Defense wins championships! That's been the mantra of Baltimore for over a decade, and it has been a necessity largely due to the constant uncertainty at quarterback and offensive coordinator. Another nagging problem was Brian Billick's controling personality. He did not like handing over the offensive play-calling. Ultimately, Billick was fired, and John Harbaugh was hired. Through a fortunate turn of events, the Harbaugh was able to recruit Cam Cameron, who coordinated one of the leagues most efficient offenses in San Diego and was fired after a 1-15 season with Miami, and draft Joe Flacco. In a single off-season, two of Baltimore's biggest offensive problems were solved.
The decision to hire Cameron proved to be a good one. Baltimore's offense made a surprising turn-around that was evident in the very first game when Mark Clayton scored on a double reverse and Joe Flacco scored on a naked bootleg. For the first time in team history, the Ravens had a bonafide offensive coordinator and a promising young quarterback. Cameron's strength is his creativity and his fundamental philosophy of putting his best players in positions to be successful. Sporting News said, "Cameron, despite his reputation taking a beating in his one year in Miami, is a great coach who took a Division I-AA quarterback and turned him into a productive NFL starter as a rookie" and voted him the NFL's best offensive coordinator. That is a high honor, especially since the Raven's offense was not flashy last season.
They may not have been flashy about it, but the Raven offense was efficient. Cameron played the Raven's personnel to their strengths and made every play-call count while staying unpredictable. Ultimately, Baltimore's offensive efficiency ranked 15th in the league by Football Outsiders. That's not amazing and not what you would expect from the NFL's best offensive coordinator. Cameron's offense has been criticized for being conservative, but if you look at what he was working with, his overall achievement is actually astounding.
With the league's 26th ranked offense in 2007, Cameron was forced to start a rookie quarterback in his first season with the Ravens. He was also trying to install a new offense at the same time, but many, including Cameron himself, remarked that it may have actually made the process easier. Every player, rookie and veteran alike, needed to work hard and learn a new system. Even so, Cameron quickly discovered that it's not easy to win in the NFL with a rookie quarterback. In a three game losing streak, Joe Flacco threw five interceptions and only one touchdown. The losing streak could have easily discouraged the offense, but Cameron held it together. During the rest of the season, Flacco threw thirteen touchdowns and only five interceptions.
Cameron developed a very strong game plan that ultimately helped Joe Flacco's progression. He would simply call running plays right up the middle. This simple but effective strategy is more complex than one would expect. The Raven's offensive line and LeRon McClain, who had converted from fullback, proved to be a bruising combination and very difficult to stop. By pounding the rock, Cameron's offense would force opposing defenses into zero coverage, which means that there's no deep safety. At that point, play action passes were deadly, and Flacco began to show off his arm strength by beating opposing defenses with the deep ball. This became a low-risk way to keep defenses off balance.
Cameron's offense was more impressive in its ingenuity than its production. It complimented the Raven defense perfectly and played to the overall strength of the team. Most of all, it helped the Ravens advance into the playoffs, a feat that most people wrote off. However, the Ravens cannot rest on their achievements from last year. They lost several key plays and drafted young talent. One concern is talent at the wide receiver position.
Since they did not draft a wide receiver, the Ravens will need to rely on the receivers currently on the roster. Derrick Mason had an amazing season but is getting older. Mark Clayton was emerging but needs to be more consistent if he's going to become a go-to guy. The two receivers that have the biggest opportunity to step up are Demetrius Williams and Marcus Smith. Williams has proven that he has the physical tools to be a NFL receiver and deep threat but has struggled to stay healthy. Marcus Smith is a player that has been raved about by coaches, saying that his improvement from his rookie season is remarkable. At a recent team activity, John Harbaugh said the following:
Comparing [Marcus Smith] to a year ago, it's night and day. We talk to our guys about making the most progress from their first to second year, but Marcus just goes to work. The thing about Marcus is you see a little bit of improvement everyday because he works as hard or harder than anyone on the team everyday. So, you start adding all of that up. You watch practice, and you're like, 'Wow! This guy's really playing well.'
We've always thought Marcus is going to be a really good player. He's physical. He's tough and a hard worker. That's a good place to start. He can run. He's a former running back. Once he gets the ball in his hands, he's a strong runner north and south. We think he's going to be that kind of receiver for us. I'm excited about Marcus.
Just like Flacco did last year, Smith may play a key role in next season's offense. Obviously, nothing's certain. That's the beauty of training camp. Every player gets a chance. Most people would expect a progression, but there are still many questions. How will the Ravens improve on offense? Will Joe Flacco improve in his second year? Which players will have the biggest impact? Which young receiver will step up?