lewis gave the team s spark in 2012 that was missing in 2013.  Granted that there were a lot of holes to fill in 2013 beyond those two. 
Ozzie Newsome has not had a stellar draft in a while.  For a team that says it models themselves after New England, they have not learned NE's trick of getting more draft picks by having trade bait.

Loki
Loki

If they didn't upgrade the QB, they have little hope...

Jim21
Jim21

I actually like the Ravens (I'm a Bears fan) but I really don't see where they are THAT much better with who they signed. Steve Smith is on the back 9 of his career, Owen Daniels is meh and Forsett is a role player. They signed a bunch of guys but non one that I look at say, "WOW, they really improved"


Patrick36
Patrick36

Here is the problem - the virtues of "next years" quarterback class have been extolled every year this decade.  Remember in 2012 when everyone said that the 2013 draft class would be so much better, because you would have players like Barkely, Landry Jones, Geno Smith, etc., etc.


Then in 2013 everyone said the 2014 QB class will be one for the ages - Manziel, Bridgewater, just to start with.


As soon as scouts start seriously evaluating the 2015 class, their grades will rapidly drop, and everyone will start drooling over the 2016 quarterbacks.

jimztheman
jimztheman

At the risk of revealing my age Flacco reminds me an awful lot of Daryle "The Mad Bomber" Lamonica. Both make you forget their deficiencies when they complete the big one a couple of times a game but ultimately the deficiencies bite you when it really matters more often than not.


lionoah
lionoah

'The Ravens look to have rebounded nicely from their disappointing 8-8 Super Bowl title defense' - the haven't played a game yet Greg. Paper man, this is just a team on paper in April. The games don't start until months from now. 

Hello1813
Hello1813

I doubt there will be much improvement on the Ravens offense this season.   The issue is Flacco is a good not great QB.  But he wanted to get paid like a great QB.   Besides Torrey Smith, none of the other WR's & TE's are guys that scare people anymore.  Steve Smith is past his prime which is why he got cut in the first place. 

Jason1988
Jason1988

AFC Championships, Super Bowls, and playoff appearances: those are all team accomplishments. If you look at personal stats, Flacco is horrid. 

MarkGately
MarkGately

I admit that my typing is an abomination, but I think you get the message.

Jason1988
Jason1988

Flacco was the 32nd rated passer last season behind the likes of Chad Henne, Case Keenum, EJ Manuel, Jason Campbell, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. But, yeah, he's fantastic. 

millslap
millslap

@Jason1988  so Flacco's performance had nothing to do with playing behind the worst O-line in football, with the worst run game because there were only two players that could block and we  got one of them halfway through the year? I dont understand how a guy in his third year is "continuing a downfall", and Ray Rice played most of the year injured behind a line that AP would have struggled to get yards behind. Elam was forced to play FS when he is a true SS so i didnt really have a problem with his average play last year, so im not sure what you saw there. Ngata was better last year than he was in 2012. Torrey Smith is a #1 wideout that had no one else on the team that could consistently catch the football, so he had coverages rolled towards him in the second half of the year when defenses figured that out. The Ravens were one game away from the playoffs last year and they have improved their o-line (the worst center in the nfl wont be starting) their wr corps, their tes and they locked up A TOP TEN TACKLE IN MONROE (yes i have a problem in you saying they dont have any ots to speak of). So i definitely believe they will be back in the playoffs after missing them for the first time in six years

Buck2185
Buck2185

@ArchMage Baltimore has modeled itself after NE? That means they have learned how to cheat, how to exemplify bad sportsmanship and got rid of whatever character they once had, right??

rockferd
rockferd

@ArchMage  Do you mean to say the $120-million dollar man isn't a leader?

AnthonyAveyard
AnthonyAveyard

@ArchMageThough Patriot draft weekend trades are still common ~ it's been a few years since BB has fleeced off a diminishing talent on an opposing GM ( the last one that comes to mind is BB talking the Vikes' Rick Speilman into giving up a future third for Randy Moss in 2010 ) In fact the combination of injury / lack-of-dependable depth has actually caused the Pats to expel draft capitol themselves .( See Eagles Sopoaga in season trade ... Pats 5th for Sopoago & 6th )

If the Pats can catch a lil luck they should be playing to hoist the Lombardi in Feb 2015 ( maybe lose only 2 or 3 important starters to IR ...instead of a half dozen like in '13 )

Plainview
Plainview

@Jim21 Last year, no one could catch the ball. Torrey Smith could catch, Marlon Brown showed flashes, but everyone else on the team was drop city.

Steve Smith is definitely on way out of the NFL, but he has hands that can catch. Owen Daniels was a surprise especially after the Ravens resigned Pitta. Not sure I like signing Daniels' myself.

Forsett is insurance for Rice.

mgranadosv
mgranadosv

@Hello1813 You have obviously not seen Pitta play. He's not on Jimmy Graham's level for sure, but he's no stonehands like Dixon was. With the right weapons, like they had in the superbowl run, the Ravens offense can be very efficient. Last year between the terrible O line, Caldwell's awful playcalling, Flacco's poor timing and bad decisions and injury plagued season we saw one of the worst offenses in the AFC.

rjfisher72
rjfisher72

@Hello1813  Pitta when healthy is a very good, versatile TE. He can line up as a TE of a slot receiver. Defense definitely have to game plan against him.  

HamBlasterJay
HamBlasterJay

@Hello1813  No. The issue was the offensive line fell apart and Jim Caldwell ran one of the least creative offenses in recent league history.

0minuteAbs
0minuteAbs

@Hello1813  How does Flacco's paycheck apply to what's being said in this article.  That's a tired comment that we had to deal with all of last season.   Do you not think that Pitta and Daniels as a 1-2 at TE isn't going to influence how defenses prepare for the Ravens, leaving more opportunities for Smith, Smith, and Jones downfield?

RSeabron
RSeabron

@Jason1988  Flacco 11TDs 0 Interceptions in the 2012 playoffs.  If that is your definition of Horrid maybe you should pay a little more attention to the game.

ArchMage
ArchMage

@Buck2185 @ArchMageOK, I know what you mean about NE, but I was referring to a post game comment John Harbaugh made to BB after we beat them..... and I think he has mentioned it at other times.  We have had more turn over since John took over.  I think the Ravens are a bit more muzzled these day in their comments to the media.

ArchMage
ArchMage

@rockferd @ArchMageJoe is OK.  Jay Cutler was not even the best QB on the Bears last year, and he is a $126-million guy (and sulks)!  Ryan is more per year. 
Joe will do better this year if he is not in the top 5 for getting hit.  But he is not fiery in an outward way to get other guys going.  Rice isn't, and he has lost some credibility.  Noisy does not mean inspirational.  We will see who steps up.

rjfisher72
rjfisher72

@Plainview @Jim21  Marlon Brown did alot more than just show flashes. He led all rookie WR's with 7 TD receptions. 

Scramble
Scramble

@HamBlasterJay @Hello1813The offensive line looks like it could be one of the better in the NFL this season. As long as S. Smith and Pitta can haul in Joe's errant passes that opens things up for T. Smith, Marlon Brown and Jacoby Jones. That could also give more running lanes for the backs this year also.

WilliamCross
WilliamCross

haha, yeah old men trying to catch passes is the future of the nfl..

Jason1988
Jason1988

He was ranked 32nd in passer rating last season; the first season he was charged with carrying the team's offense on his shoulders. Chad Henne, Mike Glennon, and Ryan Fitzpatrick rated better than him. It doesn't matter how well he plays in big games if he can't win the games to put him in those positions. 

RSeabron
RSeabron

@Jason1988  He carried his team and played as good a 4 games postseason stretch as there has been in history.   When it counted most.  Oh and that horrid QB came away with the Lombardi.  You can't really expect anyone to take you seriously when you say he is horrid can you?  Has his play been horrid at times?  Ok, i'll grant you that throws at least 2 or three stinkers a year (still no sub .500 seasons), but he he also plays well in big games and if you deny this then you simply don't want to acknowledge the truth. 

Jason1988
Jason1988

Congrats to him. He played great for a total of 4 games. 

AnthonyAveyard
AnthonyAveyard

Define objective fan ...

 IMO Flacco showed his true colors last year and the Ravens are going to be saddled with one of the most prohibitive long term veteran QB contracts in the history of the NFL .

  Ozzie & Co. committed a cardinal contract sin when they payed for past performance instead of future returns

 Why pay an over-performing SB Qb player like a HOFer ? 

( Didnt they see all the potentially game -losing , gift -wrapped INT's Flacco chucked that were luckily dropped ? )

Ravens should have franchise tagged him last year and payed him like the 2013 player he is ( and will be ) ....

Until Ozzie eventually wake ups and they're forced to cut him sometime in 2016 ?

Jim21
Jim21

@mgranadosv @Jim21 @rjfisher72 @Plainview  I saw some of the throws he was making a couple years ago and he looked unstoppable. Hopefully they continue to build talent around him. 


On another note, I get so tired of hearing people blame him for making money. I'm sure any one of the people that complained about it would take the money if it were offered to them. I say good for Flacco. 

mgranadosv
mgranadosv

@Jim21 @mgranadosv@rjfisher72@PlainviewAs a Ravens fan I think Flacco is a good and competent QB, he wins when he needs to win, has stepped up to the plate a lot of times.
He won't be as flashy as others, hell even Matt Ryan has him beat on stats yearly, but the one stat that matters is his playoff wins and he's got plenty of those.

But if you take off his weapons, he looks pretty damn bad and average, so I hope they keep weapons around him.

Jim21
Jim21

@mgranadosv @rjfisher72 @Plainview @Jim21  As an objective fan of the Ravens, I think Joe Flacco is a great QB and Torrey Smith is a beast. They need to draft Ebron if he's there or a stud receiver on the other side to take some pressure off of Torrey. Steve Smith in the slot could be deadly.  

mgranadosv
mgranadosv

@rjfisher72 @Plainview@Jim21Problem was getting to the red zone for him to catch. He showed flashes because before the red zone he was just another dude running around and not catching passes.

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