Last week, the Las Vegas odds makers came out with their projected win totals for every NFL teams. In the AFC North, the experts and prognosticators have the Bengals projected to win the division for a second straight year followed by Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and then Cleveland. Over the past few seasons, the AFC North has been one of, if not the best division in all of football.
However, last season proved to be a bit of an exception with the division, as only the Cincinnati Bengals made the playoffs. It marked the first time since 2007 that the AFC North division sent only one team to the NFL’s postseason tournament and because of the Bengals knack for being one and done once the regular season ends, last year also marked the first time an AFC North team did not represent the conference in the AFC Championship game during that span. From 2008-to 2012, the division known for its tough defenses and blue collar cities, had at least two teams in the NFL postseason. In 2011, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Cincy all represented the division. Once in the playoffs, the division handles its business quite well posting a 14-10 record during that span of playoff play.
Two teams, the Ravens (3) and Steelers (2) have appeared in five AFC title games and are 2-1 in Super Bowls with the Steel and Charm cities winning their sixth and second Lombardi Trophies respectively during that period of time. The Steelers and Ravens have twice squared off in the playoffs during this time—once in the AFC Championship (2008) and once during the divisional round (2010). Pittsburgh won them both. Although it has happened, the division doesn't usually back into the playoffs.
Since the 2008 season, the Steelers (3 appearances) Bengals (4 appearances) & Ravens (5 appearances) have combined to post a 130-62 record (.677) during the regular season. This means that in order to win the division, somebody will need to win 11 of 16 games during the regular season and considering these teams face off twice a year, that’s no small feat. I broke down the entire division in another piece you can read right here on Fanspeak– but here is an in-depth look at what the experts and prognosticators predict for the Ravens followed up with what I feel the team needs and where they will finish in 2014.
Baltimore Ravens: Vegas Under / Over Win Total: 8 Super Bowl Odds 40 to 1 Ravens Offense is Offensive in 2013:
Last season, the Ravens became the third team in the past five years to miss the playoffs the season after winning the Super Bowl. A big reason for the Ravens fall was the play of their offense, specifically, their 20 million dollar QB who parlayed a historic playoff performance into a huge contract during last year’s offseason. While Flacco must shoulder much of the responsibility for his teams bad offense in 2013, it wasn't entirely the poor play of No.5 that led to such a below average season. With an average of just 3.1 yards per rush, the Ravens rushing attack was horrible in 2013. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce battled injuries and were never effective in short yardage or goal line situations. They stumbled to holes and never found the rhythm that made them a nice compliment to one and other the year before. Rice finished with just 660 rushing yards and 980 total yards. He failed to hit 1,000 all-purpose yards for the first time since his rookie season in 2008. Flacco and Ravens backs also played behind one of the worst lines in the NFL last season.
The offensive line allowed 48 QB sacks of Flacco and an additional 90 plus hits. Pro Football Focus’ final grade had the Ravens O-line 23rd out of 32 teams. Baltimore is famous for using the middle of the field in the running and passing game and last season was no exception running nearly 60 percent of all rushing plays between the two guards. The results were simply unacceptable. Pro-Bowl guard Marshall Yanda didn’t have an exceptional year and Kelechi Osemele didn’t finish the season. Osemele injured his bad back and had surgery. But the biggest issue was at center where the team went with second year man Gino Gradkowski over veteran A.Q. Shipley— and it did not go well. Shipley had the misfortune of switching to a guard spot once Osemele went down but he rarely looked comfortable. Gradkowski he may have blown his audition to be the long-term starter, as he finished 35th out of 35 ranked centers. The rushing attack finished 30th, while the passing offense could fare no better than 18. As a whole, the offense finished ranked 29th in the league and with the defense not cracking the top 10 for a second straight year; it’s not hard to see why the Champs finished 8-8.
To correct the problem in 2014, the Ravens acquired Jeremy Zuttah this offseason to replace Gradkowski. RT Michael Oher is now in Tennessee and Rick Wagner is expected to step up and take his place but not without competition from players such as Ryan Jensen. The biggest move was re-signing LT Eugene Monroe at such a bargain price. Osemele has looked very good so far in the offseason organized team activities and should be ready to go once the season starts. The Ravens did not address the RT position in the draft but did select center / guard John Urschel from Penn State. Newsome and Harbaugh feel if they had to, Osemele could move outside to Tackle where he is also comfortable while someone kicks inside to guard. There is also the option of signing a free agent. Eric Winston, who was drafted by the Texans and spent six years in Kubiak's offense is a likely candidate to join the team.
But there is no question, Flacco, as the leader of the offense and now the team, failed to do his part. Sure there were games like Minnesota at home in the snow and at Detroit on Monday night but in the end there is no denying year six was No.5’s worst. Flacco tossed three more picks than TD’s (19-22) and was sacked 48 times. While we established the line was suspect, Flacco did little to help himself at times with his decision making process. For every solid performance there were games like Buffalo when he tossed 5 interceptions. Joe is sometimes to cool and has a propensity to have one or two of those type games every year. For the most part, he’s always played on a team that had a great defense. The Ravens averaged an NFL ranking of 7th during his six years in the league. Flacco has never been to a Pro Bowl, passed for 4,000 yards in a season or 400 yards in a game. He’s never led an offense that ranked higher than 13th. In fact, the Ravens offense has averaged 19th during Flacco’s tenure while the passing attack sits one notch below at No.20. Those are average numbers for a QB that’s making way above average money.
If the Ravens are going to return to the playoffs in 2014, Flacco will need to be a big reason why they did. It’s time for Flacco to win the shootout games with more consistency and takeover contests when the Ravens young defense is getting handled. He has to initiate leadership—on and off the field which so far, he hasn’t done this offseason. The former Super Bowl XLVII MVP failed to organize any type of off campus passing camps, similar to the one Peyton Manning and 21 other signal callers put together this past spring. This is particularly disturbing since Flacco was handed a new play book and hasn’t spent a lot of quality time with his new offensive coordinator. Flacco was quick to point in an interview on Baltimore Ravens.com that NFLPA rules have strict policies on the amount of time a player can spend with coaches. By his own admission, Flacco admitted to not knowing his new OC to well just yet. Some in the local media have voiced displeasure with Flacco for at the very least not getting together with new TE and former Texan, Owen Daniels, who is as familiar with the new offensive system as Kubiak himself. Daniels has spent his entire career in it.
Speaking of Gary Kubiak, he takes over for Jim Caldwell, who left to become the head coach in Detroit. The former Texans HC brings with him a stretch zone run blocking scheme that he used with a great deal of success in Houston. Under Kubiak, the Texans earned their Top 6 all-time offensive outputs in scoring, total offense, and passing yards from 2007-12. During this time, the Texans also boasted the franchise’s Top 3 rushing outputs, including the NFL’s No. 2 ground attack in 2011 when they posted a franchise-record 153.0 yards per game. From 2008-12, Kubiak’s offense was one of only two (Denver) to have its total offense, passing offense and rushing offense each rank in the Top 5 at least once during that span. There are weapons in Baltimore. The receivers should be better in 2014. Torrey Smith, Marlon Brown, and now veteran wide out Steve Smith, who came over from Carolina, will give Flacco some good looks, as will starting tight ends Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels. Entering his second contract with the Ravens after re-signing this spring, Jacoby Jones adds quality depth, as does seventh round selection Michael Camapanaro, who figures to contribute mightily in the return game and in the slot during certain sets. If Flacco finally hits the 4,000 yard mark this season, it is likely the Ravens will have had a good season and are heading back to the playoffs.
Return to Glory–At Least the Top 10:
The Ravens Defense finished 12th in the NFL last season and missed the top 10 for a second straight year. One weakness the team has been working on is fixing is the middle of the defense. There was a time when teams never ventured there on the Ravens and GM Ozzie Newsome is doing all he can to ensure those days return. Newsome and the Ravens completed the retooling of the once stout unit by drafting ILB CJ Mosley, as well two players from Florida State’s BCS Title team, DT Timmy Jernigan, and Free safety Terrence Brooks. This was the second straight year the Ravens used their first three picks of the draft on nearly identical positions. Last year it was safety Matt Elam, ILB Arthur Brown and DT Brandon Williams that were selected in the first three rounds. The result could mean a return to dominance on the defensive side of the football but with so much youth now in place, the offense may be asked to carry the load to start and that doesn't appear as if that’s likely considering the new play book. Ravens DC Dean Pees needs three things to happen in 2014 if the unit is going to return the top 10 for the first time since 2011. Veterans Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs and Elvis and Dumervil must be productive from week to week and cannot fade down the stretch. Secondly, the young linebacking corps must be aggressive but play smart and come prepared. And lastly, the secondary needs to stay healthy. Even with the inexperience at safety, CB’s LarDarius Webb and Jimmy Smith have the capability to shrink a football field but the depth behind them is lacking in CB's Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson. Each say they are ready to step up and the good news for them is that they will get their chance to prove it. The Ravens young defense must also communicate better on the field– something it has not done well over the past two seasons. Safeties Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks could be a formidable duo fro many years to come but there will be a big learning curve in 2014. The Ravens have always taken pride in having the next man up step up and play well and it appears they have the talent waiting to try. But that philosophy is being tested, as the team hasn’t drafted a Pro-Bowl player since taking Ray Rice in the second round back in 2008 and on defense there hasn't been a Pro Bowler selected since Haloti Ngata in 2006.
Where's the Leadership?
The Ravens have lacked leadership since No.52 played his last game. They tried to correct that this offseason by signing former Panther WR Steve Smith, who may not be as fast as he once was but still plays with a chip on his shoulder similar to the one the Ravens used to possess. Leadership was definitely lacking during this offseason when four Ravens players, including Ray Rice, were arrested and charged with various crimes. Rice was the most publicized as he was seen on TV dragging his unconscious wife out of an Atlantic City casino elevator after allegedly knocking her out while they were inside it. He will likely face an NFL suspension of at least two to three games despite having his case adjudicated somewhat in his favor in the courtroom. Rice was a player that Ray Lewis often mentored in his own home and spent many nights with the former Rutgers star showing the ins and outs of the NFL. While off the field issues happened when Lewis, Ed Reed, and even Anquan Boldin were here, they didn’t happen with this type of regularity and when they did, you better believe Lewis would let the player know personally the effect his actions had on the team. Accountability seems to missing and when you toss in the fact that players like Suggs and Ngata, whom many thought to be leaders, didn’t show up to voluntary OTA’s and one could easily read trouble between the lines. Suggs, who faded badly down the stretch last season and Ngata, who has struggled with injuries and consistency over the past two years, did not attend the voluntary camp but are expected to be at the mandatory minicamp June 17-19. The Ravens 2014 schedule is easier than in years past but keep in mind— this was a .500 team last season. The offense will need to be functioning at a mid-season level to start the 2014 campaign. Baltimore will face three straight AFC North foes before hosting Carolina in the seasons first quarter. Three of the four teams had defenses in the Top 10 last year and Pittsburgh finished 13th. It is possible that the Ravens will have to beat these teams without Ray Rice, who will likely be serving his suspension during this time. In April 2010, Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger was suspended six games to start that season. However, the league reduced it to four games but the Steelers still began the 2010 season with Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch at quarterback. They went 3-1, losing only to the Ravens at home. Ironically, Pittsburgh went on to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl that season, losing to Green Bay. So, just when we think we know all there is to know, the questions are changed in what can only be described, as the wild world of the NFL. Following the first quarter of the year, the Ravens then visit Indianapolis and if they can survive the first month of play and pick up a few wins in the middle portion — at Tampa Bay, Atlanta, at Cincinnati, at Pittsburgh, Tennessee — then they should finish strong over the final month. Baltimore will face the Dolphins, Jaguars, Texans, and Browns in the final four weeks of the season. Is There a
Storm Brewing in Baltimore?
It is fair to say that storm clouds are swirling around this team. They are walking a fine line and I wouldn't be surprised if they finished 4-12 or 12-4. The defense should be better but with all the youth, will need a little time to gel and get acclimated to the speed of the game while playing together. How fast the offense gels in Kubiak's new system, how many games Ray Rice misses due to a likely suspension and whether or not he can bounce back from his worst year are legitimate concerns. When you couple that with the concerns of whether or not the offensive line can rebound, it seems like there are far more questions than answers for the 2014 version of the Ravens–at least to start. I believe the Ravens are one the league biggest anomalies to start the season but we will know pretty fast if this is a team is capable of getting back to the playoffs after being in them for the first five years of Harbaugh and Flacco’s tenure. What frightens me most is what I don't seem in terms of the passion for the game or the leadership. I was one of those people that believed losing Ray Lewis' leadership was overrated and the team would be fine without him—-I WAS WRONG about the leadership aspect but it was time for him to vacate the playing field. There are also legitimate concerns of whether the team actually has enough weapons at the skill positions to carry them through the difficult stretches that every team encounters during a season. Joe Flacco must return to the above average / very good form that’s seen him win 62 games to start his career, the most of any quarterback in the history of the league to start a career. While I like the Ravens to win a game or two they may not be favored in, I expect them to lose their share of ones they are. It’s always gets darkest just before the dawn and the 2014 season could start dismally before ending on a high note in Baltimore. Expectations are high and fans won’t react well if they miss the playoffs for a second straight season—so prepare, I know I am. Vegas refunds money on a push bet, which this is likely to be after the Ravens miss the playoffs and win eight games for a second straight year..
Baltimore Ravens projected win total: 8 Games. Preseason schedule (All times p.m. ET; home games in caps)
Preseason schedule (All times p.m. ET; home games in caps)
Aug. 7-10 SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Aug. 14-18 at Dallas Cowboys
Aug. 21-24 WASHINGTON REDSKINS
Aug. 28 at New Orleans Saints
Regular season schedule
Sept. 7 Cincinnati Bengals, 1
Sept. 11 Pittsburgh Steelers (Thu), 8:25
Sept. 21 at Cleveland Browns, 1
Sept. 28 Carolina Panthers, 1
Oct. 5 at Indianapolis Colts, 1
Oct. 12 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1
Oct. 19 Atlanta Falcons, 1
Oct. 26 at Cincinnati Bengals, 1
Nov. 2 at Pittsburgh Steelers, 8:30*
Nov. 9 Tennessee Titans, 1
Nov. 16 BYE
Nov. 24 at New Orleans Saints (Mon), 8:30
Nov. 30 San Diego Chargers, 1
Dec. 7 at Miami Dolphins, 1
Dec. 14 Jacksonville Jaguars, 1
Dec. 21 at Houston Texans, 1
Dec. 28 Cleveland Browns, 1