On Thursday night, 236 days after the Baltimore Ravens left Denver with a Double OT Playoff victory over the Broncos; the Ravens will return to Sports Authority Field to begin the 2013 season.
The fact that a large portion of the Ravens are wearing rings is great, and last year will always be special. However, once this season kicks off, I’ll be completely over the Super Bowl.
It’s a new year, with new blood, and my focus has turned to 2013. There has been enough turnover that even talking about ‘repeating’ seems dumb to me. This is a different team, and it will be fun to watch and evaluate them on their own merits.
One of things I really respect about the Ravens organization is that they maintain their focus. They consistently do enough little things well, to always be in position to play for the games and moments which matter most. On Thursday I expect Baltimore will show the hunger and focus of a team determined to begin carving out their own identity.
A couple of the popular themes from large swaths of the National media has been that the Ravens will A) Miss some of the departed leadership, and B) The Ravens will have to deal with a Super Bowl hangover. I’ve seen these arguments several times, and I find it odd. If you are going to make the point that there has been high-turnover, does it makes sense to also talk about complacency setting in with the roster?
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What I do think is fair to say is that as there has been a lot of turnover, and the roster is younger as a whole; this a team that figures to improve as the season goes a long.
I think the Ravens might look rough at-times before the bye, but it would only surprise me if they were worse than 4-3.
To start the year, I believe the Ravens have to play to their strengths. Get the ball in the hands of Rice, and Pierce. Draw the defense up, and attack down the field when the opportunity presents itself. The running game, Flacco’s experience, and the defensive front 7 should give the Ravens a chance each week before the other units catch up.
@Denver – L
Cleveland – W
Houston – W
@Buffalo – W
@Miami – L
Green Bay – W
@Pittsburgh – L
@Cleveland – W
Cincinnati – W
@Chicago – L
NY Jets – W
Pittsburgh – W
Minnesota – W
@Detroit – L
New England – W
@Cincinnati – L
Expected wins: Cleveland, @Buffalo, @Cleveland, Cincinnati, NY Jets, Pittsburgh, Minnesota
Should win: Houston, @Miami, @Detroit
Expected losses: @Denver, @Pittsburgh, @Cincinnati
Toss up: Green Bay, @Chicago, New England
Any game the Ravens lose from the expected / should win columns, they will have to make it up from the expected loss / toss up columns. I might have the week-to-week results wrong, but I think things will even out to the overall 10-6 record we are predicting at the end.
Could Baltimore be 3-4 going to the bye? Sure, that’s possible. I think the Ravens can win in Denver, but you would expect a loss. Cleveland at home is a win. Houston is a good team, that has played in Baltimore several times lately. The Ravens should win that game, but could lose. Back-to-back road games can be difficult. I think Miami has some talent. I’d expect a split in those two games at Buffalo, and at Miami. Green Bay will be a fight, but at home I think you expect to win vs. anyone. At Pittsburgh, coming off the GB game, I would expect to lose that rivalry game.
At 4-3 or better at the bye, I believe the Ravens would be well-positioned for the stretch run.
What we like about the Ravens:
1) I like the offensive line. I’m excited about a full season of McKinnie at LT, Osemele at LG, and Oher at RT. I believe Gradkowski will be adequate at C, and benefit from being between Osemele and Yanda.
2) Rice and Pierce are an excellent tandem at RB, and I think Rice will benefit from Pierce getting additional carries, and how Caldwell will utilize him as a receiver out of the backfield. I’m not sure Rice will have any more receptions than he has averaged the past 3 years (67), but I think his yards per game as a receiver will look more like 2011 (44 ypg), vs. 2012 (29.9 ypg).
2a) I’m pleased that Leach was able to return. In these days of spread offenses, many Ravens fans accepted the idea of parting way with Leach – as he was only the field for 40ish% of the time in 2012. My sense is that having him around is a good thing. It gives you the ability to provide multiple looks to opposing defenses. Teams still have to prepare for his lead-blocking in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Flacco still gets to benefit from his blitz pick-up. Rookie Kyle Juszczyk benefits from being around Leach’s knowledge and experience. Juszczyk is going to be used in a myriad of different ways this year. His versatility will help.
3) Those who expect the Ravens defense to fall off due to the departures of Lewis and Reed are going to be surprised. The Front 7 is going to get after people. There is also depth behind the starters that is going to press for time. I’m expecting a front that controls the run, and brings QB’s to the ground. It’s exciting to see that Suggs entered camp in great shape. The athleticism of Huff, and Elam is going to help at Safety. With the proliferation of the spread attacks, you need 3 CB’s who can cover. You have that with Webb, Graham, and Smith. Webb figures to improve as the year goes on. If the Front 7 brings the pass rush we expect, that will help the Secondary as well.
4) Tucker is a legitimate weapon at PK, and despite potentially being more involved at WR; it looks like Jones is still going to be utilized in the return game.
5) Two years ago Dickson had 54 catches. He also had enough drops to loose the confidence of Flacco. While it has yet to show in Dickson’s production, we still believe he has the physical talent to run past LB’s, and overwhelm Safeties. With Pitta potentially out for the season, hopefully Flacco and Dickson can develop an early connection. Clark did not look good in the Pre-season, but I don’t think his tank is on empty. He played in all 16 games last year for Tampa Bay, and had 47 grabs. I think on experience alone he will provide Flacco with a productive safety-valve.
5a) I’m not overly worried about WR. Torrey Smith still has room to grow as an all-around receiver, but you cannot teach his gifts, or work ethic. He will continue to produce as he attacks secondaries down the field. Even if he finds himself getting additional attention from defenses, that can help the offense as a whole. Jones would be miscast as a 2nd WR, but he is a weapon. In the games he plays, Stokley will help. It’s been a great Summer for Brown, and Mellette. I’m reasonably excited to see what they can do over a full-season when given the opportunity. If Thompson is not placed on IR, that will be obvious indication from the Ravens that he will be ready to contribute sooner than later.
6) Should Flacco’s statistical production not noticeably increase; there will be comments from some stating he is not living up to his new larger than life contract. I won’t be one of those people though. If Flacco can extend his consecutive game streak, and stay up-right for another 16 games; he will continue to give the Ravens an opportunity to win weekly. That is enough for me. However, even with the loss of two of his security blankets – I think we do see a jump in Flacco’s numbers. More attempts, completions, yards, and TD’s; and maybe most importantly a gain in completion percentage.
Questions we have about the Ravens:
1) While he was named an All-Pro for a 5th consecutive season last year, Ngata often had games of minimal obvious impact as battled numerous aliments. With an improved line around him, I’d like to think we will see him be a more consistent force. Will we?
2) Above we talked about liking having 3 CB’s who can cover. The best cover corner is Webb. How long will it take for him to find his highest gear? Does he get back to his highest level here in ’13?
3) Will Brown be ready to replace Bynes after the Bye?
4) It is kind of a cop out to mention injuries as a potential concern. All teams have injuries. There are a couple of players that if lost, would be very hard for the Ravens to recover from though. At the top of the list for me is obviously Flacco. Outside of Flacco is also McKinnie, T. Smith, and Suggs. Can that group stay available?
5) How you perceive a schedule in September can certainly change by December, but the Ravens schedule currently looks fairly unforgiving. Under Coach Harbaugh, the Ravens have been consistently consistent, and done an excellent job in winning the games they should. Should the Ravens lose that trait this year, and drop a couple of unexpected games, getting back to the Playoffs once again might prove difficult.
Above we picked the Ravens to finish 2013 with a 10-6 record. I think that will be good enough to get Baltimore back to the Playoffs for a 6th consecutive season, with a good chance at the AFC North title. I expect the Ravens will also extend their streak of at-least 1 Playoff win per year in the Coach Harbaugh, Joe Flacco, Ray Rice era.
Thinking about the Denver Broncos
1) Despite Manning’s quick release and decision making ability, the Ravens sacked him 3 times in the Playoff victory last January. The Denver tackles – Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin have good size. Former Charger Louis Vasquez is seen as an upgrade at RG. The question for the Denver O-line is at Center. Former All-Pro Dan Koppen suffered an ACL injury in camp, and is done for the year. That leaves Manny Ramirez to handle handing off to Manning.
2) The primary RB’s are 2012 3rd rounder Ronnie Hillman, and 2013 2nd rounder Montee Ball. Ball is now running with the 1st team Broncos starters, but questions remain about his ability to pass block.
3) It of course helps to have Manning throwing to them, but the trio of Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker is one of the better group of receivers in the league. Historically, Manning has loved to attack down the field off of play action. In the play-off game, Manning (perhaps due to the cold) looked vulnerable in his attempts to stretch the field. That will be interesting to watch Thursday. I would expect Graham to cover Welker in the slot, and the bigger J. Smith to be matched-up vs. Thomas.
4) TE Joe Dressen is expected to practice this week after knee surgery 3 weeks ago, and on the same knee in June. Will Jacob Tamme, and Julius Thomas be more of a factor Thursday?
5) Ravens fans are obviously aware that Elvis is now in Baltimore. You would think that not having Dumervil at all, and the uber-talented Von Miller for 6 games would be tough to get past. However, that might be a faulty outside perception. The Broncos defense was strong last year, but I think that was largely the result of Manning putting points on the board, and the Broncos pass rushers being able to pin their ears back as they attacked QB’s.
6) 2012 2nd Round DE Derek Wolfe had a pretty strong rookie season. Opposite of him is 2009 1st rounder Robert Ayers. Ayers has just 7 sacks in 57 career games. 2013 1st round pick Sylvester Williams should see plenty of time at DT, at-least as part of the rotation.
7) Another former Charger – Shaun Phillips – is now starting for Denver. With 69.5 career sacks (including 9.5 last year), the Broncos have realistic optimism of the LOLB continuing to be a force in ’13. Opposite of Phillips is currently Wesley Woodyard who had 5.5 sacks last year as a reserve. Nate Irving is said to be a thumper in the middle.
8) As of August 27th, Champ Bailey was using a walking boot at Broncos headquarters, and considered iffy for the opener. Will he be ready? If he provides single coverage on T. Smith, will the Ravens be able to take advantage? Opposite of Bailey is Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The 2008 1st round pick, and 2009 Pro Bowler is now with his 3rd team. Denver spent a 3rd pick on Kayvon Webster. The Broncos seems to like reserve CB Chris Harris as well. SS Mike Adams has 130 games under his belt. FS Quentin Jammer has even more, with 172 games played entering ’13.
9) Vegas has made Denver the prohibitive favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Might the results of this Week 1 match-up have home-field implications come January?
10) If fans of the Broncos needed more incentive to be excited for Thursday (beyond potential revenge vs. the Ravens, cheering on a potential Super Bowl team, and the start of the season); the NFL has provided it with the Ravens graffiti now found in Denver. That said, any mention of that as a potential determinant to the play Thursday would be a reach.