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The Ravens need Ray Rice to return to his Pro Bowl form this season
Instead of dismissing a substandard season as an aberration, the Ravens have devoted considerable resources to trying to regain their former status as an annual playoff squad. One year after winning the Super Bowl, the Ravens missed the playoffs, as a lackluster offense was the primary culprit for the regression. The Ravens ranked 29th in total offense and 30th in rushing offense as their streak of five consecutive seasons of making the playoffs under coach John Harbaugh ended. “Our players are more motivated than ever,” Harbaugh says. “It’s just not acceptable.”
So, the Ravens hired a new offensive coordinator in Gary Kubiak along with signing five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith and two-time Pro Bowl tight end Owen Daniels. They also held onto tight end Dennis Pitta and left tackle Eugene Monroe with $32 million and $37.5 million contracts, respectively. With the financial emphasis on fixing the offense, the Ravens hope they’ve done enough to get back to the postseason. “It’s fair to say it’s a failure because our goal is to be one of the top 12,” owner Steve Bisciotti said after last season. “If 8–8 is a failure, I hope it’s a long time before I feel worse than this.”
Quarterback Joe Flacco didn’t live up to the expectations that accompany a blockbuster $120.6 million contract as he threw a franchise-record 22 interceptions. It was an uncharacteristic season for the Super Bowl XLVII MVP. Some of the biggest priorities for the Ravens are providing Flacco with more time to throw and getting him into a comfort zone. “It’s a new year, a new beginning and a chance to do new things,” Flacco says. “I think we’ve got a good team and an offense that can put up some numbers.”
That’s where Steve Smith could become the key to a potential offensive turnaround. The Ravens brought him in to work in tandem with Torrey Smith and Pitta, who missed all but four games last season due to a fractured, dislocated hip. Steve Smith has a toughness and veteran savvy that’s been absent from the offensive huddle since Baltimore unloaded Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers in a trade following a contract dispute. Torrey Smith should have more room to operate as a deep threat with Steve Smith and Pitta working underneath in the middle of the field. Daniels’ knowledge of Kubiak’s offense from their days with the Texans, along with his sound hands and route-running, should be invaluable. Marlon Brown is more than just a red-zone threat, but he did catch seven touchdowns as an undrafted free agent last year.
The running game remains an area of concern because a heavier, hobbled Ray Rice stumbled to a 660-yard season in which he lacked tackle-breaking capabilities and his trademark elusiveness. He played as heavy as 225 pounds. He’s now down to 210 pounds, which should help him regain his Pro Bowl form. Rice had a serious off-field issue this offseason in which he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault for a domestic violence incident involving his girlfriend (now wife). Rice was suspended two games by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and now faces even more pressure to step up, both on and off of the field. Backup Bernard Pierce is expected to carry the load in Rice's absence, but Pierce had his own struggles last season and is coming off rotator cuff surgery. The Ravens are going to give rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro, a 230-pound small-school standout, a long look during training camp.
The return of Monroe, an athletic, polished tackle, for a full season after being acquired in October should give Flacco a better shot at remaining upright. They’ve upgraded at center by trading for Jeremy Zuttah, who replaces Gino Gradkowski after the latter struggled as a starter last season. Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda is a constant gritty presence. Right tackle is a question mark with Rick Wagner getting a shot at winning the job. If he falters, the Ravens could sign a veteran or shift left guard Kelechi Osemele to right tackle. Osemele is well ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation from back surgery that sidelined him last year.
Middle linebacker Daryl Smith is one of the most underrated defenders in the NFL. Smith remains fast in pursuit, sharp in pass coverage and is a good blitzer, contributing 123 tackles, three interceptions and five sacks last year. Former Alabama star C.J. Mosley is the frontrunner to start next to Smith at inside linebacker. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs made the Pro Bowl for the sixth time, but the Ravens want to see him become more productive for the entire season after watching him wear down last year. In a situational pass-rusher role, Elvis Dumervil delivered 9.5 sacks before an ankle injury slowed him down. Courtney Upshaw unselfishly stuffs blockers and sets the edge at strong-side outside linebacker.
The defensive line is in transition with Arthur Jones leaving in free agency. Rookie Timmy Jernigan is competing with Brandon Williams and Kapron Lewis-Moore to take over Jones’ versatile role. The Ravens will need Pro Bowl nose tackle Haloti Ngata to be even more disruptive inside. Defensive end Chris Canty was far too quiet in his first season in Baltimore. Fourth-round draft pick Brent Urban was expected to be a part of the rotation, but he tore his ACL in training camp and is out for the season.
The Ravens exercised a fifth-year option for 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith, who has emerged as one of the better young cornerbacks in the game. Lardarius Webb was starting to get back his quickness and trust his surgically repaired knee by the end of last season and should be back to full strength. Safety is an area of concern. The Ravens are hoping to move Matt Elam back to his natural strong safety position to capitalize on his aggressiveness. To be able to make this move, either rookie Terrence Brooks or veteran Darian Stewart needs to prove to be capable at free safety. Nickel back is being contested between Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson after Corey Graham signed with the Buffalo Bills. Like most NFL defenses, the Ravens don’t have the luxury of having three starting-caliber cornerbacks. The team signed veteran Aaron Ross in June, but he tore his Achilles during training camp. Baltimore then turned to Will Hill, a former teammate of Ross' with the Giants who was released by New York after it was announced Hill would be suspended for the first six games of the season for another violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. Secondary depth could be an issue for the Ravens, especially early on.
Pro Bowl kicker Justin Tucker emerged as a budding star last season with his clutch performances, including a franchise-record 61-yarder to beat the Detroit Lions. Tucker has become a reliable scoring weapon with his ability to hit long-distance field goals. Jacoby Jones remains an explosive threat as a return man, helping the Ravens beat the Minnesota Vikings in the snow with a kickoff return for a touchdown last season. Sam Koch was rumored to be on thin ice due to his salary-cap figure, but Harbaugh has insisted that the veteran punter is safe.
The Ravens look like they’re primed for a bounce-back season. While it’s unclear if they’re as talented as the division rival Cincinnati Bengals, this team, at the least, is probably headed back to the playoffs as a wild card qualifier. The schedule isn’t overly demanding, and the Ravens have a proven winning coach in Harbaugh.