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The Three Main Keys to Success for the 2016 Baltimore Ravens

With improvement in these three areas, the Ravens will be back in the playoffs

Jeffrey G. Pittenger, US Presswire

As we all know, 2015 was a disappointing season for the Ravens.  A rash of injuries was one of the main culprits for the down year.  While injuries are usually out of the players and coaches control, other areas of necessary improvement are well within the capabilities of the players and coaches.

These are the three biggest keys for a successful 2016 campaign:

1.  START FAST ON OFFENSE

In 2015, the Ravens scored a touchdown on their opening possession twice in sixteen games.  The first was a Week 15 pass from Jimmy Clausen to Kyle Juszczyk in a loss to the Chiefs.  The second was a Ryan Mallett toss to Chris Matthews in the their Ravens most impressive win of the season versus the Steelers in Week 16.

Overall, the Ravens averaged four first quarter points over the entire 2015 regular season, 18th best in the NFL.  The Ravens first quarter time of possession in 2015 was 47.7%, 22nd best in the NFL.  Whether it was quarterback Joe Flacco taking a few series to warm up and find his accuracy, an over emphasis on establishing the run or untimely turnovers, the 2015 Ravens did not start fast on offense.

Scoring early is obviously beneficial for any team.  First, it allows the offense to find a rhythm and minimizes turnovers from pressing.  Secondly, it allows the offensive coordinator to mix up the play calling since they are not forced to pass in an effort to avoid a large early deficit.  It also impacts the action on the other side of the ball, scoring early puts the pressure on the opposing offense and allows the defensive play caller to be more aggressive since they have a cushion work with.

Offensive coordinator Marc Trestman needs to be better in scripting the plays early in games and setting up the run with the pass.  The players need to do a better job of executing the plays.  Starting fast on offense will go along way towards improving the Ravens 2016 record.

2.  CREATE MORE INTERCEPTIONS ON DEFENSE

The 2015 Ravens corralled a total of six interceptions all season.  That was the worst tally in the entire NFL, well below the Ravens' three year average of 13.3 per season.  The 2015 Ravens won the turnover battle only three times all season, they had a two wins and one loss in those games.  Historically, the team that wins the turnover battle wins the game approximately 75% of the time.

The causes of the chronically low interception 2015 production are varied.  A combination of passive coverages, in game situations where the Ravens often trailed - allowing the opposition to protect the ball and plain bad bounces are mostly to blame.  A less fearsome pass rush also played a part.

Big plays win games and nothing can turn the momentum of a game more than a crucial interception to stop a promising drive.  Even better if the defense can return the interception for a score or at least put the offense on a short field.

In order to earn a playoff bid, the Ravens have to create more interception, period.  Dean Pees must force his defensive backs use tighter coverage, train the defensive lineman tip more balls at the line and do much more to confuse quarterbacks.  The offense can help by putting the defensive in situations where they can be more aggressive. And the defenders have to show better awareness in locating the pass and catch the ball is there for the picking.

3.  CONNECT ON MORE DEEP PASSES

Last season, the Ravens had eight completed passes of 40 yards or more, good for 14th best in the league.  Not terrible but not great for a team who has depended on long passes down the field in previous seasons, and has one of the best deep ball passers in the league on their roster.

In 2015, Joe Flacco was the 26th best quarterback in terms of "Air Yards" (total passing yards minus yards after the catch) with 47% of his passing yards in the air compared to 53% of his passing yards gained after the catch.  Division rival Ben Roethlisberger was one of the best in the league with a 63% to 37% split between air yards and yards after the catch.

Making matters worse, the Ravens only benefitted from four pass interference penalties for a total of 42 yards.  That was the third worst mark in the league, a huge decrease from the last several season.  The Ravens earned the 2nd most pass interference yards in 2012, and the most in the whole league in both 2013 and 2014.

Since winning the Super Bowl in 2012, Joe Flacco's deep ball success has coincided perfectly with the Ravens playoff chances.  When the Ravens missed the playoffs in 2013, Flacco had a 26% accuracy rate with one touchdown and eight interceptions.  Flacco improved greatly in 2014 with a 50% accuracy rate and eleven touchdowns to two interceptions. Flacco regressed again in 2015, which was part of the reason for the poor season.

It was certainly not entirely Flacco's fault though.  Pass protection was atrocious for much of the season, making it difficult for Flacco to find receivers on short routes before he was pressured, let alone vertical routes.  The departure of Torrey Smith and his prolific ability to earn pass interference flags also hurt, exacerbated by rookie deep threat Breshad Permian's season long knee injury.

The Ravens have certainly recognized the drop-off in deep passing last season and have taken multiple steps to correct the decline.  Drafting Ronnie Stanley in the first round should buttess protection on the blindside.  Mike Wallace is a speed merchant in the Torrey Smith mold, Perriman should be healthy and fourth round rookie Chris Moore is yet another pass catcher with downfield potential.

As with the other main keys for a resurgent 2016, improved vertical passing puts everyone from the coaches to the lineman and backs to the defense in a better position to succeed.  What do the Ravens need to do continue playing past the regular season?  Making big plays in the passing game on both sides of the ball - definitely early, hopefully often