Five Things Ravens Must Improve, Starting Now

Steve O Speak

By Guest Blogger Alanzlot:

Many fans and prognosticators are saying the BaltimoreRavens’ loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last Thursday night is nothing to panic about. We will see the real Ravens at home vs. the Chiefs on Friday.

Maybe so and maybe everyone is right when they say the loss, and the team’s play during the loss, comes following an offseason of turmoil in which there were no team workouts because of the owners’ lockout. However, it is tough to ignore that many of the issues that plagued the Ravens in defeat on Thursday appear to be many of the same issues that haunted them during the course of the year last season.  I am not talking about the usual mistakes and missed assignments that come this time of the year. I am talking about major issues with the franchise quarterback and the man that protects his blindside.

There also appears to be some problems with the Ravens all world ball-hawking safety. These issues crept in unnoticed by many because of his eight interceptions in just 10 games and seventh Pro Bowl appearance last season. The Ravens will be attempting to make the NFL playoffs for the fourth consecutive season once the year begins on September 11 against, you guessed it, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The same Steelers, who signed 14 of their own players that went to the Super Bowl last year in the first 10 days following the lockout.

Only the Indianapolis Colts, who have made nine straight postseason appearances, have a longer playoff streak than the Ravens. If the Ravens make the postseason for the fourth consecutive year, it will be with a roster that is younger and looks considerably different when you take into account all of the parts.

Gone are the teams No.1 and No.2 all-time leading pass catchers, tight end Todd Heap, and wide receiver, Derrick Mason. Also gone, is running back Willis McGahee. All McGahee did in four years with the Ravens is score 35 touchdowns. Taking Heap and Mason’s place will be the newly acquired Lee Evans from Buffalo and two second-year tight ends. In the backfield fullback Vonta Leach and the controversial Ricky Williams will join Ray Rice. Say what you will about how the Ravens used McGahee, but if Williams or Rice cannot score inside the 10-yard line, then Ravens fans will be reminded of McGahee’s production.

From the defense, the Ravens lost lineman Kelly Gregg, cornerback Josh Wilson and safety Dwan Landry to name a few. Wilson may not have been your favorite Raven DB, but according to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks who threw at him last season only had a 67.8 rating.

Each postseason for the past 13 years, five teams that made the playoffs the year before, failed to return the following year. Aside from overcoming the veteran losses, here are five issues and observations to watch for against the Chiefs and into the start of the season.

Derrick Ward and Terrell Suggs - Baltimore Ravens v New York Giants
Derrick Ward and Terrell Suggs – Baltimore Ravens v New York Giants

The Ravens Can Be a Poor Tackling Team
The Baltimore Ravens are a physical smash mouth team on defense. However, they could be much better on defense if they simply learned how to wrap up the man with the ball.  The Ravens can be one-arm bandits at times and if you are looking for a reason Ben Roethlisberger has so much success against them, poor tackling once they get to him would be a good place to start. How many times have you seen Terrell Suggs draped on Big Ben in the Steelers’ backfield?

Yes, the Ravens will hit the opposition in the mouth, that is of course when the opposition runs right at them. Surprisingly, this issue has haunted Baltimore for a few years now despite the top rankings in defense each season.
In Thursday’s loss to the Eagles, the Ravens could be seen on many occasions in the Philadelphia backfield approaching the ball carrier. However, an arm bar here and there allowed whomever to escape and make positive yards by either running or throwing the ball.  There is no one player particularly guilty. Every player has shown poor technique on more than a few occasions. Even Haloti Ngata, who has tree trunks for arms, has missed more than a few ball carriers in the backfield because of poor tackling.  This issue must be corrected quickly.

Ray Lewis and Ed Reed will not be able to continue bailing the rest of the defense out as they have during past years. Both have lost a step or two and will simply not be able to make up for those poor missed tackles as much as they used to this season.
Even more surprisingly, half of the teams in the league tackle with poor technique. Warren Sapp once said on the NFL Network that NFL teams never practice tackling technique.

Maybe that is the answer to preventing some of these concussions and neck injuries in the league, a little tackling practice every once in a while and the league may be surprised by the result. I know the Ravens need to do it, because if they don’t it may cost them a game they cannot afford to lose this year.  Remember the poor tackling in the Houston and Buffalo games last year? Those results may not be victories this year if the defense does not learn to wrap up better than they have in seasons past.

Michael Oher must cut down on penalties

Michael Oher and Rest of O-Line Must Play Better
Left tackle Michael Oher must play better entering his third season in the NFL or the Baltimore Ravens could be in big trouble once the regular season begins.  Oher, a former first-round pick (23 overall) started his promising NFL career in 2009 by finishing second in voting for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. This from the right tackle position.

Last season after moving to left tackle, Oher struggled mightily. He led the Ravens in penalties with 13 during the regular season. The total was seven more than anybody else on the team. He also cost his team 88 yards—at least 50 more than any other Raven.
Most of his penalties were costly false starts (nine) that seem to come at crucial times during important games. In two years with the Ravens, Michael Oher has committed 35 penalties and allowed 15 sacks.

Oher was apart of an offensive line that was touted as one of the league’s most promising to start last season. Instead, Oher struggled along with an offensive line that became decimated with injuries as the season wore on. Tack on the Jarred Gaither soap opera, and it is no wonder the unit allowed 40 sacks and an additional 79 more hits to quarterback Joe Flacco.
Both numbers ranked in the bottom half of the league at ninth and 10th worst. Unfortunately, it looks as if this season could bring more of the same for Oher and the Ravens.Thursday’s preseason opener did not start well for either.

Oher was responsible for two of the six sacks allowed, and committed another penalty in the game against the Eagles.
Ravens fans can only hope that Oher and the Ravens O-line can quickly work out the kinks before an angry James Harrison and a newly re-signed and happy LaMarr Woodley line up against them on September 11.  I am not sure the Ravens and GM Ozzie Newsome can fix this problem by finding another tackle via free agency or a trade this late in the game. Even the Wizard of Oz would admit that it would be tough to find cohesiveness up front in time to start the season. Anyone not already starting for another team at this point would surely be a downgrade from Oher.  As I said, Ravens fans can only hope at this point that Oher and the rest of the Ravens O-line turn it around, or 40 sacks and 79 hits could become the norm at M&T Bank Stadium this season.

Ed Reed is still great but aging quickly

The Brewing Storm with Ed Reed’s Play
This one may puzzle you. You say you did not know that other than Reed’s health, there was a problem with his play. If you watched the last part of the year in 2010 and watched last Thursday night then you know that one is on the horizon.
In the loss to Philly, the Eagles Riley Cooper beat Ed Reed cleanly for a 42-yard catch after faking Chris Carr out of his cleats five yards past the line of scrimmage. Carr actually over-committed on what he thought was going to be a quick out and slipped down.
Cooper took off past Carr and beat Reed putting the Eagles on their own two-yard line during their opening drive of the game, a drive that ended with a touchdown for Philadelphia. Reed would never have allowed this play two or three years ago. The ball most certainly would have been picked off as Michael Vick floated the pass to Cooper down the left sideline.

Yes, Ed Reed was selected for his seventh Pro Bowl in eight years and picked off eight passes in just 10 games last season. Yes, Ed Reed must still be accounted for when he is on the field, but quarterbacks are starting to show that Reed is not as quick or as athletic as he once was.  Since 2003, the Ravens have not been inclined to re-sign the safety that plays opposite Reed and the team kept with that philosophy during this brief offseason when they allowed Dwan Landry to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
However, this could prove to be costly, as Landry’s 83 tackles from last season will be missed. Especially since Reed has never recorded more than 71, and that came during his rookie season. In fact, only Ray Lewis recorded more tackles over the last two seasons than did Landry.

My point to this is that Reed has not played a full season in two years and his neck injury will undoubtedly prevent him from playing in 16 games again this year. Landry would have been nice to have around when, not if Ed Reed misses time this season.
Despite his eight picks from a season ago, Reed has shown a knack for giving up the big play in recent games dating back to last season. He no longer has the quickness to recover from his free lancing position in the back of the secondary, and this will eventually cost the Ravens a game or two.  It almost did last season when he allowed a late 46-yard TD catch to Andrea Johnson at the end of the first half against the Houston Texans. The Ravens defense, and mostly the Ravens secondary, blew eight fourth quarter leads last season. This was by far the most in the NFL.

Reed’s inability to cover his normal space late in games was a reason why this occurred. Teams found the middle of the field wide open at times and many teams were not afraid to test Reed late in games.  Ed Reed can still be a great payer at times, eight interceptions in 10 games tells us that, but the problem is age and injuries have taken their toll on him. Not to mention the emotional tragedy he suffered when his brother died last January.  All of this makes it impossible for Ed Reed to be what he has been for nine seasons, great all the time. The Ravens secondary will have to grow up in a hurry before the season begins because Ed Reed may not be able to be Ed Reed as much anymore.

There is no crime in what is happening to Reed. The crime is if the Ravens do not do something to help their cause before it becomes too late or glaringly obvious to other teams. For now, this problem may still be a small one but one the Ravens must be in front of. If they are not, then 7-9 may not be all that far of a stretch for this team.

Paul Kruger

Is Paul Kruger and Sergio Kindle Really the Answer in 2011?
I was going to use this slide to voice my opinion on how the Ravens need a legitimate No.2 quarterback, but I have enough faith in Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh to figure they already know that, and are just waiting for the right opportunity to sign one.
Ravens current No.2 QB, Tyrod Taylor played like another Va. Tech alum on Thursday night, (the Eagles Michael Vick), but only did so when it became necessary to vacate the pocket, which was quite often considering the performance of the Ravens’ O-line.
Tyrod Taylor is not NFL ready and the Ravens have to know it, so look for a veteran QB to be holding a clipboard and flashing goofy hand signals on the second Sunday in September.  I will use this slide instead to talk about the Ravens’ pass rush, which after recording a franchise low 27 sacks last season, is still a concern.

The Ravens recorded just two sacks against four Philadelphia quarterbacks last Thursday as all of the talk coming out of the game was how much outside pass rushers Paul Kruger and Sergio Kindle could be the Ravens’ answer to an improved pass rush this season.

While I like what the future holds for these two players, we are talking about two players that have exactly one NFL start between them. One of them (Kindle) has never played a down in a regular season NFL game and oh by the way, is coming off a serious non-football related head injury.  While both showed promise against the Eagles, the best the Ravens can hope for is that both can combine to equal one Terrell Suggs this year.  If these two cool down from their hot camp starts then what you ask? Until the Ravens get an extension done for Haloti Ngata, freeing up space under the salary cap, the answer is nothing can be done. The money is not there under the cap to acquire a pass rusher that can make the impact the Ravens need.

So for now, or until the cap situation changes, it will more than likely be the tandem of Kruger and Kindle. If they can succeed and have a good year, Ravens fans should consider it a gift from the Football Gods.

Can Flacco take the next step?

Joe Flacco’s Release and Footwork Must Get Better
In order for Joe Flacco to take the next step that everyone feels he must this season, his footwork, pocket presence and release must improve.  Last Thursday night, and taking into account that it was just the first preseason game, both looked less than stellar. Flacco was a pedestrian, 3-of-6 for 60 yards and if you watched the game, then you understand the pedestrian part.

Flacco appeared slow in the pocket and his release was equally as slow. He seemed to plod through his three and five step drops and again seems to be lacking a certain fire that the great ones possess. Yes, I know it was just a preseason game, but Michael Vick appeared to be pretty fired up.  Is it too much to ask as a fan that you be able to tell when your franchise quarterback is sharp or not. Every play and down brings the same emotionless Flacco.

True, Joe Flacco has a big strong arm and can make many of the throws that are required to be an NFL quarterback but arm strength does not guarantee touch and Flacco still lacks touch.  He also seemed to be locked onto his primary targets and his pass to Todd Heap’s current replacement, David Pitta, was well behind him. If not for an acrobatic catch by Pitta, the ball would have probably been intercepted. No, you will never convince me it was a fade pass. That does not happen in the middle of the field on the first play of the game. The ball was simply poorly thrown.

The swing pass to Ray Rice, which netted a 20-plus yard gain, was a pass Flacco has thrown many times over the last three years. The problem is, when he went to throw it again on second and long, the Eagles had it covered and Flacco looked lost.
He was chased down by Eagles D-lineman Derrick Landri and looked bad trying to elude the big man. He stumbled over his feet running sideways and backwards, never once sprinting left or right to get away from Landri to create something down the field.
This may just be first game kinks, but many of the issues that Flacco was called to the carpet for once the season ended last year are reappearing in the quarterback’s fourth season. The Ravens want to see Flacco perform well this year before offering him the extension he complained about not receiving during the offseason.

Maybe the Ravens know that these issues may keep him from that contract, or at least limit the dollars in it. Who knows, but one thing is for sure, Joe Flacco needs to have better pocket presence and a quicker release if he is to become the Super Bowl quarterback a certain Steelers linebacker said he would never be.  Only time will tell regarding Flacco and his future. Regardless of how you feel about him, he must produce in a franchise quarterback kind of way this season. Maybe not in a Brady or Manning way but a Roethlisberger way would not be bad.  The time has come for Joe Flacco to win games with the team on his back.
Flacco’s numbers have improved every year he has been in the league, but if Thursday night was any indication of where Flacco is right now, then Joe Cool has some work to do.



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