What’s Wrong With the Super Bowl Champs, A Second Opinion

Baltimore Ravens JOE FLACCO Pittsburgh Steelers Roster Stats Super Bowl XLVII

What is wrong with the Baltimore Ravens seems to be the question everyone in Ravens nation wants answered these days. Fanspeak.com Ravens staff writer Matt Pearce wrote a nice piece earlier about what is wrong the 2013 edition of the Super Bowl Champs. In an attempt to either ease the pain– or cause more– here is a second opinion on what seems to be wrong with the Super Bowl Champions.

Sports analysts with bullhorns were summoned all around downtown Baltimore Sunday night following the Ravens 19-16 loss, to the 1-4 Pittsburgh Steelers, at Heinz Field. As the Super Bowl Champs dropped to 3-4 heading into their bye-week, their job was to somehow talk down Ravens fans who stepped out of their respective windows and onto the ledges of their buildings. Panic is everywhere in Ravens nation and fans didn’t seem to be soothed much when Ravens LB Terrell Suggs proclaimed after the loss in Pittsburgh that the team “Is in a state of emergency”.

Much of what has plagued the Ravens in defeat, as well as victory this season was on full display in the Steel City Sunday. The Ravens have never been below the .500 mark this late in the seasons with Harbaugh at the helm and last dropped below .500 following a 31-3 loss at Indianapolis in Week 6 of the 2008 season (his first in Baltimore).

This is from last season but it is a familiar feeling in 2013

According to Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, “You are what your record says you are” and while it is hard to argue with his statement, it’s very broad and not as accurate, as many proclaim it to be. The loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh should not have surprised anyone. The three-point differential in the game was the sixth consecutive regular-season game between Pittsburgh and Baltimore at Heinz Field that was decided by three points or less, tying an NFL record of sorts. The only other instance of six straight regular-season games between any two teams at a particular venue to be decided by no more than three points happened more than 70 years ago. They were played between the Bears and the Lions at Wrigley Field (1931-36).

Overall, it was the ninth contest in the last 11 regular season games decided by just three points. In fact, if you toss out the debacle in Denver to open the season, the Ravens other three losses are by a combined eight points. The Ravens do have something else in common with Pittsburgh; they are the first defending Super Bowl champion to have a losing record after seven games since the 2006 Steelers.

With all of that said, keep in mind the Ravens still control their own destiny within the division. Baltimore plays five of their final nine at M&T Bank Stadium where the Ravens have lost only eight times under Harbaugh since 2008.  Their margin of defeat in the last three loses would  suggest that the Ravens appear to be close to fixing some of the issues that are holding them back. With that said and what is so strange with this year’s team is, as close as they are—is as far away as they seem at times. I predicted the  Ravens would finish the first half 4-4 before posting a 6-2 mark in the back half of their schedule. That’s still possible but not until they correct and or fix some of the following issues. And if  they don’t— the Ravens will become the 14th Super Bowl Champ and second straight amongst 10 teams in the Super era to miss the playoffs after hoisting the Lombardi.

Decisions—- Decisions.

The Ravens are an organization that constantly preaches, “Everything starts at the top”, and we have heard both John Harbaugh and GM Ozzie Newsome say it on numerous occasions. In each of the Ravens four losses and even in some of their three wins, questionable coaching decisions have been a topic at the water cooler for all Monday morning armchair quarterbacks this season.

The first questionable coaching decision did not even take place during a game. It happened before the season started, during training camp. Run Game Coordinator Juan Castillo, who was hired last January, as the Ravens were making their title run, instituted more of a zone-blocking scheme, which in hindsight appears to be an obvious mistake. The Ravens do not possess the personnel to execute the scheme up front and the question that begs to be answered is (aside from center Matt Birk, who retired after last season) with pretty much the entire line returning, why would the Ravens, who won a Super Bowl last year, enter this season wanting to change the way they block for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce?

According to Pro Football Focus, the Ravens O-Line entered Sunday’s game as one of the worst graded lines in the NFL. The second question is even more obvious than the first. If it was not working at all to start the season, why are we talking about this heading into the bye week– seven weeks into the season

Baltimore Sun Columnist Mike Preston appeared on the Ravens Monday Morning QB Show on 105.7 The Fan and reported early Monday morning that the offensive lineman complained to HC John Harbaugh last Monday prior to the Steelers game about run game coordinator Juan Castillo’s zone blocking schemes. On Wednesday, Harbaugh announced to the team that they would go back to the scheme it used last season. The players told Harbaugh that they were more of an in your face group and not zone blockers, according to Preston.

Pro Football Focus said the Ravens O-Line was better overall in Sunday’s game. Marshal Yanda finished at +5.4 overall including +4.1, as a run blocker. In addition to Yanda, the left side of the line had a good day. Monroe and G Kelechi Osemele were perfect in pass protection on their way to +3.1 and +3.4 respective grades.

We will have to wait two weeks to see if they can build on their so-so performance in Pittsburgh and improve going forward during the bye week. But there have been plenty of controversial in game decisions made by the Ravens coaching staff that seems to have cost the team points.

It was inexcusable to not kick a field goal on fourth and goal vs. the Packers two weeks ago, as Harbaugh and QB Joe Flacco lost for the first time ever at home versus the NFC following Green Bay’s 19-17 win.

In that contest, HC John Harbaugh attempted to run the football into the end zone on four plays after his team had first and goal from the four-yard line. Four straight running plays, three by Rice and one by Bernard Pierce and the Ravens came away with zero points. This would normally be considered a gutsy call if the Ravens were a cohesive offense churning out yards. However, Baltimore had not gained more than three yards at any point on the ground in the contest and had just 22 rushing yards to that point, the decision seemed foolish.

Usually, you need TD’s to beat a signal caller like Aaron Rogers but the Ravens defense had him in check during the first half. If three points against a QB of Rodgers talents matters and a filed goal can help your team put points on the board—then you have to take them every time.

During the same contest, the Ravens continued with their gambling mentality, as they attempted to make something out of nothing. With 12 seconds to play in the half, rather than take a knee and get off the field trailing by only THREE, the Ravens, who had just 122-yards of offense and were simply not moving the football during the game’s first 29 minutes and 48 seconds, opted instead to try to take a shot down the field. This, I might add, they would attempt from their own 34-yard line. Not really feeling like his team had just dodged a bullet after GB kicker Mason Crosby missed a field goal, which would have given the Pack a 6-0 lead, John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell tried to force the issue unnecessarily.

Playing in his first game with the Ravens after being acquired from the Jaguars, LT Eugene Monroe, who probably still does not know all of the playbook, missed a block and Joe Flacco was sacked and stripped of the football. Green Bay recovered and advanced the ball to the Baltimore 13 giving Crosby a second chance, which he did not miss. The Pack, who should have been leading 3-0 or tied 3-3 with the Ravens, took a 6-0 lead into the locker room, as time expired in the first half.

On Sunday in Pittsburgh, following a Justin Tucker 32-yard field goal to pull the Ravens to within four points, Harbaugh elected to try an onside kick with 13:04 to play in the fourth quarter. While the Ravens caught the Steelers by surprise, the execution was poor, as Baltimore committed two penalties on the play, giving Pittsburgh the ball on the Ravens 38. The Steelers ran five plays before kicking a field goal to give the Steelers back a seven-point lead. The Ravens would drive 16 plays and 73 yards to tie the game but had they kicked it deep, it’s likely they would have owned a three-point lead at that point instead of just tying the contest late in the fourth quarter.

The Ravens also elected to squib the ball on the final kickoff of the game instead of booting the ball through the end zone. There is some debate as to whether or not Justin Tucker missed it on the kickoff, causing it to bounce as it did—but I’m not buying that. The Steelers Emmanuel Sanders ran the ball back 44-yards, which gave Pittsburgh great field position. QB Ben Roethlisberger completed three passes for 31-yards during the short seven-play drive that resulted in Shawn Suisham hitting the game winner with no time left on the clock.

The bottom line is if you believe that the Ravens kick the field goal vs. the Packers and take a knee, then it’s probable that they win by three points. Who knows whether or not they would have held the Steelers after scoring the TD late in Sunday’s game but with the last two losses coming by a combined six points and four decisions possibly costing the team nine to 12 points, the math seems pretty simple doesn’t it? It is possible that is adds up to 5-2 or at the very least 4-3.

While each of these decisions had nothing to do with the other, what all of them have in common is how each reeks of desperation. This is not a video game where desperate plays can lead to wins on almost every play. In the real world, desperate football teams lose a lot more than they come out on top.

The Running Game:

You know all the obvious stats about the Ravens rushing attack. They head into their bye week 28th in the NFL in rushing offense and are last in rushing yards per attempt. This is a three-headed monster that must be fixed, in that there is plenty of blame to be placed on the running backs, offensive line and the scheme being used—a.k.a, Juan Castillo.

Rice & Pierce are struggling mightily

The cold hard reality of this situation is that there is so much wrong now that this may take more than the 2013 season to fix. The Ravens have tried to morph into what the NFL is becoming—a pass happy, sling the ball around the field league. The problem is, the philosophy of this organization with these players has always been to play power football.

Baltimore has rushed for the NFL’s eighth-most yards per game (124.9) since 2008, adding the fourth-most rush TDs (90) in the process. When the Ravens have a 100-yard rushing performance, they are 18-2 since Harbaugh came to town. Since his arrival and entering this season, the Ravens are overall ranked eighth in rushing, never having finished lower than 11th, which they did last season. They are averaging 30.6 attempts per game during that span, ranking sixth in the league.

This season, the Ravens are averaging 26 attempts per contest, which is 19th in the NFL. Two of the three problems the Ravens have could possibly be corrected this season. You can adjust your scheme, as Mike Preston reported has been done and as Eugene Monroe learns the playbook more and Geno Gradkowski gets more experience, the O-Line could actually get better.

The one thing you may not be able to correct is reversing the wear and tear on Ray Rice. Simply put, you cannot take miles off a car. Sure, you can be a crook and move back the odometer but the wear and tear remains. The 5’-9” 195-pound Rice has been a workhorse for the team since he took over as the starter in 2009. Last season marked the fourth-straight year Rice finished with at least 1,600 yards from scrimmage and it was also his fourth-straight 1,000-yard rushing campaign. Rice has compiled 42 games with at least 100 total yards from scrimmage during his career, including 40 since he became a full-time starter and earned his first Pro Bowl in 2009. Rice’s 40 games dating back to ‘09 rank as the NFL’s second most.

Furthermore, Rice leads the NFL in catches and is second in receiving yards by a RB since he entered the league in 2008, amassing 331 catches for 2,800 yards. Rice also owns 94 catches for 876 yards on third down during this time, both marks second (among RBs) only to Darren Sproles’ 96 catches for 1,011 yards on third down. Only Rice and former Rams Hall of Fame RB Marshall Faulk have posted multiple 1,000-yard rushing/700-yard receiving seasons.

Running backs take a pounding, and unlike linemen, they do not have the physical build to withstand it for very long. Rice is only 5-9 and 195 pounds. At just 26-years of age, No.27 does not seem to be winning the one-on-one battles, as much as he used to and that includes after he catches a pass in the open field.

While he has played injured for half the season, the issue dates back to parts of last season with Rice and is a reason why backup Bernard Pierce was allowed to emerge and earned, as many carries, as he did towards the end of last season and into the playoffs.

In Pittsburgh, Rice and Pierce could not generate any yards after contact and that has been a big story this season as well. They combined to rush for a season-low 11 yards after contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information. This number is even more disappointing when you factor in the Steelers have allowed 305 yards after contact this season, the seventh-most in the NFL. Rice and Pierce combined for 58 yards on 21 carries, a 2.7-yard average. The Ravens’ backs have been held under 3.2 yards per carry in every game this season. Entering the Steelers game, Rice had only broken three tackles all season. Thirty-nine running backs have more than that. The result: Rice has 78 yards after contact (34th in the NFL) and averages 1.1 yards after contact (39th).

Like Rice, Pierce may be just be starting to feel better after battling a high ankle sprain and knee issues to start the preseason. However, Rice has a few years under his belt and is starting to inch up to an age where RB’s can start to drop off significantly, or in some cases, have career years. It feels as if Reggie Bush is still new to the NFL but this season is his eighth in the league, and only six active running backs have longer tenures.

The two elder statesmen are fullbacks– Greg Jones from the Texans and Ravens fullback Vonta Leach, both of whom are in their 10th seasons. Adrian Peterson rushed for over 2,000 yards last season but this is already his seventh year in the league, and only 10 current backs have more experience in the NFL.

According to stats by Pro-Football-Reference.com, there have been 26 true “workhorse” backs in the last 40 years that carried the load for their teams through their age 26-27 seasons. Of those 26 runners, 12 of them were essentially done at age 28. Players such as Larry Johnson, Edgerrin James, Priest Holmes, Shaun Alexander and Terrell Davis are backs you think of when you think of hitting a wall.

Shaun Alexander and Priest Holmes had exceptional years after turning 26 but Terrell Davis, who rushed for 2,008 yards at 26 years of age, gained just 1,194 yards in the three seasons (17 games). All three touched the ball an average of 362, 373 and 345 times per year respectively during the busiest four years of their career before experiencing a decline. Rice has touched the ball an average of 346 times in each of the last four seasons.

Ngata A Force Anymore?

The Ravens are obviously being outplayed from a physical standpoint along the offensive line but this pertains to the defense. Two weeks ago, the Ravens had the NFL’s No. 6 run defense, giving up 89.8 yards on the ground. The Ravens have not looked anywhere near that since then, as two rookie running backs have run all over the defense. Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy ran for 120 yards and Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell rushed for 93 yards, which are career highs for both second-round picks. The Steelers, who had the second-worst run game in the NFL, gained a season-high 141 yards rushing, ending a franchise-record streak of 11 straight games with fewer than 100 yards rushing.

The Ravens currently rank second in the NFL with 25 sacks this season, as Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil have combined for 13.5 of them. Going back to last season the Ravens have seemed extremely vulnerable up the middle of the defense versus the rush and when signal callers drop back to pass, the middle of the pocket isn’t being pushed as it used to be. QB’s and RB’s are finding space through the middle of the Ravens defense with alarming success. According to the play tracker on Pro Football Reference, the Packers and Steelers combined to rush for 229-yards on 41 carries from the left guard to the right guard—the area of the line that one Haloti Ngata used to control.

That is 81 percent of the rushing yards from the past two games being had straight up the middle of the field. Ngata has been struggling for quite some time and health may be a big reason why. He has not been completely healthy since the 2011 season and is once again battling injuries this season. His arm was wrapped on Sunday and he seemed to get pushed around a lot during the contest.

Pro Football Focus gave Steelers Guard David DeCastro his highest mark of the year last Sunday, saying, “The former first rounder finished at +3.6 in the run blocking department. The report card says DeCastro got the better of the battles with Ngata, particularly at the 5:04 mark of the third. Ngata delivers the initial blow to DeCastro who absorbs and recovers to move Ngata out of the hole.”

Ngata could never be moved or pushed around in the past. One of the NFL’s most disruptive forces, Ngata was named to his fourth Pro Bowl last season. He’s been perhaps the NFL’s most athletic defensive tackle since entering the league but the Ravens have not seen that Ngata for quite some time going back to 2012.

He has always been a force at stopping the run (462 career tackles), rushing the passer (23 career sacks) and even drops into coverage, posting three career INT’s. Dating back to 2006, when Ngata entered the NFL, the Ravens have allowed the NFL’s second-fewest rushing TDs (57) and the NFL’s third-fewest rushing yards per game (91.7 ypg). But since the middle of last season, Ngata has been slowed by injuries and simply is not performing at the level that saw him ranked in the Top 10 of all NFL players when the NFL Network conducted their top 100 list in 2011.

This offseason will be no less a headache for Ozzie Newsome and Dick Cass, as they have a very large decision looming, perhaps bigger than Ngata himself. The former Oregon Duck will cost the Ravens $16 million against the salary cap next season. I’m not sure Haloti will restructure and I’m almost positive the Ravens aren’t going to pay that dollar figure—- even if Ngata starts to perform as he used to once again.

Including the Entire Season, Starting Slowly Allows Close Ones to Slip Away

Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh marked the fifth time in the last six weeks that the Ravens did not score first. According to the Ravens media guide, the Ravens are 41-8 under Coach John Harbaugh when scoring first and 16-22 when they do not. With a 1-2 record, this season in games decided by three points or less, the Ravens are under.500 (12-14) in this scenario during Harbaugh’s tenure. Besides the Ravens, the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the only team to have dropped three games by that close margin. The Ravens were 5-3 in games decided by three points or fewer last season, including a 2-0 mark in the playoffs. The Ravens beat the Broncos 38-35 in the AFC Divisional game and won by three in Super Bowl XLVII.

The Ravens trail the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals (5-2) by two games, as the Bengals are winning the close games with a 3-1 record in games decided by four points or less. Baltimore has also seriously fallen behind in another area, tiebreakers.

The first pick 6 of Smith's career

The first pick 6 of Smith’s career

The Ravens still play Cincy twice but if the Ravens and Bengals are tied after 16 games, the NFL uses a tiebreaking system to determine the division winner. This may be a year in which only the division winner from the AFC North makes the postseason, so this is important. The first tiebreaker is head to head and if the teams split their series, they would go to the second tiebreaker, which is divisional record.

It is also entirely possible that each team could be 3-3 or even 4-2 within the AFC North, that is when the league goes to third tiebreaker, and this is where the Ravens have fallen way behind. The third tiebreaker is best won-lost-tied percentage in common games/opponents.

The Bengals have already beaten the Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills, two teams the Ravens lost to in two of the past three weeks. Cincinnatti has also defeated the NE Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Do you see a potentially damning situation here?

The Denver Broncos (6-1) and Kansas City Chiefs (7-0) both started the year 6-0 and since 1990, when the 12-team playoff format was adopted, 27 of the 29 (93.1 percent) previous teams to start 6-0 made the playoffs. Additionally, no team that ever started 7-0 in the Super Bowl era missed the playoffs. This means that there is likely one spot up for grabs—–ONE!

The Ravens must start faster in games if they hope to start winning the close games. This season, the Ravens have not held a lead after the first 15 minutes since they did so in Denver. According to ESPN Stats and Info, over the past six weeks, the Ravens have held a first-half lead for 18 minutes and 47 seconds out of 180 minutes (10.2 percent).

The Ravens have scored 53 points in the first half this season, with 14 coming from defense and special teams. That is an average of 7.5 points per half. Last season, the reigning champions won close games. Remember Justin Tucker‘s 27-yard field goal as time expired against New England in a 31-30 victory.  Remember the Cowboys missing a 51-yard field goal with two seconds remaining in a Ravens 31-29 win. And who will ever forget fourth and 29 with Ray Rice actually breaking tackles. The Raven won that game, 16-13, in San Diego in overtime.

This season is different. The Ravens are not getting the big plays or making the big stops and if they do not get it figured during the bye week, they could very well be watching the playoffs from their living rooms for the first time since Brian Billick walked the sidelines in the Charm City.

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