Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
14 Feb 2014
by Cian Fahey
The Ravens followed up their Super Bowl season with an eighth place finish in the AFC. Their overall DVOA rating on Football Outsiders ranked them as the 22nd-best team in the league because of a 30th-ranked offense and a seventh-ranked defense. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.)
For the first time since Joe Flacco became the team's starting quarterback, the Ravens didn't have a running game that ranked in the top half of the league. Since 2008, the Ravens have ranked in the top 10 of rushing DVOA four times and they never dropped below 13th overall. In 2013, the Ravens finished 31st in the league, barely ahead of only the Jacksonville Jaguars. In fact, Baltimore's offensive run DVOA rating was one of the five worst in the 25-year history of DVOA, going all the way back to 1989. (The teams below Baltimore and Jacksonville: the 1991 Colts, 2005 Cardinals, and 2002 Texans.)
Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce finished 46th and 47th in DYAR and DVOA for running backs, but neither are expected to depart. In fact, Pierce figures to be a perfect fit in Gary Kubiak's offense. In order to fix their running game, the Ravens need to fix their offensive line rather than their running backs.
The Ravens line underwent a number of changes last season. A midseason trade brought in left tackle Eugene Monroe to replace Bryant McKinnie, who was then shipped to the Miami Dolphins. Starting left guard Kelechi Osemele landed on IR, forcing the Ravens to start journeyman A.Q. Shipley. And center Gino Gradkowski struggled after taking over the starting center spot vacated by the retired Matt Birk.
Both of the team's starting tackles, Monroe and Michael Oher, are now free agents, but the return of Osemele, who can play right tackle or left guard, gives them options. The Ravens can either let Oher leave, giving them needs to fill at left guard and center, or re-sign him to keep Osemele at left guard before trying to find a new center. Re-signing Monroe to be the starting left tackle will be a priority after he was acquired for multiple draft picks last season.
Presuming the Ravens are able to re-sign Monroe, they should be able to fill out the rest of the line through free agency. There are a variety of good centers and guards entering free agency who should be affordable and who should fit in Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme.
Quarterbacks Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell started for the Browns in 2013. Of the three, only Hoyer showed any long-term potential, and he tore his ACL after just three starts. Weeden finished the season with a 24.7 total QBR, Campbell finished with a 38.6 QBR and Hoyer finished with a 47.5 QBR. Hoyer didn't do enough to guarantee himself the starting job entering the 2014 season. Instead, the Browns will likely look to land a top quarterback prospect in the draft.
This year's crop of quarterbacks is somewhere in between the last two classes. There isn't a consensus top two like in 2012 with Robert Griffin and Andrew Luck, but multiple quarterbacks are being projected to go in the top 10. Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater are candidates to go first overall.
Picking for the first time at fourth overall means the Browns are not guaranteed one of the top three quarterbacks. However, the opportunity to trade up with the St. Louis Rams should be there. The Rams pick second overall and they appear to be committed to Sam Bradford long-term.
The draft is the only real option for the Browns. Josh McCown finished the season with the highest QBR of any qualifying quarterback, but McCown will be 35 by the start of next season and doesn't have a long-term track record of success. McCown and other veterans such as Michael Vick and Matt Cassel figure to be very good backups, but won't be leading a team to the playoffs all by themselves. Josh Freeman is a younger free agent with some talent, but his recent track record suggests that he's not a better option than any of the quarterbacks in the draft.
In a perfect world, the Bengals might look to replace starting quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton has been good enough to be a starter in the NFL, but his capitulations late in the season have become a major concern. The Bengals will likely bring in some competition through the draft or in free agency, but it won't be a priority.
The priority for the Bengals should be the cornerback position. The Bengals defense as a whole has been excellent in recent seasons. Departed defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer led a unit that finished fifth in defensive DVOA in 2013, fourth against the pass and 13th against the run. Yet even though they were excellent against the pass last season, the Bengals need to address the cornerback position.
Star slot cornerback Leon Hall is 30 years old and is coming off his second torn achilles injury in three years. Terence Newman started 13 games last season and has played very well since signing in Cincinnati two years ago, but he is 35. Adam Jones has also surpassed expectations during his time in Cincinnati, but he is best suited to a limited role and is 30.
Former first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick and former third-round pick Brandon Ghee are the only young cornerbacks who featured for the Bengals last season. Both players played very limited roles as they combined for just 381 total snaps on defense.
Cornerback is a young person's position. There are very few players over the age of 30 who are consistently playing effective football as full-time starters. Zimmer proved during his time as the team's defensive coordinator that he could get the most out of veteran players, but it's unclear if that will continue without him. Without Zimmer, there is uncertainty at every position, but cornerback stands out the most because that position has less individual talent than the other areas of the defense.
Left tackle is an obvious need after Mike Adams' struggles early in 2013. However, Kelvin Beachum played well in Adams' place. He benefited from the Steelers' offensive design and play calling, and new offensive line coach Mike Munchak may be able to whip the unit into better shape. Assuming he can do that, Pittsburgh's biggest hole is on the defensive line.
The Steelers ranked 20th in defensive DVOA last season. It was the first time in five years that they weren't ranked in the top 10 in either pass or rush DVOA. A major reason for this is the drop-off in quality on the defensive line.
Everything the Steelers do on defense is predicated on their ability to stop the run. The most important run defender in LeBeau's scheme is the nose tackle. Casey Hampton excelled in that role for years before Steve McLendon took over last season. McLendon had thrived in a pass-rushing role, but he struggled to sustain quality play as a full-time starter at nose tackle. McLendon made his average run tackle after a gain of 3.0 yards, the highest figure for any starting nose tackle on a 3-4 defense last year.
It's possible that McLendon could move to defensive end if the Steelers identify a nose tackle in the draft. At this stage, the Steelers only have one viable starter on their defensive line entering next season: Defensive end Cameron Heyward.
Brett Keisel is a 35-year-old free agent who isn't guaranteed to return. Evander "Ziggy" Hood, who is also a free agent, is only 26, but his play suggests he should only be re-signed if he is going to compete for a backup role. Therefore, if the Steelers don't find a nose tackle, they will be forced to either retain inadequate starters or spend resources that they don't have retooling multiple positions.
This article previously appeared at ESPN Insider.
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