Ravens overhaul offense, but will it be enough?
One of the NFL’s most stable organizations is suddenly in transition. Ozzie Newsome, the team’s only general manager since it arrived in Baltimore in 1996, will step aside following the 2018 season for his longtime lieutenant, Eric DeCosta. Owner Steve Bisciotti acknowledged that he considered firing coach John Harbaugh after the team missed the playoffs last year, creating the perception that the Ravens have to go to the postseason this year to save Harbaugh’s job. Quarterback Joe Flacco, who came in with Harbaugh in 2008, could be entering his final season in Baltimore after the team drafted Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in the first round.
The Ravens have missed the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. In an effort to get back there, they underwent an offensive overhaul this offseason. With few changes on defense, the Ravens will be depending heavily on a bounce-back season from Flacco, who will be under more scrutiny than at any point in his previous 10 seasons
The offense was tough to watch for most of last season, and drastic change was the offseason result. Four of the top five pass catchers from last year are gone, replaced by veterans Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead and rookie tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews. Two starters from the offensive line are gone as well.
Harbaugh opted not to make a change at offensive coordinator, giving Marty Mornhinweg another opportunity to unlock the team’s downfield passing game and get Flacco playing with more consistency. Once regarded as one of the best deep-ball throwers in the game, Flacco has averaged under seven yards per attempt in three straight seasons. He threw for more than 250 yards in just four of 16 games last season.
Flacco missed the entire preseason last year with a back injury, and it affected his preparation. He looked healthier and more engaged in the offseason workouts, and team officials got his attention by drafting of Jackson, who will be brought along slowly. At his best when the stakes are highest, Flacco could certainly delay the Jackson era in Baltimore by regaining his 2014 form. But he needs to clean up his mechanics and be more willing to let things develop down the field rather than quickly dumping the ball off.
He will have a more diverse and explosive set of targets this season. Crabtree is still lethal in the red zone, Brown is a deep threat, and Snead can get open in the slot. Flacco loves throwing to his tight ends, and in Hurst and Andrews, the Ravens have two who can get down the field and catch in traffic. It’s not a top-level receiving group, but all the options fit better together than Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin and Breshad Perriman did last year.
The Ravens rediscovered a running game last season after two years without one. Alex Collins, who was picked up in early September when he didn’t make the Seattle Seahawks and rushed for 973 yards and six touchdowns, will remain the lead back. The Ravens don’t believe his breakout last season was an aberration, but he needs to distance himself from some of the ball security issues that he’s had.
An offensive line that allowed only 27 sacks last season but was protected by conservative play calling gets back starting guards Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis from injuries. It isn’t clear, though, whether the Ravens adequately replaced center Ryan Jensen. Matt Skura will get the first opportunity, but he has yet to start an NFL game at the position. The Ravens also need either James Hurst or rookie Orlando Brown to emerge as a reliable right tackle.
The Ravens defense pretty much returns in its entirety, but there are questions whether the front office did enough to solidify this group. The Ravens allowed the sixth-fewest points per game (18.9) in the NFL last season and led the league with 34 takeaways. But the defense was again exposed when it mattered most, blowing a late lead at Pittsburgh in December and then allowing a go-ahead 49-yard touchdown on fourth-and-12 in the final minute against Cincinnati in the season finale. That loss kept the Ravens out of the playoffs and led to an offseason of soul searching for the defensive leaders.
Responding to Dean Pees’ temporary retirement, Harbaugh promoted linebackers coach Don “Wink” Martindale to the defensive coordinator job. Martindale has vowed to be more aggressive than his predecessor. Tired of watching the defense struggle to get pressure on the quarterback in crunch time, the coaching staff also refined the blitz packages this offseason. Ravens players have spoken excitedly about how they’ll have more freedom under Martindale.
The Ravens will feel very good about their cornerback depth if their top cover guy, Jimmy Smith, makes an on-time return from last December’s Achilles surgery. A 2017 first-round pick, Marlon Humphrey had a nice rookie season, and he figures to supplant solid veteran Brandon Carr as the starter on the outside at some point. With Tavon Young and Maurice Canady in the mix, the Ravens have five corners they’re comfortable with. They’re seeking more consistency from the veteran safety duo of Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson.
Early injuries to defensive linemen Brandon Williams and Brent Urban took a toll on a normally vaunted run defense. For the Ravens to get back to being a top defense, they need to be dominant against the run and get other pass rushers to emerge. At age 35, Terrell Suggs continues to play at a high level, thanks to a greater commitment to the offseason workout program. The Ravens believe third-year linebacker Matthew Judon, who had eight sacks last year, is an ascending star. However, young pass rushers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams need to emerge.
Barring injuries, the starting defense will be mostly set heading into training camp except for the weak-side linebacker spot alongside C.J. Mosley. Patrick Onwuasor currently sits atop the depth chart ahead of Kamalei Correa and rookie Kenny Young.
With a nice mix of accomplished veterans and promising young players, the Ravens believe they have the personnel to be a top-five defense. However, they’ll need to learn to close games before they get that kind of respect.
The battery of kicker Justin Tucker, punter Sam Koch and long snapper Morgan Cox has been together since 2012, and the Ravens believe it’s the league’s best. Tucker is the all-time leader in field goal percentage, connecting on 90.2 percent of his attempts and making all 205 of his extra points. Over the past two years, Tucker has made 15-of-17 field goal attempts from 50 yards and beyond. Koch nullifies opposing return games with his wide array of directional punts. He dropped 40 of his 84 punts last year inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, six more than any other punter.
The Ravens have some uncertainty at returner. Michael Campanaro, who led the AFC in punt return average last year, departed in free agency. Tim White, an undrafted rookie who missed all of last season with a thumb injury, is the top candidate to replace him. Wide receiver Chris Moore will enter training camp as the team’s top kickoff returner.
The organization has declined to make big changes the past two years amid fan discontent, maintaining that the team was one or two plays short of making the playoffs. However, the Ravens are 40-40 in the regular season since winning Super Bowl XLVII. Their roster hasn’t been good enough to compete with the top teams in the AFC, and the latest version is again lacking in elite difference makers. If Flacco stops the regression and rediscovers an ability to connect on big plays with a new-look receiving corps, this team will compete for a playoff berth. If he doesn’t, the Ravens will remain mired in mediocrity, the Jackson era will start soon and other changes will occur.