weekend notes
Baltimore Bounce-Back?
weekend notes

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
Patrick Semansky/AP

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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