Because of pre-season hype and high expectations, last season left many Ravens fans wondering why the team fell short of their lofty goals, and several confusing and exasperating performances late in the season left many wondering how the team can improve from last season and fix their many apparent holes.
Before we look at how the Ravens can improve, let’s take a look back at exactly what happened last season and try to determine what areas would benefit most from off-season improvements. I have thought long and hard about last season and the problems that the Ravens encountered. I believe that their problems all began in the off-season with the injury to Jared Gaither and his subsequent placement on injured reserve. That injury started a snowball rolling and would grow into a critical weakness by the end of the season. The lack of depth at the tackle position made Gaither’s injury nearly impossible to cover. The passing game suffered due to losing its blind side protector and needing to move Michael Oher from right to left tackle, and the running game suffered due to losing its most physical lineman. Obviously, the Ravens still fielded an offensive line, but their inability to protect Flacco and run the ball effectively became more and more obvious as the season went on. On top of all that, Oher had a very disappointing season at left tackle, and his struggles made a bad situation even worse. Opposing defensive coordinators began to attack the offensive line and caused the Ravens offense to suffer a drastic drop-off.
The offensive line wasn't the only problem that the Ravens encountered. They made multiple moves in the off-season to surround Joe Flacco with weapons. They made a trade for Anquan Boldin, signed T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Donte Stallworth, and drafted two tight ends and a wide receiver. There weren’t going to be any excuses, and they were betting the farm on Flacco making a huge leap in his third year. Flacco did not make a huge leap. He certainly did not take a step backward, but he showed only marginal improvement. Flacco didn’t take over games like the Ravens were hoping and needs too for the Ravens to beat the elite teams. In his defense, the offense line made it hard for him to be successful, and his development certainly may have been stunted by the constant pressure. However, there were many times where the line was giving Flacco time but he simply wasn’t reading the field. I don’t mean to heap blame on Flacco. I think Joe did the best he could in a tough situation.
I believe that the Ravens placed entire too much on Flacco entirely too soon. Even if there hadn’t been any offensive line injuries, there was no guarantee that Flacco would make the leap. I think this is a prime example of putting the cart before the horse. The Ravens should have continued to build their offense around the running game and allowed Flacco to emerge on his own and at his own pace. An emerging quarterback behind a strong running game is much more dangerous than an emerging quarterback with weapons that he’s still learning to use. I think this is a problem that the Ravens need to address philosophically. I really believe that the Ravens need to rely primarily on their running game and allow Flacco’s contributions to be a bonus until he can consistently perform and win under pressure. They need to let him emerge at his own pace and stop giving him the Kyle Boller treatment. Flacco’s a good, potentially great quarterback and has all the talent in the world. I really don’t think he’ll disappoint the Ravens in the long run, but right now, they need to take the pressure to win games by himself off his shoulders.
The last problem that I’m going to address in this article is regarding speed at the wide receiver position. The Ravens had the slowest group of wide receivers in the NFL last season. Boldin was a big threat and a great acquisition, but he didn’t threaten to take the top off opposing defenses. In fact, the Ravens didn’t have a receiver on the roster that could stretch defenses. Even Donte Stallworth, who was signed as a deep threat, wasn’t able to consistently push the safeties deep. He was injured for most of the season, but even when healthy, he had little impact. This problem was also made worse by the offensive line. In order to get deep down the field, even the fastest receivers need time, something that the Ravens offensive line was rarely able to give Flacco. Teams began to play more and more defenders in underneath coverage and cheated more and more in the running game. This not only minimized the effectiveness of the Ravens great possession receivers, but also greatly inhibited the running game since there were always defenders near the line of scrimmage. As you can see, all the problems worked against the Ravens in unison and became a ‘perfect storm’ on offense. It became a serious, suffocating problem for the Ravens to overcome, and in all honesty, I’m surprised that the Ravens offense was able to do as well as they did last season under that storm.
I’m sure you’ve already noticed that all of the problems I mentioned were on offense. That’s because I believe the Ravens didn’t have one predominate problem on defense and that the Ravens defense was very good overall last season. In fact, I think they are the main reason that the team didn’t fall apart at the end of the season. Many will criticize the pass rush and the corners, and those arguments have some weight. However, most of the disappointing defensive performances were the result of the offense’s lack of possession time. The performance versus Houston cannot honestly be put entirely on the pass rush or defensive backs. The Houston offense was staying on the field by converting on fourth downs, and the Ravens offense was going three-and-out over and over again. More talented pass-rushers certainly would have helped, and I’m not saying that isn’t an area of need. More pass rushers would surely give the Ravens a bigger margin of error. However, there will always be games where the defense isn’t able to completely shut-down the opposing offense, and there will probably be more as the league shifts towards being more offense friendly. Therefore, it’s going to become more important for defensive oriented teams to have offenses that can compete in time of possession. There were several games last season where the defense carried the team in terms of possession. I’m fairly certain that the defense played two games worth of snaps in Houston. The point is that the Ravens defense is as good as its going to be without the offense giving them more time on the bench.
The Ravens only have so many draft picks and salary cap space so it’s extremely important to maximize every draft pick and off season signing. The following is a list of moves that I believe would most benefit the Ravens this off-season:
1. Re-sign Jared Gaither.
There are several reasons why I believe that resigning Gaither could be one of the best moves the Ravens could make this off-season. They absolutely must address the tackle position this off-season since it’s their biggest need in my opinion. The reality is that if the Ravens don’t resign Gaither, they will need to use a high draft pick on a tackle that can start right away. That’s obviously an option, but I believe the best way to improve the team is to resign Gaither, freeing up a draft pick for another player. Gaither understands the Ravens offense and is more talented than any tackle in the draft. Furthermore, he is a young player with tons of upside, and the Ravens will never sign him to a cheaper contract after Gaither sat out last season. There are negatives to signing Gaither. He was injured last season, and back problems don’t always go away. The concerns about his work ethic may have some weight as well. However, the Ravens need to look at Gaither’s body of work. Every time he’s played, he’s played at a high level and been dominant. You can hardly blame him for not wanting to play through an injury in a contract year at a position that pays significantly less than his preferred position. I’m not saying that his behavior is excusable, but not every player is going to be Ray Lewis’ boy-scout. Before the Ravens write Gaither off, I believe that they should think long and hard about how they’re going to replace him, and if they plan on using a draft pick to replace him, think about the player they won’t be drafting as a result.
2. Sign or draft a receiver to grow with Joe Flacco.
I made a lot of fuss about letting Flacco develop at his own pace, and one of the best ways to expedite that process would be to give him a dominate number-one wide receiver. Look at what Roddy White has done for Matt Ryan in Atlanta. Flacco needs a receiver that can consistently beat the coverage and gain separation. As much as I love Boldin and Mason, the reality is that they are complimentary receivers at this point in their careers. There are several players in the draft that I believe could help Flacco. The player that I really like is Jonathan Baldwin from Pittsburgh. Regardless of who they draft, the Ravens could really benefit from using a high draft pick on a receiver.
Another option would be to sign or trade for a receiver. There usually aren’t many dominant receivers on the market as teams are understandably hesitant to get rid of them. One player that I love and believe could be excellent for the Ravens is James Jones from Green Bay. Jones is a restricted free agent and surprisingly, was only offered a low tender by the Packers. This indicates that the Packers may be trying to move and means that the Ravens would only need to give the Packers a low round pick in order to sign him. I really like Jones and believe he has the makings of a starting, number-one receiver. I’m not saying that Jones is the absolute answer for the Ravens, but he is definitely worth looking into. It’s also worth noting that Aaron Rogers has stated that he believes Jones is the most naturally talented receiver on the Packers.
3. Address the problems in pass-coverage.
I know that’s a very vague statement, but I believe that the Ravens have options when addressing their defense. They could certainly use more pass rushers, and this is a good draft to get one. This may be one of the fastest drafts for linebackers and defensive ends I’ve seen. A guy like Sam Acho from Texas may fall to the Ravens in the middle-late rounds and give the Ravens a quality pass rusher at an excellent value. There’s little doubt that the Ravens will try to add a good pass-rusher to their roster, but I believe that they have a lot of flexibility. They could draft a player early or sign a free agent. Also, don’t count out Sergio Kindle. I know that I’m in the minority of those who believe in him, but I honestly believe that Kindle has a decent heart. I just think he’s as dumb as a brick. The Ravens need to get Kindle on the field and keep him under lock and key, and I think he’ll be alright once he’s gotten to work. There’s a reason the Ravens drafted him in the second round. He’s a force on the field. Go back and watch his college tape. He’s really very talented.
The Ravens could also use a quality corner. Several of their current starters are unrestricted free agents and it’s very unlikely that they will retain them all. It helps to get Dominique Foxworth back from injured reserve, but the Ravens will still need to sign several corners. The best option is to retain a few starters from last season. Chris Carr played very well last season and emerged as the team’s best corner, and Josh Wilson was better than anyone could have hoped. Those two players should be retained in my opinion. Fabian Washington doesn’t want to return, and given his disappointing play, I would agree with the decision to let him walk. That would leave a line-up of Lardarius Webb, Foxworth, Carr, Wilson and Cary Williams, who showed promise last season. That’s a good line-up, and if the Ravens do nothing, they should be able to start all season with little problems. However, I believe that this is a good time to inject some new, young talent, and this group could do great things if the Ravens added a young physical corner. I really like Ras-I Dowling from Virginia and Brandon Harris from Miami in this draft class. A player like that could boost the Ravens secondary to the next level.