There were several players that stepped it up in 2011. Some players stepped it up because they had to, some saw the game start to slow down and realized that they are more than capable at playing at this level.
Just before the 2011 season the Baltimore Ravens pulled one of, if not the biggest, overhauls in team history, unloading a number of key contributing veterans to make room for the stars of tomorrow. This in itself forced some players to get better or get benched.
When the Ravens said goodbye to fan favorite Todd Heap, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta were put in the position of being every day NFL players. Ed Dickson shouldered more of the responsibilities at first as he was named the starter upon Heap's departure. Dickson's season started with a bang as he looked almost unstoppable week one against the Steelers. I will always remember him beating Troy Polamalu for that touchdown when Troy was doing everything he could to slow the powerful tight end in the end zone but came up with nothing but a face full of turf.
As the season went on opposing defenses started to key in on Dickson and force quarterback Joe Flacco to go to his wide receivers. This is when Dennis Pitta started to make a name for himself. Pitta got next to no playing time in 2010 but once he and Flacco started to show some chemistry, he became Joe's favorite target on third downs. The combination of Dickson dropping some very catch-able balls and Pitta's growing chemistry with Flacco puts Dennis Pitta high up in the running for most improved player of the year. Then again I'm not sure if Pitta improved as much as Cam Cameron just started to use him more.
During the lock-out shortened off season much of the emphasis was put on improving the teams pass rush. Many fans were looking for the Ravens to bring in a big name pass rusher to work opposite Terrell Suggs. However, the Ravens stayed true to form and found guys within the organization to fill that role. The most improved pass rusher has to be fourth year LB/DE Paul Kruger.
Kruger ended his 2010 season having notched only one NFL sack. In the 2011 season alone he had six. That is six sacks in very limited playing time. Kruger was used mainly on third downs as a pass rushing specialist. Kruger also had a very important and impressive sack in the AFC Championship game on Tom Brady in the red zone. I think it was the only sack of the game for the dirty birds. Kruger has developed a nasty spin move to go along with his size and strength. If he continues to improve he could be a true force to be reckoned with in the coming years.
Speaking of pass rushers, I guess we have to include Terrell Suggs in this debate. Although Suggs has had some dominant years for this team this was by far his most impressive. I mean the guy was the defensive player of the year for goodness sakes. Did he improve that much more than he played the year before? Suggs has always been an elite player. So, I leave this one up to you fans to decide. 70 tackles, 14 sacks, 7 forced fumbles and 2 interceptions? T-Sizzle does not have a weak part to his game.
The most improved part of the team for Baltimore however was the secondary. With Dominic Foxworth and Chris Carr fighting injuries and Josh Wilson lost to the Redskins someone had to step in and make plays. The improvement could be attributed to the loss of inferior players, the pass rush getting more pressure or better coverage schemes designed by new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano but in my opinion it starts and ends with two new starters in the secondary. Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams. These two players set the standard for improvement in my opinion.
Williams, a fourth year player out of Washburn College had never started more than one game in an NFL season before this year. He was also cut from the Tennessee Titans practice squad a few years ago. This season, not only did Cary start in all 16 games for Baltimore, he was lined up as the teams number one corner for most of them. Williams covered the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Mike Wallace, Andre Johnson and many more superstar receivers. I wouldn't say he had a Pro Bowl season but he definitely held his own, recording 78 tackles, 18 passes defended and two forced fumbles.
Then there is Lardarius Webb, maybe my favorite young Raven. Webb finished the season with 67 tackles, one sack, five interceptions ( for 83 yards and one touchdown) and 20 passes defended. He most definitely should have gone to the Pro Bowl. Webb has all the makings of a shut down NFL corner. He hustles on every play, he is an aggressive tackler and he plays faster and bigger than he is. Perhaps the most impressive stat on Webb is that he did not allow a touchdown all season to his assignment. That is something special.
After an injury marred 2009 Webb came into 2010 a bit rusty but he sure shook off that rust this season. He may have been the Ravens most consistent player every week. I am a huge Webb fan and can not wait to see how he progresses next season.
So, for most improved player I did not include rookies like Torrey Smith or veterans like Bernard Pollard. This was simply because I wanted to use improved meaning the player that improved the most for the Ravens from last year to this year. So, players that were not with the team last season do not count.
So who do you think the Ravens most improved player was this year?