When a team like the Ravens misses the playoffs for the first time in five seasons the the expectations from a rabid fan base are clear – it just isn’t acceptable. That sense of urgency has fueled GM Ozzie Newsome and the Front Office through a very busy past few months, adding coaches and players in an attempt to find the right championship mix.
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It will still be quite a while before we determine if this hard work will pay off come next Winter. In the meantime here are the story-lines that I see as most important as Baltimore attempts to return to post-season glory.
- Revamped Offensive Line- This group is essentially the key to improving a dreadful offense from a year ago. Signing Left Tackle Eugene Monroe to protect Joe Flacco’s “Blind Side” finally gives the Ravens a long-term successor to Hall of Famer Jon Ogden. Reports are that Monroe has been leading workouts at the Castle in an effort to be as physically ready as possible when the bell sounds on 2014. Former Buccaneer Jeremy Zuttah should provide a solid upgrade from Gino Gradkowski, who made most fans wonder if Matt Birk had one more year in him. Kelechi Osemele should hopefully return stronger than ever for this third-season and Marshall Yanda should be his usual dependable self. The only question that remains is Right Tackle. Second year man Rick Wagner looks to get the first shot but I’d expect the Ravens to possible add either Taylor Lewan or Zach Martin in the First Round to compete for the job. At least on paper this should be a much better group. Then again they couldn’t be worse, could they?
- Kubiak’s Offense- Since their inception in 1996, the Ravens have rarely been called an “Offensive Juggernaut” often relying on defense, and special teams to achieve success. Sure, the offense led the charge during the playoff run in 2012 that led to hardware but no one could say they really expected such production. In fact the franchise hasn’t had a Top Ten offense since those early days under Vinny Testaverde. Enter Gary Kubiak who has overseen Top Ten offenses four of the past six seasons and he’s a play-caller with great experience and success. After a dismal 2013 while finishing at the bottom in almost every offensive category you had to expect sweeping changes. The team has invested millions in an attempt to improve scoring so there are plenty of pieces to work with.
- The Rice Effect- Last season was certainly one that Running Back Ray Rice would surely wish to forget as he averaged a career low 3.1 yards per carry and looked sluggish most weeks behind a forgettable offensive line. Rice’s bad fortune continued as he was indicted on third-degree aggravated assault. The league has yet to take action but one might expect a suspension of at least a few games in 2014. Rice’s future appears to be in jeopardy and he must prove that he can still perform at a high level. Was his steep decline a product of playing through injury and a leaky line or is his body starting to give out? With a large contract still owed to the popular star the next several months heading into the season should be pivotal not only for his career but also for the Ravens backfield.
- Make a Play Defense!- Baltimore lost a significant amount of personnel on the defensive side of the ball after a 2012 Super Bowl victory. While at times the new pieces were able to play well they often faltered during crucial times and simply couldn’t generate enough turnovers. The biggest additions of this off-season has been on the other side of the ball while on defense they’ve maintained the core that they had. With that familiarity led to more productivity? Coordinator Dean Pees will also need to be willing to crank up the heat on opposing teams more often than he did last season too. “Bend but Don’t Break” won’t cut it if Baltimore hopes to return to the post-season.
- Smith and Daniels- Aside from beefing up the line the Ravens have also invested a lot of money in giving Flacco as many receiving targets as possible. So they’ve chosen the reliable route in bringing in experienced route runners with solid resumes like former Pro Bowlers Steve Smith and Owen Daniels. But how much does each man have left in the pro ranks? Daniels was out most of last season with a broken leg and Smith’s production slipped enough last season that the Panthers chose to release the 34-year old. A good thing is that each man should be playing with a chip on his shoulder with plenty to prove to critics this year.