At the beginning of the 2018 offseason, the Baltimore Ravens announced that general manager Ozzie Newsome would step down from the position following the end of the coming year. This came just weeks after a third straight disappointing season saw Baltimore miss the playoffs after a heartbreaking Week 17 collapse.
As a result of this bitter ending to the season, fans and local media were understandably frustrated. Not only was the team not unsuccessful at their goal of finally returning to the playoffs, but they were plagued by the same issues that had been bugging them since their last trip to the postseason.
That would be an anemic offense that held back a strong defense, and that same defense showing an uncharacteristic lack of back bone late in games. Both of these issues reared their ugly head against Cincinnati last New Years Eve, which ultimately sent Baltimore into soul search mode that winter and spring.
It would appear that devastating loss was a key motivating factor in what currently has the Ravens at a good spot, sitting at 3-1 after shutting the Steelers out in the second half Sunday night to get the upset win in Pittsburgh. It was their first victory at Heinz field since 2015, and their first over Ben Roethlisberger there since they upset Pittsburgh in the 2014 wild card round.
Sunday night, Baltimore much more resembled the playoff squad that got the win there than the hapless ‘15 team that barely squeaked by a retirement bound Michael Vick. The reason for that resemblance is Newsome and the front office’s collective efforts to finally, truly turn things around.
It began (fittingly so) at the pass catcher position. Baltimore has long had some of the worst luck in the league at drafting and developing the wide receiver position, and that was especially apparent in 2017.
In many aspects of life though, you make your own luck, and part of the Ravens struggle at finding effective wideouts fell on their inability to scout and coach them. In 2017, they sold themselves on the idea of Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin, and Breshad Perriman being effective enough to help the offense consistently move the ball.
It didn’t seem like a crazy idea at the time, but boy did it turn out to be in a lot of ways. Wallace (though a consummate team guy) wasn’t quite the same player he once was, Maclin was injury prone and a poor fit for Joe Flacco, and Perriman regressed as the number three option.
To compound issues, tight end Ben Watson was well past the wrong side of 30. That position, which has historically been a point of strength for Baltimore, was once again a crap shoot after the permanent loss of Dennis Pitta following 2016.
After a third consecutive season with issues at pass catcher, Newsome made it clear he had had enough. He initially made it directly clear through some of his pre-offseason media availablities, and then tacitly made it plainly obvious over a several week stretch beginning on March 13th.
That was the date the Ravens made what was at the time an afterthought signing amidst a group of some big name free agent receivers. Arizona’s John “Smokey” Brown had gotten off to a promising start to his career before injuries derailed his progress; so far in 2018 he’s living up to that initial potential, looking like a bargain signing and Baltimore’s best receiving option, which was fully on display Sunday night:
Brown flew under the radar this past offseason, though he did have long term offers from other teams. He turned them down in order to bet on himself, and that gamble appears to be paying off for both parties so far.
NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling recently ranked Brown as a top 10 afterthought acquisition of the year, citing his fit across from the possession minded Michael Crabtree as a perfect one for the Ravens offense:
“Signed off the scrap heap as a reclamation project after injuries sabotaged his last two seasons in Arizona, Brown has been a godsend on a one-year, $5 million contract. He’s generated at least 80 yards or a touchdown in all three games this month, bringing the downfield strike back to Baltimore. He and reliable possession receiver Michael Crabtree have helped a rejuvenated Joe Flacco get off to his best start since the 2012 Super Bowl season.”
Brown has been a perfect fit as a do it all threat in Baltimore’s offense, and takes the pressure off of Crabtree and and Willie Snead. Those two were signed in the weeks following Brown’s pickup, and have fit in perfectly as the possession type players that Flacco typically loves throwing to on money downs.
Speaking of those security blanket type players, Flacco usually makes use of his tight ends in such a way. After the loss of Pitta last season and then Watson to free agency a year later, it looked like Baltimore may have had a problem position on their hands there as well.
Newsome again took note, this time looking towards the draft in April to fill the needs. In the first round he selected top ranked Hayden Hurst out of South Carolina, and then doubled back to nab Mark Andrews the high profile prospect out of Oklahoma.
Andrews has been sure handed and dynamic after entering camp as a relative afterthought with Hurst deservedly getting all of the pub to start things off. But with the first rounder not even seeing the field up to this point, it’s fair to wonder if Baltimore’s revamped offense could become even more explosive once he’s activated.
If they are able to continue to click, the Ravens could be a contender in the AFC this season. In his Monday Morning NFL digest, Bleacher Report’s Mike Tanier breaks down how the construction of this team could lead to a winning formula moving forward:
Brown, Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead IV give Flacco (who threw for 363 yards and two touchdowns Sunday) a real home run threat, a contested-catch specialist and someone who can make little checkdowns productive, respectively. Give a quarterback one extra long completion, one extra tough catch in traffic and a few more yards after underneath receptions each week, and it will do wonders for both his reputation and the offense. Factor in a tough defense and Justin Tucker’s reliability with a freshly watchable offense, and the Ravens are back in 2010 to ‘14 mode, which means they should not be overlooked as potential Super Bowl contenders.
Part of the success of the offense has to be attributed to the coaching staff. Maligned coordinator Marty Morninwheg is in a career renaissance of his own, and the addition of quarterbacks coach James Urban appears to have helped put Flacco back on track.
Coaching on the other side of the ball can also be given some credit for turning around their one glaring weakness. With names such as Chuck Pagano, Rex Ryan, and Mike Pettine on the market, Don “Wink” Martindale didn’t exactly fire up the team’s supporters when he was hired in-house as defensive coordinator to replace Dean Pees.
It hasn’t been perfect up to this point, as Martindale has seen his unit give up big plays at certain points throughout the year. To his credit though, they’ve been stiffened when it matters. That showed up in the second half against Pittsburgh on Sunday night:
Ravens gave game ball to defensive coordinator Don Martindale. Weddle said Ravens felt they were step ahead entire second half. “They couldn’t run the ball for anything.”— Will Graves (@WillGravesAP) October 1, 2018
Weddle’s sentiment is more true than he may have even realized, as Baltimore held Pittsburgh to a paltry 20 yards on the ground, and kept the Steelers dangerous receiving threats relatively in check. The most amazing stat though is the one that is indicative of real change among this unit:
This is the stat that should have fans excited about a true turnaround by this team in 2018. As good as the defense has been in the past, Pees became known for his typically strong units wilting when the game was on the line.
Through Week 4, they’ve been the opposite. The big plays have been there, and they aren’t quite as opportunistic as they were in 2017, but if the second half dominance remains even somewhat intact, then Wink could end up being the sneaky biggest acquisition of last offseason.
As big as Sunday night’s victory was for Baltimore in the short term, it should have fans excited in a long term sense as well. Ozzie Newsome and the front office went into this past offseason determined to fix the issues that had been plaguing the squad in their three year playoff drought, and the victory over Pittsburgh was a solid measuring stick of their success in doing so.
There’s a long way to go, and adjustments still need to be made, but for now, Newsome can be confident his swan song as Baltimore’s top executive may be a fulfilling one. Thanks to the roster he created, it’s looking more and more likely by the week.