The 2013 season was, in a way, inevitable for the Baltimore Ravens.
Five consecutive playoff appearance, five straight seasons with playoff wins, three AFC Championship Game appearances and one Super Bowl win. How much longer could that run of excellence last?
No team can make the playoffs every single year, and after a 2012-13 offseason saw an abnormal amount of roster turnover, Baltimore’s playoff reign was bound to end.
Contributing to a January-less season of football in Baltimore was the fact that many key players had subpar seasons after playing at a higher level in 2012 and before.
There weren’t many bright spots on the roster in 2013 for the Ravens, but if last season is just going to be a one-year blip on the radar, several notable players will have to bounce back in big ways this season.
Which players are in the best position to have rebound years?
1. Joe Flacco
There were Ravens who had the worst season of their career in 2013, and then there was Joe Flacco.
After five consecutive seasons of managing to throw no more than 12 interceptions, Flacco’s interception total skyrocketed to 22 last season, and he finished with more interceptions than touchdowns for the first time in his career (19 TD, 22 INT).
Throw in a career-low yards per attempt of 6.4 plus a completion percentage of 59.0 and it can only get better from here for Flacco. Yes, Flacco’s offensive weapons were limited, but he’s never had an above average supporting cast in his career yet has managed to work with what he had.
He also played behind a historically poor offensive line, but many of his interceptions and off-target deep passes had nothing to do with the offensive line. Flacco had an off year, plain and simple.
History tells us that 2013 may have been more of a fluke than the new trend for Baltimore’s quarterback, and hopefully the new offense will help Flacco turn things around.
Even if he never returns to 2012 playoff form, at the very least for Baltimore to make a return to the playoffs, Flacco’s interception total in 2014 needs to be much closer to his 2008-12 numbers than 2013.
2. Marshal Yanda
As a whole, Baltimore’s offensive line was an embarrassment last season. The lone consistent bright spot was Eugene Monroe, Baltimore’s best offensive player.
After Monroe, the only lineman who was even marginally consistent was Marshal Yanda, once Baltimore’s crown jewel on the offensive line. He didn’t have a bad year per se, but he also wasn’t the Marshal Yanda we’re used to.
Struggling to consistently hold blocks and seal off the second level as he did in prior seasons, perhaps Yanda’s offseason shoulder surgery that limited his participation heading in the season can be attributed to his decline in play.
With a season of extended rest, could we expect the old Marshal Yanda in 2014? There’s a good chance that’s the case.
3. Haloti Ngata
Like Yanda, Haloti Ngata didn’t necessarily have a poor season, but he also wasn’t his normal self last year.
Ngata’s decline has been more steady than Yanda’s, as the veteran defensive lineman has appeared to be hampered by various injuries the past few years, and his play has taken a hit. In 2013, Ngata never really stood out, and his pass rush capabilities were nearly nonexistent. He had his occasional Ngata-like run play disruptions, but he still isn’t the elite defensive lineman he once was just a few years ago.
Now 30 and on the decline, the best way to get the most out of Ngata is to manage his playing time to keep him fresh. Baltimore has the front seven depth to do just that, and in Ngata’s case, perhaps less is more moving forward.
4. Courtney Upshaw
Was there a less noticeable player who received considerable playing time than Courtney Upshaw last season? Surprisingly, Upshaw was on the field for almost 80 more snaps than fellow outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, but whose play did you notice more?
After a satisfactory rookie year by Upshaw as a run defender in 2012, Baltimore added Dumervil to relieve Upshaw in pass rushing situations, as Upshaw’s pass rush capabilities are certainly not his strong suit. The addition of Dumervil, in theory, would have helped Upshaw improve as an edge-setting impact player in the run game, but in 2013, Upshaw failed to do so, exacerbating his poor play against the pass.
Upshaw is a one trick pony – which isn’t a bad thing if he is very good at that trick – and Baltimore needs him to step up in a big way this season. One of the team’s ultimate downfalls that led to a playoff-less season was the defense’s inability to get off the field late in games, often a product of failing to stop the run consistently in the fourth quarter. Having an imposing run defender to keep run plays contained would have helped the cause, but Upshaw failed to live up to that duty in his sophomore year.
The good thing for Upshaw is that he showed that capability as a rookie, and if he can come into training camp with his weight issues behind him, perhaps the Ravens will get the much-needed return on investment from the former second-round pick.
5. Ray Rice/Bernard Pierce
We’ll group the running backs together, since both members of the backfield are coming off sub par seasons in which neither seemed to hit their stride at any point.
Though both dealt with a poor offensive line, Rice and Pierce failed to create many plays on their own, and it seemed neither was at 100% health for most of the year. With such poor seasons just a year ago (3.1 yards per carry for Rice, 2.9 for Pierce), logic would lead to the belief that it can only get better than 2013 for the pair.
But that’s not to say either is locked and loaded to have a career year. Rice has a forthcoming suspension – which may actually lead to him being fresher in December – but the problem in Rice’s case is the question: has he hit the career wall?
All running backs hit it sooner or later, and typically shorter, more compact runners who carry heavy annual workloads like Rice seem to experience a steep decline once the career wall approaches (ex: Maurice Jones-Drew, Michael Turner).
The signs were there during Baltimore’s 2012 Super Bowl run – Rice just wasn’t the same running back down the stretch. Even if he’s completely healthy and more trim than last season, don’t be shocked if Rice still can’t return to his once All-Pro form.
In Pierce’s case, he is coming off an offseason rotator cuff surgery. For a running back, that isn’t the most desirable of injuries to have. Pierce has appeared to be set back by various injuries throughout his young career, and it remains to be seen how effective he can be post-shoulder surgery.