Archive for the ‘Ravens Season Review’ Category

2008 Season (The MOTHERFLACC'IN FUN Season) – Part 1: Offense

January 21, 2009

Who says rookies can’t win?  Rookie head coaches, rookie quarterbacks, whatever.  The ROOKIES RULE moniker could apply to the NFL in general for 2008, as the Atlanta Falcons, with Mike Smith and Matt Ryan, kept up with the Ravens every step of the way throughout the regular season.  In Baltimore though, John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco set new standards for first year excellence, winning 13 games total (regular season + post season).  As a result, we are already seeing the trend of hiring first-time head coaches continue to grow – don’t be surprised to see several more teams going with rookie signal callers on opening day 2009.

Quarterback

Joe Flacco.  “Wacco for Flacco” signs strewn around Charm City.  My fantasy team’s name was “Unibrow Power.”  I had the idea several weeks ago to start selling fake unibrows at Ravens games, but since I’m lazy, somebody else beat me to it (they are giving the proceeds to charity, though, so it’s probably better that way).  Thanks to Joe, guys with monobrows are now having an easier time than ever picking up women in B’More bars.  The decade-long revolving QB door seems to have finally been stopped.

All this over a rookie who was listed at #3 on the depth chart at the start of training camp.

Kyle Boller and Troy Smith were expected to battle for the position, with Flacco spending a season or two holding a clipboard.  However, Boller was injured against the Vikings in Week 2 of preseason, and went on IR.  Troy Smith went through a very bizarre illness that started as a tonsil infection, and eventually resulted in his being hospitalized and bedridden for several weeks.  That illness cost him the chance to really compete for the starting job, but he would eventually see the field as part of the “Suggs Package.”  Smith played well in his specialized role, but whether or not that will be enough for his personal agenda moving forward remains to be seen.  His 43-yard hookup with Flacco against the Raiders in Week 8 is a play that Ravens fans will not soon forget.

In last year’s season review, we openly campaigned for the Ravens to eschew both Flacco and Matt Ryan in the 2008 Draft, in favor of a CB.  Shows you what the hell we know.  Whoops.

Flacco’s numbers were not dazzling, and as a result he did not garner even one vote for Rookie of the Year.  In Baltimore, though, we know that his 60% completion rate, 2971 yards, 14 TDs, 12 INTs, 80.3 rating and 2 rushing scores were far more than just numbers.  Joe Cool made some dazzling throws, remained calm and composed in the pocket at all times, kept the chains moving, and brought a sense of competence to the Ravens’ offensive huddle that we haven’t seen since Vinny Testeverde (no disrespect to the 2006 Steve McNair – but that offense never “felt” like this one).

Oh, and Flacco is already being widely praised as having one of the strongest arms, and best “deep balls” in the entire NFL.

One of Flacco’s main problems to work on in the offseason is ball security when being hit.  He fumbled 6 times in his first 6 games, then once in each of 5 consecutive games from Weeks 12-16.  He may already be improving though, as he did not drop the ball once in his final 4 games.

The future is bright at the QB position in Baltimore.  Hopefully those unibrows provide some eye shade, B’More.

Running Backs

The Ravens’ 3-headed rushing attack was a welcome surprise in 2008.  The team finished 4th in the NFL in rushing yards, at 148.5 per game, an improvement of over 35 yards per game from 2007.  Coming into the season, there was some trepidation; Willis McGahee, who put up over 1200 yards in 2007, was coming off preseason knee surgery.

Luckily, Cam Cameron saw something special in fullback Le’Ron McClain.  McClain was used exclusively as a blocker under Brian Billick, getting only 8 attempts in his rookie season.  In his sophomore year under Cameron though, McClain blossomed as a runner, leading the Ravens in carries (232), yards (902), and touchdowns (10), earning not only a Pro Bowl nod, but the nickname “Le’Run” here at the Nest.  He fancies himself as a poor man’s Jerome Bettis – lofty aspirations for sure.  “Pain Train” started to display a tendency to fumble late in the season, so hopefully he will get that corrected before opening day 2009.

Ray Rice, the rookie 2nd-round pick from Rutgers, also contributed mightily.  His marquee performance came in Week 9 at Cleveland, when he carried 21 times for 154 yards.  His role was mostly as a 3rd down back though, and he excelled in that capacity.  Rice led the Ravens in yards per carry (4.2), and had more receptions (33), receiving yards (273), and yards per catch (8.3) than either McClain or McGahee.  He was a human first down at times, seemingly moving the chains every time he touched the ball, regardless of how long the 3rd down was.  Rice was injured in Week 14 against Washington though, and didn’t contribute much after that.  We’re very eager to see what Ray Rice is able to do with a season under his belt.

Willis McGahee got off to a rocky start with the new regime – he reported to training camp out of shape, then had to miss significant time for surgery.  Surgery, some suggested, that he could have taken care of months before.  However, Willis was very accepting of his reduced role, at least publicly.  He seemed rusty at times, but managed to crack the 100-yard barrier on 3 occasions – in Weeks 7, 10, and 16.  He seemed to benefit from McClain busting up opposing defenses early, coming in late and helping to put games away.  He had decisive runs down the stretch against Dallas, Jacksonville, and in the Wild Card Playoff in Miami.

Willis had a scary moment in the AFC Championship, when Ryan Clark of Pittsburgh lit him up in garbage time.  McGahee was taken off on a stretcher, and kept in a hospital overnight.  All tests came back negative, fortunately, and Willis is expected to make a full recovery.  The Ravens seem to have nothing to gain and everything to lose by cutting ties with McGahee, and his relationship with the coaching staff seems to be mended, so we expect to see him in purple come training camp.

The running backs discussion would not be complete, though, without mentioning Lorenzo Neal.  Neal, playing in his 16th NFL season, provided great leadership to the young backs in addition to his bulldozing lead blocks.

Wide Receivers

The wideouts benefited from the stability (not to mention shoulder-cannon) of Joe Flacco under center.  Both Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason posted fewer receptions than they had in 2007, but Clayton put up nearly 200 more yards, and both saw their yards per catch averages jump significantly.  Demetrius Williams caught a 70-yard touchdown in Week 8 against Oakland, but that would be his final catch, as injury again cut his season short.

Derrick Mason emerged as Joe Flacco’s go-to guy, his “security blanket,” if you will.  The rookie looked his way often, and Mason delivered.  Mason’s motives have been questionable in years past – in 2006 he seemed upset with his lack of involvement in the offense on a 13-3 team, and last year he seemed just fine with all the losses, as long as he was getting his touches.  This year, however, he put all those character questions to rest by playing through pain that most of us can’t even imagine.  In Dallas, Mason had to be helped off the field several times because of his separated shoulder, but still ran around out there with 1 arm, and even caught a touchdown.  Playing through the separation caused a domino effect of secondary discomforts for Mason, but he continued to not only play, but remained the team’s most productive receiver.  Derrick Mason is on the cusp of deserving a spot in the Ravens’ Ring of Honor.

Mark Clayton had a huge game in Week 13 at Cincinnati, catching 5 balls for 164 yards and a score, throwing a TD, and managed a highlight reel 1-handed grab.  Still, his inconsistency is incredibly frustrating.  He had less than 50 yards in 14 games, including all 3 playoff games.  Four years into his career now, Clayton’s production does not justify his 1st round draft pick status.  In his defense though, how many QBs has he played with in those 4 years, and of those, how many were worth a damn?  We’ll give Mark another year or two with Flacco to right his ship.

Tight Ends

This was a group that we had high expectations for coming into the year.  Dan Wilcox was finally healthy, Quinn Sypniewski was ready to break out after showing some good things in 07, and Todd Heap was going to be the next Antonio Gates under Cam Cameron’s offensive system.

Or not.

Sypniewski was injured in training camp and never played a down in 2008.   Wilcox played in all but 3 games, but only managed 5 catches for 19 yards (2 TDs though).  And although he stayed healthy enough all year to silence the critics who had started to label him as “soft,” Heap’s lackluster numbers just served to change those critics’ words of choice to “washed up.”

There were any number of reasons floated around town to explain this – the Ravens’ young tackles needed extra help blocking, the coaching staff was upset with him for some reason, he had lost a step.  In reality, it was probably a combination of all three.  Heap finally got involved in Week 10 at Houston, catching 5 passes and his first 2 touchdowns of the year.  Heap has played in all 16 games in 5 of his 8 seasons with the Ravens – as far as those years go, 2008 saw career lows from Todd in receptions, yards, and first down receptions, and tied his low in touchdowns.  Another worrisome sign from Todd is that he seems to have not broken a tackle since about 2005.  The guy just goes down WAY too easily for a tight end.  In the Miami playoff game, Heap had a chance to score, but was taken down 1-on-1 inside the 5.  In the AFC Championship, Heap was taken down by Troy Polamalu with absolutely zero fight, on a late 3rd down try.

The Ravens may have to start looking for Todd Heap’s eventual replacement, as he no longer performs at a Pro Bowl level.

Offensive Line

A huge question mark entering the season, the offensive line ended up being a bright spot for the Ravens, and a big reason why they ended up in the AFC Championship.  This group paved the way for the Ravens’ 4th ranked rushing attack, and protected their rookie quarterback admirably.

The signing of Willie Anderson at the end of preseason proved to be a genius move by Ozzie; Anderson was a much needed elder statesman for the young bruisers.

The trio of Jason Brown, Marshal Yanda, and Ben Grubbs was expected to be fairly solid, but they played great all season.  When Yanda went down for the season in Week 6, the much-maligned Chris Chester (nearly a preseason cut) stepped in more than capably.  Chester threw some of the prettiest pull blocks we’ve seen in Baltimore.

Brown, an unrestricted free agent (uh-oh) was very impressive in his first season as the full-time center.  He is one of the best young centers in the NFL, and unfortunately, the NFL knows it.  Watch for the Ravens to have plenty of competition for JB’s services this offseason.

Adam Terry played well in spot duty and in Cameron’s “unbalanced line” formations.  He is still too nice of a guy to be a dominant NFL tackle, but lack of mean streak aside, Terry had a good year.

On the other side, 2nd year player Jared Gaither stepped up in a big way.  Forced to try to fill the M&T Bank Stadium-sized shoes of the retired Jonathan Ogden, Gaither transformed himself into a very promising player, and could be a Pro Bowler in the very near future.  His size alone is awesome, but he showed quick feet and a good work ethic to go along with it.

If the Ravens can manage to keep this group together (SIGN JASON BROWN!!!!), they will be as formidable in the trenches as any team in the league.  As Brown, Gaither, Yanda, Chester, Grubbs, and Terry (the oldest, at 26) mature as players together, the sky is the limit.

2007 Season (The MURPHY’S LAW Season) Part 2: Defense

March 14, 2008

The snake-bitted-ness extended to the defensive side of the ball in 2007. 

Defensive Line

The defensive line was the standout group of 2007. Perhaps the most disappointing part of their season was that neither Kelly Gregg nor Haloti Ngata, both deserving, were voted to the Pro Bowl. These two were absolute monsters inside, as good as any defensive tackle duo in the league, and as good as we’ve seen in B-More since the days of “Goose” and Sam Adams. “Buddy Lee” had 80 tackles, tied for most in his career, and Ngata had 63, as the Ravens were 2nd in the NFL in rush defense, allowing only 79 yards per game. Backups Justin Bannan and Dwan Edwards also played well.

Unfortunately, there is another side to playing defensive line: pressuring the quarterback. Pass rusher extraordinaire Trevor Pryce broke his wrist in week 2 and saw action in only 5 games. As a result, his sack total dropped from 13 a year ago to just 2 in ’07. His absence also allowed opposing offenses to commit more blockers to any Ravens blitzers. The Ravens had only 32 sacks in 2007, just over half their 2006 total of 60 – don’t underestimate the importance of one man, Pryce, to that stat.

Gregg is 31, and probably has 2 or 3 seasons of high-level play left if he stays healthy. Ngata is entering just his 3rd season, and will be a staple on the line for years to come. Pryce is 32 and may have a good year or 2 left, but we will have to wait and see if the new coaching staff considers his age and health issues worth the risk, as he also suffered a torn pectoral muscle this season.

Linebackers
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Bart Scott 2006

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Bart Scott 2007

This Ravens success against the rushing game also indicates a solid year by the linebackers. However, the big plays we have come to expect from this group just weren’t there to the extent that we are used to seeing. After picking up 9.5 sacks each in 2006, Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott saw their numbers plummet this season, to just 5 and 1, respectively. Ray Lewis had a strong year and showed he still has more than a little left in the tank. His sack total dropped to 2 from 5 last year, but he had 2 interceptions for the second straight season, one of which he returned for the 3rd touchdown of his career, and first since 2003. Some may point to the loss of Adalius Thomas as the reason for the sub-par play of the Ravens’ LBs, but we think it had much more to do with all the injuries around them. While the ‘backers stayed fairly healthy throughout the season, the injuries to Trevor Pryce, Chris McAlister, and Samari Rolle really hobbled what Rex Ryan was able to do with this bunch. Backups in the secondary meant that the LBs had to drop into coverage more, and blitz less, and when they did rush, they were picked up more often than not by the blocker that didn’t have to worry about double-teaming Pryce.

This group was also responsible for their share of controversy in 2007. Ray Lewis publicly called out Brian Billick on his radio show after the Buffalo game, questioning Billick’s playcalling. It is widely speculated around town that Lewis had more than a little to do with the firing of Billick. Bart Scott had his well-documented breakdown/temper tantrum at the end of the New England game, where he threw an official’s flag into the stands, which resulted in the squashing of any iota of hope the Ravens offense had to march down the field for a quick score to tie or win that game.

Terrell Suggs is an unrestricted free agent, and it will be very interesting what the new coaches decide to do with him. Personally, I’d like to see him locked up to a long term deal, but the Ravens may decide to slap the franchise tag on him, or just let him walk.

Secondary

Finally we come to the unit that probably had the MOST to do with the Ravens dismal 2007 campaign. Injuries decimated the secondary, as Chris McAlister was limited to 8 games with a knee injury, and Samari Rolle to 6 games due to problems stemming from epilepsy. These two combined for 9 interceptions and 32 games started in 2006, and just 2 INT and 13 games started in 2007. For all the complaining that Ravens’ fans did about Rolle in ’06, and that they have done about McAlister for his entire career, we saw first hand this year what happens to our defense without them, and it was not pretty. When you can’t count on your corners to cover receivers one-on-one it severely limits everything you do on defense. The Ravens’ lack of depth in the secondary was exposed, as Corey Ivy, David Pittman, and Derrick Martin got burnt time and time again filling in for Rolle and C-Mac.

On the back end of the secondary, safety Ed Reed had his typical season, and was named as the Ravens’ only All-Pro. He started all 16 games for the 5th time in his 6 year career, and picked up 7 interceptions, while also serving as the Ravens’ punt returner in critical situations. He played more disciplined this year than he has in years past, not gambling for the big play as often. However, this may have been more out of necessity than out of maturity on Reed’s part, as he suddenly found himself as the most experienced member of the group, and he was often charged with covering the butts of the young corners. Second year man Dawan Landry seemed to suffer a bit of a “sophomore slump.” After picking up 5 interceptions in his rookie season, he was shut out in ’07, and we hardly ever heard his name called on broadcasts. As Stephen over at RavensTD points out, it may be a good idea to have Landry watch video loops of Bob Sanders for the entire offseason.

Cornerback should be a top priority for the Ravens going into the draft, and they may even be able to trade down a few slots to get their guy, should they choose to go that route. To us anyway, a solid young CB makes much more sense than any of the QB prospects that may be on the board.

Special Teams

The Ravens special teams had an OK year. Matt Stover again found himself the Ravens main offensive weapon for a while there. He he had one game winning field goal as time expired, but missed another in OT that would have saved the Ravens a lot of face (and perhaps Brian Billick his job) in Miami. His 27 field goals made and 84.4% FG percentage were both his lowest since 2002. Punter Sam Koch upped his average net to 43.6 from 43.0 last season, good for 13th in the NFL.

In the return game, B.J. Sams was lost for the season in week 1, and rookie Yamon Figurs showed some good things. He was 14th in punt return avg. and 10th in kickoff return avg. (among players with at least 30 returns), with 1 touchdown coming on a punt return. Ed Reed also returned a punt for a touchdown.

Season (The MURPHY’S LAW Season) – Part 1: Offense

March 14, 2008

“Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” – Murphy’s Law

That about sums up everything that happened with our Ravens this year, no? After the charmed 2006 (regular) season, in which they won some games they probably shouldn’t have, 2007 proved that, at least in football, the universe does indeed work itself out. We’ll try to rack our brains and painstakingly remember ALL the things that went wrong here…maybe doing it by category will make things easier.

QuarterbackSteve McNair stumbled out of the gates and never got on track. He showed none of the pocket presence or big play making ability of 2006, and his days as a Raven are probably over. He was never healthy, as he injured his groin in week 1, sat out several games with a stiff back, and was ultimately placed on IR with a shoulder injury December 3rd. For the season, McNair turned the ball over 11 times in only 6 starts, while throwing just 2 touchdowns.

His replacement, Kyle Boller, showed some promise early on, but in the end just showed that his is nothing more than a capable backup in this league. He threw 9 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 12 games, and showed that he still has not developed the pocket presence or passing touch needed to be anything better than average. He had perhaps the best game of his career against the New England Patriots, only to revert back to his old erratic self the very next week against Indianapolis. Boller also continued his historically awful play on the road, and his record as a starter outside M&T Bank Stadium is now an abysmal 5-15. He saw his last action in week 15 when he suffered a concussion in Miami.

The Next Man Up, rookie Troy Smith, played reasonably well in his 2 starts. He showed better pocket presence than Boller ever has, but still made a few throws in the Steelers game that should have been intercepted, and probably would have lost the game for him. His 79 yard touchdown pass to Derrick Mason in Seattle was the Ravens’ longest pass of the season. Smith should get a fair shake in training camp in 2008 to seize the starting job, but he will have to improve his decision making. Many in B-More are ready to anoint him the franchise QB, but not so fast, we say. He was a 5th round pick for a reason, and his Heisman Trophy is by no means an indicator of NFL stardom (recent Heisman trophy winners: Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Jason White, Carson Palmer, Eric Crouch, Chris Weinke, Ron Dayne, Ricky Williams, Charles Woodson, Danny Weurffel.)

Running Backs

Willis McGahee was the lone bright spot on offense for the 2007 Ravens, running for 1207 yards and 7 touchdowns, and adding 43 receptions for 231 yards and a TD. Often times you’ll hear about a RB buying his offensive lineman expensive dinners or watches after a good season, but the Ravens OL should be the ones giving Willis gifts. He made them look much better than they were playing at times, picking up yards where there were none to be had. McGahee needs to work on his ball security in the offseason, as his 3 lost fumbles were the most of his career.

Backup/3rd down back Musa Smith appeared in all 16 games for the first time in his career, and averaged 3.5 ypc. Smith is an unrestricted free agent, and the new head coach will have to decide whether or not to bring him back. We say “Yay.” Smith is a quality guy, and showed great work ethic and commitment in coming back from his grotesque broken leg suffered in 2004 thanks to Roy “What do you mean I can’t tackle like that?” Williams.

Wide Receivers
This group regressed from 2006, thanks to both injuries and poor quarterback play. Mark Clayton was slowed by injury early and saw his numbers dip significantly compared to last year, with 20 fewer receptions, 400 fewer yards, and no touchdowns. He is still the Ravens best YAC player, and the new offensive system needs to get him involved much more.

After complaining about being left out of the offense last year, Derrick Mason, set a personal and Ravens record receptions total with 103, while breaking 1000 yards for the 2nd time in B-More. Mason showed he can still find open space, especially on 3rd down, as he led the NFL in 3rd down receptions. At times it seemed like Kyle Boller must have had Mason on his fantasy team, as he wouldn’t even look at the other receivers. Mason had plenty of complaints about a 13-3 team that relied on him only marginally, but very few of a 5-11 team that featured him heavily. One can’t help but question his priorities.

Other wideouts Demetrius Williams and Devard Darling had polar opposite seasons. Williams, who established himself as a deep threat in 2006, suffered from the poor play of the offense, which either had a quarterback to weak to throw the deep ball, or an offensive line unable to protect long enough for deep routes to develop (or both!), and saw his last action in week 10 due to an ankle injury. Darling, relegated to special teams for most of his tenure in B-More, emerged in place of Williams, averaging 18 yards per catch and hauling in 3 touchdowns. Perhaps he will finally start to live up to his 3rd round draft pick, should the Ravens choose to resign him (unrestricted free agent).

Tight Ends
The injury bug decimated this group as well. Todd Heap played in only 6 games, the last in week 10, due to a hamstring injury. Prior to this season, he had played in all 16 games in 2 straight seasons, and 4 of the previous 5, so don’t be so quick to label him “soft,” as many in town have taken to lately. He will only be 28 at the start of the 2008 season, and we fully expect the “Stormin’ Mormon” to regain his status as one of the league’s elite tight ends.

Daniel Wilcox had a laundry list of injuries, and only played in 5 games, after playing in 16, 13, and 14 the past 3 seasons. These injuries forced 2nd year man Quinn Sypniewski into extended duty, and he played reasonably well. His hands and blocking improved throughout the course of the year, and the experience he gained makes this one of the strongest positions for the Ravens going into 2008.

Offensive Line

Pains of two types here: physical and “growing.” Jonathan Ogden missed weeks 2-6 with his sprained big toe, then took a few more games to round into “game shape,” before finishing up the season as his old, reliable, immovable, bulldozing self. He certainly has a few more NFL games in his tank, if he so chooses. Third year man Adam Terry also missed 4 games, and was only marginally effective when he did play. Word on the street is that he lacks the “mean streak” necessary to be an effective NFL tackle, and rookie Marshal Yanda supplanted him at times. Yanda showed some good things, but seemed to hit the rookie wall towards the end of the season, as did Ben Grubbs, who had a solid debut year. Jason Brown had a good year at guard, and may move to center next season, as Chris Chester had a disappointing 2007 campaign, and Mike Flynn looks set for retirement.

The line had trouble opening holes for running backs, and protecting the passer. After giving up only 17 sacks in 2006, Ravens QBs were constantly running for their lives and absorbing crushing hits this year. The poor pass protection contributed greatly to the Ravens finishing out the year with their 3rd string QB. As mentioned previously, Willis McGahee often pushed the pile 4 or 5 yards, as opposed to finding daylight. The youth of this group gives it a promising future, despite their tough year


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