When Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti spoke to reporters shortly after a disappointing 2016 season ended, he backed longtime general manager Ozzie Newsome, head coach John Harbaugh and franchise quarterback Joe Flacco.
But Bisciotti noted: “The pitchforks are out. They know it.”
Since winning Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens are 31-33 in the regular season and have missed the playoffs three of the last four years. The stretch has been uncharacteristic for an organization regarded as one of the best in the NFL. Newsome remains one of the league’s most well-respected decision makers, and Flacco’s contract suggests that he’s probably not going anywhere for a few more years. Bisciotti declines to say it’s playoffs-or-bust for Harbaugh, but the heat is on the coach as he begins his 10th season.
The defense looks strong, and the Ravens annually have one of the league’s best special teams units. The team and perhaps Harbaugh’s fate are tied to the play of Flacco, who is coming off arguably the worst season of his career.
The Ravens’ front office vowed to get Flacco help this offseason. Yet they didn’t sign or draft a top receiver to replace the retiring Steve Smith Sr., and they did little to solidify an offensive line that no longer has starting center Jeremy Zuttah and right tackle Rick Wagner. Through the first two months of free agency, the Ravens’ only offensive addition was veteran running back Danny Woodhead, who is essentially a replacement for versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
One of the lowest-ranked passers in the league last year, Flacco should at least be healthy again. He rushed back from the torn left ACL and MCL he suffered in November 2015 and was on the field for the first day of training camp last July. However, Flacco never looked completely comfortable, and the lack of chemistry with several of his pass catchers was evident throughout the season.
The Ravens have challenged Flacco to improve his pocket presence and footwork and to go through his reads more rather than being content to dump balls off to running backs and tight ends. He’ll need better protection from an offensive line that is unsettled beyond left tackle Ronnie Stanley and right guard Marshal Yanda. Second-year pro Alex Lewis is better suited for left guard, but the Ravens may move him to right tackle out of necessity. John Urschel and Ryan Jensen will compete for the center job.
Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman and Chris Moore provide plenty of outside speed, but it’s up to the strong-armed Flacco to rediscover his touch on the deep ball and get in sync with his receivers. Jeremy Maclin, a cap casualty in Kansas City, was signed as a free agent in June. He is coming off an injury-plagued 44-catch season, but if healthy he could take advantage of all the attention drawn by the Ravens’ deep threats.
Tight end also became an unexpected area of concern after Dennis Pitta dislocated his right hip in OTAs in June. Pitta, who missed most of the 2013 and ’14 seasons and all of ’15 because of hip injuries, had initially put off retirement and returned in a big way last season, earning AFC Comeback Player of the Year honors. But a third hip dislocation in less than three years has more than likely ended Pitta’s career, as the Ravens released the veteran on June 7.
Now the team will look to Benjamin Watson, Crockett Gillmore, Darren Waller, Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle in hopes of identifying a complementary target who will work the middle of the field and make contested catches.
The Ravens ran the ball the third-fewest times in the NFL last year, and they know that asking Flacco to carry the offense isn’t a winning formula. Harbaugh has promised a greater commitment to the running game, but that’s not been offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s trademark as a play caller. Terrance West, Kenneth Dixon — who is suspended for the first four games — and Woodhead are all capable backs. The Ravens will have to grind it out, because none is a home run threat.
Sick of watching a once-vaunted defense give up late scoring drives, Newsome went all in rebuilding this group. He signed defensive backs Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr in free agency and retained run stuffer Brandon Williams. He then went defense with his first four draft picks, grabbing a physically gifted cornerback (Marlon Humphrey), two explosive pass rushers (Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams) and a two-way defensive end (Chris Wormley).
On paper, the Ravens are as deep on defense as they’ve been in years. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees insists he wants to be more aggressive, but he’s felt hamstrung in recent seasons by a spotty pass rush and an injury-prone and unreliable secondary.
The Ravens now have four cornerbacks they feel comfortable with as starters. Jimmy Smith is their top cover man, but he needs to stay healthy. His absence in recent seasons has resulted in poor play by the secondary. His durability issues are why the Ravens added Carr, who has never missed a game in his career, and drafted Humphrey, who won’t be forced on the field immediately. Slot man Tavon Young had a strong rookie season. At safety, the addition of the hard-hitting Jefferson will allow Eric Weddle to do what he does best — freelance and read quarterbacks.
For the Ravens, it always starts defensively with stopping the run, and that should be a strength once again even after losing starting linemen Timmy Jernigan and Lawrence Guy as well as 2016 leading tackler Zachary Orr. They still have middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, who has recorded 342 tackles in his three seasons.
Wormley, Brent Urban and Bronson Kaufusi will compete to replace Guy, and the Ravens will rotate a host of linemen, including Michael Pierce, Carl Davis and Willie Henry, at Jernigan’s spot. Youth up front could be an issue, but depth won’t be.
It bears watching how Pees employs his cast of edge rushers. At the very least, Terrell Suggs, the defensive leader and the team’s best edge setter against the run, should see a reduction in snaps. Bowser and Matthew Judon will likely rotate at the strong-side linebacker spot. Williams will strictly be a situational pass rusher as he is limited in playing the run.
The Ravens’ primary questions defensively are whether Kamalei Correa is an adequate replacement for the retired Orr and whether they can stay healthy.
A two-time Pro Bowl selection, kicker Justin Tucker is always looking for ways to get better. But it will be close to impossible for him to improve on his 2016 season. Tucker made 38-of-39 field goals, and his one miss was blocked. His one issue had been long field goals — he made only 8-of-19 attempts from 50 yards or more in 2014-15 — but he was 10-of-10 from 50-plus in 2016. The Ravens believe they’re in Tucker’s range as soon as they cross the 50-yard line. They also believe that they have one of the best kicking tandems in the league with Tucker and punter Sam Koch. Koch doesn’t put up gaudy numbers, but he’s traditionally one of the leaders in pinning teams inside the 20, and his wide array of directional kicks helps neutralize return games.
The Ravens got very little from their return game last year, with the Devin Hester experiment falling flat. Wide receiver Michael Campanaro took over on punt returns late in the year and provided some juice by averaging 12.6 yards per return. He’s the favorite to be the primary punt returner, and the Ravens likely will have an open preseason audition to handle kickoff returns. The primary candidates are Moore and Dixon.
The Ravens will have a decidedly different look with as many as 10 new starters. But will they actually be better? Newsome and company seemingly turned back the clock with their offseason game plan, hoping that an improved defense and the right leg of Tucker will help the team get back to the postseason. The formula has worked before. However, this isn’t 2000. It’s a scoring league, and the Ravens can’t match the offensive firepower of the AFC favorites like New England and Pittsburgh. They have enough talent to contend for a postseason berth, but they’re going to need Flacco to up his game and lift an ordinary offensive supporting cast to make a run.