by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
There are 27 seconds left in the AFC Championship. The visiting Baltimore Ravens trail the New England Patriots by three. It’s second-and-1. Quarterback Joe Flacco is dropping back to pass. He’s completed five of his last seven throws on what’s turning out to be a brilliant 56-yard drive. Flacco calmly pump fakes and then slings a laser through two defenders in the front corner of the end zone. The ball lands in the hands of wide receiver Lee Evans. It’s an incredible throw –- the type of throw that exhibits why the Ravens took Flacco in the first round. The type of throw that makes fans forget about Flacco’s middling 57.6 regular season completion percentage or his four-year reputation as the young quarterback who isn’t ready to push a great Ravens club over the top.
Problem is, Evans doesn’t hold on. Incompletion. Two plays later, Billy Cundiff misses a 32-yard field goal. And just like that, the Ravens have failed to win the AFC for the 11th straight year. Their young quarterback, in the eyes of the public, is still waiting to "break out."
Despite two Conference Championship losses and three Divisional Round losses in the last six years, we don’t think of the Ravens as a team that can’t get over the hump. That’s because, like the Eagles of the NFC, they operate as effectively (or nearly as effectively) as the elite teams that do win Super Bowls. General manager Ozzie Newsome almost never misses on early-round draft picks. Because of this, he’s always had solid superstars to build around. This makes it easier to succeed with later-round picks and allows him to use the veteran market how it should be used: as a means of filling cracks in the roster. It empowers the Ravens to naturally replenish their depth by grooming young players at a more comfortable pace, creating stability that makes head coach John Harbaugh’s job much easier.
This year, Baltimore’s modus operandi could be put to its harshest test yet. The defense that has long carried this franchise will be without superstar outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (Achilles injury) and stalwart veteran Jarret Johnson (now a Charger), which changes the whole makeup of the front seven. They'll entrust those spots to a trio of recent high draft picks: Paul Kruger, Sergio Kindle, and Courtney Upshaw. How those three perform may determine Baltimore’s fate in 2012.
Of course, we usually say that the young offense will determine Baltimore’s fate. It’s still true -– more so than ever, in fact, even though the offense is no longer purely "young." The Ravens are a defensive team, but not exactly by design. Newsome spent four recent first- and second-round picks on Flacco, Ray Rice, Michael Oher, and Torrey Smith. With the exception of Rice, none of these players have evolved into what fans would consider genuine superstar.
If perception is reality, this offense, and particularly Flacco, is under a microscope yet again. But along that same logic, imagine how good this offense would be if Lee Evans had caught that ball...
Joe Flacco is not a superstar. Not yet. The magnificent final drive at New England illustrated what the 27-year-old is capable of, but Flacco still has plenty of steps to take as a pro quarterback. The talent is there. Flacco is a 6-foot-6, 235-pound prototype who can move in and out of the pocket. He may have the most pure arm talent in the NFL, Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers included. He’s accurate in stretching the field vertically and horizontally, and though unheralded for it, he’s coolly risen up in several crucial late-game situations.
For Flacco, taking the next steps means exhibiting these traits more consistently. That comes from sharpening his mental approach to the game. He’s on the right track already; offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has gradually put more on Flacco’s plate each year. Flacco has responded well, but he still has room to improve when it comes to identifying defenses before the snap and recognizing blitz concepts. It’s the presnap phase that separates good quarterbacks from great ones. As it stands, Flacco is only "good."
Even if he takes a giant step forward, Flacco won’t become Manning-like at the line this year simply because he’s the NFL’s only upper echelon quarterback who runs an offense that is not pass-first. Cameron’s system operates largely out of base personnel. In today’s NFL, the concept of lining up with a running back, fullback, tight end and two receivers has mostly faded, as teams find it easier to generate explosive plays from three-plus receiver sets.
But most teams don’t have a backfield weapon like Ray Rice. Not only is the 25-year-old worth feeding as a traditional ballcarrier (1,364 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns last season), but he’s borderline unstoppable as a receiver. The Ravens re-signed Rice to a five-year, $35 million contract, $20 million of which is guaranteed, this past July because he’s every bit as important to their offense as Flacco.
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Rice’s lateral agility, which carries a combination of quickness and discreet power, makes him perfect for the one-cut running style that Baltimore’s zone-blocking system demands. And, though Rice is prone to occasional bouts of impatience, there may not be a more instinctive backside cutter in the NFL. Factor in the near-perfect lead-blocking of veteran fullback Vonta Leach and you have what should be a top-five rushing attack. It wasn’t top-five last season, though, perhaps because Cameron and his staff were trying to figure out just what to expect from Flacco each week. Too often the Ravens drifted into unbalanced gameplans, occasionally forgetting about Rice.
Because Rice is so multifaceted, and because tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are both good blockers and flexible all-around receivers, Cameron has the option of using a more diverse array of spread formations on first and second down. He can give his offense this added dimension while sticking with his base personnel. If nothing else, that would help Flacco in the pre-snap phases and create more mismatches for Rice.
Last year, the Ravens run game had a sustaining element with the presence of ground-and-pound veteran backup Ricky Williams, who handled about a third of the carries. The hope is that third-round rookie Bernard Pierce can replace the now-retired Williams. Pierce isn’t a classic power back, but he fights between the tackles. If he doesn’t adapt well to the pro game, last year’s seventh-rounder, Anthony Allen, could get a shot.
If neither young running back performs well, it’s possible the Ravens will consider morphing into more of a passing offense. Just because Cameron prefers base personnel doesn’t mean he’s unwilling to go with three-receiver designs. Good coaches ultimately tailor their system to the players they have. The question is: Would Cameron have the personnel to spread out?
Former Texan Jacoby Jones was signed to compete with last year’s fourth-round pick Tandon Doss for the No. 3 receiver job. Jones’s lankiness gives him a long-striding running style that eats up ground in a hurry. However, dropped passes and general reliability have always been a concern with him. Doss, on the other hand, is a bit stiffer but is said to have very sure hands. He’s a mystery, though, as his rookie season was essentially nullified by a sports hernia surgery. Doss could push Jones, or he could fall behind return specialist David Reed -– it depends how training camp goes.
Baltimore’s starting receivers are both good fits in the base formations that Cameron ostensibly hopes to stick with. Anquan Boldin is the best target, but second-year speedster Torrey Smith is more dangerous and thus, the guy defenses often treat as the No. 1. We tend to think of traditional base offenses as having conservative dink-and-dunk passing attacks. That’s true in so much as offenses like this need possession receivers to fall back on, which is why Newsome traded for the brawny Boldin two years ago. But when offenses like Baltimore’s are proactive through the air –- and every offense save for the 2011 Denver Tebows is proactive at some point each game -– they often attack with deep downfield shots. The reason is, from base personnel, your play-action is more believable and you have extra bodies near the quarterback to block up a seven-step drop. Because the defense usually guards your base personnel with their own base package, chances are good that you’ll face a vanilla coverage and get your best wideout screaming at an isolated safety over the top. This is what Newsome had in mind when he drafted Smith. So far, it’s paid off, as Smith averaged 16.8 yards per catch last season. To keep paying off, Smith must become a more consistent all-around presence -- good cornerbacks too easily remove him from the equation right now.
The Ravens are hoping they can get by with a good-but-not-great offensive line. They probably can since no line has ever underachieved with venerable veteran Matt Birk anchoring at center. Birk is 36, but still has the mobility needed for Baltimore’s zone scheme. With a new three-year, $8.52 million contract, Baltimore is counting on him to keep them in good shape up front. Next to him will be another tenured veteran, former Bengal Bobbie Williams. He offers less power and mobility than the departed Ben Grubbs, but he comes at a much lower the price. The plan is for Williams to hold down the starting left guard spot while second-round rookie Kelechi Osemele learns the craft behind him. If Osemele’s brute strength ultimately translates well to the NFL, the Ravens could one day have the best guard duo in football, given that Marshal Yanda on the right side is absolutely superb, particularly on the move as a run-blocker.
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Outside, things get a little iffy. Right tackle Michael Oher is gifted, but must develop better technique and ferocity as a puncher in pass protection. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie is again battling weight issues. McKinnie is the size of a small house but also as soft as the beds inside of it. His saving grace is that this zone scheme allows him to deliver blocks off movement rather than in a phone booth, which is a style that demands less grit.
For the third time in four years, the Ravens defense will have a new coordinator. Former Patriots assistant Dean Pees (not a verb) takes over for Chuck Pagano, who is now the head coach in Indianapolis. Annual coaching changes normally lead to instability, but not when you have an on-field coach like Ray Lewis. The future Hall of Famer has lost several steps athletically but remains one of the game’s best between-the-tackles thumpers thanks to sheer savvy. Lewis’s leadership is why the Ravens feel comfortable with undrafted guys like Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe and Albert McClellan at the other inside linebacker spot.
There’s just one problem: Lewis’ declining athleticism has made him a major liability in coverage. McClain, Ellerbe and McClellan are all nimble enough movers who, even with less awareness, would be better nickel linebacker options than Lewis at this point. But who in the Ravens organization is willing to tell the 37-year-old legend to come off the field? If anyone can muster the intestinal fortitude to do so, then fierce-hitting Bernard Pollard could move to linebacker on passing downs and be replaced at safety by fourth-round rookie Christian Thompson. Pollard can’t cover well downfield but he’d probably be adequate in short areas underneath. Thus, the Ravens would improve their coverage at two levels. Plus, Pollard and fleet-footed incumbent nickel linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo would form one of the best inside blitzing tandems in football.
Lewis’s limitations in coverage will be harder to overlook with Terrell Suggs out. (Suggs claims he’ll be back from Achilles surgery before the end of the season; if he is, there’s no chance he’ll be in his usual form right away.) Even if second-round rookie Courtney Upshaw proves to be a gem like many expect, there’s no replacing the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Suggs is a demon who commands constant double teams on passing downs and is twice as dominant against the run. In short, he’s Baltimore’s most important player.
Exacerbating Suggs’ absence is the departure of Jarret Johnson, arguably the best edge-setting run-defender in the NFL. Johnson did all the little things for this defense. His replacement, Paul Kruger, might be more explosive going after the quarterback, but he hasn’t proven himself beyond situational pass-rushing. The Ravens are counting on the fourth-year pro to be a physical every down force. They really have no other options, as top backup Sergio Kindle, a 2010 second-round pick, has only played in two NFL games.
The absence of Suggs will at least be slightly offset by the emergence of defensive lineman Pernell McPhee. The fifth-round pick of a year ago has incredible body control and quickness for a powerful 278-pounder. McPhee is good enough to turn the corner against offensive tackles, though the Ravens may be inclined to frequently morph into four-man fronts and play him inside next to Haloti Ngata. That would all but guarantee a one-on-one scenario for McPhee, who has the acumen to consistently win those battles in tight traffic.
Ngata’s presence alone gives Baltimore a stalwart run defense. A quad injury kept him from being as dominant as usual last season, but if he’s healthy, he’s by far the most domineering defensive lineman in the NFL. Helping his cause is the fact that 2010 second-round pick Terrence Cody has developed into a fairly viable nose tackle. Cody still has a long ways to go, which has shown in his inconsistency against double teams on the field and in his difficultly to control his weight. He’s on the right track, though. There aren’t a lot of players his size who can get off the snap as effectively as he does. His presence on the nose allows the Ravens to create matchup nightmares by moving Ngata all over the defensive front.
Rounding out the rotation up front is versatile third-year pro Arthur Jones, who has been promoted to replace high-octane veteran Cory Redding. It’s critical he does; the only experienced backups up front are newcomers Ryan McBean and Ma'ake Kemoeatu. McBean was a decent nickel tackle in Denver, but he’s not an elite gap-shooter and may not even get on the field after breaking his ankle in the preseason opener. Kemoeatu was once a vociferous nose tackle, but he’s been out of football two of the past three years. He may have a tough time beating out seventh-round rookie DeAngelo Tyson for a roster spot.
Ed Reed’s now-annual retirement brooding created some worry about the secondary over the offseason, but alas, the 33-year-old future Hall of Famer will be back for an 11th season. That’s critical because with Suggs out, Pees may have to blitz more this season, which would mean more eight-man fronts and, thus, greater demands placed on the free safety protecting the back end.
Reed actually might be even more of a risk-taker on the back end this season because the Ravens, for the first time in nearly 10 years, have an outstanding cornerbacking trio. Or, a potentially outstanding trio, depending on how last year’s first-rounder, Jimmy Smith, develops. Smith is not the fastest player, but he has the size and ball instincts to effectively jam and transition into off-coverage. That style fits a defensive backfield that has always been great at communicating.
On the other side will be Cary Williams, who at this point can be described as a slightly more polished version of Smith. In the slot is Lardarius Webb, a Pro Bowl-caliber fourth-year pro who also can play outside in the base 3-4. Webb is phenomenal at defending the deep ball in man-to-man coverage, and he’s superb in timing his jumps in zone. The fact that he’s also a crafty blitzer makes him perfect for the Ravens. Depth at cornerback shouldn’t be too much of a problem, assuming one of the two fifth-round rookies (Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson) can challenge free agent pickup Corey Graham.
This time last year, Billy Cundiff was considered one of the best kickers in the game. That was before he missed nine of 37 regular season field goals plus the game-tying attempt at the end of the AFC Championship. Cundiff still has great power, though you can’t help but wonder about his confidence now. Punter Sam Koch is solid, but he still pronounces his name "cook," which is annoying. In the return game, Lardarius Webb can be dangerous fielding punts while David Reed shows good build-up speed on kicks. Another option is newcomer Jacoby Jones, who is electrifying.
Every year we say the Ravens are relying on their offense to finally take a step forward and get them over the hump. That’s never been truer than now, as this defense is not quite as good as it was a year ago.