With the first preseason game just a week away for the Baltimore Ravens, and the regular season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals quickly approaching, it’s hard not to be optimistic about the 2014 season.
After an abnormal 2013 season in which the Ravens not only failed to make the playoffs – for the first time since 2007 – but looked terrible in the process, all stock signs are pointing up this time around. For as bad as the team looked last year – capped off by a historically poor team yards per carry of 3.1 – it still finished 8-8, and was 15 minutes away from sneaking into the playoffs as a Wild Card.
But for the team to get back into the playoffs this time around, what will be the difference maker?
The defense surely isn’t the problem, as it ranked 12th in the NFL last season in yards allowed and points per game. With new additions such as C.J. Mosley, Timmy Jernigan and Terrence Brooks, the defensive side should be as good as last season, if not better.
On offense, the Ravens have a surprisingly deep group of receivers that should give quarterback Joe Flacco much more options than last season. The improved group of tight ends – highlighted by a healthy Dennis Pitta – will help solidify the passing attack.
The front office also helped improve the putrid rushing attack by drafting Lorenzo Taliaferro and signing veteran Justin Forsett, giving the team a four-deep group of ball carriers that should allow offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak to diversify the run game.
That leaves us with the one aspect of the team that almost singlehandedly held the Ravens out of the playoffs last season: the offensive line.
Last year, we watched the likes of Gino Gradkowski, A.Q. Shipley and Michael Oher (for finally the last time) take the field for the Ravens.
Odds are, in your lifetime, there won’t be a worse Ravens offensive line than what was on display in 2013.
A unit that can take some of the blame for yards per carry averages of 3.1 and 2.9 for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, respectively, Baltimore’s (likely) improved starting five should be a heavy difference maker in the pursuit toward improving a horrid run game from a year ago.
Much of Flacco’s worst season of his career – where he had more interceptions (22) than touchdowns (19) – can be attributed to his erratic accuracy and decision making, but a more solidified unit protecting him likely would have limited his turnover tendencies last season.
Fixing the offensive line was an offseason priority, and the team did make some efforts for improvement. They re-signed their best lineman from a year ago (left tackle Eugene Monroe), return a healthier Marshal Yanda and made improvement at the other three slots.
The process started by letting Oher walk in free agency, replacing him (so far) with second-year tackle Ricky Wagner, who is perfectly capable of not only replacing Oher, but being an improvement in due time. So far through training camp, it’s been Wagner’s job to lose, and he hasn’t slipped up to this point.
On the interior, dumping Shipley and Gradkowski (though both are still on the team) out of the starting lineup was a must.
Replacing Shipley was easier, since third-year guard Kelechi Osemele – appearing to be 100% after a season-ending back injury – will return to the starting lineup, and his renewed presence up front may be the most notable of Baltimore’s starting linemen this season.
At center, even a six-year old with no prior football viewing experience could tell the Ravens needed an upgrade.
Gradkowski got his chance to prove he could be the team’s long-term answer at center, but failed to seize the opportunity, likely preventing himself from ever again being in contention for the starting center job in Baltimore.
He was replaced by former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Jeremy Zuttah, who signed a five-year deal with the team, proving the team’s plans for him to be a mainstay with the team.
Center was the one position that needed to be improved most, and Zuttah will be an upgrade over Gradkowski and a much more reliable player to anchor the interior of the offensive line.
It’s hard not to be more excited about this year’s unit than 2013′s 16-game disappointment.
The Ravens almost snuck into the playoffs last year with arguably the worst offensive line in the NFL.
With even a slightly improved line – although there should be a fairly noticeable improvement – turnovers on offense should be limited, and Baltimore’s rush attack will be an upgrade over the laughing stock that it was last season.
That may just be the difference maker in whether or not the Ravens return to playing football in January.