Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ravens Outlook (or, the Season as Process)

I guess if you write for a football blog, you have to put down something about how your team is going to do.

The Ravens are widely projected as SuperBowl contenders.
For example, here: experts' season picks
and here: ESPN Super Bowl forecast
I have largely bought that, this offseason. I'm very excited about this season.

However. I think it's unusual for a SB contender to have so many questions in the defensive secondary, in the pass rush, and on the offensive line.

  • The Ravens top 3 cornerbacks are affected by knee injuries. #1 is lost for the season; #s 2&3 are recovering from injuries suffered last season; #3 has not played a down this preseason. I think the Ravens have done a decent job shoring up the area, for example the Josh Wilson trade and the improved play of Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamora. But how well is this patched-up unit going to be able to cover?

  • Traditionally a strong pass rush can disguise some weakness in the secondary. But the Ravens have only gotten about 30 sacks each of the last 3 seasons, and they made no personnel moves this past offseason to address the pass rush. (Rookie Sergio Kindle was supposed to make a contribution rushing the passer, but he has yet to join the team.) They even traded away Antwan Barnes at roster cutdown – not that Barnes was such an impact player, but he was 4th on the team in sacks last year (tied). That's another move that doesn't improve the pass rush.

  • The Ravens O-line is described, by those picking the Ravens as a SB contender, as "one of the best in the NFL". But that was last year. This year, the Ravens swapped their offensive tackles, moving Michael "Blind Side" Oher over to left tackle and Jared Gaither to the right. This is a move that weakens both positions. That's not the Ravens fault. Gaither justified his 10-cent-head reputation (which Patch called back in 2007) by not participating in OTAs, and then showing up at camp with a dramatic weight loss, and promptly injuring his back. Oher was the Ravens best solution at LT, so they put him over there. But Oher doesn't have Gaither's ridiculous size nor quite his nimbleness, and Oher's arms are perhaps a little short for a prototypical LT. On the right side, Gaither is not available to play, and the Ravens backups have not been inspiring so far. Even when Gaither comes back, he doesn't have Oher's explosiveness or nastiness, so he doesn't project as a prototypical RT. All Ravens offensive tackles have struggled some in preseason, giving up sacks. Since the Ravens plan to throw a lot more to their revamped wide receiver corps, that's a problem.
This then is the state of your Baltimore Ravens: other then defending the pass, rushing the passer, and protecting their own passer, they look dominant.

Their own division is very tough. The Bengals are the defending champs, and they made some additions in the offseason. Everyone is predicting a collapse by the Steelers, but I'll believe that when I see it. That D is still there, Rashard Mendenhall can play, and I believe Dennis Dixon can play too. Would not shock me to see them at 3-1 when Roethlisberger comes back from the suspension.

This then is the state of your Baltimore Ravens: locked in a dogfight with two tough teams in the division.


So the Ravens team that takes the field Monday night does not look like a team that can romp thru the league and win the Super Bowl.

Most pro teams pretty much are what they are when the season starts. College is different: the players are young, every year they are in slightly different roles, and they grow and improve as the season goes on. This is especially visible in college basketball, where you can really see squads get better every week. But true in college football too: especially over the long break between the regular season and bowl games, you see some teams & players raise their games to a whole different level. But in the pros, teams tend to be what they are when the season starts. The offseason is long, and training camp is long, and guys play in the same roles year after year. Really the most common change in a team's performance over a season is downward, as the horrible attrition of the NFL meat grinder takes its toll on a team's best players.

This is just perception, of course; not a thesis I want to try to defend at any length. I'm sure every team tries to improve during the year. And we can easily think of teams that did improve dramatically over the course of a season, and went on to win a SuperBowl: 2000 Ravens, 2001 Patriots, 2006 Indy, 2007 Giants. But that improvement is not the usual trajectory.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh has an extensive background as a college coach, before his 10 years on the Eagles staff, and his dad is a longtime college coach. The staff that he's built, while possessing great NFL experience, is also filled with guys who were longtime college coaches and have reputations as teachers. Harbaugh made it clear he was looking for that, when he spoke in his first year about the kind of coach he wanted to hire for his staff.

I mention this because, in each of Harbaugh's first 2 seasons as Ravens coach, there were clear signs of the team improving as the year went on. 2008 was the rookie season for Joe Flacco and Ray Rice: other players who improved on offense as the season wore on included LeRon McClain and Willis McGahee and Jason Brown and Jared Gaither.

2009 (last season) the Ravens biggest vulnerability was defending against the pass. They regularly gave up big plays the first half of the season. In his press conferences, when asked how the Ravens were going to address the weakness, Harbaugh said that they were going to coach the players they had. They were going to re-emphasize technique and fundamentals, and get their guys to play better. This sounds like the kind of thing a football coach just has to say, because really what other choice does he have? And how often does it work? The amazing thing was, you could see the results on the field in the latter weeks of the season. The Ravens DBs were playing noticeably better; even the fans' favorite whipping boy Frank Walker played better, almost well, late in the season.

Harbaugh's Ravens have shown that they treat the season as a process, and they work the process. They lift weights and practice and they sharpen their technique as the season goes on. They get better – well, those that don't get hurt, anyway. It's pretty interesting to see.
(I'm not implying that the Ravens are the only team who work during the season. I'm sure lots of coaches emphasize incremental improvement every week – Jeff Fisher leaps to mind. I'm just saying, it's cool when your team is like that. The Ravens haven't always exemplified that kind of work ethic.)

The Ravens are expecting that kind of work to improve their pass rush, even without any new personnel. DC Greg Mattison and LB coach Ted Monachino worked an offseason "pass rushing camp" for the defensive front 7, emphasizing such details as hand placement and footwork etc. We won't know anything until the real games start, but the Ravens pass rush looked more dangerous this preseason than it has looked recently. Terrell Suggs is also supposed to be in great shape this season, looking to redeem himself from a disappointing performance last year.

Beyond mystical ineffable coaching magic that may or may not exist, the Ravens have concrete reasons to expect to improve thru the season. Ed Reed starts the season on PUP; he'll be able to return after week 6. So will Brendon Ayendadejo, who was the Ravens nickel LB last season. Also their top 2 (remaining) corners figure to take on greater roles as they gain confidence in their surgically repaired knees. Those together are big reasons to expect the pass defense to be better in the 2nd half of the season than in the 1st.

On offense, Jared Gaither should come back soon from his back injury. No telling if he'll displace Oniel Cousins as the starting RT; but he would vsatly improve the Ravens available bodies at the position. Cousins is an example of the coaches attempting to work their magic. He was drafted in 2008 as a project, a player with physical gifts but very little experience on the O-line. They've been working with him for a couple years, and now he gets a chance to play. (Bad news, the opponent is the Jets; but it's still a chance.) That's the huge advantage of having some continuity on your staff, you get to develop projects. That's something the Steelers are famous for. The Ravens have done that on defense over the years, including Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott. They have another one on the O-line this year, monster 6th round pick Ramon Harewood.

Also on offense, recent acquisition TJ Houshmazilly should get more comfortable the offense as the weeks go by; and Flacco should grow in his ability to work with all of his new receivers.


Every AFC contender has some questions. No one looks like a complete team that will romp thru the season.

If the Ravens fight thru the early season with some wins (and if they get a little bit of luck with their injured players and their young players), then they have a chance later in the year to grow into the SB contender so many now project them to be. Given the way their schedule falls, I think if they get thru the first 5 or 6 games at or above .500, they will have a chance at a first round bye in the playoffs.

They have a lot of business to take care of first.


  1. Given their injury problems, I don't see the Ravens as a SB threat at all, unless Ray Rice really is the 2nd coming of LDT.

    If he is - then yeah, but you better pile up some points with the DB injuries. JMHO.

  2. So many people are so concerned about the secondary. The Ravens spent much of last year without Reed already. They'll be missing Foxworth, but they're moderate at S and they have at least reasonable depth at CB. It's not a great secondary, but it's nowhere near the bottom of the league with Washington and Webb playing, assuming they do.

    Last year with significant issues back there the Ravens were still a solid pass defense. I don't see a whole lot of difference here. I'm not saying they'll be great. They won't. But I don't think they'll be nearly the weak link many analysts are making them out to be.

    OL is a much bigger concern to me.

  3. Yeah, the OL is what's going to hold this offense back.

    Naj, is that you? I agree, the Ravens as constituted don't look like a SB contender to me. But, *if* everyone comes back -- Ed Reed, Jared Gaither, Lardarius Webb, Brendan Ayenbadejo, whoever I'm forgetting -- if they all come back to full strength, then that Ravens team could be a legit SB threat, second half of the season.

    Wishful thinking: if, if, if.

  4. Yes, that was me. If the Ravens ever get healthy, I agree they are a legit SB threat. Hopefully Flacco is better than Dilfer.



About This Blog

Twitter: oblong_spheroid

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP