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For Ravens Class is in Session

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While the Ravens watched Sunday’s NFC Championship between the Seahawks and the 49ers that came down to the wire on TV, there were plenty of lessons to be learned.

Before that, these same Ravens probably enjoyed a nice late lunch, while watching Peyton Manning surgically dissect the defense of the New England Patriots during the AFC Championship – the same team that walloped Baltimore at home during the 2013 M&T Bank finale.

Even more lessons were learned.

What we don’t know is whether those who have a say in making desperately needed changes to the playoff-less Ravens, will be able to get it done.

First, look at the Seahawks. The author of the NFL’s #1 defense, #1 in takeaways, with the #1 cornerback in ostentatious Richard Sherman, and a great coach in Pete Carroll, Seattle has been great all year despite question marks on offense.

But as the Ravens know from their own (2000) history, defense can indeed win championships.

The Seahawks do everything right on defense that Baltimore doesn’t do: challenge receivers one-on-one every game, as a team, completely take away short routes, up the middle routes, and make every play about one significant goal on defense – turnovers. Get turnovers!

The 2000 Ravens did the same thing, although their calling card was making teams one-dimensional by completely taking away their ability to run the ball.

Seattle challenges opponents to pass on them. Colin Kaepernick tried that Sunday, and threw two interceptions, fumbled once, and, despite a late rally, made a bad decision to challenge Sherman one-on-one during the games closing moments. And he lost.

Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees’ defense has been up-and-down, but the one thing they have consistently lacked is a superior mentality that they can’t be beaten. Former coordinators Chuck Pagano and Rex Ryan managed defenses that were mean, physical, and challenged teams to attack them. They intimidated QB’s.

Pees’ defensive schemes have been decent, but vanilla against high-powered passing offenses. Manning laughed his way through them for 7 touchdowns and Tom Brady gave Baltimore their worst home loss in team history. You can say the team didn’t execute, but that’s just half of the story. Whatever Pees put out there also didn’t work.

Granted, Pees’ aggressive play-calling in Super Bowl XLVII helped Baltimore win the game at the end, but this defense, despite the improved play of Jimmy Smith this year, lacks identity and while overall middle of the pack, they don’t scare any of the passing-machine type teams. The Ravens need that to win. They have to be able to finish games. The defense, even with the Bronco and Patriot laughers subtracted, often didn’t finish, costing them multiple games that should have been wins.

On offense the Manning Express does everything Baltimore doesn’t do: the offense is exciting, unpredictable, constantly changing, and constantly mixing in running plays and passing plays.

Baltimore’s offense is stagnant against good teams, with a non-existent running game, pathetic pass protection scheme and execution, and lacking in play-makers to give the team a chance to win.

Think about the people on Baltimore’s line: A.Q. Shipley was supposed to be the backup center to Gino Gradkowski, the under-sized, under-performing center who has been one of the bigger draft busts of GM Ozzie Newsome’s tenure, along with WR Mark Clayton, LB Sergio Kindle, and WR Travis Taylor among others.

Shipley is now a starter due to injuries to starter Kelechi Osemele and the ineffectiveness of other backups. Rick Wagner is somehow on the O-Line despite routinely getting toasted by opposing pass-rushers, and constantly missing assignments and other mistakes.

Gradkowski was a bad gamble from the start, being an under-sized guy from a lesser-regarded college, though granted a school (Delaware) that produced MVP QB Rich Gannon and Super Bowl MVP QB Joe Flacco.

Had Gradkowski been undersized, but from Michigan State or Auburn for example, the gamble might have been smarter – he would have at least faced a higher level of competition. But instead Gradkowski has been pushed around by bigger guys all year. And Joe Flacco isn’t Colin Kaepernick. If he doesn’t have time to throw, or have a viable running game to take the pressure off, it is ‘bedtime for Bonzo.’

The Broncos have threats galore offensively from TE Julius Thomas who embarrassed them in the season-opener that should have been played in Baltimore, to WR Eric Decker amongst others.

The Ravens have a double-teamed Torrey Smith, no viable counterpart, though a developing Marlon Brown has at times played well, a good third receiver/KR in Jacoby Jones, and a mostly-injured (in 2013) TE Dennis Pitta. And let’s not forget the missing ground attack and the wasted Pro Bowl FB Vonta Leach who spent most of the season on the sideline.

Fixing the O-Line and getting a play-making Anquan Boldin-style WR should be Newsome’s #1 priority in the offseason. The draft may provide some help, but Gradkowski should be cut or benched and a veteran center signed.

Michael Oher is probably gone, so the team will need to find a replacement for him as well.

The Broncos protect Manning, while the Ravens don’t protect their similarly mobility-deficient QB Flacco.

So as the Ravens watch what should be an exciting Super Bowl, they can sit back and think what might have been had so many bad decisions (like trading Boldin or drafting Gradkowski) not been made.

And then there’s this job opening for a new Offensive Coordinator.

Hopefully someone who doesn’t collect paychecks from 1 Winning Drive fills the job – someone to challenge Joe Flacco and bring some creativity to an offense that couldn’t be more unimaginative.

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