The 2017 season will be remembered as a tough year for the Ravens. Despite facing an incredibly manageable schedule, Baltimore was unable to earn a trip to the playoffs. The offense was painful to watch for most of the year, and the defense was responsible for multiple dispiriting losses.
It is difficult to be optimistic about the future of this franchise. Baltimore’s decision makers seem stubbornly devoted to continuity. The roster is one of the older groups in the NFL, and the team is mired in one of the worst salary cap situations across the league.
Nonetheless, the 2017 season included several positive developments for the Ravens:
- Emergence of a Factor Back
Alex Collins was signed to the Ravens practice squad in September. By October, Collins had emerged as the lead back. By December, he was arguably the best player on the entire offense.
Alex used his blend of burst, power and elusiveness to accumulate 1,160 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns on 4.6 yards per rushing attempt. Both of the Ravens championship teams have featured Pro Bowl caliber running backs - Jamal Lewis and Ray Rice. After running behind a patchwork line with minimal help from the passing game, Collins proved he is capable of continuing their legacy.
Better still, he is just 23 years old. And Collins will be an exclusive rights free agent this offseason, meaning the Ravens can retain his services at an affordable price. Young, bluechip talent is the key for the Ravens coming roster retooling.
- Offensive Line Coaching
The offensive line was an area of concern before training camp began. Then John Urschel retired, Alex Lewis was injured and Nico Siragusa also fell to injury in short succession. Next All-Pro Marshal Yanda broke his ankle in Week 2, and Ronnie Stanley battled nagging issues all season.
Fortunately, the Ravens made two major upgrades to their coaching staff before the season. New offensive line coach Joe D’Allesandris and running game guru Greg Roman maximized the blocking from a group that featured former backup Ryan Jensen, the often criticized James Hurst, undrafted rookie Matt Skura and Raiders castoff Austin Howard.
At the conclusion of the regular season, the Ravens were ranked as the 11th best running team. Their 27 sacks allowed were the seventh fewest in the league. Jensen and Hurst will both be unrestricted free agents in the spring, their return is not guaranteed. Hopefully Yanda and Lewis return to form. Most importantly, if D’Allesandris and Roman were able to coach this group up, they can build an overachieving unit again.
- Edge Rushers
Terrell Suggs turned in a vintage season, posting 11 sacks, 20 quarterback hits, four pass deflections and four forced fumbles. On the opposite side, second year linebacker Matthew Judon had a breakout season, tallying 8 sacks, 18 quarterback hits, three pass deflections and a pair of forced fumbles. Fellow young edge rushers Za’Darius Smith and Tyus Bowser chipped in another 6.5 sacks combined.
The Ravens 41 sacks tied for eleventh most in the league. The pass rush generated by the outside linebackers in even more impressive when considering the team only found five sacks from their interior down lineman.
Suggs has stated his intention to continue playing next season. He, along with the four outside linebacker still playing out their rookie deals, including Tim Williams, give the team a solid foundation to construct their defense around. And because pass rushers are among the highest paid players in the sport, the Ravens will have more assets to devote to other positions.
- Quality Cornerbacks
Baltimore’s tenth best pass defense was their highest rated phase in 2017. Although the safety play and coverage from linebackers often disappointed, the Ravens depth and quality at cornerback kept them in contention until the final game.
The front office did not receive the production they envisioned from many of their offseason acquisitions. Rookie corner Marlon Humphrey was one of a few notable exceptions. Humphrey arguably had the best rookie season of any Ravens first round draft selection since C.J. Mosley, and one of the best debut seasons for any Raven rookie since Haloti Ngata in 2006.
Jimmy Smith turned in perhaps his finest season before tearing his Achilles. Brandon Carr had a few poor games but was a positive influence on the team overall. Maurice Canady also fared well, especially for former sixth round pick playing for the first time as a professional. Furthermore, promising slot corner Tavon Young should be healthy in time for offseason activities. As the Ravens proved in many games this season, a strong pass defense can cover up many other flaws.
- Opportunistic Defense
The defense never quite reached dominant status. Still, a league leading 22 interceptions along with the league’s fourth best 12 fumble recoveries was mighty impressive. In fact, the Ravens led the entire NFL with a cumulative plus-17 turnover differential. No other factor was more instrumental in the Ravens nine wins than their ability to take the ball away from opposing offenses.
Nine different defenders corralled an interception this season, Eric Weddle paced the group with six. Another nine defenders recovered at least one fumble. Dean Pees scheme, particularly the dime package, certainly played a part in this lofty takeaway total.
The Ravens have come a long way from their franchise worst six interceptions in 2015. Surely facing so many backup quarterbacks padded the stats this year. And there is a certainly an element of random luck in forcing turnovers from year to year. Still, 2017's opportunistic defense bodes well for the future.