The Ravens took some steps toward achieving offensive balance last season, but still lacked the weapons in the passing game to truly provide Joe Flacco with the kind of options most elite quarterbacks enjoy. Rookie Torrey Smith finally provided the big-play element and the ability to run behind the safeties long lacking in Baltimore. He had an excellent season, far better than could be expected, but still has a propensity to drop the easy pass. Young tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson flashed as well, but consistency is a bugaboo for them, too. Anquan Boldin is not going to challenge deep at this stage and is more like a power forward/tight end himself, so another vertical threat must emerge.
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Left tackle Bryant McKinnie stabilized the line, and saved the season, really, by being scooped up after the Vikings cut him and playing solid football. Can he do it again, however? And will aged and injury- susceptible center Matt Birk hold up? Is Michael Oher a right tackle from here on out? Bottom line: Baltimore must get a comparable year out of its offensive line. The move to more of an emphasis on the zone running scheme was vital to the resurgence on the ground in 2011, and I don't expect that to lessen much whether Ray Rice is playing on the franchise tag or gets a long-term deal.
If there is one constant with the Ravens, it's the ability to shut people down. A few years back the vulnerability was on the back end, but now with youthful Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith at corner, and Ed Reed still making game-changing plays, Baltimore has one of the best secondaries in the NFL. It's a tall, physical group, with no shortage of individuals with elite ball skills. Pass rush, particularly with Terrell Suggs, is an issue, and keeping Haloti Ngata as close to 100 percent is imperative. When he is healthy no one collapses the pocket from the inside any better and that opens things up immensely off the edge. Ngata has the potential to be a Defensive Player of The Year, himself, and just well may need to this season.
Baltimore lost some of its depth along the defensive line, but the front office is more than pleased with the development of recent draft picks like Terrence Cody, Arthur Jones, Pernell McPhee and the coaches expect to have a strong rotation up front once again. And did I really go this long without mentioning Ray Lewis? Yeah, guess I did. He remains a tackling force and the lifeblood of this franchise, though passing downs can create some problems for him in coverage, especially in this era of multiple, athletic tight ends.
The standard remains impeccably high for the Ravens defense, so the infusion of young blood must continue. The reality without Suggs, at least for a good portion for the season, however, is that the passing game is going to have to be more reliable than ever, and some of the clunkers that dogged them last season (anyone remember the Monday night loss at Jacksonville?), should they recur in 2012, could keep Baltimore from remaining atop what I believe is the best division in football.
Staff: Defensive Coordinator Chuck Pagano (departed to become Colts head coach); Dean Pees replaces him. Jim Caldwell (former Colts head coach) named QBs coach.
Baltimore's salary cap situation kept the team from making too much of an impact in free agency, and the reality is this team was a Lee Evans drop away from facing the Giants in the Super Bowl. The Ravens have won at least one playoff game for four straight years and finally got over the hump against the rival Steelers last season. So stability, more than change, is the rule. The few moves they made often had an eye to improving special teams, and the return game in particular needs a boost from Jones; the days of having guys like Webb and Reed return stuff should probably be over. They're too valuable.
History would dictate that losing yet another defensive coordinator wouldn't matter much -- this unit has just kept plugging along despite continually losing coaches to go on to become head coaches elsewhere -- but Pagano was particularly beloved by guys like Reed and Lewis. He got Baltimore back to aggressive blitzing and more gutsy playcalling in the vein of Rex Ryan, and, especially with Suggs' absence, finding ways to create pressure from the corners and safeties may have to carry the day.
Determining that defensive identity early under Pees, and making sure the old heads like Lewis and Reed are comfortable (neither was around much this spring) will be an immediate order of business.
X-Factor: Terrell Suggs
Team officials aren't expecting much of anything from the reigning defensive player of the year after he ruptured his Achilles in the spring. It wasn't a total tear, but it's still a potential season-ending injury and one that will wipe Suggs out for at least the first half of the season. The Ravens are holding out some hope that maybe, just maybe, Suggs can give them a boost down the stretch. Even if it's just as a situational pass rusher, a few bursts a game, teams will have to at least think differently with Suggs on the field.
Getting anything out of him would be akin to making a trade, well after the deadline has expired. Of course, implicit in this X-Factor as well is how Baltimore finds a way to survive Suggs' absence. Just as there is faint hope for much impact from Suggs, the expectations are also low for Sergio Kindle, the team's second-round pick from 2010 who was drafted to be a complementary pass rusher. Kindle, of course, suffered near-fatal injuries in the fall before his rookie season and has yet to give the Ravens any semblance of impact. It's now or never for him, while guys like Paul Kruger, nearing the end of his rookie deal, need to show they can contribute on every down after displaying the ability to create pressure in certain packages. Top pick Courtney Upshaw is more likely to play on the opposite side of the field, replacing Jarret Johnson.
Joe Flacco enters the final year of his contract fully expecting to have to play it out at this point and then see what awaits in the offseason. Ravens owner Steve Biscotti has made it clear he expects Flacco to be a Raven for life and to win a Super Bowl with him, but as the weeks play out Flacco's price tag could fluctuate significantly. Most top quarterbacks are extended before this point and this contract scenario will be a constant plotline and undercurrent. Ideally, Flacco would see guys like Philip Rivers as comparables, up in that $17 million per year range. In the end, $15 million a year might be where it ends up, but this will play out in real time and will remain in flux.
Who is No. 3?
As noted, Boldin is not someone who is going to dominate week in, week out, at this stage of his career, and frankly the lack of secondary options had made Boldin too easy to defend at times as well. Torrey Smith will be counted on to build on last season's breakthrough, but someone else has to emerge. Draft pick Tommy Streeter has the burners, but struggled at times in OTAs with his hands. Evans was supposed to be this guy last year, but he was hurt and wildly unproductive. For the sake of Flacco, and the entire offense, someone has to be able to stretch people. Flacco has the best rapport with Pitta, on field and off, for what it's worth.
Two from the U
Lewis and Reed aren't getting any younger and already last season, when Lewis was hurt, there were some rumblings in the Baltimore area about the defense being faster without Lewis, again, especially when offenses go to spread formations. At some point the Ravens will have to field a defense without these two future Hall of Famers, and the talk will continue throughout 2012 about whether this is it for the dynamic duo from The U. Reed's absence from mandatory mini-camps may have rankled some, and he'd love a new contract, so that situation bears monitoring as well. I'd be stunned if he isn't patrolling the backfield come Week 1.
"We don't understand how much heat Flacco takes. He can make all the throws, he's won big games, he doesn't get hurt. He can beat you. The problem is the offensive line. Losing Suggs hurts, but they'll be good on defense. The real issue is the offensive line -- left tackle, left guard, center. That could undermine their season."
Xs and Os
By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider
The Ravens were the best team in the NFL last year when playing playoff-bound teams with a 7-1 record. Someone mentions the Ravens and you immediately think Ray Lewis and the defense. Baltimore may have won a Super Bowl that way back in 2000, but the 2012 version of success in the NFL requires an explosive offense.
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2012 Preview Schedule
Steelers @ Ravens: 12/2 (4:15 p.m. ET)
Ravens @ Steelers: 11/18 (8:20 p.m. ET)
2012 Preview Schedule
Bengals @ Ravens: 9/10 (7 p.m. ET)
Ravens @ Bengals: 12/30 (1 p.m. ET)
2012 Preview Schedule
Browns @ Ravens: 9/27 (8:20 p.m. ET)
Ravens @ Browns: 11/4 (1 p.m. ET)
The Ravens' offense is based on a 21 personnel package which means two running backs, one tight end and two wide receivers. Ray Rice following a fullback is the way this team wants to move the ball. Rice averages 23 touches a game, which is second only to Maurice Jones-Drew. One issue the Ravens have to solve is their ability to gain at least four yards on first downs, a situation in which they were ranked No. 23 in the NFL. Because of the threat of Ray Rice, they have developed a decent quick-strike passing attack with WR Torrey Smith.
Last year, the Ravens had just over 200 snaps of two tight ends and I expect them to grow this personnel group out. Young tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta had 94 receptions between them and that should be well over 120 this season. Two tight ends also help with pass protection problems, helping their tackles protect Joe Flacco.
Baltimore needs to do a better job picking up the blitz and Flacco needs to use his feet more to escape. Joe Flacco can run well, but he had five games where he never even crossed the line of scrimmage. In the Ravens' five losses last year, Flacco was sacked 15 times (three per game). In their 13 wins, he was sacked 24 times (just under two per game). The dropped pass last year by Lee Evans in the championship game which prevented a trip to the Super Bowl wasn't the only dropped pass situation, as the team was ranked in the bottom third of the league in dropped passes.
Baltimore is a base 3-4 defense that does creative things with All-Pro defensive lineman Haloti Ngata. He lines up all over the front and can be a matchup nightmare for offensive lines. The Raven defense took a heavy blow when they lost Terrell Suggs to injury after they lost their other outside linebacker Jarrett Johnson in free agency. Can you imagine how Steeler fans would feel if they lost Harrison and Woodley?
I spoke with Paul Kruger about who will replace Johnson. He was a situational pass rusher prior to this and now has to handle the run situations as well. Until rookies Courtney Upshaw and Paul Kruger prove to be effective, offenses will double Ngata. Last year the Ravens got 48 sacks from 14 different players, and six of those sacks were from secondary players, which tell you they like blitz pressure calls. I expect even more exotic pressures with Suggs gone and it may start with the inside linebackers, Ray Lewis and Jameel McClain.
By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst
Eschewing his team's biggest areas of need on draft day and selecting the best player available that slips to him has led general manager Ozzie Newsome to landing Pro Bowl talents like safety Ed Reed (No. 24 overall) and guard Ben Grubbs (No. 29).
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Newsome traded out of the first round entirely this past April and still landed Alabama's Courtney Upshaw, my top-rated pass rusher and No. 14 prospect overall, with the third pick of the second round. That Newsome also acquired the Vikings' fourth-round selection (No. 98 overall) in moving down just seven picks just makes the deal that much sweeter.
Upshaw is a similar player to Jarret Johnson, a no-nonsense defender who signed with San Diego. With Terrell Suggs' 2012 season in jeopardy due to an Achilles injury, Upshaw is thrust into the spotlight immediately. While reports of his average athleticism and struggles during coverage drills at the combine and his pro day have been overblown, there is no question that Upshaw does lack an elite burst upfield and lateral agility.
Rather than explosive speed, Upshaw's production is based on his power. Whether as a down defensive lineman or stand-up rusher, Upshaw attacks opponents with a forceful and technically-sound use of his hands to disengage quickly from blocks.
The rest of the Ravens' picks:
2nd Round - No. 35 overall - Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama
2nd Round - No. 60 overall - Kelechi Osemele, OT, Iowa State
3rd Round - No. 84 overall - Bernard Pierce, RB, Temple
4th Round - No. 98 overall - Gino Gradkowski, OC, Delaware
4th Round - No. 130 overall - Christian Thompson, S, South Carolina State
5th Round - No. 169 overall - Asa Jackson, CB, Cal-Poly
6th Round - No. 198 overall - Tommy Streeter, WR, Miami
7th Round - No. 236 overall - DeAngelo Tyson, DT, Georgia