The Sky Is Falling
The Ravens lost Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe to the free agent market and Anquan Boldin was traded for a sixth-round pick. The Ravens’ lone signing of the day was Chris Canty, which didn’t exactly make for a balanced equation.
Over the course of the offseason the Ravens have lost even more key contributors from their championship squad, with the latest release of Vonta Leach making it an unprecedented nine starters lost (plus Paul Kruger, their pass-rush specialist).
No defending Super Bowl champion had ever shed more than five players, but the Ravens are used to roster turnover; they lost eight starters in 2011 and six in 2012, according to via NFL.com.
On the other hand, this year was a little different with future Hall of Famers like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed leaving Baltimore. Veteran leaders like Anquan Boldin and Matt Birk, who embodied the Ravens’ blue-collar philosophy, were no longer wearing purple, and the sky was falling in Baltimore. Or so it seemed.
In Oz We Trust
While many outsiders take a quick glance at the names the Ravens have lost and assume they will be a much worse football team in 2013, they are overlooking the fact that Ozzie Newsome has done a fantastic job of picking up the pieces and building another great team.
This is a team that should once again make the playoffs and be in the mix for another ring when the Wild Card round begins.
Ozzie has faced an offseason full of questions, and he has addressed all but one. The Anquan Boldin trade left a huge void in the Ravens’ offense as Joe Flacco lost his No. 1 receiver in targets, receptions and yards.
Boldin was even more crucial during Flacco’s historic playoff stretch, hauling in 22 catches for 380 yards and four scores.
Torrey Smith has the talent and work ethic to develop into a No. 1 receiver, but after that, the depth chart is wide open.
Baltimore still has time to analyze their needs, and they are hopeful that one of their many young receivers establishes himself and definitively grabs that second starting spot.
While Jacoby Jones is currently listed as No. 2, he has shown throughout his career that he is really a third option, and the Ravens would prefer to keep his offensive reps down so he can pick up where he left off as a Pro Bowl returner.
They also have the cap room to sign a veteran wideout who gets cut before the season if they so desire, so the Ravens aren’t lacking for options. The most likely answer is that it will take a collective effort to replace Boldin’s production.
Torrey Smith and Dennis Pitta are primed for breakout years, and Smith’s goal is to break the 1,000-yard plateau for the first time in his short career, via BaltimoreRavens.com. Ed Dickson is also poised to be an integral part of the offense as the Ravens will use more two-TE formations to exploit the abilities of their tight ends to make plays down the field.
While the loss of All-Pro fullback Leach will affect the running game, the emergence of Bernard Pierce should counteract the damage.
Pierce was third in the league in Good Blocking Yards Per Attempt (GBYPA), averaging 9.7 yards per carry when the blocking held up and provided the intended running lanes, via ESPN.com (Insider required). Expect Pierce to eat into Rice’s workload, keeping the workhorse fresh for the home straight.
The offensive line should also be a strong point this year, as last year’s postseason group is back (minus Birk) and will have the whole season to gel as opposed to the revolving door that was the Ravens’ O-line last season. The line was dominant during the postseason and should be effective keeping Flacco upright and paving the way for Rice and Pierce.
Ultimately, the success of the offense rests on the broad shoulders of Joe Flacco, as Caldwell will open it up and let Flacco run the no-huddle more frequently. With Dickson and Pitta on the field, the Ravens offense is more versatile with the option to split Pitta out wide, where he is a matchup nightmare against smaller corners or slower linebackers.
Bucky Brooks wrote a wonderful piece outlining some of the wrinkles Jim Caldwell could add, and I expect to see a lot of these plans this season, via NFL.com.
While the offense is still a work in progress, Ozzie has done a masterful job of constructing what could be an elite defense. That sounds strange considering the losses of Lewis and Reed on that side of the ball, but this year’s defense should be much better than the Super Bowl-winning defense.
The Ravens defense was uncharacteristically poor against the run, ranking 20th in rushing yards allowed and 23rd in rushing touchdowns. A large part of that was the shaky play of the defensive line, and that was where Ozzie made his first changes.
The line saw tremendous upgrades with the signings of Chris Canty and Marcus Spears, along with the third-round selection of Brandon Williams and the resigning of Arthur Jones.
There is much more depth on the line which should allow Haloti Ngata to spend more time at nose tackle and defensive tackle, which he prefers, via BaltimoreRavens.com.
Additionally, the improved health of both Ngata and Terrell Suggs should allow them to bounce back from disappointing seasons.
The pairing of Suggs and Elvis Dumervil on the edges should terrify offensive coordinators and this, in conjunction with the improved line, should mean that the Ravens have no problem getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2013.
Ngata and Suggs aren’t the only players coming back from injuries. The return of Lardarius Webb should also be a boost to the Ravens defense. He was playing at a Pro Bowl level before his season-ending knee injury, giving up 5.3 YPA and a 42.2 passer rating, via ProFootballFocus.com.
While Cary Williams led the team in interceptions, his departure should not be significant as he was abysmal in coverage. Opponents threw for 1,000 yards, six touchdowns and a 91.6 passer rating against him, and he led the NFL by a large margin with 46 tackles on his own coverage. No other player had more than 37, via FootballOutsiders.com.
Williams has also made headlines for his new team, the Philadelphia Eagles, by missing OTAs for a myriad of reasons including his wedding, his honeymoon, dental work, home renovations and his daughter’s dance recital, via Yahoo!Sports.com.
Replacing him as a starter will most probably be 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith. He has lost 10 pounds this offseason as a result of a boxing regimen and he has displayed a renewed sense of focus and preparation, standing out and drawing praise from coaches in minicamp, via BaltimoreRavens.com.
On the last line of defense, the Ravens will sorely miss the leadership, experience and intimidation that Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard brought to the table. Despite this fact, the 2013 safeties should be more effective on the field.
Pollard was 12th in the NFL in yards given up per game due to penalties, via NFLpenalties.com, and Reed had the highest broken tackle rate in the NFL, missing 22.7 percent of his attempted tackles, via FootballOutsiders.com.
Matt Elam has been very impressive through OTAs and minicamp and his skills in coverage and against the run have lived up to the billing of a first-round pick, via BaltimoreRavens.com.
Both Elam and the newly acquired Michael Huff are extremely good against the pass and their versatility should allow Dean Pees to mix up his coverages, disguise blitzes and keep offenses guessing.
All of the changes throughout the offseason have shown a concerted effort to get quicker on defense, adapting to the pass-happy NFL. While some big names were lost, this defensive unit should be an elite group and much better than last year’s 17th-ranked defense.
With a defense capable of carrying a team and a new-look offense that revolves around Flacco’s huge arm and a two-headed monster of Rice and Pierce, the Ravens will shock a lot of pundits this season despite their tough schedule.
The defending champions are still the team to beat in the AFC North, and after giving Ozzie time to work his magic, it’s clear that the sky is no longer falling in Baltimore.