Dec 16, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice (27) runs the ball during the third quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Ravens Rush to Top of AFC North?

This is a big year for the Baltimore Ravens. The team must prove that finishing with an eight and eight win-loss record was an anomaly that will not be repeated this season. The team must convincingly demonstrate, to the fans and to itself, that it has the ability to play at a “high level” on both sides of the ball.

Although core defensive players like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger and other have left the nest, it is critical that the Ravens Defense re-establish itself as a tough, physical, hard hitting unit that cannot be pushed around.  With the moves the team has made during the off season, they are off to a good start.  They signed Outside Linebacker Terrell Suggs to a contract extension then re-signed Mike Linebacker Daryl Smith and added Will Linebacker C.J. Mosley through the Draft.

In addition to the player personnel moves, the team tweaked the defensive coaching staff with emphasis on upgrading defensive backfield coaching. This will be extremely important to young players like Asa Jackson, Matt Elam and Terrance Brooks as the season progresses.

The Offense has even more to prove than the Ravens’ twelfth ranked Defense.  Ranked twenty ninth in the league, the Ravens Offense was a “train wreck.” They could not run the ball and although Quarterback Joe Flacco passed for the most yardage in his six years career, the effort did not produce enough points and wins to get them into the playoffs. The Offense failed at every level. Time after time, the Offensive Line crumbled like cake, allowing defensive linemen and linebackers to harass Joe Flacco like a swarm of angry bees. When Flacco was able to get his passes off under duress, they were picked off but, in many cases, Flacco ended the play on his back with a defender celebrating over his 6’6” frame.

The Offense failed at every level. Time after time, the Offensive Line crumbled like cake”-Ken Jackson Yesterday, the Ravens released their first “unofficial” 2014 depth chart. There were not many surprises. The Defense looks strong but questions remain about the Offense. In comparing the depth chart to the goals set out in the “Season Review” press conference by General Manager Ozzie Newsome and Head Coach John Harbaugh, it appears progress has been made.

The Offensive Line seems to be in much better shape than it was last year but questions remain. In 2013, the Offensive Line seemed to be uncomfortable with the new “zone blocking” scheme installed by then Running Game Coordinator and Offensive Line Coach Juan Castillo. They struggled during the early part of the season and things got worse after Left Guard Kelechi Osemele was loss to injury after the seventh game of the season.

New Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak also uses a “zone blocking” scheme as part of his “west coast” style offensive system, but there are major differences in the scheme and the way it is being installed. There appears to be greater emphasis on detail and clarity. The installation seems to place a great deal of importance on preparation and personnel/scheme fit. If training camp is any indicator, the Offensive Line is more comfortable with Kubiak’s system and its “stretch zone blocking” scheme.

The left side of the Ravens Offensive Line, with Left Tackle Eugene Monroe and Left Guard Kelechi Osemele, is apparently set. However, court is still out on Jeremy Zuttah, the veteran Center the Ravens acquired in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  Marshal Yanda, the Pro Bowl Right Guard is a mainstay on the O-Line but Right Tackle Rick Wagner is still a question mark.

With Dennis Pitta fully recovered from his injury and former Houston Texan Owen Daniels in the fold at Tight End, the only concern is keeping them both healthy.

There are still a few questions about Wide Receiver but the questions have more to do with who among the eight competitors will fill the fifth (and possibly the sixth) wide receiver slots. Torrey Smith, Steve Smith Sr., Marlon Brown and Jacoby Jones appear to be “locks” to make the 53 man roster. Several of the others are making strong cases and the decision will probably come down to which of them will be best on Special Teams.

The area of most concern is Running Back. Pro Bowler Ray Rice will miss both the Bengals and Steelers games (weeks one and two) because of his league imposed suspension for “conduct detrimental to the league.”  The suspension resulted from an incident in an Atlantic City, NJ casino hotel. Ray Rice was accused of physically assaulting his fiancée (now his wife) Janay Palmer. Ms. Palmer was also formally accused of assaulting Mr. Rice. The legal matters related to the incident were settled in an arrangement between the couple and New Jersey prosecutors.

Questions remain about third year Running Back Bernard Pierce. Pierce is in the final stages of recovery from shoulder surgery that was performed in January, 2014. During the Ravens disastrous “no-run” 2013 season, Pierce only averaged 2.9 yards per carry. His career average is 3.7 yards per attempt. Those numbers are unlikely to keep opposing Offensive Coordinators up at night wondering how they will stop him.

Pierce’s back up is Justin Forsett, a seven years veteran the Ravens acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Ravens are Forsett’s fifth team in seven years. He was originally signed by the Indianapolis Colts but has also played for the Seattle Seahawks, the Houston Texans and the Jaguars. He has appeared in 87 NFL games but has only started seven. The most promising benefit of having Forsett on the roster is his career rushing average of 4.9 yards per carry and he has proven he can catch the ball out of the backfield.

Everything seems to be set for a successful offensive year. The Offensive Line should be better and more explosive in the run game. The Wide Receivers and Tight Ends are veterans that will keep defenses “honest” and prevent them from putting eight in the box, which should help Rice, Pierce and Forsett. So, Running Back is the one position that could hamper the Ravens’ rush to the top of the AFC North. Both Pierce and Forsett should get a substantial number of reps during training camp and significant playing time during the pre-season. If the Ravens rushing attack is successful, they should win the AFC North title and be back in the playoffs again.

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