The usually stoic personality of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco momentarily disappeared. Joe Cool was on fire. Used for target practice by a legion of critics despite three consecutive playoff appearances, Flacco lashed out after being derided for his leadership, work ethic and ability in the clutch. “I think I’m pretty damn good,” said Flacco, who had been called out by LaMarr Woodley, Dhani Jones and Jamie Dukes. “You can think what you want about me. I would like some more people than myself to think good about me, but they never do, they never do.”
There have been a number of changes with Flacco recently. He got married to his high school sweetheart this offseason, and he uncharacteristically sounded off when quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn was fired.
“I want the ball to be put in my hands,” says Flacco, who’s been granted increased responsibility to change plays and offer more input into game plans. “I want it to be on me. You’ve got to have trust in me, and I think we’re there.”
The Ravens’ primary roadblock in the AFC North hasn’t changed. It’s still the Pittsburgh Steelers. To conquer the division and make a serious Super Bowl run, the Ravens need Flacco to take charge. “I think he’s more than ready to do it,” general manager Ozzie Newsome says. “This will become Joe’s offense.” If that happens, then it may also become his football team.
Flacco’s bolder demeanor isn’t the only change for an offense that’s under major construction. The most dramatic moves were eliminating Flacco’s comfort zone by cutting two of his favorite targets, tight end Todd Heap and wide receiver Derrick Mason.
A strong-armed passer, Flacco wants to throw deep more often. However, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron prefers to play it safe.
Flacco’s primary target is wide receiver Anquan Boldin, whose chemistry with his quarterback is a work in progress. Boldin muscles cornerbacks for the football like few others, but he doesn’t create much separation. Rookie wideout Torrey Smith could provide the vertical threat this team has lacked. He’s a bit raw but has all the physical tools. Lee Evans was added in a trade with Buffalo during camp to perhaps give the Ravens the veteran deep threat they desire.
Ed Dickson takes over for Heap at tight end. Athletic with good size, he needs to shape up his blocking skills. Dennis Pitta is a sure-handed complement behind Dickson.
Injecting muscle into the backfield, the Ravens signed Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach to provide an intimidating lead blocker. Leach led interference for NFL rushing champion Arian Foster in Houston last season, giving linebackers toothaches. The Ravens dipped to 14th overall in rushing last year. Ray Rice’s average slumped to 4.0 yards per carry from 5.3 two years ago, but he remains a dangerous all-purpose threat. “For whatever reason, we kind of fell off last year,” guard Ben Grubbs says. “We’re going to get the mindset back and start pounding the ball.”
The offensive line had a rough season last year, giving up 40 sacks, and line coach John Matsko was replaced by Andy Moeller. Nasty Marshal Yanda was retained and shifted to his natural right guard spot. He’ll work next to precocious rookie tackle Jah Reid, an instant starter. Center Matt Birk was talked out of retiring, but he had knee surgery to start camp, and his status is in question. Grubbs is a stout blocker, agile enough to wall off linebackers, but he is coming off ankle surgery. Michael Oher gets another shot at left tackle after an uneven season when he struggled with penalties and against speed rushers. The Ravens like how Oher is channeling his aggressiveness and refining his technique. Still, the Ravens are one injury away from facing serious jeopardy.
Despite going 12–4 in the regular season, the Ravens were outscored 119–80 in the fourth quarter. That could be a sign of age or scheme deficiencies.
A scrappy former Wyoming strong safety, new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano is expected to be more aggressive than the man he replaced, Greg Mattison. Known for being emotional on the sideline, Pagano is reminiscent of Rex Ryan in temperament and philosophy. “Coach has his own swag to him,” linebacker Terrell Suggs says.
To restore the defense to Ryan’s standard of ‘organized chaos,’ the Ravens need to apply more heat to quarterbacks. They often just played coverage and rushed only three players. Only Suggs and franchise defensive tackle Haloti Ngata are legitimate pass-rushing threats. A powerful, disruptive interior force, Ngata dropped 20 pounds in an effort to get even quicker.
Beefy nose guard Terrence Cody, who replaces Kelly Gregg, is down to 349 ponds. Stamina has been an issue for the gigantic anchor in the middle.
Linebacker Jarret Johnson has strengthened his surgically repaired shoulder and has bulked back up to 260 pounds. An X-factor is linebacker Sergio Kindle, finally cleared to play after missing his rookie season with a fractured skull.
All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis remains an intimidating tackler and inspirational leader, but he has lost some range and is no longer a big factor in pass coverage. Reliable inside backer Jameel McClain does the dirty work next to Lewis.
Ed Reed is one of the most dynamic, instinctive safeties in the game, but he’ll be breaking in a new starter opposite him after Dawan Landry left. The competition is between Tom Zbikowski, Haruki Nakamura and newcomer Bernard Pollard.
First-round pick Jimmy Smith is the Ravens’ first big shutdown corner since Chris McAlister. Domonique Foxworth is back from a torn ACL. If his knee isn’t sound, then Lardarius Webb or veteran Chris Carr, who got starter’s money with a $15 million deal, could take over.
The Ravens demonstrated their emphasis on special teams when they locked up Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff and Pro Bowl alternate punter Sam Koch for $14.7 million and $11.5 million, respectively. It’s arguably the top kicker-punter tandem in the game. David Reed led the NFL in kick return average with a 29.3 average, setting a franchise record with a 103-yard jaunt against the Texans. Webb will handle punt return duties after averaging 9.5 yards per return. Kick coverage is in good shape with Pro Bowl special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo fully healthy and linebacker Prescott Burgess returning.
The Ravens look poised to compete with the Steelers, and the schedule is fairly generous. If the running game is truly rejuvenated and Flacco takes the next step, they could advance deep into the playoffs. However, vulnerability and inexperience on the offensive line and at wide receiver will probably prevent the Ravens from achieving their goal of hoisting the Vince Lombardi trophy.
OUTSIDE THE HUDDLE
|Wizard of Oz
General manager Ozzie Newsome was a Hall of Fame tight end, and now he’s forging an equally impressive track record as an NFL executive. Newsome manufactured one Super Bowl winner and believes strongly in building through the draft. His first two draft picks in 1996 are both future Hall of Famers: Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis. Sixteen of his first-round draft picks have combined for 46 Pro Bowl selections. The Ravens' biggest misses in the first round have been wide receiver Travis Taylor and quarterback Kyle Boller.
One year after fracturing his skull when he fell down two flights of stairs and missed his entire rookie season, linebacker Sergio Kindle is playing again with no restrictions after being cleared by neurological specialists and signing an injury waiver. The former second-round pick suffered serious hearing loss in his left ear and uses hand signals for defensive calls, but he has proven that he can take and absorb hits without incident. Whatever the speedy edge-rusher contributes is regarded as a bonus by team officials.
Strong safety Tom Zbikowski is a pugilistic hit as an undefeated cruiserweight. The former Gold Gloves champion boxer signed with Top Rank promoter Bob Arum during the lockout and won all three of his fights and is 4–0 as a professional with three knockouts. Trained by boxing legend Emanuel Steward, ‘Zibby’ won fights in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. After testing positive initially for a substance found in marijuana and being briefly suspended following an Oklahoma boxing card, the former Notre Dame star passed the second test and was cleared to fight. “The tests that were taken were very unreliable,” Arum said. “He’s clean.”
On the Bike
Ray Lewis took up cycling as a low-impact way to reinvent his training regimen. And the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year reported at a lean 250 pounds for his 16th season. “Cycling is one of the greatest sports in the world,” he says. “To really be able to train hard and get your heart rate as high as you can get it without the pounding, that’s the key to it.”
Cornerback Domonique Foxworth was a key figure in the NFL labor talks. As a member of the NFL Players Association executive committee, Foxworth works closely with union chief DeMaurice Smith and is regarded as a tough negotiator by NFL management.
Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs doubles as a movie producer. He’s the owner of an award-winning independent Maryland film company. Suggs is heavily involved, writing scripts, auditioning actors and making the occasional cameo appearance on screen.
A Japanese-American, safety Haruki Nakamura quickly organized a Red Cross relief program to aid tsunami-ravaged Japan. Nakamura and his teammates raised over $60,000, and he was honored by a Japanese ambassador for his efforts.
Quarterback Joe Flacco married his high school sweetheart this summer, and their wedding pictures became a viral hit on the Internet. The most entertaining shots were one of the wedding party throwing popcorn in a movie theater and another of the bride snapping the football to the groom.