The 2016 Baltimore Ravens are a difficult team to prognosticate. After a disheartening season last year and further offseason roster upheaval, the team is far enough removed from their string of five consecutive playoff seasons and Super Bowl championship earlier in coach John Harbaugh’s tenure to bring an uncertain future.
How does the franchise plan to right the ship in 2016? How can the Ravens overcome a middle-of-the-pack roster? What is the identity of the team? Special teams is the answer...
Entering his ninth season in Baltimore, coach Harbaugh has fully implemented his team building blueprint with an emphasis on special teams. After inking reliable punter Sam Koch to a 5-year $16.25 million contract last offseason, the Ravens continued to invest in their special teams unit this summer. Elite kicker Justin Tucker agreed to a 4-year $16.8 million contract last month. Locking up both kickers, in addition to long snapper Morgan Cox (5-yrs $5.6 million) along with special teams aces Anthony Levine (2-yrs $2.2 million), Albert McClellan (3-yrs $3.8 million) and an assortment of athletic young players collected through compensatory draft picks provide the Ravens with the foundation for a dominant special teams units for the next several seasons.
The Ravens have invested more of their cap space in special teams than most every team in the NFL. That appears to be a wise strategy since the team has won countless games by winning the field position battle, breaking momentum shifting kick or punt returns and drilling clutch field goals. Boasting a weekly advantage in the fifth phase of the game is an aspect the team can unpack in every matchup, home or away.
On paper, the Ravens roster is ranked among the middle tier of the NFL. The Ravens have several bonafide Hall of Fame caliber players - Steve Smith, Terrell Suggs, Marshal Yanda - but they are all entering the twilight of their careers. The team also has several promising young players, including Timmy Jernigan, Crockett Gillmore, Za’Darius Smith and Kamalei Correa, but they have not proven an ability to perform at a high level consistently. Counting Joe Flacco, C.J. Mosley, Brandon Williams and Jimmy Smith, the Ravens have precious few players in their athletic primes who appear poised for Pro-Bowl caliber seasons in 2016. In truth, many other contending franchises have more playmakers and near dominant position groups.
Statistically speaking, the 2015 Ravens were not particularly efficient on offense or defense. At the end of last season, the team ranked 8th in passing offense, 26th in rushing offense, 10th in pass defense and 12th in run defense. However, the 2015 team did produce the best special teams in the league, with a #1 ranking from Football Outsiders DVOA evaluation. Special teams is clearly an area the Ravens can hang their hats on and the unit could be even better in 2016 with increased competition for the return specialist role.
Special teams is the true identity of the team for 2016. The offense has exceptional depth at the skill positions, but lacks consistent game changers and will be breaking-in an inexperienced left side. The defense should be better with improved safety play, but still has a vulnerability at #2 cornerback and does not appear to have the personnel to field a shutdown run defense or ferocious pass rush. Winning the weekly special teams battle, and winning it by a wide margin, is the best opportunity the Ravens have to overcome their weaknesses.
Strategically, the Ravens have traditionally played a conservative style of football under Harbaugh. The coaches seem to prefer using a ball control offensive scheme coupled with a bend don’t break defensive gameplan, especially in non-rivalry regular season matchups. Sure, the Ravens save some aggressive offensive gameplans and exotic blitzes for inter-divisional games and the playoffs, but more often than not, the team is content to out-execute middling teams and win close games late in the second half with superior field position management and game ending field goal conversions. Relying on the best special teams in the league, this strategy has been quite successful for the Ravens over the last eight seasons.
Without any offensive or defensive position groups that appear poised to provide a matchup advantage week-in and week-out, special teams will be the identity of the team next season. Focusing on this underappreciated phase of the game is a bold strategy that can propel the Ravens back into the playoffs with a slight improvement in vertical passing and defensive turnovers created.
Indirect matchups and mere inches separate the victors from the losers in the game of football. Through special teams excellence, the Baltimore Ravens have plotted their future and found their inalienable niche.