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Ravens Free Agency Recap: Week 1 Ends with "A" Grade

March 19, 2014 in Baltimore Ravens, Free Agency

For Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome and the rest of Ravens front office, the 2014 off season is the polar opposite of what their 2013 off season campaign produced. Having just beaten the San Francisco 49ers, 34-31, in Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens watched, as no less than nine contributing starters from that team left via free agency, trade or was cut by the team. Two key contributors, Ray Lewis and Matt Birk retired. All of the losses would add up to a very different looking team than the one that had just captured the franchises second Lombardi Trophy in franchise history. images (20)

The Ravens were forced to re-sign QB Joe Flacco, who parlayed a remarkable championship run into a then NFL record $120.6 million dollar contract. Not able to reach a deal the prior off season, Flacco entered the final year of his rookie deal literally having to stay healthy and play for his next big pay day—he hit the jackpot. Because of Flacco’s deal, the Ravens chances of being able to bring back some of those key players from the 2013 squad became an impossible feat. WR Anquan Boldin refused to restructure his contract and was dealt the team he had a very big part in beating in the Super Bowl. Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, the heir apparent to Ray Lewis and coming off a stellar playoff run himself, took his talents to South Beach and signed with the Dolphins when the Ravens could not enter the same ballpark at the negotiating table.

However, Newsome refused to throw money away on players that contributed to a Super Bowl title but were not exactly stars—but because they were coming off a championship, those players, as Flacco did in Baltimore and Ellerbe in Miami, cashed in elsewhere with other NFL teams. We see it every off season. Teams overpay for the right to bring in a player that appeared more valuable to their team than they actually were during a title run. Newsome did not throw away money at players like Paul Kruger and for that, he was able to bring in other free agents for less money. He managed to sign players such as Elvis Dumervil, Darryl Smith, and Chris Canty and although they did not finish the year, Michael Huff and Marcus Spears were considered value signings at positions of need when they were originally signed.

With the retirement of Lewis (37) and Birk (36), the trading of Boldin (32) and allowing Ed Reed (34) to sign elsewhere, the Ravens were able to get younger, which was another goal of Newsome and Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti. The off season value signings failed to produce a winner on the field, as the Ravens battled injuries, a poor rushing attack and bad offensive line and became the second straight Super Bowl champion to miss the playoffs, finishing with an 8-8 record.

With Boldin gone and one of those major injuries to his favorite target TE Dennis Pitta, Joe Flacco threw as many interceptions (22) last season as he did in the previous two seasons (12 & 10) combined. He produced only 19 touchdown passes and never did find the long ball in an offense that produced so many big plays for the team the year before. The Ravens really seemed to miss the leadership of Ray Lewis and from Head Coach John Harbaugh all the way down, the Super Bowl champs never seemed to be on the same page. The Ravens still managed to remain in the playoff hunt, as the AFC’s sixth seed, up until 4:00 p.m. on the last Sunday of the regular season but the goal was clear, after five straight playoff appearances and  Super Bowl title, missing the playoffs wasn’t going to be tolerated or accepted in the organization. It was understood that making the playoffs had to the norm and missing the exception to the rule for this franchise.

Entering this offseason the plan was simple —fix what ailed the team in 2013. During the final press conference of the 2013 season, in what team officials call “The State of  the Ravens,  every important member of the Ravens organization off the field attended and answers questions about what went wrong in 2013. Promises were made and lines, albeit soft one, drawn in the sand.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti summed up the Ravens approach best by saying, “I have to be patient to let people fail, but I don't have to be patient enough to let people repeat failure. I'll be more apt to get my way next year if their solutions don't change the problems. That's fair, that's where I am as owner”.

Bisciotti would go on to say, "They know they've failed, they know they need to change, and to make improvements. If it's not the way I think it should be and then it fails again, then obviously it comes down to owner-head coach relationship."  Bisciotti knows the No. 1 priority this offseason was to build the offense. Head coach John Harbaugh has usually had offenses that finished in the middle of the rankings, but the Ravens were No. 29 last season. They averaged only 83 rushing yards per game.

With the goal clear, the Ravens have entered this off season to this point having done the exact opposite of what occurred last year. Instead of watching their free agents sign elsewhere, the Ravens locked their biggest ones up early in the process and stayed patient with the remaining ones, re-signing them at deals considered good values.

It began in mid-February when the Ravens and LB Terrell Suggs agreed on a new contract. The 31-year-old Suggs was entering the last year of a long-term contract that would have put his cap number at $12.4 million next season, but the new deal lowered that number to $7.8 million, which gave the Ravens much needed salary cap space. GM Ozzie Newsome hinted during the January state of the Ravens press conference that the Ravens would look to restructure his contract after he failed to produce much during the second half of last season. Suggs had nine sacks through the first eight games of the 2013 season. He finished with 10 sacks.

That deal allowed the Ravens to get started on contract talks with TE Dennis Pitta and 11 days before Joe Flacco’s favorite was set to hit the FA market, he agreed to a five-year $32 million deal, which makes him one of the top 10 paid tight ends in the league in terms of annual average salary.

The biggest priority this off season was to make sure the Ravens did not lose both offensive tackles. Eugene Monroe and Michael Oher were set to become free agents when the market opened and all signs pointed to losing the pair just days before the March 11 4:00 p.m. deadline. Baltimore was willing to part with Oher but Monroe was a different story. Acquired for a fourth round draft pick in October from the Jacksonville Jaguars, Monroe was listed as high as the No.3 free agent this off season on NFL.com. The two sides appeared to be far away as the deadline approached but as he always seems to do, Ozzie Newsome got his guy and at his price.

The Ravens agreed to terms with Monroe, whom the Ravens did not franchise and would have been forced to pay $11 million if they had. Instead, Newsome signed one of the better tackles in the game to a five-year $37.5 million deal, which has turned to be not just one of the best values in free agency for the Ravens but one of the best in all of free agency. Newsome and the Ravens got a little bit lucky in signing Monroe as quickly as they did. The market seemed to dry up a bit for Monroe when several other highly sought after tackles took advantage of one of the NFL’s newer policies in that players are free to negotiate with teams two days prior to the actual start of free agency. Once 4:00 p.m. Tuesday rolled around, Jared Veldheer and Branden Albert were signing on the dotted line with Arizona and Miami respectively.

The Raiders chose to replace Veldheer with the Rams Roger Saffold but after failing his physical, owner Mark Davis killed the deal sending Saffold back to the Rams. Luckily, for the Ravens, Monroe had already agreed to terms. Oakland entered the free agency period with nearly $66 million in salary cap room and would have offered him a deal likely for what Albert got from Miami. The Dolphins gave the former Cardinal Tackle nearly nine million more than Monroe and before he failed the physical, Saffold’s deal in Oakland would have paid him five million more than Monroe and Saffold isn’t nearly the tackle Monroe is.  While they say it’s better to be lucky than good—the saying timing is everything applies just as well in this case for the Ravens and when it comes to issues such as this—it always seems to.

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Dick Cass, John Harbaugh, Ozzie Newsome and Steve Bisciotti

Baltimore also re-signed WR / KR Jacoby Jones and inside linebacker Darryl Smith—both key contributors to last year’s squad and both salary cap friendly value based deals. Jones was considered a luxury as the primary kick returner and likely third or fourth wide receiver but after visiting the NY Giants, signed for a maximum value of $14 million if he hits all of his incentive clauses, sources said. He's guaranteed $4.5 million and he has a $2 million incentive clause based on catches.

Last Friday the Ravens re-signed ILB Darryl Smith, who started every game at middle linebacker last year and led the Ravens in tackles. His deal was for four years and could be worth up to $16.1 million.  Losing Smith would have been costly. Starting all 16 games in the same position that Ray Lewis occupied for the Ravens for the previous 17 seasons, Smith finished first on the team in tackles (125), third in sacks (five), tied for second in interceptions (three), second in passes defended (19) and tied for first in forced fumbles (two). Even more was the value in the deal. Former Browns LB D'Qwell Jackson signed for four years and $22 million with Indy while Karlos Dansby replaced Jackson in Cleveland by inking a four-year, $24 million with Cleveland. Both more than Smith. ProFootballFocus.com ranked Smith 16th among all inside linebackers in 2013, while Dansby was fifth and Jackson 42nd.

The Ravens did not attempt to re-sign CB Corey Graham (Bills) WR Tandon Doss (Jaguars), OT Michael Oher (Titans), ILB Jameel McClain (Giants) and DE / DT Arthur Jones, who hit the jackpot with his old defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis. They did bring back Safety Jeromy Miles as well as ILB Albert McClellan.

The Ravens went outside the organization last Friday afternoon for the first time in free agency when they signed former Carolina Panthers WR Steve Smith. The move was puzzling in that back in 2011, the Ravens cut a player similar to Smith in Derrick Mason and is Smith really the type of receiver the Ravens need? He is not really the Anquan Boldin type and said so himself. Smith’s best days are well behind him, as he turns 35 in May. However, last season in Carolina, he still managed to haul in 64 passes for 765 yards and 4 TD’s. His receptions and yards would have placed him second on the Ravens in 2012 behind Torrey Smith, which is where Steve Smith will play.

In 2012, No.89 caught 73 passes for 1,174 yards and four scores. In 2011, he logged 79 catches for 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns, earning his fifth Pro Bowl selection. Smith passion for the game will be good in a mundane Ravens huddle. He is not likely to allow Flacco off the hook so easy when he isn’t playing at his best, which is similar to how Anquan Boldin handled Joe Cool.

To Smith’s credit, he knows what his role will be and will likely do it well. He has acknowledged that he is no longer a No. 1 receiver at this stage, and he admitted that one of the draws to signing with the Ravens was that they have several established players on offense – he specifically mentioned Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Ray Rice – so there is not as much pressure on him. Smith also spoke highly about new OC Gary Kubiak’s offense with the Houston Texans.  He said he saw himself not in the role of perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson, but in the role of Kevin Walter, who never caught more than 65 passes in a season.

Smith got a three-year contract with the Ravens,  worth $11.5 million with a $3.5 million signing bonus  and only time will tell if he’s a good fit for the Ravens offense, and if what he has to offer on the field and in the locker room is what the Ravens need. He could be a nice complementary piece and should help quarterback Joe Flacco. But the success of the Ravens’ passing game in 2014 will still depend on Flacco improving his accuracy and decision-making and the offense line doing a better job of protecting him. The other issue is how fast Flacco and Smith make a connection. Flacco has a tendency to avoid throwing to new receivers in the Ravens system and tends to stick to his “favorites”. Smith won’t tolerate that if he’s open and he won’t keep quiet about it. He also said one of the reasons he elected to sign with Baltimore was because HC John Harbaugh said he wanted him to be himself.  That also seems opposite of what the Ravens have wanted over the last few off seasons. Harbaugh seemed very content to allow the more vocal players—players with Steve Smith’s type of personality to sign elsewhere or the Ravens cut them.

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Dennis Pitta..Photo credit Baltimore Ravens

Derrick Mason, Bernard Pollard, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin were all jettisoned. But it is possible that Harbaugh realizes leadership can be too quiet at times and rattling a few cages by employing a few alpha males may not be such a bad idea after all.  Re-signing Jacoby Jones and signing Steve Smith are a good indication of that. If for no other reason, the Smith signing may wake up a few players.

The Ravens front office is steadfast in its basic philosophy and has showed so far this offseason why they are one of the top front offices in all of sports. They refuse to overpay players who are past their prime, as they showed in giving Terrell Suggs a new contract. Suggs would surely have been cut had he not agreed to a lesser number in 2014. The Ravens also stay patient—very patient in free agency.

That was also on full display with players such as Darryl Smith who was allowed to watch, as two other players set the market for his position. They also know when to pounce as they did with Steve Smith. As soon as the Panthers cut the 13-year veteran, the Ravens scheduled his visit and never let him leave town without a deal. Smith had options, plenty of them. The Chargers had a deal on the table for him and he was on the phone with Patriots HC Bill Belichick, as he prepared to board a plane but the weather last Friday along the east coast delayed his visit until Monday to New England. That visit was obviously not necessary, as Smith signed that day with the Ravens.

The Ravens also pounced without overpaying, as they demonstrated with Dennis Pitta and Eugene Monroe. Signing Pitta 11 days before the open of free agency and getting Monroe on day one at a great value has been the highlight of the free agency period for them.

They also showed their versatility in thinking. There is a lot of irony in re-signing many of your own players following a season when you finished .500 and missed the playoffs, as opposed to allowing seven available starters to leave in any fashion from a Super Bowl winning team. This versatility and adaptability is also, what makes The Wizard of Oz and company so special. Nate Davis of the USA Today handed out first free agency week grades and the Ravens are one of just three teams to receive an A grade thus far.

The Ravens still have plenty of work to do. They have roughly $12.3 million in cap space to use, this according to spotrac.com. GM Ozzie Newsome said during the State of the Ravens press conference that they would get the receiver that seemed to be missing last season. It is hard to imagine Steve Smith is that guy but as I noted earlier—his numbers would have been second best on the team last season.

Aside from the big-bodied receiver the Ravens still need, they must address the Tight end position and the offensive line at center and right tackle. On defense, Baltimore needs help at safety and could use another defensive tackle. Linebacker and cornerback could also use some depth.

On the offensive line, the Ravens will probably wait until after the draft to fill the guard or tackle position if they choose the free agency route. Center could be a different story. Cleveland's Alex Mack got the transition tag, and Evan Dietrich-Smith (the top unrestricted free-agent center) signed with the Buccaneers. This leaves the New York Giants' David Baas, Cincinnati's Kyle Cook and New Orleans' Brian de la Puente as the top options.

At tight end, the Ravens have Dennis Pitta and two practice squad players, Matt Furstenburg and Nathan Overbay. Tight end and safety are the Ravens' thinnest group, in terms of experience. There had been talk of the Ravens showing interest in Owen Daniels but the Ravens may elect to draft one or sign a cheaper option. Carolina's Ben Hartsock, Seattle's Kellen Davis and the New York Giants' Bear Pascoe are still available if the Ravens decide they want a blocking option to compliment Pitta.

Steve Smith

Courtesy of ICON SMI

At safety, the Ravens want someone whose strength is coverage. This would complement strong safety Matt Elam. But the Ravens elected to not throw their hat in the ring as many of the best safeties were signed on the first day of free agency. Their remaining options are Miami's Chris Clemons, Atlanta's Thomas DeCoud and Denver's Champ Bailey. Bailey is a 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback who is open to switching to safety. There are also rumors tying Ryan Clark to the Ravens—-yes that Ryan Clark of the Steelers—the same Ryan Clark who said the Ravens would never win a Super Bowl with Joe Flacco at quarterback. The Ravens continue to monitor safety James Ihedigbo.

Ihedigbo had a career-high 101 tackles and three interceptions last season while starting every game for the Ravens. The team has not ruled out bringing back Ihedigbo, who visited the Detroit Lions last week and left without a deal.

Newsome will continue to add to a roster that less than two years removed from its Super Bowl win, is vastly different. There are still the familiar faces of Joe Flacco, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs but the Ravens' 2014 team has just 22 of the 46 players who dressed for SB 47.  If history tells us anything it’s that Ozzie Newsome will fill the Ravens positions of need with the best available players and he will do it at the price the Ravens want to pay.

Ravens Sign Steve Smith

March 14, 2014 in Free Agency, News

Today, the Baltimore Ravens announced that they have signed veteran wide receiver Steve Smith, formerly of the Carolina Panthers, to a three-year contract.

This three-year contract is worth a total of $11.5 million. This makes the average value per year of the contract $3.83 million. There was a signing bonus of $3.5 million. The total guaranteed money is currently unknown. When all of the contract information is available, a contract breakdown will be posted.

Since being drafted by the Panthers in the third round of the 2001 NFL Draft, the 34-year old had spent his entire NFL career there (13 seasons).

Steve Smith

Courtesy of ICON SMI

His best season came in 2005 where he caught 103 passes for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns. All of these are career-highs.

During his time in Carolina, he was a five-time Pro Bowl selection (2001, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2011) and a three-time All-Pro (2001 and 2005 first-team and 2008 second-team).

Last season he caught 64 passes for 745 yards and four touchdowns while playing in 15 games. As their number one receiver, he helped lead the Panthers to the playoffs number two seed in the NFC. They would lose in the Divisional Round to the San Francisco 49ers.

Back in the 2003 season, he helped lead the Panther to Super Bowl XXXVIII against the New England Patriots. The Panthers lost 32-29 in a thrilling game where he caught four passes for 80 yards and one touchdown.

An expressive player, he is known for being outspoken on and off the field. Last season, he and former Patriots––now Broncos––cornerback Aqib Talib got into it during a game. Tailb later left the game due to an injury. In a post game interview, a reporter asked Smith if he had anything to say to Talib. In response, Smith gave one of the best one-linners in history: "Ice up son."

Released by the Panthers a few days ago due to salary cap reasons––a high cap hit and old age never bode well for players––he will get to face the Panthers this season as the Ravens will host them this season.

He is the only free agent that the Ravens have signed so far that isn't one of their own. The Ravens tend to not be very active in free agency as they build through the draft. Since he was released, he won't count against the Ravens' compensatory picks in the 2015 NFL Draft. Currently, the Ravens would be getting three––the maximum is four––due to the losses of Arthur Jones, Corey Graham and Michael Oher.

With the addition of Smith, the Ravens top four wide receivers (in no particular order) are now him, Torrey Smith, Marlon Brown and Jacoby Jones. This is an improvement from last season and gives the team flexibility heading into the draft. Torrey Smith and Brown are young and Jones is experience, but a true veteran presence was lacking last season without Anquan Boldin. Steve Smith can fill that void.

Overall, this is a good signing for the Ravens. They got a veteran receiver for quarterback Joe Flacco at a reasonable price. At the end of the day, the Ravens' receiving corps is improved.

Potential Ravens Cap Casualties

January 12, 2014 in Free Agency

With the Baltimore Ravens being projected to have just over $10 million free in cap space this offseason, the Ravens are going to need to free up some room and there are a few prime candidates to be released.

General manager Ozzie Newsome made it known during his end-of-season press conference that the Ravens will not restructure any contracts. This has always been the way that the Ravens have operated over the last few years.

Every season a few players are released to create more cap room and here are the four main candidates this season.

Outside Linebacker Terrell Suggs

2014 Cap Number:  $12.4 million

Cap Room Saved With Release:  $7.8 million

Why He Would Be Released
Also at the press conference, Newsome talked about Suggs, and indicated that he might not return next season. In the last year of a six-year contract, his cap hit is the third-highest cap figure next season and offers the biggest savings if let go of.

At the beginning of the season, the 31-year old looked to be on pace to contend for the Defensive Player of the Year award which he won in 2011. In the first eight games of the season, he had nine sacks, but in the final eight games of the season he had just one. This led to a streak of six-straight games with no sacks for Suggs.

Terrell Suggs

Courtesy of ICON SMI

It wasn't just his performance as a pass-rusher that dipped, as his run defense suffered in the second half of the season as well. Normally a strong run defender, he still played decent, but it was clear he wasn't the same. It has been suggested that he gained weight late in the year and that is a viable reason. He entered the season in the best shape of his life and his performance early on backed that up.

Last season, the Ravens showed that they weren't afraid to get rid of a key player who wasn't willing to take a pay cut in order to improve the team as a whole. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin was traded after an exceptional postseason and he only had a salary of $6 million.

The $7.8 million saved by cutting him would go a long way to being able to re-sign left tackle Eugene Monroe, tight end Dennis Pitta and any other free agents that the front office may like.

Suggs' disappearing act at the end of the season is a main reason why he could be cut. Combine that with one of the highest cap figures on the team, and he may be gone next season.

Why He Would Stay
Being in the last year of a contract, the Ravens could easily sign him to a contract extension that would keep him in Baltimore and reduce his cap hit this season. This is likely what the Ravens will try and do with him.

Also, he has been a Ravens his whole career and has been a key contributor for the entire time. The Ravens may not want to get rid of him as they hope he can regain his early season form. When he was playing well, him and Elvis Dumervil formed one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league. (Though the presence of Dumervil can also be seen as a reason why Suggs could leave as the Ravens will still have one of the better pass-rushers in the league on their defense).

It is likely that the Ravens will try and get him to agree to a new contract. That way the Ravens would be able to keep him one of their defensive leaders on the roster and free up some much needed cap room. If he doesn't agree to a new contract, then the Ravens could let him walk.

Inside Linebacker Jameel McClain

2014 Cap Number:  $4.4 million

Cap Room Saved With Release:  $3.2 million

Why He Would Be Released
Part of a three-man rotation at the second inside linebacker spot next to Daryl Smith this season, McClain played in 10 games this season after starting the season on the Physically Unable to Perform List due to a neck injury suffered at the end of last season.

In these 10 games, he recorded 52 tackles and one forced fumble. These stats seem good, but his performance all season wasn't that good. He would get pushed around in the run game and struggled in pass coverage. He has always been a better run defender than pass defender, but he seemed to take a step back this season in both categories.

This performance doesn't warrant the $4.4 million cap hit that he will earn. Cutting him would save $3.2 million and every single dollar counts in terms of the salary cap.

Why He Would Stay
Like Suggs, McClain is in the last season of his contract so he could be extended at a reduced rate. The Ravens could also offer him a pay cut before cutting him.

Other than a contract extension or a pay cut, it is highly unlikely that he will be back. These two options seem unlikely though. The Ravens drafted Arthur Brown in the second round last year so he is the future of the position. They also have Josh Bynes who can play inside linebacker and both of them performed better than McClain this season.

The only way that I see him sticking around next season is if he agrees to return at a reduced rate.

Punter Sam Koch

2014 Cap Number:  $2.8 million

Cap Room Saved With Release:  $1.6 million

Why He Would Be Released
Drafted by the Ravens in the 2006 NFL Draft, Koch has been the Ravens punter ever since and was signed to a five-year contract in 2011 which keeps him in Baltimore through 2015.

This season, his performance punting the ball wasn't as good as the last few seasons as he ranked 22nd in the league in net punt average (38.9 yard average). He also ranked tied for 13th in punts inside the 20-yard line (27), tied for the fifth-most touchbacks, ranked 13th in yards per punt (46.0) and had the third-most punts in the league this season (90).

These stats show that he was an average punter this season. His contract pays him as an above-average punter, so the Ravens need better performance from him based on his contract.

The Ravens could easily spend a late-round pick on a punter or bring one in as an undrafted free agent to take over for Koch or at the very least compete for the job. I see the latter route as the most likely option for the Ravens. They did this with kickers Billy Cundiff and Justin Tucker a couple years ago.

Why He Would Stay
Throughout his time in Baltimore, Koch has been the definition of a consistent punter and his stats back this up.

While he had a down year this season, a rookie punter could come in and produce worse than Koch did this season. With head coach John Harbaugh being a former special teams coach with the Philadelphia Eagles before joining the Ravens, he is going to want to have the best special teams unit possible.

His contract is a bit of a detriment, so the Ravens will likely bring in an undrafted free agent to compete with him for the starting job. This wouldn't free up the cap space until after free agency is over, but it would give the Ravens more cap flexibility for the rest of the season and for the following season.

Fullback Vonta Leach

2014 Cap Number:  $2.33 million

Cap Room Saved With Release:  $1.75 million

Why He Would Be Released
Actually released by the Ravens after the draft last year because the Ravens drafted another fullback, the Ravens re-signed him to a two-year deal in July after Kyle Juszczyk, the fullback drafted, failed to impress in mini-camps.

This season, Leach's playing time was very limited as the Ravens' offense spread the ball out more with three wide receiver sets for the majority of snaps. Part of the reason why the offenses spread it out more was because the run game failed to produce so they tried to pass the ball more.

A traditional fullback — a dying bread in the NFL — this left him out of the offense for the most part and had him playing only a few snaps each game. Even when he was on the field, he couldn't spark the run game as the problems extended farther him.

Since the Ravens drafted Juszczyk in the fourth round of the draft, it is highly unlikely that Leach will be back next season. He was only brought back because Juszczyk wasn't deemed ready to play this season, but after a full year in the league, he should be ready to play next season. Also he is a less traditional fullback — one who is a good receiver — so he is a better fit in the new offense.

Add that to the fact that the Ravens can save $1.75 million by releasing Leach, it seems very likely that the 32-year old will be gone next season.

Why He Would Stay
The only reason that I can think of for why he would stay with the Ravens is if Juszczyk suffered a season-ending injury and the Ravens needed a new fullback. With that being said, that is highly unlikely to happen so expect Leach to be released soon after the Super Bowl.

Baltimore Ravens Season Awards

December 31, 2013 in News

With the Baltimore Ravens season now over after losing to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, it is time to hand out awards for the season.

Most Valuable Player

Kicker Justin Tucker
Having a kicker as the most valuable player for a team sounds strange, but that is the 2013 Baltimore Ravens. Entering the season, it looked like quarterback Joe Flacco would be the most valuable player, but he, like the entire offense, underperformed which thrust Tucker into the spotlight.

Justin Tucker

Courtesy of ICON SMI

The spotlight was never brighter than in week 15 against the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football. Due to offensive struggles, he kicked six field goals (29, 24, 32, 49, 53 and 61 yards) which was all of the Ravens points in their 18-16 victory. This was the first time in NFL history that a kicker make field goals in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s in the same game. His 61-yard field goal came with 0:38 seconds left in the game and he made it by inches. Six field goals in one game and a 61-yard field goal were both franchise records. Earlier in the season he made five field goals against the Pittsburgh Steelers (a 22-20 win) and tied the record. Two other franchise records that he set this season were most field goals made in a season (38) and most points in a season (140).

A record that he came close to breaking this season was the consecutive field goals streak. He got to 33 in a row before missing in week 16. The record is 36 which was set by Matt Stover.

For the season, Tucker went 38-of-41 on field goals including seven over 50 yards. His only misses were from 37, 44 and 50 yards. He was also a perfect 26-of-26 on extra points. Simply put, without his excellent kicking — which earned him a Pro Bowl spot — the Ravens wouldn't be 8-8 as he carried the team in certain games, and that is what a most valuable player is supposed to do.

Offensive Player of the Year

Wide Receiver Torrey Smith
With an offense that ranked fourth-worst in total yards this season, there aren't many options to choose for this award, but I settled on Smith.

Forced into the number one receiver spot in the offseason due to the trade of Anquan Boldin, Smith was given more responsibilities in the offense and he rewarded the Ravens. When tight end Dennis Pitta went down with a dislocated and fractured hip in training camp, Smith became the only target that Flacco had spent significant time with and this showed throughout the season as Smith's receiving stats where well above all other Ravens.

Setting career-highs in four different categories (catches, targets, yards and first downs), he had the best season of his three-year career with 65 catches for 1,128 yards with four touchdowns and 48 first downs on 138 targets. While a wasn't able to set the franchise record for receiving yards (1,201), he did come close and with his talent, he is sure to challenge this record in the coming seasons. He came a long way this season as he became a much more developed and balanced receiver compared to last season.

Defensive Player of the Year

Middle Linebacker Daryl Smith
Charged with the almost impossible task of replacing the legendary Ray Lewis in the middle of the Ravens' defense, Smith did everything that he was asked to do and exceeded expectations.

Signed to a one-year deal in free agency in June — well after all of the major signing that occurs in March — the Ravens picked him up for cheap with hopes that he could lead the defense and he did exactly that.  He recorded 123 tackles, five sacks, two forced fumbles, three interceptions, 19 passes defended and he returned one of his interceptions for a touchdown. A 10-year veteran, he set career-highs in tackles, sacks, interceptions, passes defended and his touchdown was the first of his career. The 19 passes defended was something that Lewis was never able to do as the most he ever mustered was 13 and Smith set a franchise record for linebackers with these 19.

Along with great performance, he provided the defense with veteran leadership — something it was lacking after the departures of Lewis and safety Ed Reed. Smith commanded the Ravens' defense with great acumen and it showed as the Ravens' defense ranked 12th in total defense and points per game.

Special Teams Player of the Year (not named Justin Tucker)

Kick/Punt Returner Jacoby Jones
The best special teams player for the Ravens this season was Tucker, but I disqualified him because I gave him the MVP and he was head and shoulders above the rest. With that being said, this award goes to Jones for his returning ability.

Last season, this ability was on full display as he scored three times on kickoffs (including one in the Super Bowl) and scored once on a punt return). This year he was slowed down by a knee injury that he suffered in week one. This knocked him out for four games and he didn't seem to be fully recovered for a few weeks after that. Once he was though, he was back to his explosive self. He returned 19 punts for 237 yards (12.5 yard average) and a long of 37 yards. On kickoffs he had 892 yards on 31 returns (28.8 average, fourth-best in the NFL) with one touchdown and a long of 77 yards. He always saved his best returns for the most important times and this was best shown from his lone touchdown of the season which gave the Ravens a 22-19 lead with 1:16 left in the game against the Minnesota Vikings. He came close to another touchdown (this time against he Pittsburgh Steelers), but Steelers' head coach Mike Tomlin stepped onto the field and this caused Jones to alter course slightly and he was caught from behind. While he very well could have been caught anyways, this play stands out from his season due to the controversy surrounding it.

Looking at his stats, he had a down year, but his season last year was shear dominance from a returner and is very tough to match. Despite an injury, he was able to have another successful season returning kicks and punts for the Ravens. His good returns set up numerous scoring drives for the Ravens all season long.

Offensive Rookie of the Year

Wide Receiver Marlon Brown
In the 2013 NFL Draft, the Ravens ended up selecting 10 players and only four of them played offense: fullback Kyle Juszczyk (fourth round), offensive tackle Ricky Wagner (fifth round), center Ryan Jensen (sixth round) and wide receiver Aaron Mellette (seventh round). Juszczyk saw few offensive snaps, Wagner played part of the first game of the season due to an injury and saw a couple of snaps each game as a sixth offensive lineman, Jensen broke his foot and never saw game action when he returned and Mellette was placed on injured reserve before the regular season started. With that being said, the Ravens did get production from Brown, an undrafted free agent.

Marlon Brown

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Due to a torn ACL last November which ended his senior season at the University of Georgia, he went undrafted. He then was going to sign with the Houston Texans, but they wanted to wait a little bit due to his knee injury, so he instead signed with the Ravens who would take him right away. This turned out to be great for the Ravens as he ended up being second on the team in the major receiving categories and actually led the team in receiving touchdowns. He had 49 catches for 524 yards with seven touchdowns (tied for a Ravens' rookie record with Torrey Smith) and 29 first downs on 82 targets in 14 games. Brown's size (6'4") proved to be an excellent asset as he has developed into a great red zone target over the course of the season. This was showcased against the Vikings as he caught a touchdown pass in the back of the end zone with four second left in the game.

While the Ravens' receiving corps will likely see an overhaul this offseason, they have a keeper in Brown who did most of his damage out of the slot this season. He may have been undrafted, but that didn't stop him from contributing to the Ravens this season, and without him stepping up, the Ravens passing game would have struggled even more — and that is hard to imagine.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Safety Matt Elam
Last on the list of awards is the Defensive Rookie of the Year, and this goes to the Ravens' first-round pick out of the University of Florida who started 15 games and played in all 16.

Entering the season-opener in Denver, Elam was a backup safety, but poor performance from free safety Michael Huff (who was actually cut a few weeks later) sent Elam into the game in the fourth quarter and gave him the job for the rest of the season. For the season, he recorded 77 tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception and three passes defended. His interception clinched the Ravens' game against the Lions as it came with less than a minute left in the game. A natural strong safety, he was more comfortable in run defense and his pass coverage struggled at times as he was beaten bad a few times. He was playing free safety as the Ravens played their two best safeties and Elam was the best free safety on the roster despite being better at strong safety where James Ihedigbo played. Elam was expected to start at strong safety, but Huff's bad play and Ihedigbo's surprisingly good performance put Elam at free safety.

While he needs to work on his pass coverage, he was clearly the best rookie on the defensive side of the ball for the Ravens this season. With Ihedigbo being a free agent, Elam could move over to strong safety next season if Ihedigbo isn't retained.

AFC Championship Rematch: Ravens vs Patriots

December 21, 2013 in What to Look For

In the last two seasons, the AFC Championship Game has consisted of the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots. Both times the game has been played in New England and each game produced different results.

The first time around, in 2011, the Ravens suffered a heartbreaking defeat 23-20. With under one minute left in the game, wide receiver Lee Evans had the game-winning touchdown catch in his hands, but Patriots' defender Sterling Moore was able to knock it loose at the last second. Two plays later, the Ravens attempted a 32-yard field goal to tie the game and send it to overtime. However, kicker Billy Cundiff missed it wide left and the Patriots won the game. They would face the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI where the Giants won 21-17. This game against the Patriots is still a sore spot for Ravens fans.

Last year, the Ravens headed up to Foxboro looking for revenge. The Ravens had defeated the Patriots 31-30 in the regular season on a 27-yard field goal from new kicker Justin Tucker. Wide receiver Torrey Smith played the game of his life catching six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns just hours after finding out about the death of his younger brother Tevin.

A regular season victory isn't the same though. For the Ravens to come full-circle on the Patriots, they needed to win a playoff game in Foxboro. At halftime in the 2012 AFC Championship Game, the Ravens were down 13-7 and weren't playing great. In the second half, quarterback Joe Flacco came out firing and three three touchdown passes. This spearheaded the Ravens comeback and led them to a 28-13 victory.

This victory sent the Ravens to Super Bowl XLVII where they faced the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans where the Ravens hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after an eventful 34-31 victory.

1.  Joe Flacco
If the Ravens are to defeat the Patriots for a third straight time, they are going to need Flacco to play like he did in last season's two games.

In the regular season matchup, he went 28-of-39 for 382 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a quarterback rating of 117.7. With the Ravens down 30-21 with 7:29 left in the game, they got the ball and he led them on a drive then ended in a touchdown pass to Smith with 4:01 left. After the defense forced a Patriots punt, Flacco and the offense got the ball back with 1:55 left. A few plays later, the Ravens had the ball on the Patriots' nine-yard line and sent in Tucker for the game-winning field goal. With the game on the line, Flacco led the Ravens on two scoring drives late in the game to win.

Joe Flacco

Courtesy of ICON SMI

In the playoff matchup, the Ravens came out with a conservative game plan, but changed it at halftime to let him throw more. This resulted in the Ravens scoring 21 unanswered points in the second half and a trip to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. For the game, he went 21-of-36 for 240 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions and a quarterback rating of 106.2.

The Patriots have been a team that he plays better against due to his familiarity with them. He has played them six times going 3-3 including 2-1 in the playoffs. In these games, he has thrown 12 touchdowns compared to four interceptions and has completed 63.5 percent of his passes.

This year, he seems to be having a down year after winning the Super Bowl. He has thrown for 3,460 yards, 18 touchdowns and completed 58.9 percent of his passes. Along with these stats, he has also thrown a career-high 17 interceptions and has a career-low quarterback rating (76.5). His previous high in interceptions was 12 which he has done three different times.

Part of the reason why he is having a down year is the struggles of the rest of the offense. Anquan Boldin, a key receiver from last year, was traded away and tight end Dennis Pitta dislocated and fractured his hip in training camp. He has only returned recently and the game this week will be his third of the season. The offensive line has struggled in pass protection and run blocking. The lack of an effective run game has pushed more onto the shoulders of Flacco.

One thing that he has done well this season is come through late in games. In the last two game, he has led two game-winning drives and in the first game, he led two touchdown drives in the final few minutes.

Playing in the clutch is one of the most important attributes that a quarterback can have in his arsenal and it is something that can't be taught. You either have it or you don't. And Flacco has it.

If the Ravens can get another good performance from Flacco, then they are going to be tough to beat.

2.  Tom Brady
Speaking of quarterbacks that perform in the clutch, the Patriots have a pretty good one themselves in Brady.

While Brady is a first-ballet Hall-of-Fame quarterback, the Ravens' defense has given him trouble in the past. Since 2008 — when Flacco entered the league — Brady has thrown six touchdowns and nine interceptions against the Ravens while completing 60.2 percent of his passes. In his eight career starts against the Ravens, he has completed only 57.7 percent of his passes and has thrown two more interceptions than touchdowns. These are his worst numbers against an opponent.

One reason that the Ravens have been able to find success against him has been because of the numerous blitzes that the Ravens run. The Ravens' defense has been able to confuse Brady at times with their blitzes.

Directing the Ravens' signals on defense every other year has been Ray Lewis, another first-ballet Hall-of-Fame player. However, he retired in the offseason and left a huge void in the middle of the Ravens' defense. Taking over Lewis' spot has been Daryl Smith, a veteran signed in free agency.

He has exceeded expectations for the Ravens as he has 107 tackles (tied for a career-high), 4.5 sacks (career-high), three interceptions (career-high) and 18 pass deflections (career-high and a Ravens' franchise record for a linebacker). He has also done a good job of calling the signals for the defense.

Brady will be missing many of his top targets in this game. All three of his favorite targets from last year won't play as tight end Rob Gronkowski is out with a torn ACL and MCL, tight end Aaron Hernandez is in jail awaiting trial for murder and wide receiver Wes Welker signed with the Denver Broncos in free agency. On top of that fourth-round pick wide receiver Josh Boyce is out with an injury, second-round pick wide receiver Aaron Dobson is questionable and undrafted free agent wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins is also questionable. His most targeted receiver this year is Julian Edelman who has 89 catches and his previous high was 37. Coming in second is Danny Amendola, a free agent signing to replace Welker, but he has missed four games with injury.

Despite all of these injuries and changes, Brady has still led the Patriots to a 10-4 record.

The Ravens will need to play physical with the receivers on the outside as both Edelman and Amendola are under six foot tall. The defense will also need to pressure Brady with various blitzes to force him to make quick decisions under pressure.

3.  Big Plays
This game has massive playoff implications so there will be a playoff-like atmosphere at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. In games like this, big plays will be the difference.

Big plays can be one of two things: a large gain or a turnover.

Starting with large gains, these can come in many different forms. There could be a big kickoff or punt return, a long pass or catch and run, or even a long run after a handoff.

In the return game, the Ravens have a clear advantage with Jacoby Jones returning for them. The first-team All-Pro kick returner from last season missed a few games at the beginning of the season with a knee injury and then struggled in his first few games back. Now though, he is in full stride and has been busting out big returns in recent games. Against the New York Jets four weeks ago, he returned a punt 37 yards and had 108 punt return yards on five returns. Three weeks ago against the Pittsburgh Steelers he returned a kickoff 73 yards and almost scored a touchdown. Against the Minnesota Vikings two weeks ago he did as he took a kickoff 77 yards with 1:16 left in the game to give the Ravens the lead. Last week against the Detroit Lions he returned a kickoff 36 yards to the Ravens' 33-yard line to set up the Ravens' game-winning drive.

In the passing and rushing game, the Ravens and Patriots are balanced as the Ravens have the advantage passing and the Patriots do rushing the ball.

Moving to the turnover battle, the Patriots have the advantage. They have a turnover differential of plus six compared to the Ravens one of negative two. The Patriots have forced 25 turnovers (14 interceptions and 11 fumbles) while only turning it over 19 times (10 interceptions and nine fumbles). The Ravens have forced 20 turnovers (12 interceptions and eight fumbles) while turning it over 22 times (17 interceptions and five fumbles).

Last week, the Patriots were even in turnover differential as they threw for one interception and forced a fumble. The Ravens were plus three as they intercepted three passes while not turning the ball over.

This game is going to come down to who can make a big play when is comes down to it. Both the Ravens and Patriots have shown this ability and are balanced in this aspect.

4.  Run Game
A battle of bad meets bad when the Ravens have the ball on offense as the Ravens' run game ranks worst in yards per attempt and the Patriots' run defense ranks second-worst in yards per game.

The struggles for the Ravens stem from an ineffective offensive line and running backs that can't break tackles. This is a killer combination (and not in a good way). This has led to 3.0 yards per carry which is worse than all teams in the league and the next worse is at 3.3.

The offensive line has failed to provide any holes to running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. They haven't played well either though as they have failed to break tackles and take advantage of a hole when there has been one.

Injuries have been the main fault behind the Patriots' bad run defense. Starting defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are out for the season with injuries and the same goes for linebacker Jarod Mayo. These three (especially Wilfork and Mayo) were the better run defenders on the Patriots and their losses have really hurt the Patriots.

Rice has run up the middle a lot this season and with the Patriots hurting in that area, expect more of the same. One of the two units has to give way and have success for once. Right?

Tucker Kicks Ravens To Victory

December 17, 2013 in Observations

On the Baltimore Ravens only appearance on Monday Night Football this season, they defeated the Detroit Lion 18-16. The win gives the Ravens a record of 8-6 and drops the Lions to 7-7.

With this win, the Ravens have now won four straight games after starting the season 4-6. At that point in time, it looked like they wouldn't make the playoffs, but now if they win their next two games (home vs New England and at Cincinnati), the Ravens will win the AFC North. They can also clinch a playoff berth next week with a win along with a loss from Miami and a loss or tie from San Diego.

Entering the game, the Ravens had a losing record on Monday Night Football games, but the win makes their all-time record 9-9. Under head coach Johns Harbaugh, the Ravens are 5-3.

In my post previewing key aspects of the game, I said that the game would come down to the fourth quarter and that turnovers would be key. Well, the game did come down to the fourth quarter as the Lions scored a touchdown with 2:21 left and after a two-point conversion failed, they were up 16-15. The Ravens then drove down the field and kicked a game-winning 61-yard field goal with 38 seconds left in the game.

The Ravens also won the turnover battle, forcing three interceptions and never turning the ball over.

Justin Tucker
Carrying the Ravens to victory by kicking the said 61-yard field goal was Tucker, the second-year kicker out of Texas.

Sam Koch and Justin Tucker

Courtesy of ICON SMI

In the game, he did more than just kick a 61-yard field goal though as he scored all 18 of the Ravens points. These 18 points came on field goals from 29, 24, 32, 49, 53 and 61 yards. By kicking six field goals in a game, he set a new franchise record and he became the first kicker in NFL history to make field goals in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s in the same game.

His most important kick of the night almost didn't happen. It was fourth and eight from the Lions' 43-yard line. Originally, the Ravens lined up to go for it on fourth down, but they called a timeout and trotted him out to attempt a 61-yard field goal.

The snap and hold were perfect, and he got just enough of the ball to kick it through the uprights. The ball sailed into the bottom right corner of the goalposts and barely made it over the crossbar.

This field goal is the second-longest on Monday Night Football and is the longest field goal made in an indoor stadium. It is also the longest kick in franchise history — five yards longer than the 56-yard field that was the previous record (set by Wade Richey in 2003 and tied by Tucker last year).

On the ensuing kickoff he blasted the ball well out of the end zone — presumably energized by his kick just minutes prior.

With his six field goals he totaled 248 yards. To put that in comparison, the Ravens passed for 215 yards and the Lions passed for 230.

By kicking six fields, he extended his streak of consecutive field goals made to 33 in a row. This is the longest active streak in the league and is just a few away from the Ravens' team record of 36 which was set by Matt Stover.

Yet again, Tucker was the reason for the Ravens' victory as he bailed out the Ravens' offense that couldn't score touchdowns. He now leads the NFL in field goals made with 35.

Joe Flacco 
Orchestrating the Ravens' game-winning drive for the fourth time this season was Flacco, but this drive was much different than the previous ones.

What was different this time was he led the drive while clearly hurting. Earlier in the fourth quarter, he took an illegal hit just below his knee.

Lions' linebacker DeAndre Levy burst through the line and dove at Flacco. Levy's helmet hit just below Flacco's knee. These are the type of plays where players tear knee ligaments (hence why these hits on quarterbacks are supposed to be flagged). However, there was no flag on the play (just one of many questionable calls throughout the game). Anyways, he stayed down for a little bit, but eventually got up and continued to play.

When he returned to the sidelines, the trainers taped his knee up and he didn't miss a snap. Looking at the play, it seemed like he could have hurt his MCL as he was hit on the outside of the knee. However, the Ravens don't plan on getting a MRI on the knee so it clearly isn't a serious injury. It did effect him for the rest of the game though. You could clearly see that he was throwing off his back foot and trying to not put that much stress on his left knee.

On the game-winning drive, he was 2-of-5 for 27 yards, but was able to get the job done.

Throwing for 222 yards, he went 20-of-38 with no touchdowns or interceptions and had a passer rating of 70.3. From the start of the game, he looked good. He was on target and was throwing a very tight spiral with good velocity.

When the game was on the line, he yet again led the Raven to victory with a game-winning drive. He can look average for an entire game, but when the game is on the line, he has been great.

Jacoby Jones
Another key player on the Ravens' final drive, for two different reasons, was Jones. Along with performing well on the final drive, he also led the Ravens in receiving.

He caught six passes for 90 yards on nine targets and converted three of these catches into first downs. The punt that he returned he gained 24 yards and almost broke free for a touchdown.

On the final drive, he took kickoff from the Lions three yards deep in the end zone ran it back 36 yards to the Ravens' 33-yard line. This set the Ravens up with good field position on their final drive.

After a false start and an incomplete pass, the Ravens faced third and 15 from their own 28-yard line. Enter Jones, who gained 27 yards over the middle and put the ball at the Lions' 45-yard line.

These two plays set up Tucker to kick his 61-yard field goal. Without Jones, the Ravens likely aren't able to score in the final minute and they lose the game.

Torrey Smith
While Smith may not have had a big role in the final drive like Jones (one target and zero catches), he did set a new franchise record and reached a career milestone.

With four catches for 69 yards on 12 targets, he was second on the team in receiving. Three of these catches went for first downs: a gain of 25 on second and 11, a gain of 22 on first and 10 and a gain of 19 on second and nine.

His franchise record came on his first catch of the game — the gain of 25 on second and 11. With that catch, he became the franchise leader in catches of 25-plus yards with 36. Being that he is in his third season and assuming he continues to play with the Ravens after he contract expires next season, he is likely to shatter this record in the years to come.

Moving to his career milestone, he topped the 1,000-yard mark in the first half. Finishing the game with 1,032 yards, this is the first time in his short career that he has broken 1,000 yards in a season. In his rookie year he had 841 yards and followed that up with 855 last year. He seemed set to have a breakout year this season with the departure of Anquan Boldin and the injury to Dennis Pitta.

With two games to play, Smith needs just 170 yards to set a new franchise record for most receiving yards in a season. The current record is 1,201 which was set by Michael Jackson in 1996 — the franchise's inaugural season.

Offensive Line
Facing a tough matchup against the Lions' defensive line, the Ravens' offensive line held their own and were a key reason why the Ravens' offense was able to move the ball.

It wasn't a dominant performance by any means, but it wasn't awful either. The line held steady in the run game and pass protection for the most part. Surprisingly, the Ravens were able to average 4.3 yards per carry in the run game on 21 attempts (90 yards). Early in the game, running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce were hit in the line-of-scrimage too often. This improved in the second half though.

For the most part the pass protection was good bar a few plays. Only one sack was allowed and the line was able to neutralize the Lions' pass rush.

The sack was actually allowed by Rice when he was in pass protection, though center Gino Gradkowski was beaten bad on the play as well by Ndamukong Suh. Flacco fumbled on this play and Gradkowski made the heads up play to recover the ball.

Suh, the star of the Lions' defense, was held in check by the interior linemen with right guard Marshal Yanda doing most of the good work.

Yanda was called for a false start along with left tackle Eugene Monroe with Monroe's came on the final drive. He also was called for holding which was declined due to an incomplete pass. The last bad thing that Monroe did was allow a free rusher to go right past him. Monroe down blocked to double team the defensive tackle despite a defensive end being lined up over him. This defensive end had instant pressure and forced Flacco to throw the ball before he wanted to before he was hit. The play resulted in an incompletion and caused the Ravens to settle for a field goal.

Right tackle Michael Oher allowed a pressure on third and six that saw his man reach out his arm and hit Flacco as he threw — causing an interception.

Haloti Ngata
According to Pro Football Focus, Ngata had his best game since week 12 of the 2011 season and it was definitely his best performance recently.

From his position at nose tackle, he recorded five tackles, two pass deflections and one quarterback hit.

Starting with his run defense, he had four run stops for losses of one, zero, three and one. The first run stop was on the second play of the game, the stop for zero yards came with assistance from outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw and the second stop for one yard came when the Lions had the ball on the Ravens' 15-yard line.

While ESPN is currently only crediting Ngata with one pass deflection, he clearly got his hands on two passes from Matthew Stafford, the Lions' quarterback. The first came at the line-of-scrimmage as Ngata slightly deflected the ball. The ball then bounced off running back Reggie Bush, the target on the play, and was intercepted by DeAngelo Tyson (for more see below). The other pass deflection also came at the line-of-scrimmage as Ngata swatted away a pass on first and 10.

Pass rushing, he had a very quick quarterback hit as he disposed of the Lions' right guard and raced into the backfield. Stafford was still able to complete the pass, but Ngata still made an impressive play.

The only real negatives from the game come in the form of two offsides penalties — the second of which was declined due to a gain of 37 on a pass play.

DeAngelo Tyson
A sight not very often seen in NFL games is a 315-pound defensive lineman dropping into pass coverage. Even rarer yet is seeing this said lineman intercepting a pass. Early in the third quarter, this is exactly what happened.

On the play, a third and one from the Ravens' 31-yard line, the Ravens blitzed and this blitz had Tyson falling back into coverage while others rushed the passer. Stafford's pass was tipped at the line by Ngata and then Bush failed to bring in the pass.

Bush deflected the ball right to Tyson. He then hit the ball back to himself for the interception — his first of his career.

This interception gave the Ravens the ball at their own 27-yard line and likely took three points off the board from the Lions. If the pass fell incomplete, then the Lions would have attempted a field goal from about 48 yards away.

Daryl Smith
Commanding the Ravens' defense from his middle linebacker spot was Smith and he had another good game.

He only had five tackles, but he also added a sack, and an interception.

But first, there was something else that stood out to me about Smith last night. Every time the Lions' went into an empty formation (nobody next to Stafford in the backfield), Smith called an audible to a blitz. This was clearly part of the Ravens' game plan for the game and was very effective as the Lions weren't able to block the blitzes and this forced Stafford to throw before he wanted to. Tyson's interception came on a blitz that Smith had audibled to.

Back to his individual accomplishments in this game, Smith's sack came on a second and 10 when he blitzed between the center and right guard. Unblocked, he came upon Stafford and forced him to stumble. He fell a few yards later for a loss of five. This sack give Smith 4.5 for the season — a new career high.

With his five tackles, he tied a career high for combined tackles in a season with 107.

In pass coverage, he had an interceptions and allowed three pass to be caught against him with two going for first downs and the other going for a touchdown.

On the touchdown, he had good coverage, but it was just a good pass and catch. He was also giving up five inches on the play to Joseph Fauria, the Lions 6'7" red zone specialist.

Smith was the beneficiary of some questionable decision making by Stafford on Smith's interception. It was a third and two and for some reason, Stafford tried to force a sidearm pass into a very tight window. The ball went right to Smith and he returned it three yards the the Lions' 34-yard line, leading to a field goal.

Matt Elam
In an interview in the days before the game, Elam called Lions' star wide receiver Calvin Johnson "pretty old" and this sparked controversy as Johnson is the best receiver in the league and only 28-years old. Letting his play do his talking, he played the best game of his rookie season.

Starting off, he led the Ravens with 10 tackles and added an interception. Three of these tackles came for run stops and he also helped out on another. The run stops came for gains of two, negative three and two with the assist coming for a gain of one.

Matt Elam

Courtesy of ICON SMI

What is impressive about these run stops was that he was playing as a deep safety on these plays. He quickly diagnosed the play and ran up to make the stop. This is where he is at his best as he is a natural strong safety, but he is playing out of position at free safety so that the Ravens can play their best players.

In pass coverage, he only allowed one catch which was a gain of 17 on first and 10. The receiver caught the ball about eight yards downfield, but Elam missed the tackle right away which gave up extra yardage. This play put the ball on the Ravens' 14-line and Bush scored a touchdown on the next play.

Elam's interception came on the Lions' first play after Tucker's 61-yard field goal. Stafford's pass sailed on him and Elam collected the overthrow to seal the victory. He bobbled the ball at first and almost dropped it before securing it and falling down to not risk a fumble. His first career interception couldn't have come at a better time for the Ravens.

He was also called for one penalty. This was unnecessary roughness on the opening drive of the game when he hit Stafford as he was sliding — a clear penalty. This gave the Lions a key first down as it was third down and Stafford was stopped short. Just outside of field goal range, the Lions would have had to punt, but instead they had a second life and were able to score a touchdown.

This performance from Elam was clearly his best of the season and shows his potential.

Cornerbacks
Tasked with trying to cover Johnson, the Ravens' cornerbacks had the toughest assignment possible and they did a good job. Johnson was held to six catches for 98 yards on 14 yards. He also had three costly drops.

Going up against Johnson most of the time was Jimmy Smith. He allowed four of these catches for 43 yards and gave up two first downs while having tight coverage. His tight coverage forced an incompletion on a deep pass and forced Johnson to catch a crucial two-point conversion out-of-bounds. If Johnson caught this, Tucker's field goal would have only tied the game. Overall, it was a great game from Smith as he went toe-to-toe with the best receiver in the league and was able to hold his own.

Lardarius Webb gave up only two catches for five yards and they came on back-to-back plays. The first was a quick slant that he read right away on second and 10. He delivered a big hit, but the receiver was able to hold on to the ball. The following play, the Lions ran a wide receiver screen that he stopped for no gain. Late in the third quarter on a third and nine play from the Ravens' 22-yard line, he had single coverage on a go route into the end zone. He held onto the arm of the receiver while the ball was coming, but no flag was thrown. A flag should have been thrown giving the Lions a first and goal from the one-yard line. Instead, the Lions had to settle for a field goal to cut the Ravens' lead to 12-10. Webb also had a run stop for a gain of two.

Corey Graham had a quiet game. He didn't give up any catches and had two tackles and a quarterback hit. He was in coverage on one of Johnson's drops and was beaten bad. Johnson was wide open and had a chance to score, but dropped an easy catch. The quarterback hit forced Stafford to throw a check-down pass. Graham also had a run stop for a gain of one after Elam slowed the running back down.

Ravens Win In Crazy Finish

December 9, 2013 in Observations

With snow pouring down on M&T Bank Stadium for most of the afternoon, the Baltimore Ravens beat the Minnesota Vikings 29-26. The win pushes the Ravens record to 7-6 and keeps them as the sixth seed in the AFC. The loss for the Vikings makes their record 3-9-1.

Entering the fourth quarter, the Ravens were nursing a 7-6 lead, but the Vikings quickly scored a touchdown on an eight-yard pass to Jerome Simpson. All was quiet after this for a while.

The next score came with 2:05 left in the game where Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco hit tight end Dennis Pitta for a one-yard touchdown catch on fourth and goal. At this point, it looked like the game could be over and the Ravens would be victorious with a 15-12 lead after they converted a two-point conversion. But that was far from true.

It took the Vikings all of two plays to answer the Ravens' score. A 27-yard pass to Cordarrelle Patterson set up a 41-yard run by Toby Gerhart on a draw that caught the Ravens' defense by surprise. This gave the Vikings a 19-15 lead.

Not to be outdone, the Ravens replied without even giving the ball to their offense. Jacoby Jones took an intentionally short kickoff 77 yards for a touchdown to give the Ravens a 22-19 lead and sent the home crowd into bedlam as they assumed this would be the game winner.

This time, it took the Vikings three plays to score as Patterson caught a screen pass and went 79 yards for a touchdown to put the Vikings up 26-22 — stunning the previously jubilant Ravens' crowd.

With 45 seconds and two timeouts, Flacco and the Ravens got the ball back at their own 20-yard line. A 35-yard catch, 18-yard penalty and an 18-yard catch later, the Ravens had the ball at the Vikings nine-yard line with just 10 seconds left and were out of timeouts.

Dropping back to pass, Flacco looked to the back of the end zone where he saw wide receiver Marlon Brown open. Dragging his right foot and with his left foot firmly on the ground, Brown reeled in the game-winning pass with four seconds left in the game giving the Ravens the 29-26 victory.

To recap: there were 42 points scored in the fourth quarter (36 in the final few minutes) and only 13 points in the first three quarters. It didn't matter if you missed the first 57 minutes of the game as long as you caught the final three.

Two NFL firsts were set with this crazy fourth quarter. It was the first time in NFL history that there were six lead changes in the fourth quarter (and five of them were in the final 2:07). Second, it was the first time that there were five touchdowns scored in the last 2:07 of a game. In fact, it was the fastest that five touchdowns have been scored in a game — more than halving the previous record off five minutes and 40 seconds.

Joe Flacco
By leading the Ravens to victory on the final drive of the game, Flacco had his 18th career game-winng drive in the fourth quarter or overtime.

With this win, he is now has 61 wins in his first six NFL seasons — a new record. He entered the game tied with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Joe Flacco

Courtesy of ICON SMI

For the game, Flacco went 28-of-50 for 245 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions and had a quarterback rating of 64.2. He also ran one time for 22 yards on a scramble that led to a touchdown a few plays later.

On his first interception, the offensive line provided him with all day to throw the ball and he tried to hit running back Bernard Pierce on a wheel route. Simply put, Flacco under threw Pierce — who had a step on the defender — and the Vikings now had the Ball at their own 18-yard line. At this time in the game (very early on), the snow was still coming down heavily so this could explain the under throw from Flacco.

The next interception came when he was trying to do too much. He had scrambled out of the pocket, but instead of throwing the ball away, he tried to force it to tight end Ed Dickson on the sideline. A Vikings' defender jumped in front of Dickson and made a diving catch. This turnover led to the Vikings first touchdown. Many times this season, Flacco hasn't thrown the ball away when he should and it has hurt the Ravens.

While the responsibility of the first two interceptions rests solely on Flacco, he holds little to no responsibility for his third one. Trying to hit Jones on a deep pass, Flacco got the ball on target, but Jones dropped it and it bounced to a Vikings' defender who made a juggling catch.

Coming into the game, Flacco had only thrown three interceptions at home this season and he doubled that this week. For the season, he now has 17 interceptions — tied for third worst in the league.

On the plus side for he, as the weather cleared up, he performed better. By the time the second half came around, it was snowing less and he started to heat up.

When the game was on the line, he was at his best. On the Ravens final two drive, he went 7-of-10 for 62 yards, two touchdowns and had a passer rating of 125.8.

Yes he threw three interceptions, but he came through when it mattered the most and got the Ravens a much needed win.

Ray Rice
Going up against the 23rd-best run defense in the league, Rice struggled to get going in the first half, but found success in the second.

A tale of two halves, he ran for 18 yards on eight carries in the first and broke lose for 49 yards on nine carries in the second. A possible reason for this was the field conditions improved after halftime and this would have given him better footing for cuts.

Speaking of the weather, while running out of the tunnel onto the field before the game, he slipped and fell — thankfully, there was none of this from him during the game.

At the end of the game, he had 17 carries for 67 yards (an average of 3.9 yards). He also caught five passes for 42 yards. Three of his runs went for first downs: a gain of three on second and two, a gain of 12 on first and 10 and a gain of 12 on second and 10. He also took two passes for first downs: a gain of 13 on first and 10 and a gain of nine on third and seven.

Overall, it was a good day for nice despite the snowy conditions. A bad first half marred his total stats, but his second half was very impressive.

Dennis Pitta
After missing most of training camp, all of the pre season and 12 regular season games, Pitta made his return to the football field.

Early on in training camp, he dislocated and fractured his hip. At the time he feared his football career was over and never would have thought he would be playing this season. Head coach John Harbaugh initially ruled Pitta out for the season, but there he was on the snowy tundra making diving catches and having a major impact on the game.

Playing 41 percent of the Ravens snaps (just two of them run plays), he played a limited amount of snaps as expected. This snap count didn't stop him from being the Ravens second leading receiver though as he caught six passes for 48 yards and one touchdown on 11 targets.

Early in the game, he struggled as it was his first game since the Super Bowl in February, but he was able to find his groove later on and make an impact.

Three of his catches went for first downs including two on third downs. The first of which was a fully-extended diving catch where he body was parallel to the ground — talk about coming back with no fears.

When the game was on the line, he, like Flacco, performed his best. Scoring the first of the five touchdowns late in the game, Pitta ran a quick out route on the goal line. It was a fourth and goal situation from the one-yard line and if the Ravens didn't score, the game was likely over.

On the Ravens final drive of the game — the actual game winner — he drew a pass interference penalty which gave the Ravens 18 yards and moved the ball to the Vikings 27-yard line. While it was a questionable call, the penalty negated a Vikings interception. The ensuing play, he caught an 18-yard pass over the middle of the field which set the Ravens up with first and goal from the Vikings' nine-yard line. By now, you know what happened next…

Marlon Brown
What happened next of course was Brown making a leaping catch in the back of the end zone on a perfectly thrown pass by Flacco to give the Ravens the victory with just four seconds left.

With this touchdown, Brown, an undrafted free agent, tied Jamal Lewis for the second most touchdowns (six) by a Ravens' rookie. Torrey Smith — who was held to one catch for 11 yards yesterday — holds the record with seven.

There was more to Brown's game then his spectacular catch at the end of the game though. He edged out Pitta to lead the Ravens in receiver with seven catches for 92 yards on 11 targets. Four of these catches went for first downs including a gain of 35 on the first play of the Ravens' game-winning drive. Earlier in the game, Brown drew a pass interference call for a gain of 37 which put the ball on the Vikings 17-yard line.

On the negative side, he had one drop.

Back to the touchdown catch, the play was very reminiscent of Anquan Boldin last year. Flacco would basically throw a jump ball into the end zone where only Boldin could catch it and more often than not, he would come down with it.

Jacoby Jones
Death, taxes and explosive plays from Jones.

This week, it was another kickoff return. Only this time, he was able to finish the job and take it all the way back for a touchdown.

With everyone in the stadium stunned at the touchdown run from Gerhart, Jones made sure to change that. Taking a pooch kickoff 77 yards up the near sideline for a touchdown. Receiving the short kickoff close to that sideline, he ran along it nearly stepping out-of-bounds and, unlike last week, there was no coach on the sidelines to get in his way.

Earlier in the game, he almost broke a punt return loose as well, but he had to settle for a gain of 22 that set the Ravens offense up at the Vikings 48-yard line — though it resulted in no points.

On offense, he caught four passes for 37 yards on seven targets and three of these catches went for first downs. Trying to mix things up, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell gave Jones an end around, but the Vikings read it all the way and stopped the play for a loss of four. As already talked about, he dropped a pass that resulted in an interception for the Vikings.

Chris Canty
Moving over to the defense, they played great for the first 58 minutes, but came apart in the final two and almost lost the game for the Ravens.

At defensive end, Canty didn't lead the line with five tackles like fellow end Arthur Jones did, but Canty did make three good plays.

The first of which was a run stop of a gain of one. With he only had two tackles, he made one of them count. The other two good plays that came from him were two passes batted down at the line-of-scrimmage.

The second one was the typical pass deflection for a defensive lineman. He read where Matt Cassel, the Vikings' quarterback, was throwing to, jumped and swatted the pass away. This play was also important as it came with one minute left in the game and was the play before Patterson burnt the Ravens' defense.

While Canty's second pass breakup was normal for a defensive lineman, his first was a much more impressive play. Seeing Cassel rolling out of the pocket, Canty moved with him, and then saw the fullback going out for a pass in the flats. Canty followed the fullback and broke up the pass.

Terrell Suggs
For the second straight game, the Ravens' pass rush failed to get a sack (though they were without Elvis Dumervil who leads the team in sacks) and it is now the fifth straight game without a sack for Suggs.

While he wasn't able to record a sack, he still made his presence felt as he was third on the team with six tackles and had a team high four run stops. These run stops were for gains of one, one, zero and negative one. The stop for negative one came on a second and goal play. Also, the second run stop of a gain of one came where Cassel was scrambling out of the pocket and Suggs chased him down just past the line-of-scrimmage — so he came close to getting that sack.

Also in pass rushing, he had a pressure on a play that forced Cassel to roll out of the pocket and this resulted in an incompletion.

Lastly, Suggs missed a tackle on Petterson's 79-yard screen pass that he took all the way for a touchdown.

Daryl Smith
Continuing his excellence in pass coverage this season, Smith now has a Ravens' record to display this.

With 17 pass deflections this season, he owns the Ravens' single-season record for most pass deflections by a linebacker. Previously, this record was held by Ray Lewis (did you really think it was going to be someone else?).

This week saw Smith add two more pass deflections. The first came on a screen pass on third and 11 where he read it all the way. The second was actually a dropped interception, but it goes down as a pass deflection. He jumped in front of the route and had the pass hit his hands, but it bounced right off of them. If he was able to reel in the pass, he had plenty of room in front of him for a return.

Blitzing, another part of the game that he has performed well at this year, he had a pressure that forced an incompletion with just over one minute left in the game on first and 10.

Two plays later though, he over pursed Patterson on his screen pass. This allowed Patterson to get free and into the open field.

Smith finished second on the Ravens with seven tackles.

James Ihedigbo
All game long, Ihedigbo's play stood out for the Ravens and the grading from Pro Football Focus backs this up. They had him as the Ravens' highest graded player and the second highest graded of the game.

James Ihedigbo

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Leading the Ravens in tackles with with 12, he also had a forced fumble, a quarterback hit and a pass deflection.

Starting with his run defense, he had two run stops, each for no gain. He received help from defensive lineman DeAngelo Tyson  on the second one though as Tyson hit running back Adrian Peterson about three yards behind the line. On the negative side, he badly missed a tackle on Gerhart's touchdown.

Ihedigbo's forced fumble was a controversial one as it appeared that Gerhart's knee was on the ground when Ihedigbo ripped the ball out. The play was reviewed after being ruled a fumble on the field, but the referee didn't overturn the call. A telling sign that the play should have been overturned was that the Ravens had their defense on the field when the referee came back on the field. Rookie free safety Matt Elam, who also badly missed on Gerhart's touchdown run, recovered the fumble and celebrated by sliding in the snow.

As the strong safety in the Ravens' defense, Ihedigbo blitzes often and this game was no different. Via these blitzes he had pressure three times and was able to convert one of these pressures into a quarterback hit. The two pressures that didn't result in a quarterback hit forced incompletions. On the play that he got his quarterback hit, he hit Cassel in the arm as he was throwing the ball. This caused the pass to go up in the air near outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw who had dropped back into coverage. Upshaw proceeded to knock this pass to the ground.

Moving to pass coverage, Ihedigbo's pass breakup came on a deep pass when he was by himself in man coverage. On the Vikings only touchdown before the craziness at the end occurred, he was playing a middle zone in the end zone and wasn't quite deep enough in coverage. Simpson beat cornerback Jimmy Smith to the inside (who was clearly expecting more help from Ihedigbo) and got behind Ihedigbo for the touchdown.

Overall, this was a great performance from him as he continues to perform well this year for the Ravens.

Cornerbacks
With snow coming down all game long, the conditions weren't ideal for Flacco and Cassel to throw the ball and both of them saw struggles. The conditions also made it tough for the cornerbacks to backpedal and move around.

Cassel and the Vikings targeted Lardarius Webb for most of the game and most of their completions against cornerbacks came against him. Allowing a whopping eight passes to be completed against him, he allowed six first downs and one touchdown. The touchdown was to Patterson but it is tough to blame a cornerback for allowing a screen. What you can grade them on is how they stop this screen, and Webb failed that. With these eight completions, he gave up 159 yards (80 yards when you take away the screen to Patterson).

Webb also had five tackles and a team high four pass breakups (the next closest was two). One of these pass breakups came in the red zone and two of them came on third downs.

Smith continued his recent excellence with his performance and is now the 12th rated cornerback by Pro Football Focus. He gave up two passes, one tackle, one forced fumble and one pass deflection. The two passes he gave up were the touchdown to Simpson when Smith was in coverage with Ihedigbo and a gain of 20 on a third and six. On this play, there was extra yardage added to the end which got it to 20 yards as Smith forced a fumble which the Vikings recovered downfield. His pass deflection came on a deep pass right at the goal line.

Nickel cornerback Corey Graham didn't give up a completion based on my count, but he had two tackles and two pass breakups. The first came on a deep pass on third and five and the other was a great play just outside the red zone. The Vikings had the ball at the Ravens' 21-yard line and ran a screen pass. Reading this right away, he sprinted up and hit the receiver hard to force an incompletion. This big hit that forced the incompletion made the play stand out more, but even if the receiver held onto the ball, it was a great play.

Can The Run Game Get Going: Ravens vs Bears

November 16, 2013 in What to Look For

In their second game this season against an NFC North opponent, the 4-5 Baltimore Ravens travel to Soldier Field to take on the 5-4 Chicago Bears. The last time these two teams played was in week 15 of the 2009 season when the Ravens won 31-7 in Baltimore. Last time the Ravens played in Chicago, the Bears won 10-6 in 2005. Playing seven games in their history at NFC North stadiums, the Ravens have zero wins.

1.  Run Game
Throughout the season, the Ravens' run game has struggled and the Bears' run defense has been one of the worst in the league. In a battle between two struggling units, something has to give.

The Bears run defense allows 4.5 yards per carry (26th in the NFL), 129.4 yards per game (31st) and has given up 10 rushing touchdowns (tied 25th). Over the last three games, they have been even worse, allowing 184 yards per game on 5.6 yards per carry. Since Oct. 6, the Bears haven't held a running back under 95 rushing yards.

In their last four games, the Bears have faced Brandon JacobsAlfred MorrisEddie Lacy and Reggie Bush at running back. They had 106, 95, 150 and 105 yards rushing respectively and an average of six yards per carry. Jacobs hadn't started a game in two years, yet he was able to get over 100 yards.

One reason why the Bears have struggled to defend the run is because of injuries. They have lost starting defensive tackle Henry Melton to a season-ending ACL injury and starting outside linebacker Lance Briggs for multiple weeks with a shoulder injury. These are two of the Bears best defensive players who haven't played recently.

Ray Rice

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Moving to the Ravens, they average 2.8 yards per carry which is, unsurprisingly, worst in the league. When looking at yards per game, the Ravens improve to 30th in the league with 73.1 — hardly an improvement going from 32nd to 30th though.

Both of the Ravens' two talented running backs, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, have struggled this season. While there hasn't been many holes to run through, Rice and Pierce are averaging 2.5 and 2.8 yards per carry this season — good for 48th and 46th out of the 48 players who have enough attempts to qualify. Both have struggled with injuries which have taken away from their explosiveness. Rice has missed time with a hip injury and Pierce has dealt with a hamstring injury.

The offensive line has done little to help Rice and Pierce out this season. Just watching a game, you can see the struggles in run blocking. When you look at advanced stats, it gets worse. Right guard Marshal Yanda is the only lineman with a positive run blocking grade according to Pro Football Focus. Even then, Yanda is only graded at +0.2, barely positive. For the season, the line has graded at a combined -59.3 in run blocking.

As the Ravens and the Bears face off tomorrow, something has to give in the run game. Either the Bears' run defense or the Ravens' run game will continue to struggle. The unit that makes a breakthrough, is likely to win the game.

2.  Pressure McCown
For the second time in three games, the Bears will start backup quarterback Josh McCown due to an injury to starter Jay Cutler — this time due to an ankle injury.

Filling in for Cutler against the Green Bay Packers, McCown led the Bears to a 27-20 victory at Lambeau Field (an Aaron Rodgers injury provided some help). In the game, McCown went 22-of-41 for 272 yards and two touchdowns. He also came in against the Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions in relief of an injured Cutler. Playing most of the game against the Redskins, McCown lost a shootout 45-41 and almost completed a comeback against the Lions, but the Bears' game-tying two-point conversion was stuffed with less than a minute left.

Usually, backups quarterbacks don't see this type of success when coming in and replacing the starter. However, Bears' head coach Marc Trestman has gotten the most out of McCown — keeping the Bears playoff hopes alive.

While playing, McCown has faced pressure on 27 of his drop-backs with a grade of +4.5 according to Pro Football Focus. However, McCown hasn't faced a defense with the pass rush of the Ravens.

The Ravens' pass rush is led by outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil who have nine and 8.5 sacks respectively. As a team, the Ravens are tied for third best in the league with 32 sacks. Last week, Dumervil had three sacks against the Bengals and this week, he will face Jordan Mills, the worst pass blocking right tackle in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus.

Despite Mills' performance, the Bears' offensive line is much improved from last season. Last year, the line gave up 44 sacks which was 25th in the NFL. This season, the are ranked third, allowing 14 sacks which equates to 25 sacks for the season.

McCown has played well against pressure so far, but the Ravens' defense is a step up from his previous opponents, especially in pass rushing. If the Ravens can get pressure on McCown and force him to throw before he wants to, then they have a good chance at getting their first win in a NFC North stadium.

3.  Attack the Cover Two
On defense, the Bears align in a 4-3 front and their main coverage is cover two. More specifically, they run a Tampa Two defense.

Tampa Two defense's are only 4-3 fronts in base and involve the two safeties playing deep and letting nothing get behind them. The cornerbacks and outside linebackers play underneath zones to take away the short pass.

The middle linebacker is the most important position in this type of defense. He must drop back and "run the pipe." This means that he is responsible for the the area between the two deep safeties, allowing them to play more to the sidelines. This position is tough to master as you have to diagnose run or pass right away otherwise the defense is in trouble. If he diagnoses run when it is a pass, there will be a hole in the middle of the defense. If he diagnoses pass when it is a run, then he is yards downfield and the blocker won't have to worry about him.

For years, the Bears had Brian Urlacher at their middle linebacker spot. In his prime, he masted this position in a Tampa Two scheme. Now with his retirement, the Bears turn to rookie second-round pick Jon Bostic who has struggled. Briggs had excelled in coverage at his weak-side linebacker spot. With his injury, this spot goes to another rookie, fourth-round pick Khaseem Greene. Also missing from the Bears defense tomorrow will be star cornerback Charles Tillman who was placed on injured reserve with a designation to return with a triceps injury.

Missing these players will make it tougher for the Bears to defend the pass, especially with Melton out and defensive end Shea McClellin doubtful.

For the Ravens, expect them to attack the Bears defense at the seams and deep. The seams (areas between zones) in this case, refer to the middle of the field behind the outside linebackers and between the middle linebacker and the safety. This is the best place to attack a cover two defense.

Last year, the Ravens had two perfect players to do this — wide receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta. However, Boldin was traded this offseason and Pitta is yet to play this season with a hip injury. Instead, the Ravens will probably use wide receiver Marlon Brown (who is questionable with a knee injury) and tight ends Dallas Clark and Ed Dickson.

The Ravens are better suited to attack the Bears with simple deep routes due to the speed of receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. This season, the Ravens haven't thrown many passes deep after finding much success with this in the postseason. Expect them to test the Bears deep early and often.

4.  Cornerbacks
At wide receiver, the Bears have a top due with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Both have excellent size at 6'4" and 6'3" respectively. Marshall is regarded are one of the best in the league and Jeffery is a rising star.

Covering these two for the Ravens will be Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith (Corey Graham will likely see some time as well). Last week, Webb and Smith had their best games of season as they shut down the Bengals passing game.

When these two teams played in 2009, Webb was a rookie who was just starting to come into his own. However, he tore his ACL in the game, stunting his development. He came back from this and became one of the better cover cornerbacks in the league before tearing his other ACL last season. He had struggled early this season — like the first time he tore his ACL — but looks like he might have regained his form after last week.

Marshall has great respect for Webb after facing him once when Marshall was with the Denver Broncos.

"Oh my gosh, Webb when I was in my last year in Denver, I remember traveling to Baltimore and he really dominated me," Marshall said. "I wasn't prepared. Right before he got hurt, he was probably a top-five cornerback in the league, if not maybe even playing right behind Darrelle Revis, pushing Revis for the best corner."

Marshall also mentioned that Webb was starting to get back into form and with Smith playing next to Webb, the Bears will have their work cut out for themselves.

The Ravens' secondary will also have their work cut out for them as Marshall and Jeffery are on fire right now. Against the Lions last week, they combined for 16 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns. They have combined for 600 yards in their last three games. McCown clearly likes to target his two stud receivers and they are making plays for him.

Marshall and Jeffery won't be able to be completely shut down, but the Ravens can limit them if two things happen. One is if Webb and Smith play like they did last week. Two is if the Ravens can get some pressure on McCown and force him to throw before he wants to.

Can The Ravens Bounce Back: Ravens vs Browns

September 14, 2013 in What to Look For

Week one was definitely a week to forget for the Baltimore Ravens as the Denver Broncos embarrassed them on national television 49-27. The Ravens need to bounce back this week against the 0-1 Cleveland Browns. There couldn't have been a better time for the Ravens to play the Browns as the Ravens have won their last 10 games against the the Browns, which is tied with the Broncos against the Browns for the longest active win streak against a single team.

1.  Secondary

Torched for seven touchdowns and 462 yards by Peyton Manning last week, the secondary needs to regroup, fast. While Brandon Weeden isn't exactly Manning, if the secondary plays like last week, even Weeden will have a game to remember.

Last week Weeden went 26-of-53 for 289 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions against the Miami Dolphins. This is what the Ravens will be looking to replicate this week.

One advantage that the Ravens will have is Browns top wide receiver, Josh Gordon, is suspended for this game, like last week. Gordon is Weeden's favorite target and looks ready to make the next step as a receiver. His suspension is huge as Greg Little has major drop issues and Davone Bess is just a slot receiver.

Tight end Jordan Cameron is the most threatening target now. His nine catches for 108 yards paced the Browns pass catchers last week. The Ravens didn't exactly have success covering tight ends against the Broncos, as Julius Thomas caught five passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns. Look for the Browns to try and use Cameron like the Broncos used Thomas last week. If they do, Cameron could cause major problems in the Ravens backend.

The only secondary player that had a good game last week was Lardarius Webb, who played outside and in the slot. Expect his consistent play to continue as he has the skill set to be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, the only thing holding him back is injuries.

Three players need to greatly improve their play for the Ravens to succeed against the Browns: Michael Huff, Corey Graham, and Jimmy Smith. Anyone who watched the game against the Broncos knows that Huff's play was awful. Eventually, he was benched in favor of first-round pick Matt Elam. The position is called safety for a reason, and Huff was anything but a safety net for the Ravens last week. Graham had problems in coverage all night, from the slot and on the outside. During the Ravens' Super Bowl run, he played well so the Ravens will be hoping last game was an abnormality. Smith's play has always been up-and-down and the Broncos game was definitely a down.

Despite the Browns' passing game being a significant downgrade from the Broncos', the Ravens secondary will need to step up if they want to win this game.

2.  Torrey Smith vs Joe Haden

As the Ravens number one receiving target, Smith will be covered by Haden all game long. Haden is the Browns best cover cornerback and is one of the better ones in the league.

Torrey Smith and Joe Haden

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Against the Broncos, Smith caught four passes for 92 yards despite the Broncos focusing heavily on defending Smith. Haden covered Mike Wallace last week, who has similar game-breaking ability to Smith, and held Wallace to one catch for 15 yards.

With the Ravens offense lacking weapons, quarterback Joe Flacco will be looking for Smith more than ever. Him and Rice are the top two targets in the passing game now with Dennis Pitta injured and Anquan Boldin traded away.

Over the last two seasons, Smith has been used as a deep threat and mainly ran deep routes. This season the Ravens will be having him run a full route tree with many more short and intermediate routes. Smith's speed can still be used a weapon with these routes as once he gets the ball, he can get yards after the catch.

Expect the Ravens to try and get the ball to Smith early, despite coverage from Haden. Haden should show he great coverage skills which means that Smith could be in for a long day. Considering the state of the other Browns cornerbacks, the Ravens would be better off just targeting the other cornerbacks, even if it means Smith has a quite day. The Ravens will try and get Smith lined up against someone other than Haden, but the Browns should have Haden on him all day long.

3.  Run Game

The Ravens' offense is based off of the run game and this run game wasn't able to get started against the Broncos last week as they rushed the ball 21 times for 58 yards. Of these 21 rushes, 12 went to starter Ray Rice and nine went to backup Bernard Pierce.

Part of the problem with the run game was a sprained ankle for right tackle Michael Oher, which caused him to leave the game and not return. With Oher out, rookie Ricky Wagner came in and there was a visible step down. Also, the fact they were getting blown out for all of the forth quarter and part of the third didn't help.

This week, Oher will return but, the Browns defense only gave up 20 rushing yards last week. They upgraded their front seven through free agency and the draft and this showed against the Dolphins. So, rushing the ball could be a challenge again this week.

Nevertheless, the Ravens must attack this defensive front as the Ravens aren't the same team when they can't run the ball.

To do this, the Ravens will need better push from the offensive line to create holes for Rice and Pierce to run through. If they are given a decently sized hole, Rice and Pierce can do damage with their running ability. Look for offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell to put an emphasis on the run game this week in order to create a better and more balanced offensive attack.

4.  Run Defense

While the pass defense was terrible last week, the run defense actually did its job, holding the Broncos to an average of 2.8 yards per rush.

For the game, the Ravens gave up 65 rushing yards on 23 rushing attempts, with a long of nine yards. The Browns struggled to run the ball last week, rushing the ball 13 times for 47 yards, an average of 3.6 yards per rush.

This lack of rushing success from the Browns is surprising as they have a good offensive line and a top running back in Trent Richardson, the third overall pick in last year's draft. All 13 of the Browns rushing attempts went to Richardson and he also added two catches for 30 yards.

If the Ravens can stop the Browns' rushing game, like the Dolphins did, then the Browns will become a one-dimensional team. Any time that you can do this to an offense, your chances of winning increase greatly. The Dolphins forced Weeden to throw the ball and made him pay, forcing three interceptions.

This is exactly what the Ravens want to do on defense. Weeden hasn't shown the ability to carry a team passing the ball so far in his short career. In fact, in his 16 career games he has seven games where he has thrown multiple interceptions and the Browns are 1-6 in these games.

By stopping the run, the Ravens can put the Browns' offense in the hands of Weeden and this will probably lead to interceptions, which will most likely lead to a Ravens victory based on that stat. The key to stopping the Browns offense is stopping the run.

Joe Flacco, A Tale of Two Quarterbacks

September 2, 2013 in Baltimore Ravens, JOE FLACCO

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. It was in the end– a championship season (I added the last part).

While this may be a bit dramatic (and not Edgar Allen Poe) when describing Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco and his play at times, the first paragraph and title of the great Charles Dickens literary masterpiece, A Tale Of Two Cities, is a perfect correlation when trying to write an article about a quarterback that plays like one of the best signal callers in the game one week–and one of the worst in other weeks.

I could have used the classic Clint Eastwood western, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly but after last year’s playoff run, the movie would have to add “The Great” to its title and I do not see that happening.

Entering his sixth season, Ravens QB Joe Flacco is an enigma, which the Webster’s dictionary describes as something hard to understand or explain. While Flacco the man seems to be a nice, calm, cool and laid back individual, who doesn’t seem hard to figure out—his play on the field at times is anything but. Baltimore fans have seen the Ravens signal caller produce games, or as we saw during the playoffs last season, stretches of games, which make you, believe he is what he covets most to be in the NFL– an “elite” franchise quarterback.

On the other hand, he can produce games that make you believe he may never be better than an average NFL quarterback–possibly no more than a Mark Sanchez on a much better team. Maybe that is exaggerating the stance a bit but you get the point when it comes to the Super Bowl XLVII MVP.

Trying to figure out exactly what you can expect from Flacco when he takes the field on Thursday night in Denver can be exhausting and exhilarating all at the same time for Ravens fans. What frustrates Ravens fans more than anything is knowing that he is capable of being a quarterback that can compete at an elite level each week.

Fu Manchu Flacco

Fu Manchu Flacco

As we saw during the all-important third preseason game vs. Carolina, two weeks back, Flacco can be great, as he was during the Ravens nine play drive to start the game. He  was 5-5 and led the team straight down the field and into the endzone.Or, you will want to boo him and the offenses performance, which eventually happened, as Flacco threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, as he looked out of sync and took three sacks.

HE’S DUARBALE AND HE WINS:

Ravens fans love the Joe Flacco that has played in every game since being drafted by the Ravens in 2008. His 93 NFL starts (including the playoffs) are the most to begin a career by a QB in NFL history and the 63 wins (including playoffs) he’s produced are the most by an NFL starting QB during that span.

While Flacco’s consistently inconsistent play drives Ravens fans crazy at times during the regular season, his play in the postseason is what elevates his status, as a possible elite NFL talent. Flacco and the Ravens are 9-4 in January and now February during his tenure. He is the only starting QB in NFL history (since the 1970 merger) to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons (2008-12) and his nine wins tie New England’s Tom Brady for the most playoff victories (9) in a QB’s first five seasons.

Flacco played the position at a historical level for the Ravens three playoff games and the Super Bowl last season. He was masterful, passing for 1,140 yards, 11 TDs and 0 INTs to produce a 117.2 passer rating. In the process, Flacco joined another Joe– Hall of Fame QB Joe Montana (1989), as the only players to produce 11 TDs and 0 INTs during an NFL postseason.

Flacco seemed to temporarily silence the critics that refused to recognize him as one of the NFL’s elite passers; a title Flacco may chase the rest of his career if he does not play more consistently during the 16-game regular season. Many would argue that winning is all that matters and while that may be true, the time has come in Baltimore when Joe Flacco is going to be held far more responsible for what happens on the field and on the scoreboard. No longer will a so-so performance from him be consistently bailed out by a defense led by two future Hall of Famers.

If you do not want to call Joe Flacco “elite”, you at least have to call him a winner. His playoff numbers say you have to call him clutch and last season’s playoff performance, which culminated with a win in New Orleans means you, must also call him a Super Bowl MVP winning QB, which you cannot call Dan Marino, Fran Tarkington and Jim Kelly.  And while I understand that Trent Dilfer also won a Super Bowl as the Ravens QB, you don’t think of Dilfer when you recall SB XXXV but Flacco sits right at the forefront of your memory, when recalling last February’s big game.

DE-FENSE….. DE-FENSE!!

Yes, Ravens D has bailed out Flacco but not last year.

Yes, Ravens D has bailed out Flacco but not last year.

Yes, there is an argument to be made that the Ravens defense carried this team through many of those nine playoff victories since Flacco took over in 08. During the Ravens 2009 Wild Card trouncing of the Patriots, he threw for just 34 yards with one interception and no touchdowns. But it is fair to say that maybe Joe has progressed as quarterbacks used to in the league—before rookie QB’s stepped in and became football Demigods. If Joe had sat the first two years behind a veteran QB, last year would have been his third as signal caller.

It is entirely possible that last February was a culmination of all the trial and error Flacco has endured throughout his brief five-year career. Maybe, just maybe, it all came together and he finally learned how to play the position as the elites do in this league.

You cannot blame Flacco for the fact that his defense has been elite. He just happened to be in a fortunate situation that allowed him to make mistakes and learn from them because his defense could bail him out. I will bet Tom Brady wishes he had a defense that could have stepped up a little bit more during the past four seasons. If the Patriots had any type of defense it is likely, Brady would have a ring for every finger on his hand.

You may be able to say Flacco has been the beneficiary of great playoff defenses at times but not last season including the postseason. The Ravens defense fell out of the top 10 last year (17th) and it was the big play of the Ravens offense and Flacco's arm that bailed the team out on many occasions. The problem is, despite his performance in the playoffs last season, prognosticators, analysts and even Ravens fans are not convinced that he can deliver solid performances like those in the playoffs on a consistent basis during the regular season.

A TALE OF TWO WEEKS:

As an NFL QB, many believe they have yet to see Flacco hit his ceiling and just as many believe, he may never hit that ceiling. Ravens fans hope they have seen the floor. Despite losing just 26 regular season games in five years, Flacco’s consistency remains a huge question mark entering the 2013 season. These fears and opinions are not just unfair assessments; Flacco deserves the skepticism and the criticism at times.

There were still too many times last season when he appeared to be lost and slow footed, making bad reads, bad throws and audibled to the wrong play. With only a little over two dozen losses to look back on, it is easy to remember the ones where Flacco was the difference between a win and a loss. I can point out a few games with the Steelers when Flacco was a big contributor to the Ravens blowing a lead and the game. But then again there are the two games at Heinz Field in which Flacco led the Ravens on game winning drives to steal victories against their hated rivals.

Debating Joe Flacco can simply be maddening. Inconsistencies in his game can be pointed out, as easy as comparing his career performances during the first two games of the season. During his career, the Ravens are 5-0 with Flacco under center in Week 1. He has been solid in those games averaging 241 passing yards with eight touchdowns and just two interceptions. His passer rating is 93.5, which is seven points better than his career rating of 86.3.

Flacco and the Ravens lose their 3rd straight week 2 contest in Philly LY

Flacco and the Ravens lose their 3rd straight week 2 contest in Philly LY

Week 2 has been an entirely different story for both Flacco and the Ravens. Although it did not start that way, as Flacco began his career with two straight 2-0 starts– but since beating the Chargers in Week 2 of the 2009 season, the Ravens have yet to win the second game of the season. With Flacco under center, the Ravens are 2-3 in Week 2, as Joe Cool has been flat out cold—ice cold. His touchdown to interception ratio is doubled in the wrong direction (5 TD’s-10 INT’s) and he has averaged just 180.4 passing yards in these games. Just once has he thrown for over 200 yards during the second week of the season and his passer rating is a staggering 57.2. This is the type of inconsistency that epitomizes his career. It is weeks such as these that keep the so called experts from proclaiming Flacco the elite QB he and many others, thinks he is at this point.

It is also fair to point out that he has never passed for more than 4,000 yards, he’s never thrown for more than 25 TD’s and he’s never been to the Pro Bowl—not even as an alternate. Flacco has shown the ability to play elite but being elite requires consistency and so far, Joe Flacco lacks it.

FAR MORE GOOD THAN BAD FROM FLACCO:

There are more positives to point towards than the negatives when talking about Joe Flacco. He wins on the road more than any QB in the league. Since 2008, Flacco has produced an NFL-high 27 total road wins (including playoffs). The two guys that are second, are generally considered “elite” amongst NFL signal callers, as only Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers trail Flacco with 24 road wins during that span.

With Ray Lewis retired, Flacco enters the 2013 season, as the team’s leader. The torch was passed. Comfortable or not in that role, Flacco must find a way to embrace what he has now become to his team and to the city of Baltimore. As Flacco and the Ravens get set to defend their Super Bowl title, expectations are mixed for the team but high for Flacco. The task to return to the playoffs for an NFL high sixth straight season will not be easy. No other defending Super Bowl Champion has endured as much turnover as the Ravens produced this past offseason. In all, nine contributing starters that were on the field in New Orleans are playing elsewhere this season or have retired.

Originally selected by the Ravens in the first round (18th overall) of the 2008 NFL Draft, Flacco became just the second NCAA Division I FCS (formerly I-AA) QB ever selected in the first round and the first since QB Steve McNair (Alcorn State) was the third-overall pick by Houston in 1995. Unlike Andrew Luck or RG3, who were expected to start from day one, Flacco was forced to start from the time he was drafted when injuries and illness sidelined Ravens quarterbacks Kyle Boller and Troy Smith during the 2008 preseason.

CONFIDENT IN HIS ABILITIES OR JUST LUCKY?

Flacco hits the jackpot

Flacco hits the jackpot

After playing out his original contract and refusing to take less money during the 2012 offseason and re-sign a year early, Flacco opted to wait until this past off-season. When you consider that Flacco had to produce and stay healthy at a position, when doing both at the same time is not easy, his decision will one day be regarded, as one of the biggest and boldest moves by a pending free agent in sports history. Failing to do just one could have cost him millions of dollars, as Joe Cool could have become Joe Fool. Instead, he did what the Ravens hoped he would and played like Joe Montana in the playoffs.

Many said the Ravens were lucky in the playoffs—perhaps—but they were just as unlucky  the year before—what goes around comes around and not always in a bad way. The Ravens became the first SB champion to lose four of their final five games to end the season. Flacco was terrible during a Week 16 game vs. Denver in which the Ravens lost by 17 points at home, as he completed just 50 percent of his passes and tossed a pick six before the half that turned the tide of the game. Flacco and company certainly gave no indication in December that they were the team to beat in January.

Something clicked on the Ravens once the season ended. Maybe it was the whole Ray Lewis “One last ride” retirement theme but starting with a home win over the Colts in the Wild Card round and during the rematch with Denver in the playoffs, Flacco was brilliant and that is the only way to describe his play. There was no luck involved.

The pass Flacco made to Jacoby Jones in the AFC Divisional game to tie the score in Denver with less than a minute to play traveled almost 70-yards in the air. For as lucky as the Ravens may have been in how Broncos safety Rahim Moore misplayed the situation, there was no luck in the throw Flacco made. That was not a “Hail Mary” jump ball pass to Jones. There are not many QB’s, if any, in the NFL–that could have thrown the ball the distance with the accuracy in the weather conditions (-10 degrees with a wind chill) that Flacco did.

Because of his play in January and February–in March, the Ravens had no choice but to pay him– and pay him they did. The Ravens made Flacco the highest paid player in NFL history (at the time) by re-signing him to a six year, $120.6 million contract.

NO EXCUSES NOW:

It is now up to Flacco but he will have to do it without a few of the guys that made him look good on many occasions the past few seasons. He does not have two of his top targets from last season in Anquan Boldin (traded to SF) and Dennis Pitta, who could still return this season but was feared lost for the year with a hip injury. The only receiver that has shown he is a bonafide starter throughout training camp was third year wideout Torrey Smith- and honestly– Smith would likely be a No.2 on some NFL rosters.

The second listed wideout on the Ravens depth chart, Jacoby Jones, showed why the Houston Texans gave up on making him their No.2 WR two years ago, as he has dropped passes and was the target on two of Flacco’s four interceptions during the preseason. Jones, who spent the offseason dancing with stars, is not playing like the budding star the Ravens thought he was on his way to becoming.

The Ravens brought in Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark, two of Peyton Manning’s favorite targets throughout his days with the Colts. Stokley was in Denver with Manning last year. The Ravens do have a nice mix of veteran receivers to go along with their youth. They also kept two rookies in Marlon Brown and Aaron Mellette. Both had big preseasons, finished first, and second respectively in yards and both had two nice touchdown catches apiece.

With great money comes great responsibility and like it or not, Flacco needs to understand that the time has come for him to make marginal receivers good ones and possibly good receivers like Torrey Smith—great. We have watched through the years as Peyton Manning has turned average pass catchers such as, Anthony Gonzalez, Austin Collie, Donald Brown and Pierre Garcon into viable fantasy football options on some Sundays. I bet Tom Brady will do it this season, as he enters the 2013 campaign without his top five receivers from last year.

FAIR TO COMPARE?

Many would say that it is not fair to compare to Flacco to Manning or Brady. Isn’t it? You cannot have it both ways Ravens fans. You can’t say that Flacco is elite and then not compare his play to those who have sustained playing the position at an elite level. He makes their money and outplayed both last year in the playoffs in their stadiums. In each of the past four seasons (2009-12), only Flacco and the for sure “elite” Aaron Rodgers have thrown for at least 3,600 yards and 20 TDs while posting 12 INTs or less. I don’t think Ravens fans expect Flacco to be Rogers or Drew Brees but they expect him to take another step towards them.

Flacco is being compared  to Manning, at least in Denver.

Flacco is being compared to Manning, at least in Denver.

After all, this is the NFL in 2013 and passing for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns is starting to become a thing of regularity for signal callers making Flacco’s money. Get used to hearing money and Flacco’s name in the same sentence. He’s married to the contract he earned and will be reminded of it when he throws a touchdown because that’s what he’s paid to do and  he will also be reminded of it when he throws an interception because then, the Ravens way overpaid him. Playing QB in the NFL is a blessing and a curse at times. The QB never deserves all of the credit and they never deserve all of the blame but when you make $20 million per season, you get a lot of more of both.

If the final six games (including playoffs) of the 2012 season are any indication of how Flacco is going to play in 2013, the Ravens should be just fine. Under then new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, who replaced the fired Cam Cameron following the Ravens Week 14 loss to the Redskins, Flacco was 102-of-170 for 1,483 yards, 13 TDs and 0 INTs with a 113.9 QB rating.

Caldwell was with Peyton Manning as his QB coach when Manning won three of his four MVP awards. In all, 2012 was a successful season for Flacco. He set a single-season career high in passing yards, breaking his previous record of 3,622 from 2010. Flacco compiled 3,817 yards, 22 TDs and 10 INTs on 317-of-531 passing. He also connected on 40 completions of 25-or-more yards, setting a Ravens’ single-season record.

CAN FLACCO HAVE ANOTHER CAREER YEAR?

Those numbers are good but they must be better in 2013. In fact, it is likely that in order for the Ravens to reach the playoffs, Flacco will need to have a career year in passing yards and touchdown passes.

When the Ravens win, Flacco is money. In his 54 regular season wins, which is second most by a starting QB since the 08 season, he has passed for 12,406 yards, 72 TDs and 20 INTs and completed 62.5 percent of his passes, which is good for a 96.3 passer rating. Baltimore is 33-4 when Flacco produces at least a 95 rating and 18-2 when he’s 110.0 or better.

Flacco will have bad games but he cannot produce games like those that he did in Houston last season, where he produced the worst performance by a quarterback in five seasons, based on ESPN's quarterback rating system. Flacco was 21-of-43 (48.8 percent) for 147 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, (one was deflected and returned 52 yards for a touchdown). He was also sacked four times, one of which resulted in a safety and the Ravens were beaten by 30-points.

Flacco will face Rogers this season.

Flacco will face Rogers this season.

Flacco's Total QBR, a metric that accounts for everything quarterbacks do, was 0.3 on the 0-100 scale, the lowest rating for any quarterback with at least 30 action plays since 2008. He had never posted a Total QBR under 5.0 in his career and had not recorded a game of 10.0 or worse since Week 2 of 2010 (at Cincinnati).

This is Joe Flacco’s team and it does not matter if he is elite. He has already proven he does not need to be elite to win. Franchise QB's must make others them better. This will be a tall order for Flacco, as he tries to lead his team like never before instead of nevermore. Mistakes will happen, they are part of the game but they cannot linger and he cannot sulk. He must make players like TE Ed Dickson, WR’s Jacoby Jones, Aaron Mellette, and Marlon Brown, matter as viable fantasy football options on some Sunday’s. At the very least, he must make opposing defenses defend with honesty every Ravens receiver hard on every play. Flacco must make teams pay for their mistakes consistently (there's that word again) instead of letting them off the hook, as he has done so often on third down.

I hope that 2013 will be the best of times for Joe Flacco and Ravens fans. After all, had it not been for a missed kick or a dropped pass, the Ravens could very well be looking to three-peat as Super Bowl Champs. Whatever happens, Joe Flacco must (and haven’t we heard this before) build on his late season success and play like the confident Super Bowl MVP we saw last February.

The last five Super Bowl MVP winning QB’s, spanning six Super Bowls (Eli Manning twice) averaged 4,160 passing yards and 31 touchdowns the following season. Every one of them passed for yards and touchdowns that would exceed Flacco’s career mark to this point. If Flacco can follow in that mold, it is likely the Ravens will be at or near the top of the AFC for a sixth straight season.

Then– the only question left to answer would be–“To be or not to be” elite and that is a very different historical piece of literary work and I have never been a big fan of Shakespeare anyway.