The regular season is over and it’s time for the Baltimore Ravens to gear up for a playoff run. The 2012 season has been filled with ups and downs as many injuries and inconsistent performances have left fans not knowing where the team truly stands. Before the playoffs start, let’s take a look at the post-regular season Ravens:
Quarterback – C+
Joe Flacco is without a doubt the most criticized player on the Ravens. He shows flashes of brilliance one moment, and utter mediocrity the next. Although the past month has been probably his worst during his NFL career, he does have the last two games going for him. Flacco looked outstanding in his outing against the Giants and although he only threw eight passes against the Bengals, he at least showed some rhythm with the offense which he can hopefully take into the playoffs. He’s played fairly well in the playoffs in the past, but not convincingly enough for me to give him a higher grade. Joe Flacco is honestly a mystery at this point, and there’s no telling what he’ll bring to the playoffs.
Running Back – A-
We all know what Ray Rice can do, but Bernard Pierce is who’s impressed me the most lately. He’s the perfect complement to Ray Rice and the Ravens lose little subbing him in for Rice. The change of backs keeps both Rice and Pierce fresh, and it’s really shown over the past few weeks. The Ravens have rushed for over 200 yards the past two weeks and outstanding play from Bernard Pierce has been a constant in those games.
The only thing that will hold Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce back is the play calling. Cam Cameron is gone which should mean more carries, but the Ravens seem too quick to abandon the run when they fall behind. The running game is obviously the biggest strength of the Baltimore Ravens so they need to be running the ball at least 30 times per game.
Wide Receivers – B
Torrey Smith has had a very impressive 2012 campaign and greatly improved his all-around game from 2011. He can run the whole route tree and run it well. It’s no secret that he’s most dangerous with the deep ball, yet he’s still able to run right past the secondary and make some terrific catches and jump balls.
Anquan Boldin has really come into his own during the second half of the season. His toughness can’t go unnoted, making him dangerous across the middle. He’s never afraid to throw a big block even though he has been penalized his fair share of times. He still runs crisp routes and remains one of Joe Flacco’s favorite targets.
Jacoby Jones has started to see more balls thrown his way and for good reason. He’s got a great knack for getting open downfield and works well in the slot. Although his small frame makes him susceptible to injury, he does seem to like crossing routes, something the Ravens definitely need to run more of.
The Ravens still don’t have one dominant, game-changing receiver, but do have a solid receiving corps that brings a lot of different skills to the field.
Tight Ends – B-
Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson have been struggling with injuries this season, but have still contributed significantly. Pitta remains Joe Flacco’s best friend on and off the field, and Flacco seems to like to target him in the red zone. Still, he has yet to put together a consistent stretch of good performances this season. His blocking needs improvement and I don’t understand why he continues to run screens and routes out of the backfield. Pitta is purely a possession receiver and is not someone you should look to for yards after the catch.
Ed Dickson played a good amount this past Sunday and looked solid, making several key catches to covert on third down. His blocking has gotten better, but he still has a lot of room for improvement. He hasn’t done anything incredibly impressive, yet nothing to really disappoint either. The Ravens should be using their tight ends more in the passing game and I expect to see a lot of Pitta and Dickson during the playoffs.
Offensive Line – D-
Frankly, I’m horrified by the Ravens’ offensive line. The only person I’m comfortable with is right guard Marshall Yanda and he’s battling injury. Veteran center Matt Birk has seen better days and while he is still an excellent center, he’s way too prone to injury and lacks the run blocking strength he once had in his earlier career. At the other guard, Jah Reid has been a bright spot at times but I’m still not completely comfortable with him. He’s missed some easy blocks and allowed penetration up the middle.
Backup veteran guard Bobbie Williams’ playing days should be over. He’s been mediocre at best and gets beaten way too often. If injury forces Williams to play at some point, Joe Flacco will be seeing plenty of blue sky.
Kelechi Osemele was a surprising pick in the draft, but he’s actually turning into quite the player. His lack of experience is what hurts him the most and he has trouble pass blocking to the inside. He is also slow off the snap at times but will be a valuable starter for the Ravens in the future.
I have no idea what the Ravens are doing with Bryant McKinnie. I hate to use the word lazy but it’s no secret that McKinnie doesn’t like to practice. Despite this, he is still a decent player on the field. I think it’s a no brainer to put McKinnie at left tackle and move Oher to right tackle. Kelechi Osemele could than move to left guard, taking Jah Reid out of the starting lineup. It’s still not ideal but the Ravens shouldn’t have paid McKinnie all of that money if he’s going to sit on the bench.
Ah, we’ve saved the best for last…Michael Oher. Famous for his feel good, rags-to-riches story and subsequent movie “The Blind Side,” Oher is one of the more well-known tackles in the league, but not for the right reasons. Although protecting “The Blindside” made Oher famous, he’s simply not a left tackle and is much better suited to play on the right side. He’s a penalty machine that constantly false starts and is susceptible to holding, even when he doesn’t have to. Skilled pass rushers abuse him on the inside as he always over commits the outside rush. While he is actually a fairly good run blocker, holding penalties are again an issue. At this point, there’s not many starting tackles in the NFL that I’d not pick in favor of Oher. The fact that Joe Flacco has zero sense of collapsing pockets makes matters worse, as it opens of the chance of a strip sack that cost the Ravens the games against the Steelers and Redskins. The Ravens need to invest in a top tier left tackle if they want to stick with Flacco as he’s way too susceptible to blindside rushes, and lacks the awareness to sense trouble. There’s too many games to count that were lost over the years due to this flaw with the famous Troy Polamalu strip sack for a touchdown from a couple years ago coming to mind first. If Michael Oher wants to save his career, the next logical step is to move to guard.
Defensive Line – B
Although Haloti Ngata has been struggling with injury for the majority of the season, he remains as one of the Ravens’ most elite defenders and anchors the defensive line. Ma’ake Kemoeatu has played exceptionally well at nose tackle lately, making things difficult for opposing centers and allowing linebackers to make successful A-gap blitzes.
After being given the opportunity for more playing time, Arthur Jones took advantage, proving to be one of the best hidden gems for the Ravens this season. Jones has been on fire the second half of the season, notching 22 tackles and 4.5 sacks in his past six games. In the rest of his NFL career (26 games), Jones had 43 tackles and zero sacks.
Terrence Cody has probably been the biggest disappointment on the entire team this season, often getting pushed back four or five yards on run plays. Pernell McPhee has also failed to live up to expectations after a promising 2011 campaign. Like Cody, McPhee plays incredibly high off the snap, sometimes standing straight up, basically giving the offensive line a free and easy block. The Ravens need more out of these two as they head down the final stretch.
Linebackers – B-
At the end of last season, the Baltimore Ravens had one of the best linebacking corps in the league. One year later and the same cannot be said. The Ravens’ linebackers have been plagued with more injuries than any other group on the team. Terrell Suggs, Dannell Ellerbe, Jameel McClain, and Ray Lewis were the four big names that missed playing time due to injury this season. Suggs was out the majority of the first half and has yet to return to last season’s Defensive Player of the Year form. Dannell Ellerbe injured his ankle against San Diego and was missing during the Ravens’ three game losing streak, only to return with strong performances against the Giants and Bengals. Jameel McClain is out for the season, which is a devastating blow to the core of the Ravens defense.
Ray Lewis hasn’t played since week six and announced on Wednesday that this will be his final season. While not confirmed, Lewis more than hinted that he’ll be playing on Sunday during his press conference. Not only will it be great to see a healthy Ray Lewis back in the lineup, but it will add a huge emotional boost to a team that will now be playing to get their longtime leader in the Super Bowl for his final game.
Backups Josh Bynes and Brendon Ayanbadejo have done well with the hand that was dealt to them and now have some valuable game time experience which will benefit them in the future.
On the outside, Courtney Upshaw has really improved throughout the season and is turning into a decent player. He has a nose for the football and has big play ability. Albert McClellan also was dealing with an injury, but looks to be healed up and ready for the playoffs where he should make an impact on the edge.
Terrell Suggs hasn’t been making a lot of noise lately, but even with all of his injuries, he’s still the dynamic player we all know and love. The biggest impact Suggs is having is on Paul Kruger. Suggs has taken all of the attention away from Kruger, allowing him to have a field day in backfields. Don’t get me wrong, Kruger is a great player, but it’s going to make it harder to retain him this offseason as he’s a free agent and many desperate teams will overpay for him.
The Ravens’ are in much better shape now than they were a few weeks ago when it comes to their linebackers. They’re still hurting from injuries, but the mini-bye week against the Bengals will prove to be a huge benefit for the Ravens.
Secondary – B
Another big victim to injuries, the Ravens’ secondary quickly started dropping starters, with the biggest being cornerback Lardarius Webb, the Ravens best cover corner and tackling defensive back, who’s out for the season. Safety Bernard Pollard missed the past two games due to injury, but has rested up and looks to be 100% for the playoffs where he will be much needed. James Inhedigibo has played well in his absence, especially as a blitzer, but his coverage skills need some work. Ed Reed is still Ed Reed, despite dealing with a badly injured shoulder. The playoffs are his time to shine and he’s sure to make his fair share of big plays.
Cornerbacks Cary Williams and Corey Graham have been playing great down the stretch, showing good ball skills and great technique. Chykie Brown has been a huge surprise, although he did get burned a few times against Cincinnati. Still, I like him at the nickel better than Jimmy Smith, who hasn’t recovered from a nagging groin injury. However, he did play fairly well against the Bengals.
Special Teams – A
Rookie kicker Justin Tucker has been great all season. He did miss a field goal last week, but it was a longer kick and just his third miss the entire season, leaving him with a still impressive 91% made this season. It goes without saying that head coach John Harbaugh made the right choice to cut Billy Cundiff this offseason.
Veteran punter Sam Koch is one of the best punters in the league. He’s got a big leg and is adept at pinning teams deep within the 10. He’s also quite the versatile special teamer, running several fakes this season, and even scoring a touchdown on a fake field goal against the Raiders.
The real reason for such a high special teams grade is returner Jacoby Jones. He’s easily the Ravens’ best offseason acquisition and definitely earned his first pro bowl this year. He has hit a bit of a dry spell since his last return for a touchdown in week 11, but he’s still one of the most dangerous players on the field when the ball is in his hands. He can completely change the momentum of a game in one play, which makes him a frightening player for opposing teams to contain.
Coaching – C
The Ravens finally got rid of Cam Cameron which couldn’t have happened soon enough. We still haven’t seen any major changes with Jim Caldwell, but I have had far less complaints with the play calling. While still a controversial move, it was no doubt the right one.
Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees has done pretty well considering how many injuries he’s had to deal with. The Ravens are ranked low in almost every defensive category except for the most important one, red zone defense. They’re ranked second in red zone touchdown percentage which has saved them in many games this season. It’s not the Ravens we’re used to, but they’re making do with what they have.
John Harbaugh has made some very questionable game managing decisions this season which worries me. He’s way too quick to throw the red flag and made one of the worst challenges I’ve ever seen against the Steelers in week 13, challenging an obvious fumble that ended up costing the Ravens a vital timeout, allowing the Steelers to run out the clock at the end of the game before kicking a last second game-winning field goal. We’ve seen Harbaugh make bone-headed decisions like this throughout his head coaching career and I’m afraid that it may cost the Ravens a close game in the playoffs.