In a span of less than two weeks, the Baltimore Ravens have fallen from first place in the AFC North to sole possession of last place. Despite having a winning record (5-4), they have not been playing well enough to make the playoffs this year. Unless the Steelers stumble, the Browns renew their passion for losing and the Bengals break down completely, the Ravens will probably spend a second offseason on the sofa, wondering what happened.
Sorry to be so pessimistic, but my inherent pragmatism tells me this team is in trouble. The Offense has talent but is inconsistent, the Wide Receivers are speedy but can’t separate from slower, less talented defenders and can’t seem to catch the ball, Tight Ends can’t stay on the field because of injury and the Quarterback looks like Tom Brady one week and Tim Tebow the next.
“Unless the Steelers stumble, the Browns renew their passion for losing and the Bengals break down completely, the Ravens will probably spend a second offseason on the sofa”
On defense, the pass rush is good but inconsistent; the Linebackers are great but asked to do too much because the secondary is atrocious and the secondary’s assignment discipline and on-field communication is often non-existent.
So, how did such a talented team develop so many problems?
Some of the Ravens’ deficiencies are due to injuries to key starters and sub-par execution. However, every NFL team has had to battle through injuries at inopportune times. In putting together their roster, the Ravens exacerbated the problem. Coming out of training camp, the Ravens 53 man roster had an abundance of depth at some positions while carrying a lack of depth at others and that has not changed. Unfortunately, the most devastating injuries this season have occurred at positions that lack depth. That has resulted in sub-par performances at those positions; most notably along the Offensive Line and at Cornerback.
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Many of the Ravens’ woes have resulted from mediocre performances by key personnel in key situations. Most teams have performance “peaks and valleys” during the season, but the Ravens’ flat spots seem to be predictable. Although Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak does not generally use a “no huddle” or “up tempo” offensive approach; when the tempo slows, Joe Flacco’s accuracy and production suffers. The problem is correctable but has not been addressed in any meaningful way.
The Ravens’ pass rush has been one of the best in the league this year, but when it doesn’t “get home”, the Ravens’ weak secondary is exposed. Deep threats like A. J. Green, Mohamad Sanu, Travis Benjamin, Antonio Brown and lesser known threats have burned the Ravens secondary for 34 catches (almost 4 receptions per game) of 20 yards or more.
“How did such a talented team develop so many problems?”
Last Sunday, the shortcomings that have lurked near the surface since last season, angrily erupted. They were all on full display in an embarrassing 43-23 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Granted, the Steelers had a great game plan and executed it well, but their plan was based on the glaring, undeniable weaknesses that the Ravens have chosen to ignore all season.
First and foremost was the Ravens’ woeful secondary. Mike Tomlin and the Steelers coaches knew the secondary could not cover their receivers and was vulnerable to the “big play”. They tried to exploit this weakness during their week 2 game against the Ravens but poor execution by the Steelers (especially along the offensive line), penalties, turnovers and pressure from the Ravens’ front seven derailed their plan and they lost 26-6.
During the ensuing weeks, the Steelers fixed many of the problems along the offensive line. They made adjustments to their protection schemes and tweaked their sub-packages, specifically to handle their AFC North competitors, most notably the Baltimore Ravens.
When the teams met last Sunday, the Steelers had made their adjustment and the Ravens had not. Big Ben and his receivers, after weathering an opening touchdown drive by Joe Flacco and the Ravens, went to work on the secondary. They passes at will, picking up big chunks of yardage while taking the Ravens’ Corners “to school”.
In administering their mauling of the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers might have helped them. The “beat down” forced General Manager Ozzie Newsome and Head Coach John Harbaugh to face the consequences of their “thrift store” decisions of the 2013 and 2014 seasons and finally do something about them.
On Wednesday, the team cut starting Cornerback Dominique Franks, who often seemed lost in coverage, and nickel Corner Chykie Brown (claimed by the New York Giants) who had difficulty with both coverage and tackling. These moves were significant because the Ravens only had three “healthy” Corners and they cut two of them. Unfortunately, the corresponding move of claiming journeyman Cornerback Danny Gorrer from the waiver wire and promoting rookie Corner Tramain Jacobs from the Practice Squad might not have put them any closer to having an effective secondary.
It’s sad but this problem was not unforeseeable. The team knew their 2013 defensive backfield was a liability and a prime contributor to their dismal 2013 season. They knew they would lose the best of that sorry bunch at the end of the season through free agency, yet they did nothing. They knew, going into the Free Agent Signing Period that they needed a good starting Cornerback to pair with Jimmy Smith, allowing Lardarius Webb to play the nickel, but they did nothing. They knew Chykie Brown had trouble with coverage in Dan Pees scheme and that he had trouble tackling in space, but they did nothing. And, they knew Asa Jackson, although talented, was a “crap shoot” because of off the field issues and injury concerns, but they did nothing.
“The Ravens are now entering the “home stretch” of the 2014 season with one “healthy” but “nicked up” Corner, one journeyman and one rookie.”
The Ravens also did not address an emerging Safety problem. They knew that the release of Strong Safety James Ihedigbo, allowing the team to move Matt Elam from Free Safety to Strong Safety, would become an issue if they could not find a complimentary veteran Free Safety to replace Ihedigbo on the roster. Instead of trying to acquire a premium Free Safety in free agency, they signed Michael Huff, whom the Oakland Raiders benched for under achievement and poor tackling in favor of an undrafted free agent. The Ravens passed on a number of available Free Safeties in free agency that would have been substantial upgrades to their secondary.
The Ravens are now entering the “home stretch” of the 2014 season with one “healthy” but “nicked up” Corner, one journeyman and one rookie. They have seven Safeties with a grand total of 4 career interceptions and 29 pass defenses. Steelers’ Strong Safety Troy Polamalu alone has 32 career interceptions and 100 pass defenses.
Even if the Ravens win the majority of their remaining games, qualifying for the playoffs is in serious doubt. The Steelers are playing with renewed passion and precision, the Bengals stumbled, primarily because of key injuries, but seems to have “righted the ship” and the new and improved Cleveland Browns are a very “tough out” and like the Bengals will soon be getting their primary offensive weapon back.
I hate to say this but unless there is a Charm City Miracle (trade for Darrelle Revis or another top flight Corner) on the horizon, the Ravens are likely to watch the playoffs on TV again this year. Hopefully, this season will be a wakeup call to Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and company that there is no substitute for quality. As Hall of Fame Defensive Lineman Warren Sapp likes to say, “On Defense, the front end and back end work together”; neglecting one will surely impact the other. The question remains: will this be a lesson learned or a lesson ignored? We will soon see.