Keys to The Ravens Playoff Chances
With each new season there is hope, particularly in the NFL where league parity is a way of life.
Each city, each team (with the exception of the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets) has a chance to make a run at the coveted Lombardi Trophy.
The Baltimore Ravens are one of those teams.
Realistically John Harbaugh & Co. are a year away from making a serious run at the title – assuming of course Harbaugh and his staff return in 2018. NFL football tips and predictions aren’t likely to give the Ravens great hope for 2017 either. The team still has some issues on offense to overcome and it’s doubtful that an improved defense is capable of carrying the team – at least not yet, through January and into the first weekend of February.
But a return to the playoffs would be a good start for a team that has played just 2 postseason games since winning Super Bowl 47. With all this in mind, here are 10 things that need to happen in order to secure Harbaugh’s job and a spot on the playoff dance card.
The Ravens cannot begin the season with James Hurst as their starting right tackle. The team can spin this any way they want and tell us all that the undrafted Tarheel has been nicked up in the past and is now at full strength. I’m not buying! The Ravens will face 7 of Pro Football Focus’ top 15 pass rushers in 2017, two of them twice. And let’s not forget that Hurst was responsible for Joe Flacco’s torn ACL in 2015. You want to risk that again? There’s no way around it. Between now and September 10, Ozzie Newsome needs to perform some cap magic and figure out a way of signing a competent right tackle. Otherwise online bets at oddsdigger.com featuring the Ravens will drop like a Falcons’ fourth quarter lead.
Joe Flacco is at his best when complemented by an efficient ground attack which helps to unleash play action. The Ravens need to get their backs cranked up and it starts up front. Senior Offensive Assistant Greg Roman will be instrumental in this department and could prove to be the team’s best offseason acquisition. But both he and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg will be challenged by the absence of Kenneth Dixon who will be serving a four-game suspension to start the season.
Getting to the quarterback sat at the top of the list of things the Ravens needed to fix this offseason. The Ravens hope that 2016 draft picks Bronson Kaufusi and Matt Judon can provide a lift as well as rookies Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams. Za’Darius Smith needs to rekindle the spark from his 2015 rookie campaign or he could be on the outside looking in when The Turk gets busy in September. All of the young talent should energize and preserve future Hall of Famer Terrell Suggs.
Fourth Quarter Meltdowns
From the 2000 season through the 2012 season, the Ravens were 107-11 (.904) when leading after 3 quarters. Their defense was tough, gritty and determined. They knew how to get off the field when it counted most. Between 2015-2016 the Ravens were 9-3 (.750) when leading after 3 frames. But perhaps most disturbingly, beginning with the divisional playoff game against the Patriots during the 2014 postseason, the Ravens have lost eight times after taking the lead in the 4th quarter.
That has to stop and it starts in large part with Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees. He was bumped out in New England by Bill Belichick after a few blown leads late in games. That combined with his body of work in Baltimore suggests a pattern – a disturbing one at that. The front office has provided Pees with a plethora of new toys. If the Ravens defense fails to protect leads again, Pees will have to start tapping into his retirement account in 2018.
Tighten up at Tight end
You know the names: Watson, Boyle, Williams and Gillmore. Two of them have to step up and be competent AND available if the Ravens are going to get their running game cranked up. Roman seeks versatility at tight end. He favors heavy personnel packages, sometimes employing two and three tight end sets. He also likes to run multiple plays from similar formations, hence the need for versatility. All are capable of delivering for Roman. But each comes with at least one question. Watson is returning from an Achilles tear at the age of 36; Boyle is one PED screw up from a one-year suspension; Williams may not be ready by the start of camp and could be a PUP candidate; Gillmore is the tight end’s answer to Michael Campanaro – talented but always hurt.
Breshad Perriman has been one of the stars during OTAs. That isn’t surprising. Even during his rookie season, he dazzled observers before being sidelined by that mysterious knee injury. He needs to take his game to the next level and threaten defenses. His world class speed could force opponents to roll a second defender to his side and open things up for other receivers. A fast start would be ideal. His overall numbers don’t have to be great provided his average per catch is north of 15 yards and he’s hauled in a few 40+ yard passes. Sixty catches for 900 yards and 8 TD’s is the prediction here IF he remains healthy.
The Availability of Jimmy Smith
Arguably the most important piece on Dean Pees defensive roster is the long corner from Colorado. Entering his seventh season, Smith has flashed skills that rival the game’s best cornerbacks but consistency and availability haven’t always been there. If he can find a way to provide both, it opens up the defensive playbook and increases the Ravens’ chances of forcing game-changing turnovers.
The biggest offseason blow so far is the loss of nickel corner Tavon Young who was arguably the Ravens best rookie in 2016. Filling in for Young is Brandon Boykin who has the ability to be an effective slot defender if he stays healthy. The Ravens get him on a 1-year prove it contract, which could work well for both he and the team. Boykin may end up being Ozzie Newsome’s best value signing. He could also be much like Kyle Arrington. An effective Boykin could pave the way to Pees’ employment of more dime packages in obvious throwing situations.
Correa has been prematurely labeled as a bust by many. Early during training camp in 2016, Correa demonstrated explosiveness and was fast to the ball. He’s athletic and relentless. But the coaching staff loaded him up with so much information while moving him to a new position and it disabled his innate skills – slowed down his reaction time and eventually Correa lost the confidence of his positional coaches. This season they’ve simplified things in order to unleash the native Hawaiian’s potential. At this time last year, no one thought that Zach Orr could step in and step up as he did. 2017 might be Correa’s turn to do the same.
Even the most ardent supporters of the Ravens quarterback have to admit that he’s failed to play to the level of his pay. But they’ll qualify such an admission (with good reason) by pointing to leaks in the offensive line, a lack of playmakers, a ground game that was grounded and a defense that failed repeatedly in the fourth quarter. The Ravens plan to address each of these concerns before the season starts and time will tell if they’ll do so effectively. And if they do, it points back to Flacco. He will need to be more consistent during the regular season, starting with the big gunslinger’s mechanics which were a mess in 2016. He’ll also need to expand his vision and maintain patience and poise in the pocket to allow plays to develop. Flacco left far too many plays on the field in 2016, like this in Dallas and here in New England. This season Joe needs to earn that paycheck. If all other things fall into place and Flacco’s struggles continue in what will be his 10th season in the league, plans for a successor will need to be implemented.