This Baltimore Ravens team is full of question marks, and there’s no real way to answer them until they step on the field in Week 1. With so many uncertainties, it’s impossible to definitively project their 2014 season—unless it is done by looking at the best- and worst-case scenarios.
The ceiling and the floor of the Ravens will be broken down by offense and defense, with details about which characteristics will come into play, for better or worse.
These scenarios are realistic outcomes for the roster, but it is of course unlikely that everything goes smoothly or horribly wrong (as it does for the ceiling and floor, respectively). Instead, it’s much more likely that the Ravens are somewhere in the middle, but early signs point to them finishing the season closer to their ceiling than their floor.
Even though Gary Kubiak is a brilliant offensive mind and one of the best play-callers in recent memory, there is no denying that his West Coast offense will be a fairly dramatic change for Joe Flacco.
Early reports have been promising, but there is always the chance that the offense just isn’t a good fit for the strong-armed quarterback.
He’ll have to attempt more short-to-intermediate passes than ever before, and he will need to throw with more anticipation. Flacco's receivers should be able to create space early in their routes, as opposed to previous seasons when he has had to wait for receivers to gain separation and then fire in a bullet.
This could lead to issues, especially if this version of Kubiak’s offense attacks the middle of the field like his previous iterations. There is space to be exploited across the middle, but there is naturally a greater chance of finding a defender instead of your intended target.
Those concerns could be exacerbated if the Ravens are plagued to any degree by the same issues that hampered them last season. If the new offensive line doesn’t gel as quickly as we expect and/or Ricky Wagner is a liability at right tackle, Flacco will once again be subject to more hits and less time in the pocket.
Additionally, O-line shortcomings—either in terms of personnel or difficulties adjusting to Kubiak’s blocking scheme—could seriously impact the run game which would (again) be a death sentence for the offense.
And there's always the chance that Ray Rice is suspended for longer than we think and/or he isn’t the same elusive back we’ve come to know despite his widely discussed weight loss. If the running game struggles, too much of the offensive burden will get shifted onto Joe Flacco.
The Ravens have a lot of young pieces on their defense, but the worst-case scenario starts with their stars. For example, if Haloti Ngata continues to underwhelm, that’s a big problem.
Not to knock Ngata, because 60 percent effort from Ngata is still more impressive than 100 percent from many others, but his performance dipped last season and he wasn’t a consistent presence in the middle of the defense.
If he’s not a stud, it would place too much pressure on the young linemen around him (e.g. Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan, etc.) and Baltimore could be at a disadvantage in the trenches and against the run.
That could be a particularly alarming issue if C.J. Mosley isn’t an outstanding run defender (not unimaginable, he’s a rookie after all) because the Ravens’ other two inside linebackers (Daryl Smith and Arthur Brown) aren’t particularly good at shedding blocks—they need the big men up front to clear up the debris.
There are two other stars that are carrying a huge amount of responsibility: Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. They are responsible for all of the pressure the Ravens can generate on opposing quarterbacks, and it will be catastrophic if they resemble their second-half of 2013 selves (two combined sacks in the last six games).
Without any other pass-rushers on the roster, the defense would fail to generate any kind of consistent pressure and opposing QBs would have plenty of time to pick on the CB3 and FS—the weak links in the secondary.
Full disclaimer: I’m obviously a pretty big Ravens fan. So maybe I’m just being optimistic but I think that everything mentioned above would need to come to fruition for the Ravens to finish below .500.
There are, however, definitely a lot of tricky games on the schedule that could cause problems if the team isn’t clicking on all cylinders.
Then there are a number of challenging games on the road, where the Ravens have struggled in the past against the likes of New Orleans, Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and, of course, the rest of the AFC North.
The ceiling starts with the O-line. If the group meshes well with Kubiak’s scheme, and if Wagner is a capable starter at RT, then it opens up things on the ground and in the passing attack.
Kubiak’s offense starts on the ground, and a revamped Ray Rice bounces back from a disappointing 2013 season to look like the elusive back we’re used to. That, in conjunction with the depth at RB, gives the Ravens a potent rushing attack which allows Flacco to exploit mismatches on the outside and be a deadly big-play threat off play-action and bootlegs.
Without having to carry the offense alone, Flacco looks comfortable in Kubiak’s offense and has a career year thanks to a deep receiving corps with a diversity of niche receivers.
Torrey Smith continues to develop as an all-around receiver, Steve Smith Sr. fills the Anquan Boldin void, Jacoby Jones is a game-changing deep threat and Marlon Brown evolves as an even stronger red-zone threat.
A healthy Dennis Pitta thrives as a focal point of Kubiak’s offense, and secondary options like Owen Daniels and Kyle Juszczyk give Flacco plenty of targets for every situation.
If everything works out, the Ravens will have a ton of different ways to attack opposing defenses on the ground (power and speed) and through the air (possession, speed, underneath and over the top).
Just like the worst-case scenario, the ceiling for this defense begins with the stars. Haloti Ngata can be a beast in the middle of the D-line, and the mountain of a man can eat up blockers and free up his teammates to take advantage of the extra space and one-on-one matchups.
If Ngata is a stud and a couple of the young linemen deliver on their potential, it will be very hard to run on this defense because of the size, strength, power, talent and depth at the position.
With a beastly defensive front, the inside linebackers are free to fly around and make plays on the ball. In this scenario, the athleticism of the position would be unleashed and they could lock down the middle of the field by covering a ton of ground against the run and matching opposing tight ends and running backs stride-for-stride in pass coverage.
Rounding out the defensive front, if Suggs and Dumervil can replicate what they did at the start of the 2013 season, that will be more than enough pressure to rattle opposing QBs.
The secondary will still need the FS and CB3 to exceed current expectations, but Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith can be one of the better CB tandems in the league. They can cover a lot of holes in the defensive backfield, especially with Suggs and Dumervil wreaking havoc up front.
Like all Ravens defenses, this unit will be built to stop the run first and foremost in order to make offenses one-dimensional. At that point, unleash the pass-rushing fury of the outside linebackers, sit back and relax.
This is the ABSOLUTE ceiling for the record, with their three losses coming in some combination of the following four games: at New Orleans, at Indianapolis, at Pittsburgh and at Cincinnati. The Ravens at their best are nearly unbeatable at home, and these are the dangerous road games on their schedule.
Obviously, the Ravens are likely to finish somewhere between these two scenarios, but there are a lot of reasons to suggest that they would skew closer to the ceiling than the floor. For starters, say what you want about Joe Flacco but he is clearly an above-average quarterback than can truly carry a team if he has the necessary supporting cast.
It looks like he has that this season, and there is zero chance that the running game, offensive line and receiving corps perform at a lower level than they did in 2013—and Flacco carried the Ravens to an 8-8 finish through it all.