The Ravens had a let down after reeling off four straight wins to get back in to playoff hunt. They drop their final two in underwhelming fashion and in the blink of an eye, here we are, getting an early start on planning for 2014. The Ravens analysts here at Baltimore Sports and Life cap off the year by mulling over a number of subjects.
1. Chicken or the egg? Did the offense execute poorly this season because of scheme, or does the scheme come into question because they simply didn’t execute well enough?
Dan Bryden: My feeling is that the scheme comes into question because of execution. In a league where creativity and counter-moves rule, using a limited number of formations and route combinations is irresponsible. But many of the playcalls that we question are sound plays against given coverages but the execution was lacking. Flacco was inaccurate in the last 2 losses of the season. That said, frontal pressure is very tough to overcome.
Chris Worthington: Both. I mean, the line play was terrible all year. Our interior line is a disaster. It all starts with that, so execution is clearly a factor in the team’s offensive struggles. Injuries too. Rice was undoubtedly hurt most of the year. We lost Osemele to injury. Pitta was hurt almost all year, and once he came back, Flacco was playing with a hurt knee. So not much was running at 100%. But the scheme is not blameless, either. A lot of adjectives can be pinned to the offense…predictable, one-dimensional, vanilla, etc. From what I saw, the offense relied too heavily on a few basic concepts without enough wrinkles. I think a lot of blame will be put on Castillo and the zone running scheme, but I don’t disagree with the decision to work that into the offense. Mostly I think the passing game isn’t creative enough to win (and is handcuffed badly by the available personnel. But that’s a discussion for another time).
Matt Jergensen: This offense can work. We’ve seen it work. Of course it’s a scheme that has it’s flaws as well and when you consider personnel changes, injuries, game planning, play calling, and execution it all adds up to the worst offensive production in franchise history. This offense is predicated on being able to run the football and when they couldn’t do that with any consistency it makes it that much harder to rely on hitting low percentage deep throws to put points on the board. They need to take a hard look at roster construction and tweaking the scheme to fit the personnel.
Mike Randall: Obviously the two go hand in hand. But I believe in the latter. Missed opportunities seemed to be the theme this season. If Flacco executes better and hooks up on a few deep balls to open guys, maybe they muscle up and convert a few simple 4th and 1s in the run game, those things could have been the difference in eight wins or ten, eleven wins and a playoff spot. Then no one has room to criticize the scheme.
2. The consensus is that the Ravens need to address the O-Line this offseason Monroe should be in line for an extension. Osemele and Yanda will be back and Oher will likely sign as a free agent elsewhere, leaving holes at right tackle, and center if they think they can upgrade over Gradkowski. After the offensive line, what would be next on your list of offseason priorities? Or first if OLine isn’t on your list?
DB: Offensive line would be first on the list. Next would be Free Safety. A blocking tight-end would go a long way if the Ravens continue to use the same scheme. A popular answer to this question will be Wide Receiver. I have more faith in this group than in the beginning of the year plus I believe Marlon Brown and Aaron Mellette can be very special players.
CW: Good question. My gut says wide receiver. Jacoby Jones isn’t getting any younger, and who knows if we will even bring him back. He’s been the team’s best receiver all year, which is a compliment to Jacoby but does not speak highly at all of the WR personnel the team is working with. Marlon Brown has a lot of potential but is still an incredibly raw talent, despite his success in the second half. Torrey Smith is still young, too, but so far I’m not convinced that he has WR1 potential. He’s also very raw and is not a good route runner. Good hands, good concentration, elite speed…yes. But the team needs more than that from him.
MJ: After O-Line I’d have to go with a big bodied receiver who can make contested catches in traffic. You can never have enough playmakers on both sides of the ball and the defense could use one as well – either Free Safety or Linebacker.
MR: O-Line is priority one. Its possible Jacoby Jones isn’t on the team next year, and even if he is neither Jones nor Marlon Brown are proven #2 receivers. Also, Smith isn’t a proven #1 yet at least in the way the Ravens use him. Jones and Smith are pretty much the same type of receiver. After them you have Aaron Mellete probably making his debut in 2014, and Deonte Thompson who no one is excited about. Tandon Doss is an RFA that I’d be fine not offering a $1.3 some odd million tender. Need a big, physical, possession type receiver to complement Torrey Smith. This past season showed that Flacco doesn’t raise the game of player around him. He could use some talented receivers to elevate his game.
3. The Ravens will enter 2014 with about $15M in cap space. However, that is with just 37 players under contract, RFAs and draft picks yet to sign. The free agent list is a long one. Eugene Monroe, Michael Oher, Corey Graham, James Ihedigbo, Terrence Cody, Arthur Jones, Daryl Smith, Jacoby Jones, Ed Dickson, Dennis Pitta. Who stays, and who goes?
DB: Out of these options Monroe, Daryl, and Pitta NEED to stay although Daryl’s age may be a factor (going into his 11th season and declined at the end of the year). After these priorities, the Ravens should strive to sign Graham and Art Jones. Oher, Cody, Jacoby Jones, and Dickson are all players I would not advocate keeping. That leaves Ihedigbo. He had an incredible year given my expectations. But youth at his position (Elam) could push him out. Assuming a Free Safety comes in, Ihedigbo could be pushed out unless they move Elam to slot corner.
CW: I think we keep Monroe, Ihedigbo, Art Jones, Daryl, and both tight ends. Oher’s time is more than up in Baltimore. Meanwhile, we’re short on safeties but long on corners, so I see us retaining Ihedigbo but losing Graham. We have Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson waiting in the wings. Art Jones has played like a beast, and his position rarely demands big bucks, so I think we’ll be happy to spend on him. Pitta will be a top priority and Dickson will be too cheap to not resign. He’s bad, and I won’t be happy about it…but he probably showed enough in the last month to stay with the team.
MJ: Monroe and Pitta should be first on the list to stay. Each will help solidify their respective positions. I’d love to keep Daryl Smith after such a great season but you wonder how much he’s worth since he started to decline the last few games. I also wouldn’t mind keeping Graham who has been a solid contributor over the past two years but at the Ravens price.
MR: Monroe and Pitta are must sign guys. Smith might be as well given the lack of depth at ILB. If Jameel McClain is let go, then Arthur Brown would be the lone ILB under contract. Bynes is a RFA. Going into 2014 with just McClain and Brown, likely Bynes, would be a risky move. With a tight cap, I think Oher, Ihedigbo, and both Jones’ are as good as gone and will find homes elsewhere. Graham and Dickson could be retained for cheap. Cody has no business in the NFL.
4. Have we seen Terrell Suggs play his last game as a Raven? His release would save the Ravens $7.8M against the cap next year, and then he’s a free agent in 2015. The Ravens have Dumervil, Upshaw, McPhee, and fourth round pick John Simon likely returning at OLB.
DB: It seems to be the Ravens way to release a player a year too early rather than a year too late. But I see Suggs being the Ray Lewis-type leader who stays even slightly past his prime. Dumervil was an incredible signing and has played better than I expected. He should be a part of the Ravens future plans. Upshaw, McPhee, and Simon will not individually push Suggs out.
CW: I’m not the best at answering these questions. Internal affairs are hardly my strength, but if I had to guess, I’d say they release him. Baltimore is like New England in that the organization rarely lets emotion override their business decisions. Suggs is getting older, has had a number of serious injuries in recent seasons, and demands a ton of salary cap when there are a lot of holes on the roster. Is he still a great player? Yeah, I think so. He remains an underrated run stopper/edge setter and still gets pressure on the quarterback, though I’d be surprised if he had another season left in him that resemles his Defensive MVP year.
MJ: I don’t think so. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either a restructure or an extension to have him finish his career here. He had such a strange season and I’m wondering just how healthy he was over the last eight games. Health is certainly a factor in figuring out where he fits into future plans. Suggs has been here so long the front office and staff know what they are getting with him and he has taken over the reigns as defensive captain. I don’t see him going anywhere just yet.
MR: Looks like a log jam at OLB. Suggs saw a complete drop off in production this year. He had just one sack in the second half of the season after posting nine in the first eight games. Also in four of the last eight games he recorded two tackles or less, and all zeros across the board in the Lions game. Much like the $6M from the Boldin helped land a few fresh faces (although a couple didn’t turn out as planned) $7.8M in savings could go a long way to plugging some gaping holes on a bottom five offense. It’s not like Suggs is known for his leadership or game day preparation. He doesn’t account for those things you can’t quantify like Ray Lewis did. I think the money saved and re-allocated from Suggs’ release would make the team better.
5. Ok enough doom and gloom. Some positive accolades. Pick your Offensive player of the year, DEF POTY and unsung hero of this team.
DB: My Ravens OPOY is Marlon Brown. My Ravens DPOY is Daryl Smith (far and away). The Unsung Hero is Art Jones.
CW: OPOY: Flacco. Yes, even after the game on Sunday. He’s by far the least replaceable player on the offense and showed his toughness/durability yet again over the past three weeks. No one on this offense shined this year, which makes this a tough award. Without a standout player, it must go to the only irreplaceable one. DPOY: Daryl Smith. The team’s best offseason acquisition, he played like a monster for a least the first half of the season. Though he slowed down in recent weeks, he brought back a legit pass coverage presence at ILB and was an underrated blitzer. Ask yourself if you REALLY missed Ray Lewis at ILB this season, and when the answer is no, remember that it’s because of Daryl Smith. Unsung Hero: Jacoby Jones. Rarely talked about as a wide receiver, as Torrey Smith/Marlon Brown/Dennis Pitta got all the attention. But Jacoby played lights out this year, recording just a single drop and no fumbles. He came up with some huge third and fourth down catches and finally rounded into the WR2/3 that people envisioned him being. All while continuing to be one of the best (if not the best) returner in the league.
MJ: Ravens OPOY has to be Justin Tucker. On a team that was so offensively inept he was a player that could always be counted on to deliver points. DPOY is Daryl Smith. What a fantastic free agent pickup he was as he helped solidify the defense. Unsung hero would be Arthur Jones. The Ravens will miss him next season. He’ll make a nice payday elsewhere.
MR: On offense, if I really had to pick one I’d go with Torrey Smith. He challenged the franchise record for receiving yards on an inept offense. He’s really growing up and getting better each year. On defense I’ll go with the another Smith, Jimmy. He really elevated his play this year and went toe to toe with some of the game’s best receivers. Unsung hero, has to be Justin Tucker. Kickers don’t get enough respect, and he kicked the Ravens to at least two wins.
6. Your thoughts on the Ravens Pro Bowl honors, Justin Tucker, Terrell Suggs, Marshal Yanda and Haloti Ngata. Did they get it right? Anyone of the Ravens get snubbed?
DB: No Ravens got snubbed in my opinion. Terrell Suggs, Marhsal Yanda, and Haloti Ngata are not deserving. Tucker is realistically the only Ravens Pro Bowler. That said, half-season Pro Bowlers would by Daryl Smith (1st half) and Jimmy Smith (second half).
CW: Tucker truly deserves to be there. He’s the best kicker in the game right now. Beyond that, none of the Ravens other Pro Bowlers deserved the nod. In my opinion, the only other Raven worthy of consideration was Jimmy Smith.
MJ: I don’t think so. You could probably argue that Suggs made it on only half a great season and the other half on reputation.
MR: Tucker and Ngata I think deserve their honor. People might want to see more on the stat sheet from Haloti, but in the short amount of time he has missed this year you can tell that the rest of the front seven suffers. Yanda clearly didn’t play well enough this year, and I made the case for Suggs earlier with his huge drop off in production. A case for James Ihedigbo could have been made, but I wouldn’t call it a snub. Jacoby Jones got snubbed for kick returner, but only because it’s not a position in the Pro Bowl anymore.
7. Who was your preseason Super Bowl pick? Is it still in play? Are you changing it or sticking with it?
DB: My pre-season Super Bowl pick was Green Bay. It looks like they’re still in contention and with Rodgers + Cobb back in the line-up, they have the potential to make another run.
CW: Seattle-Denver. Still in play.
MJ: My pre-season Super Bowl pick was New Orleans. I thought that as a team they’d have plenty to prove after what happened a year ago. They are still in play though I don’t like their draw traveling to Philly. They need that Dome to be truly effective. So I’ll say Denver. Manning had a season for the record books and this team has a lot to prove to everyone.
MR: I took the Saints and Ravens, expecting playoff Flacco to have turned the corner and be the Flacco we would see from now on. I’ll stick with the Saints even with the road woes because, well, good luck figuring out how to pick winners in the NFL. But I guess I’ll go Denver. I mean, the AFC is not strong at all. Manning should be able to roll through two teams, even in the cold.
8. Who are you pulling for to win it all since the Ravens are out, and why?
DB: I’m pulling for the Packers most likely. I think Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the league and I’m a fan of the old school Dom Capers defensive scheme.
CW: I’m rooting for Seattle to take home the trophy. They have an exciting defense; I love watching them play. They have incredible depth at all three levels and make it look easy. Plus it’s hard not to like Marshawn Lynch. What’s more fun than watching him go beast mode in the playoffs? Finally, Russel Wilson is easy to root for. Too small, fell in the draft, was supposed to sit behind Matt Flynn. But he’s got real talent. He is supremely accurate and has already made some throws that more experienced guys simply can’t. So, I say go Seahawks.
MJ: It’s hard for me to cheer for anyone in the AFC so I’ll probably go with the Eagles due to some friends being fans and I like what Chip Kelly has done this season.
MR: I’m going to be a Kansas City Chiefs fan for these playoffs. I think Andy Reid got a raw deal as the fans and Philly media as they ran him out of town after he went to NFC title games in half of his seasons there. Alex Smith lost his job due in San Fran due to injury. I wouldn’t have benched Colin Kaepernick last year either, but I’d love to see Alex Smith get some redemption, and Andy Reid, a great coach and one of the games good guys, win a title before the Eagles do.