Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ravens Face Difficult Times Ahead

In light of a hard-fought game where the Ravens ultimately made more mistakes than the Colts, which almost unquestionably cost them the game, the Ravens sit at .500 with more questions than answers. How good are they, really? Why can’t they seem to beat the great teams? Can they make a playoff push?

The argument has been made that the Ravens are only a few plays away from being an 8-2 or even a 9-1 team. And while this is an accurate statement, it can also be said about a lot of other NFL teams. Time and again, we’ve seen teams dramatically over or under perform their expectations by consistently winning or losing close games against solid opponents. (Cincinnati is one of the teams this season over performing because of this.)

But the Ravens are facing problems deeper than simply a few missed plays. They are in a precarious position in which – upon closer look – they’re more likely to have to go into rebuilding mode than attempting to plug a hole or two, to make a Superbowl run again next season.

The problem is two-fold. First, while the Ravens really have fallen only a couple plays short in close games, you cannot point to just one position or one or two specific players that didn’t make plays. The Ravens don’t just have one or two holes, they have several where they lack talent. Second, several positions currently considered solid or strong are stocked with old players that will very soon suffer a performance decline. Let’s examine both in more depth.

Lack of talent in several positions

The Ravens currently have several holes created by a lack of talent in several different positions. In no particular order:

Wide receiver – It’s no secret that the Ravens suffer from a tremendous lack of talent at the wide receiver position. Their only viable starter is Derrick Mason, who – while still performing – is not the receiver he once was. The rest of the crew are a smattering of slot-at-best receivers.

Interior offensive line – Ben Grubbs has been a severe disappointment as a first round pick. The rotating RG position between Yanda and Chester could easily be upgraded. Matt Birk started the year playing very well in his first three games, but since then has missed blocks and been beaten at the point of attack. This entire unit isn’t terrible, but it is also not good.

Tight end – Todd Heap is playing okay football. But he’s consistently injured for the last several years and is not as effective as he once was. LJ Smith has not made an impact.

Interior defensive line – While Ngata has played well, Gregg and crew have under performed and have not dominated the line as much as they have in the past.

Edge rusher – Suggs has played well against the run and in coverage, but is not having a good year rushing the passer. Pryce is okay but not consistently getting pressure. Jarret Johnson leads the Ravens with 6 sacks on a team that ranks t16-19 in the NFL. The Ravens need to generate more pressure on the QB to help their mediocre secondary perform better.

Inside/outside linebacker – Depending on if we’re in a 3-4 or a 4-3 formation, Tavares Gooden has shown athletic ability, but not instinct. Ray Lewis and Jarret Johnson have played well (Johnson has arguably been the best defensive player this season), but the Ravens have struggled to get consistent play out of whatever third and fourth LB sees the field.

Cornerback – While Foxworth is playing okay, Fabian Washington – now out for the year – has played poorly and looks completely different than he did last year. While Webb looks like he can make the second half of a solid starting tandem with Foxworth, Chris Carr has played poorly, and Frank Walker has earned his spot on the bench.

Safety – Put aside Ed Reed’s terrible decision to attempt a lateral…he’s made decisions like those for years. Like them or hate them (I personally hate them), sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Dawan Landry has been arguably the worst starting safety in the NFL prior to the last two games.

Kicker – Hauschka’s problems were well documented and resulted in his being cut. Billy Cundiff has been brought in and made 5/6 against Indi. The 30 yarder he missed was due to a bad snap, but Cundiff has hit less than 75% in his career, and is decidedly unimpressive from 40+. It is unlikely that he is a long term solution.

Aging at several positions

The Ravens will soon have holes at positions that aren’t currently considered holes due to players aging. From oldest down:

Derrick Mason (35) – Our only solid WR is our oldest and a FA this off-season. Players at this position do not typically decline gradually, their production falls off a cliff. Even if re-signed, how long can we count on him?

Trevor Pryce (34) – Years of wear & tear have taken their toll. His performance is suffering, and it’s not likely to get better.

Ray Lewis (34) – Lewis has been so great for so long it’s hard to imagine him not playing well. But linebackers that play well beyond their early 30s are exceptionally rare, and Lewis is unlikely to be able to maintain this level for more than another year or two.

Kelly Gregg (33) – Already showing signs of wear and tear from years of grinding bodies and getting nicked up, Gregg is close to becoming completely ineffective.

Matt Birk (33) – On the other side of Gregg, he suffers the same problem as Gregg. Guys like Pryce, Lewis, Gregg and Birk – guys that spend years pounding their huge bodies into other huge bodies, tend not to last even into their mid-thirties.

Ed Reed (31) – While not terribly old, he suffers from a debilitating nerve impingement, which is causing him great pain. While not a guarantee, it wouldn’t shock me to see him retire in another year or two because of it.

Bottom line

So let’s recap, and we’ll just look at the starters – 22 + a punter and kicker for 24 total starting positions. Positions we either currently have a deficit or soon will are:
- WR x 2
- OL x 3
- TE
- DT
- DE
- LB x 2
- CB ? (Webb may solve this one)
- S x 2
- K
That is 13 out of 24 positions that are or soon will be holes for the Ravens. Ten of them are already playing below average.

I am not claiming that we need to have dominant players in all of these positions. The best teams in the NFL don’t have dominant players at every position. However, the best teams in the NFL are teams that have a few dominant players, and solid performers everywhere else. The Steelers, Colts, Patriots and Giants – who have combined to win seven of the last eight Superbowls – fit that description very well.

In order for the Ravens to be a legitimate Superbowl contender, they need to find more than just a couple answers. They need to find viable performers at several positions.

And as Ravens fans, we need to be prepared for it to take a few years to adequately fill those holes.


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