December 30, 2013 in Observations
Just one season removed from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans, the Baltimore Ravens have failed to make the playoffs.
This comes on the heals of a 34-17 loss that dropped the Ravens record to 8-8 for the season. A win in this game would have sent the Ravens to the playoffs as the Miami Dolphins lost to the New York Jets. Since both the Ravens and the Dolphins lost, the sixth seed in the AFC goes to the San Diego Chargers who sneak into the playoffs with a 27-24 win in overtime against the Kansas City Chiefs who rested many starters and will be the fifth seed in the playoffs.
Under head coach John Harbaugh, this is the first time in his six-year tenure that the Ravens have missed the playoffs. The last time they missed the playoffs was back in 2007 when Brian Billick was still the head coach, Steve McNair, Kyle Boller and Troy Smith saw time at quarterback and the New England Patriots were in the midst of their 18-1 season.
Called a Super Bowl hangover, many teams struggle to find success in the season after they win the Super Bowl. The 2006 and 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers along with the 2012 New York Giants didn't make the playoffs the next season after winning the Super Bowl. The last team to repeat as Super Bowl champions were the New England Patriots who won three in four years in the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons.
Trying to avoid the struggles of a defending Super Bowl champion, the Ravens revamped their roster, especially the defense, and lost many players in free agency due to salary cap limitations.
This seemed like the right idea, but it was to no avail as some fatal flaws killed the Ravens' season — and all of these were evident in the Ravens' loss to the Bengals.
First, and most importantly, is the offensive line. After investing $120.6 million into quarterback Joe Flacco, the offense was expected to perform at a level like they did in the playoffs where he threw 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in four games. This was never able to happen however.
Returning four of the five starters from that line in the playoffs (center Matt Birk retired), their performance was expected to be as good as the playoffs, but it wasn't.
The entire run game was switched around by run game coordinator Juan Castillo. It was still a zone-blocking system like before — the changes were just made within the current system. These changes seem to have been for the worse though as the Ravens' run game was the worst in franchise history. Gaining just 1,328 yards on 3.1 yards per carry, the Ravens set new franchise worsts in these two categories by some margin. The previous worsts were 1,589 yards and 3.8 yards per carry, both in 1997. That is a different of 261 yards and 0.7 yards per carry.
In 2012, the Ravens ranked 11th in total rushing yards (1,901) and 12th in yards per attempts (4.3). This year though, they ranked 30th in rushing yards and 32nd (last) in yards per attempt.
Change quickly happened though as Rice injured his hip causing him to miss only one game, but the lingering effects of this injury impacted his performance.
On the offensive line, left guard Kelechi Osemele made it through seven games before being placed on injured reserve due to a back injury that required surgery. He was replaced by backup center A.Q. Shipley. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie — re-signed to a two-year contract in the offseason — struggled and was eventually traded to the Miami Dolphins after a replacement, Eugene Monroe, was acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars. At center, Gino Gradkowski struggled to make a positive impact in his first season as a starter. His play improved a little bit at the end of the season, but he still graded out as one of the worst centers in the league according to Pro Football Focus. Right guard Marshal Yanda had offseason shoulder surgery and this seemed to impact his play in the beginning of the season. He didn't play bad, but it looked like the bad performances around him dragged him down a bit. Right tackle Michael Oher was inconsistent all season and struggled with penalties.
In pass protection, the offensive line struggled the most with blitzes. So many times there was an unblocked defender in Flacco's face right after the snap. This comes down to communication on the line and with Flacco as to who is going to be blitzing and what protection scheme should be used on this particular play.
Against the Bengals yesterday, Flacco was getting absolutely beaten up. Already playing on a sprained MCL in his left knee, the last thing that he needed was to be hit. The Bengals defense registered two sacks and seven quarterback hits, along with numerous other pressures. After one hit, CBS showed a replay that zoomed in on Flacco's face and you could see him screaming in pain and holding his left knee. On another play he slammed his right arm into the ground hard and injured his right shoulder. He never missed a snap, but it got to a point where backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor started to warm up and the announcers where talking about potentially putting him in to replace Flacco.
For the season, the offensive line allowed 48 sacks which is tied for fourth most in the league. Last year, the line allowed 38 sacks in the regular season and six in four playoffs games. Not shown in the sack numbers are the numerous hits, pressures and hurries allowed by the line.
The line also had a league-high 28 false start penalties which are a sign of lack of discipline and are very easy to avoid.
Due to a change in system, injuries and overall poor performance, the Ravens' offensive line failed to create holes for Rice and Pierce to run through and failed to give Flacco sufficient time to throw the ball. The performance off the offensive line was one of the main reasons that the Ravens were able to win the Super Bowl last season, but it is also one of the main reasons why the Ravens won't be making the playoffs this year.
The other problem that plagued the Ravens' offense was, well, a lack of offense. In their last three games (against the Detroit Lions, New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals) the offense scored two touchdowns. Two. In their last 42 drives of the season, the Ravens offense scored two touchdowns.
In these three games, kicker Justin Tucker made nine field goals, but that still only bring the Ravens to 42 points or 14 points per game. That isn't going to cut it in the NFL nowadays.
When your offense is performing as poor as that, the team does't deserve to be in the playoffs and the Ravens know that.
Moving to the defensive side of the ball, the team was up and down all season. At times the pass rush was one of the best in the league and at times it didn't show up (they finished with 40 sacks, tied for 16th in the league). Against the Bengals, the Ravens didn't record a single quarterback hit, let alone a sack.
There were times when the defense couldn't force a turnover if the opposing team wanted to turn it over and then there were times like yesterday when they intercepted four passes.
The defense could perform well the entire game, but when a stop was needed near the end of the game, they couldn't provide one.
Early in the season the defense was one of the best in the league in the red zone, but they struggled over the last few games. For the season they finished eighth in the league in red zone scoring percentage (touchdowns only) at 48.78 percent. Over the last three games though, they allowed a whopping 87.5 percent of red zone trips to end in touchdowns — easily the worst in that time frame.
Some times the defense would be able to wrap up the ball carrier for little or no gain. Other times they would either not get off blocks, over pursue the ball carrier or just straight up miss the tackle.
Overall, the 2013 Baltimore Ravens football team was defined by inconstancy. At times they looked capable of defending their Super Bowl title and making it back to the big game, but at other times they looked like a team that needs serious change in the offseason. When you put that together, you get a team that is just average. The Ravens 8-8 record showcases just than and they have one more chance to be right in the middle of the pack, as pending a coin flip, the Ravens' will pick 16th in the NFL Draft — right in the middle.