Are the Baltimore Ravens Back on Right Track to Super Bowl Return?

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Are the Baltimore Ravens Back on Right Track to Super Bowl Return?
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Have the Ravens done enough this offseason to become serious Super Bowl contenders yet again?

On February 3, 2013, the Baltimore Ravens defeated the San Francisco 49ers to win the franchise's second Super Bowl. The season that followed, however, didn't lead the Ravens to a championship. In fact, they missed the playoffs altogether, finishing the year with an 8-8 record.

A number of roster changes—some planned, others not—contributed to the disappointing season. They released safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard without it being a problem on field. The trade of Anquan Boldin to the 49ers was only ill-advised in hindsight. And the team was prepared for the retirements of linebacker Ray Lewis and center Matt Birk.

However, they weren't prepared for the fallout from the latter walking away from the game. 

Rob Carr/Getty Images
Losing center Matt Birk to retirement might have been the worst thing to happen to the Ravens in the 2013 offseason.

Birk was replaced by second-year player Gino Gradkowski, who ultimately was named Pro Football Focus' last-ranked center for 2013 (subscription required). His struggles reverberated down the line and the result was the Ravens' worst rushing performance in franchise history. Quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked 48 times, the most in his professional career. 

It didn't help matters that tight end Dennis Pitta fractured his hip in the offseason and missed all but four games in 2013. Injuries lingered for other players, like running back Ray Rice and offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele. The defense had some bright spots, but the struggles on offense were too much for that side of the ball to overcome.

So have the Ravens done enough in the offseason to again become Super Bowl contenders? 

 

The Offense

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Joe Flacco was sacked a career-high 48 times in 2013. He also threw a career-high 22 interceptions.

They certainly were able to identify offensive line as an area of major weakness and take steps to improve it. According to Football Outsiders, the Ravens line ranked last in run-blocking and 16th in pass protection. They took two early steps to getting better at both, by trading for Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Jeremy Zuttah and not re-signing free-agent right tackle Michael Oher.

It's hoped that Osemele, who landed on injured reserve last season and underwent back surgery, will be able to take over the right tackle job; he could also be considered for left guard if Rick Wagner wins the tackle battle. Free-agent acquisition, guard Will Rackley, could also be in the running for the starting left guard job.

To improve their depth on the line, the Ravens drafted Penn State's John Urschel, who can play both guard and center. They also brought on undrafted rookie offensive tackle James Hurst, who is recovering from a broken leg but, according to The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec, was already "moving pretty well" at rookie minicamp.

The Ravens' biggest struggles last year were on offense. Considering how large a role the weakness of the line played, it made sense that they addressed it as aggressively as they could.

Key Ravens Offensive Statistics, 2013
Stat Value Rank
Yards/Game 307.4 29
Points/Game 20.0 25
Pass Yards/Game 224.4 18
Rush Yards/Game 83.0 30
Flacco Sacks 48 29
Flacco/Taylor INTs 23 31

via ESPN

The defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks certainly demonstrated that defense wins championships, but a competent offense can get a team to the Super Bowl, as well—look at the team they vanquished, the Denver Broncos, or simply look at the balanced effort the Ravens put forth in the playoffs a year prior. 

The Ravens are traditionally a run-heavy team. That reliance on the run manages to lull defenses into a false sense of security; then, quarterback Joe Flacco can use his strong arm to connect with deep-threat receiver Torrey Smith or the ever-reliable Pitta.

Last year, Flacco was without Pitta for most of the year and the run game ranked 30th in yardage despite ranking 18th in rushing attempts. This year, Pitta is healthy, the Ravens boosted their receiving corps by adding veteran free agent Steve Smith and running the ball should be a renewed focus under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. 

Patrick Smith/Getty Images
A healthy Dennis Pitta will be a major help to Joe Flacco this year.

Though the Ravens offense should be improved this year, questions still remain about exactly how great of an improvement it will be. The two Smiths and Pitta will make Flacco's life easier—as will a better-protecting line—but the run game might again disappoint, even with Kubiak's intervention. 

It won't be because of the line, but because of the running backs themselves. Rice is facing at least a three-game suspension for assaulting his now-wife in February. The Ravens drafted a back in Round 4, Coastal Carolina's Lorenzo Taliaferro, but Taliaferro was arrested for property destruction and public drunkenness last weekend and could be facing discipline, as well.

Bernard Pierce won't be ready to practice until training camp after undergoing rotator cuff surgery, and who knows how limited he might be or for how long. 

Behind the trio are Cierre Wood and Justin Forsett, and either could shine in Kubiak's system, which can squeeze productivity out of relatively obscure running backs. However, any uncertainty in the run game could force the Ravens offense back into being one-dimensional and pass-heavy. Though Flacco has more options in the passing game, this is still not how the Ravens want their offense to look.

As Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said in January, "The history of this franchise has been our ability to run the football."

If the Ravens cannot get their run game back on track, then their offense on the whole will suffer. Seven of the top-10 offenses reached the postseason last year, and the Ravens won't be able to achieve that through their passing game alone—that's just not how the team is built. 

 

The Defense

Patrick Smith/Getty Images
No big deal, just Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil meeting at the quarterback.

The Ravens could be able to compensate for their offensive struggles with their defense, as long as those offensive struggles aren't as serious as they were in 2013. The Ravens ranked 12th in both yards and points allowed last season and should be just as effective this year, if not more so.

The first four rounds of the 2014 draft were defensive-heavy ones for the Ravens. They took inside linebacker C.J. Mosley in Round 1, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan in Round 2, free safety Terrence Brooks in Round 3 and defensive end Brent Urban in Round 4. Two, Mosley and Brooks, project to be starters this year.

Key Ravens Defensive Statistics, 2013
Stat Value Rank
Yards/Game 335.5 12
Points/Game 22.0 12
Pass Yards/Game 230.1 12
Rush Yards/Game 105.4 11
Tackles 1,081 T-9
Sacks 40 T-16
INTs 16 T-15
Forced Fumbles 14 T-15

via ESPN

The Ravens lost a number of veteran defensive players after winning the Super Bowl, and most of those were by choice. They included starting linebackers like Lewis, Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, both safeties and cornerback Cary Williams. Yet, defense was the Ravens' only true strength in the season that followed. That's a good sign for Year 2 of this retooled defense. 

One thing the Ravens defense needs to do a better job of this year is bringing pressure to opposing quarterbacks and generating turnovers. The Ravens ranked just 16th in sacks last year with 40, and 15th in interceptions with 16.

Six of the top-10 intercepting teams and seven of the top-10 teams in sack totals went to the playoffs in 2013. The Ravens have a strong defense, but they need to make more game-changing plays like sacks and turnovers to return to the NFL's upper echelon.

The Ravens defense has execution down to a science; now, they need to improve on the aggressiveness front.

 

The Schedule

Rob Carr/Getty Images
The Ravens host the defending AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1.

A team's Super Bowl capability is more than just the offense and defense it fields. The Ravens do not exist in a vacuum. They have 16 games to play before the postseason begins, and it's not likely that anything less than double-digit wins will get them there. Who they play, and when they play them, will have nearly as much to do with the Ravens' playoff hopes as how they play.

Things don't start easily for the Ravens, with their first three games played against AFC North rivals. That stretch is followed up by the Carolina Panthers and their brutal defense coming to town in Week 4 and a road contest against the Andrew Luck-led Indianapolis Colts. Three of their first five opponents were playoff teams last season.

After their Week 11 bye, things get interesting for the Ravens. They have a nationally televised game at the New Orleans Saints and then host the San Diego Chargers and their high-powered offense. If the Ravens can get past these two dangerous (and again, playoff-caliber) teams, then the rest of the season should present them a good opportunity to snag a playoff spot, if not the AFC North title. 

Baltimore's 2014 Schedule
Week Opponent Week Opponent
Week 1 vs. Bengals Week 9 at Steelers
Week 2 vs. Steelers Week 10 vs. Titans
Week 3 at Browns Week 11 BYE
Week 4 vs. Panthers Week 12 at Saints
Week 5 at Colts Week 13 vs. Chargers
Week 6 at Buccaneers Week 14 at Dolphins
Week 7 vs. Falcons Week 15 vs. Jaguars
Week 8 at Bengals Week 16 at Texans
Week 17 vs. Browns

via BaltimoreRavens.com

Their four final opponents this season combined for 18 wins last year, eight of which belonged to Week 14 adversary, the Miami Dolphins. These teams won't necessarily struggle as much as they did in 2013, but it's worth pointing out that the Ravens' season ends on a high note for them, at least on paper. 

The Ravens will be taking on a number of tough teams this year, but not in quick succession. There are lulls in the schedule that could allow the team to rack up wins. From a scheduling standpoint, the Ravens don't have many serious obstacles to a postseason berth and another crack at a Super Bowl championship.

 

The Bottom Line

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
Could the Ravens be throwing another victory parade in less than 18 months?

The Ravens appear to be in a much better place heading into the 2014 season than they were in last year. Granted, their offensive struggles haven't entirely melted away, but they are far less pronounced. As long as the run game can produce significant yardage as it used to—regardless of the back carrying the ball—every aspect of the offense should flow more smoothly.

There are still positional battles that need to play out on the offensive line, but the pickings at guard, center and tackle are not as thin as they were a year ago. Zuttah replacing Gradkowski could be enough to engender significant improvement in the run game—especially considering the Ravens run the ball up the middle of the line more than any other direction.

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The improvements to the line should aid Flacco immensely—it's hard to imagine him approaching 50 sacks by the end of the season like in 2013. And with Pitta fully healthy, and Steve Smith rounding out an otherwise quite young receiving corps, he'll have more help. This should also help mitigate any hiccups in the run game, should they occur. 

On defense, the Ravens can stay the course they charted last year and be in very good shape. They need to have a stronger, more consistent pass rush and be more aggressive in pursuit of interceptions, but fundamentally, their defense is sound. 

Will the Ravens field an offense to rival the record-setting Broncos of 2013? Probably not. Will their defense compare favorably to what the Seahawks have built? That's not likely.

But if the Ravens can play as well as they did in 2012, they can make the playoffs. Great things can happen to good teams when execution, timing and luck all fall into place.  

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