Every week, the Ravens analysts here at Baltimore Sports and Life will collaborate with a special guest from network partner at 24×7 Networks – Russell Street Report. We’ll have a Q&A roundtable discussion on the week that was, and preview the weeks upcoming match-up. This week, Tony Lombardi joins BSL Analysts Chris Stoner, Nadeem Kurieshy, Mark Bullock, Mike Randall, and Matt Jergensen.
Discuss your thoughts on this topic, answer these questions yourself on our message board.
1. As preseason came to a close last Thursday, give me one thing you’ll take away from those games that you want to see continue in the regular season.
Chris Stoner - My takeaway of the preseason is the opening drive vs. San Francisco. We saw play-action, quicker releases from Flacco, and more burst from Rice than we saw at anytime last year. If we see the offense operate with that efficiency with any consistency, this year will be a lot of fun.
Nadeem Kurieshy - Flacco’s passing looked great. He got the ball out quickly and had some legitimate receivers to throw to. He completed 64% of his passes and had a QB rating over 100
Mark Bullock - I want to see the younger guys continue to play well and hold down their positions. Guys like linebacker C.J. Mosley and nose tackle Brandon Williams can be huge players for the Ravens front 7, particularly at key positions, if they play consistently at the high levels they displayed at times during the preseason.
Mike Randall – Success in the running game is the big one for me. It’s a night and day difference from last year. Hopefully that can carry over since it helps establish the play action fakes that are prominent in Gary Kubiak’s playbook.
Matt Jergensen - The resurgence of the running game as an offensive weapon.What has usually been a reliable part of the Ravens attack was at times painful to witness in 2013. The pre-season numbers were gaudy and it’s unrealistic to expect them to continue to produce at that clip however a strong running game will go a long way in being able to sell play-action and to keep Joe Flacco in manageable third downs.
Tony Lombardi - Clearly the Ravens success running the football during the preseason was a great sign. Gary Kubiak’s offense is predicated upon running the football successfully and doing so opens up the Ravens playbook and spreads the defense, allowing for more one-on-one matchups for Joe Flacco to exploit. If they can continue to successfully run the football it bodes well for field position, clock management, keeps the defense fresh and it translates well to successful football during the winter months.
2. Give me one thing that disturbed you a bit, that you would like to see left in the preseason and hope doesn’t carry over.
CS – It is hard to imagine any scenario where the offensive line is not better than last year’s line, but there is some lingering concern there. Disturbed is probably strong wording though.
NK - The OL’s passblocking was pretty inconsistent when the first team was on the field. Against the Cowboys, the left side of the line didn’t block well at times. Against the Cowboys, both tackles had a couple of plays where they made some fundamental mistakes.
MB - The rhythm of the offense, particularly against the Redskins, was poor. To get good field position and then be held on multiple occasions is disappointing and will hopefully be rust shaken off as we enter the regular season.
MR – I’m still worried that the lack of a pass rush is still there. I had predicted 30 sacks between Suggs and Dumervil going into last season and they we’re on pace to best that half way through. I expect a better pass rush with our talent up front.
MJ - Several games in the pre-season the defense exhibited an inability to execute a simple tackle. Often players are going for the strip, ignoring fundamentals and not stay true to their technique. The defense as a whole should be faster than last season and hopefully one on one tackles will be supported quickly into a pile.
TL – The Ravens tackling was rather shoddy during the fake games and they’ll need to clean that up if they want to improve upon their ability to get off the field on third down, particularly late in games. That was an issue in 2013 that they vowed to improve upon in 2014. So far the improvement hasn’t shown up.
3. The Ravens trimmed the roster down to the final 53. Guys cut, guys who made it, were there any surprises?
CS – Jah Reid has some versatility, but I guess I had some surprise in him making the roster. I always thought Campanaro was going to make the team, and I think Thompson did enough in the pre-season that his inclusion was also not a surprise. Aiken certainly had his moments as well, but keeping him as 7th WR rates as a mild surprise for me. Zachary Orr’s inclusion is interesting.
NK - Biggest surprise at first was AQ Shipley. I thought he played well enough to earn a spot as a reserve. He also has game day experience which is always a plus. However, after giving it some thought, he is a much better Center than Guard and the team has Gino Gradkowski as a back-up. As a Guard, he wasn’t that great.
MB - There were a few surprises with who they cut, but I’m more surprised with how the numbers worked out. Seven receivers always feels like one too many, while four corners feels one short. I’m sure Harbaugh has another move or two in mind to balance out the numbers better.
MR – Zachary Orr, an UDFA who was on nobody’s radar even throughout the final PS game. He didn’t do anything that stood out to me, but good for him. He’s got a chance to prove himself further in practices and see if he can make the dress list for games.
MJ - I’m not sure why they kept seven receivers, when they only have five down lineman on the roster. Over the years I’ve felt that Coach Harbaugh has left himself vulernable at times on who is active on the D-Line and I feel that it cost him on occassion. My only thought where the above makes sense is if Ozzie has a trade brewing which I don’t think is likely. The more big bodies you can rotate up front the fresher they will be come the final quarter.
TL – Keeping 7 wide receivers was a surprise. It’s not as though the Ravens are the Denver Broncos or New Orleans Saints and spread the field at times with 5 wide receivers. Kubiak’s is an offense that frequently features 2 tight end sets and the unnecessary depth at the position is even more of a head-scratcher when you consider that only 2 of those 7 really offer anything in the way of special teams play.
The biggest surprise to make the 53 was LB Zachary Orr. He must be some special, special teams player!
4. Only five defensive lineman were kept on the 53-man roster. Terrence Cody was transferred to the regular season PUP list, and will miss the first six games with hip ailments. Does the fact they only kept five guys to rotate through three positions lead you to believe they still believe in Cody and will count on him when he’s able to return?
CS - McPhee figures to get time on the line as well, but yeah – the line seems a bit thin. I don’t know that the Ravens ‘believe’ in Cody as much, as it is they have some degree in comfort in knowing what he brings. When drafted, I thought he had the potential to be a difference maker as a run-stuffer, obviously that never happened.
Going into camp, I was excited about the D-Line depth. I’m disappointed about the losses of Urban, and Lewis-Moore; but on the other-hand the Ravens likely would not have rotated 7 guys on game day anyway.
It has been great to see Brandon Williams emerge, and I’m anxious to see more of Jernigan as well.
NK - Cody should provide relief for Brandon Williams at NT when he returns. Cody should be considered as a two-down player who doesn’t have the stamina to be on the field longer. He should play well in a reserve role. I don’t see a long term option for cody and the Ravens.
MB - I think to a degree, it shows they have some faith in Cody. But I think the Ravens will be comfortable knowing that the modern NFL defense is in it’s nickel sub-packages a high percentage of the time. With offenses looking to spread out the defense with three and four receiver sets, defenses respond by substituting a defensive lineman for an extra defensive back. Baltimore also have a number of blitz packages with just one or even no defensive lineman at all. So while I think they are showing some faith in Cody, they aren’t taking too much of a risk.
MR – It baffles me that they even bothered signing him to a one year contract. I guess that means the Ravens still see something there. It’s no secret that he’s not been the player we had hoped. Maybe he’s been dealing with the nagging hip injury in games past. Now that it’s surgically repaired, if he can return and be at 100% health, we’ll get an accurate look at what Cody brings to the table.
MJ - They must see something in Cody I don’t because it would appear that they hope to use him when he’s healthy. I haven’t been a huge fan of his play over the years and don’t see why they couldn’t have gone in a different direction there.
TL – I think the only thing keeping Cody around is his injury. Once he’s cleared to practice, I expect the Ravens to clear him from the roster too. We could see Ozzie go and get a rotational guy for the D-Line, particularly if their goal is to keep them fresh during the fourth quarter of games and down the stretch in December. And let’s not forget that while listed as a linebacker, Pernell McPhee will give the team plenty of reps on the D-Line.
5. Shift focus to the regular season that is about to begin. It’s tough going right out of the gate with the North division favorite Bengals, and the always tough Steelers. Will missing Ray Rice for those two games be detrimental? Or can Pierce/Taliaferro/Forsett get the job done?
CS - Big division games right away, with the Ravens having the opportunity to grab hold of the North before September ends. I do think the Ravens can get past Rice not being available, but I do think it is a loss. Many RB’s fall off a cliff, but I never felt that was what we were seeing from Rice last year. He was carrying extra weight, and playing with an injury he had never dealt with. All topped by that horrible blocking in-front of him. I expect Rice’s yard per carry, and yard per catch averages to rebound to his 2012 levels.
I was very pleased to see Pierce in-action during the pre-season, coming off the shoulder injury. Now he is dealing with the concussion, but is back practicing. Last year was brutal for him, but as with Rice – I expect to see him rebound.
Wasn’t sure what to expect from Taliaferro, but he showed that 1 cut, downhill running style which has always been a part of this Kubiak offense. Fantasy players might benefit the first couple of weeks with Taliaferro getting some goal-line carries.
Forsett is probably not long for the roster, but I think he also showed well in the pre-season. More wiggle than I anticipated.
As you can tell from my answers, I’m pretty enthusiastic about the running game returning for Baltimore this year. Honestly, the player in the Ravens backfield I’m most interested in seeing these first few games is Juszczyk. I think his versatility is going to be something Kubiak has fun exploiting.
NK - Pierce should be able to make up for Rice in the run game. Taliaferro should be used on short distance plays and Forsett should be used to give Pierce a breather. Rice is a much better pass catcher and pass blocker than all three. This is where the Ravens will miss Rice the most.
MB - The beautiful thing about the zone blocking scheme run by Gary Kubiak is that so many runners can have success in it as long as they are disciplined. Pierce has looked to me like a more natural zone runner than Rice at times. I think in terms of the running game, they should be fine.
MR – Pierce and Taliaferro are a couple guys who fit the Kubiak running scheme with their one cut and go style. Forsett is also familiar playing under Kubiak in the past. Kubiak’s track record suggests that his scheme can make successful RBs out of even the most mediocre of players. Where the downfall without Rice would come would be in the passing game. Pierce and Taliaferro aren’t great pass catchers and aren’t great at making guys miss in the open field. Rice can take a dump off and turn it into 20 yards. I don’t see that happening with the other guys.
MJ - It depends what Ray Rice we see this season. Even if the weight he shed does indeed restore his quickness he still needs to do a better job of running in the zone scheme and attacking creases. Pierce has enough talent to do the job but can he stay healthy while shouldering the load? I liked what I saw out of Taliaferro this pre-season. He’s a big brusing back to keeps pushing downhill. The Ravens should be ok while they wait for Rice.
TL – If healthy the aforementioned trio is more than capable of producing results against the Bengals and Steelers. But with Pierce you never know. He’s fragile and I’m not sure if he loves the game. If he gets nicked up and the Ravens are forced to turn to the rookie and the small change of pace back Forsett, it could spell trouble. Taliaferro is a very vertical runner and that invites injury while Forsett is too small to carry a heavy load in the smash mouth division called the AFC North. Let’s hope Pierce wears his big boy pants during weeks 1 and 2.
6. Keys to the game on offense for beating the Bengals
CS - One key is keeping Cincinnati’s Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins from dominating the line of scrimmage. It’s not really a key to victory, but what I’ll be looking to see from the offense is distribution. The Ravens offense possesses plenty of weapons, you want to see as many guys get involved as possible.
NK - Pass protection and getting the run game going. (This sounds familiar.) There is enough talent at the WR position for someone to get open. Joe will find the open receivers.
MB - Establish the running game. It sounds obvious and boring, and just about every team says the same thing. But in this offense, it’s essential. If the offense can force the defense to bring the eighth defender into the box, then the play-action attack opens up, which is what can really hurt you in this offense
MR – Come out fast and score on the opening drive. The crowd will be amped up, loud as usual; nothing will silence them quicker than a three and out to start the new season. Keep the crowd in it to get Andy Dalton rattled. Also limit the mistakes. This is a game featuring in my opinion, the top two contenders for the division title and could be pivotal down the stretch if tie breakers are involved. Games with pretty equally matched teams usually come down to who makes the least amount of mistakes.
MJ - Keep the Bengals defense off balance. Don’t always run in running downs and use deception and the screen game to keep the blitzers honest. The Bengals have a strong unit but can be had if you show patience and hit a few deep shots.
TL – 1) Work the middle of the field…the Bengals safeties represent Cincinnati’s soft white underbelly. 2) Establish the run to set up play action and then challenge the linebackers’ drops with the intermediate passing game. 3) Create mismatches with multiple sub-packages. The Bengals have a rookie defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and he might not be able to keep pace during the chess match.
7. Keys to the game on defense for beating the Bengals
CS - The Ravens kept AJ Green under wraps in the 2nd game vs. Cincinnati last year (11 catches, 128 yards in the 1st game); but I don’t think you go into a game against the Bengals expecting him not to make plays. How the Ravens defense performs against the Bengals TE’s Gresham, and Eifert will be telling in my opinion. What I’m most interesting in seeing is how the Ravens defense performs against the RB’s Bernard, and Hill. It feels like the Ravens athleticism has improved. I’m hoping the defense is able to get back to taking away running games, and making teams one dimensional again. Bernard’s speed (and receiving ability), and Hill’s power is going to be a difficult match-up.
NK - Stopping the run and getting pressure on Dalton. Under pressure, Dalton has a QB rating under 50 and an accuracy under 60%.
MB - Slowing A.J. Green down is obviously a big priority. But they can’t afford to focus so much on Green that they forget about the rest of the Bengals offense. Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu are perfectly capable of having big days at receiver, while tight ends Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham are tough coverage assignments too. That’s not even to mention Giovani Bernard out of the backfield. Pressuring quarterback Andy Dalton will be the key. Getting to him before he can get the ball out of his hands will stop the ball getting into the hands of the playmakers in that offense. Mixing in different zone blitzes will help provide pressure upfront without being too vulnerable in coverage.
MR – Cincy has some weapons on their offense. Gio Bernard is poised for a breakout season, along with Tyler Eifert. Jermaine Gresham is talented and of course, A.J. Green. Try to keep the Ravens in the game. Don’t let the Bengals jump out to a double digit lead. The one knock on Gary Kubiak’s offense from the Houston experts we’ve chatted with in the past is that he doesn’t run a quick strike offense. Remember the Packers game last year where the Ravens seemed out of it, and all of a sudden two deep passes in a row and they were back in contention? I guess we shouldn’t expect things like that.
MJ - Get in Andy Dalton’s face all afternoon and he’ll do the rest. Baltimore is 3-0 at home against Dalton and have picked him off 7 times. Limiting big plays from Gio Bernard and A.J. Green will also be key to a victory.
TL – 1) Prevent the big play by containing Giovanni Bernard and bracketing AJ Green. 2) Show Andy Dalton various looks to make him think…that often leads to turnover. 3) Challenge the Bengals rookie center Russell Bodine. Maybe former North Carolina teammate James Hurst can provide a few clues.
8. Lastly, the start of another NFL season isn’t official until you give your “likely to be wrong five months from now” Super Bowl XLIX pick. Who ya got?
CS - San Francisco had a bit of an up-and-down Preseason, and might not be ready to hit full-stride when the lights come on Sunday. Also, after 3 straight NFC Title game appearances, and the Super Bowl loss to the Ravens; maybe you can argue that regression is due. Ultimately though, I think they are the most talented team in the league, and I think they end the season with the Lombardi Trophy.
I think they beat Denver in the Super Bowl, with that pick being less of a vote in confidence in the Broncos, and more of a vote against anyone else in the AFC having a better chance to represent the conference vs. Manning and the Manningettes.
NK - AFC – Baltimore (of course), NFC – New Orleans Saints (Seahawks will have a Super Bowl hangover).
MB - It’s hard to look past the Seahawks repeating. They’re extremely well put together, play to their strengths very well and have extraordinary depth. I hate to be the guy taking the boring pick, but I can’t see anyone that looks as strong as them.
MR – In my biased opinion, the Ravens win it all. In my unbiased opinion… Seattle could suffer from the Super Bowl hangover, but also Marshawn Lynch held out to start camp, which never ends well. It means he didn’t take his offseason seriously. I see a drop off in his play which could hurt. So in the NFC, give me the Saints. They are an offense that can score at will and an improved defense that should be one of the top ten units. Brandin Cooks is an early R.O.Y. candidate. In the AFC, it’s hard to bet against the Broncos. They did all of the right things to improve their defense with the additions of T.J. Ward, Aquib Talib, Demarcus Ware. Plus their QB is pretty good as well. Saints vs. Broncos in the title game and give me the Broncos. I think Peyton has one more title in him before he calls it quits.
MJ - Broncos vs. 49ers. This could finally be it for Peyton and if he wants one more ring now is the time. Last season’s drubbing is no doubt his motivator in grabbing the gold this time around. The Seahawks are still very talented but this time their division rival makes it back to the Big Game.
TL – Most prognosticators seem to think that the falling confetti in Arizona on February 1, 2015 will land upon a NFC team and it’s hard not to see it that way. The Seahawks, Saints and Packers are mentioned often but I’m going to go with the 49ers. Brother Jim gets his Lombardi and then the richest contract ever awarded to a NFL head coach. The victory destroys Pittsburgh’s mojo because they no longer can own “Six”, thankfully!