Ravens Stare into Uncertain Future: 2008 Season Preview

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Ravens Stare into Uncertain Future:  2008 Season Preview

The Baltimore Ravens begin the 2008 season with the same theme resonating wherever they look.  Uncertainty.

From new head coach John Harbaugh’s effect on a veteran-laden team to the health of free safety Ed Reed, the Ravens face many questions and can provide few answers as they prepare for the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 7. 

Will Harbaugh be able to turn around a team that finished 5-11 a year ago and seemingly tuned out former coach Brian Billick?

Can rookie quarterback Joe Flacco help improve the offense and become the franchise quarterback the team has lacked in its 13-year history?

Will Reed’s injured shoulder prevent him from leading an aging secondary that battled injuries last season and finished 20th in passing defense?

Despite these questions, the Ravens believe they are much more like the team that finished 13-3 in 2006 than the injury-plagued group that collapsed last season.

The AFC North looks to be a competitive division in which a 9-7 or 10-6 record could potentially win the division crown.

One thing is certain.  The Ravens are a team in transition as the defense continues to age and the offense must overcome the retirement of left tackle Jonathan Ogden. 

More changes are likely to come, as several veterans will be free agents after the season, including Ray Lewis, Bart Scott, Terrell Suggs, and Kyle Boller.

The team’s veterans will play with a sense of urgency, as they see their window for winning a championship continuing to fade.  The Ravens will try to prove the window has not already closed by making another playoff push.

Here is a look at the 2008 Baltimore Ravens.

Coaching

Harbaugh brings a passion and intensity that had been missing from the coaching staff in recent years.  His enthusiasm for football was apparent to his players from the moment he was hired. 

Veterans faced a more difficult training camp and had to stay in Westminster instead of being able to commute, departures from what the players experienced under Billick.

The early reviews on Harbaugh have been positive, but how the team responds to adversity during the season remains to be seen. 

In addition to lacking head coaching experience, Harbaugh never held an offensive or defensive coordinator position, the common progression for most head coaches.  Harbaugh made the jump to head coach after being the secondary coach for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2007 and spending the nine previous seasons as the Eagles’ special teams coach.

With his own inexperience in mind, Harbaugh hired former Miami Dolphins head coach Cam Cameron as his offensive coordinator.  Cameron will try to improve an offense that has chronically finished in the lower half of the league for much of the team’s existence. 

Harbaugh hopes that Cameron can bring production to the Baltimore offense much like he did with the San Diego Chargers a few seasons ago.

Once again, Rex Ryan will call the defensive signals after choosing to remain with the organization despite being passed over for the head coaching position.  Ryan is known for his complex, blitz-heavy schemes that cause confusion to opposing offenses.

 

Quarterback

The Ravens entered training camp expecting the veteran Boller or second-year player Troy Smith to seize the starting quarterback position while the first-round pick Flacco would be brought along slowly as he learns the offense.

These plans changed dramatically in an Aug. 23 game against the St. Louis Rams when Flacco was given the emergency start, with Boller nursing a shoulder injury and Smith suffering from a viral infection. 

Flacco played with confidence and did not turn the ball over in the team’s final two preseason games.  This caused Harbaugh to name him the starting quarterback.

Flacco has great size, standing at 6’6”, and a strong throwing arm.  The coaching staff is impressed with his intelligence and calm demeanor in the huddle

The biggest question will be his ability to adjust to the speed of the NFL after spending his college career at the University of Delaware, an FCS (Division 1-AA) school. 

Cameron will likely implement a conservative game plan to nurture Flacco’s development and allow him to continue growing into the offense.  Flacco looked most comfortable using three-step drops and throwing quicker passes in the preseason.

Depth is a major concern, as Boller could miss the entire season with a partially torn labrum and Smith continues to recover from illness.

The Ravens looked to sign a veteran to use as the backup quarterback until Smith returns to form.

The quarterback position will continue to be an area of concern until Flacco can prove that he is ready to lead the offense.  The coaching staff will ask Flacco to manage the offense and protect the football as he enters the season as the starter.

 

Running Back

Starter Willis McGahee (1,207 rushing yards in 2007) missed the entire preseason after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery and remains a question mark for opening day. 

The new coaching staff was disappointed with his absence from off-season activities and his struggles with learning the new offensive system.

These circumstances have led to the emergence of rookie Ray Rice as a viable threat in the offense. 

Rice had an impressive career at Rutgers, leading the Ravens to draft him in the second round.

Standing only 5’8”, Rice presents a problem to opposing defenses as he often seems to disappear behind offensive linemen while he finds the hole.

Starting fullback Le’Ron McClain was a bigger part of the offense in the preseason and will occasionally be used at tailback with veteran Lorenzo Neal lining up in front of him in a big-back set. 

The experienced Neal will also act as a mentor to the younger McClain.

The Ravens will need to have a strong rushing attack to support the inexperienced Flacco.


Wide Receiver

The wide receiving unit is led by veteran Derrick Mason (103 catches and 1,087 yards in 2007).  While Mason is not a deep threat, he remains one of the best possession receivers in the league.  Flacco looked his way regularly in the preseason and will need his consistent production. 

Starting opposite of Mason, Mark Clayton hopes to rebound from a disappointing 2007 season in which he did not score a touchdown.  Much like Mason, Clayton lacks size and breakaway speed.

The offense will look to Demetrius Williams to be the deep threat in the passing game.  Williams has good size at 6’2” and shows good speed in deep routes.  He will need to remain healthy, as a sore Achilles’ tendon sidelined him for most of the preseason. 

Rookie Marcus Smith showed promise in the preseason but needs to catch the football more consistently to make an impact.

The Ravens lack a big-play receiver and need production from receivers other than just Mason.  Clayton has failed to live up to expectations after being the team’s first-round pick in 2005. 

The receivers will need to show more consistency since the team lacks an experienced quarterback.

 

Tight End

Heap continues to struggle to remain on the field.  He missed most of last season with a torn hamstring and was slowed by a sore calf during training camp.

Heap is still capable of being one of the top tight ends in the league.

Flacco will desperately need Heap to anchor the short passing game and provide a security blanket for the rookie quarterback.

Dan Wilcox is still feeling the effects from off-season toe surgery but is ready to go for the start of the season.  His versatility is useful, as he can line up at tight end or in the backfield as an H-back. 

Converted linebacker Edgar Jones will be the third tight end and is an intriguing story.  Jones possesses good speed and blocked well after moving to tight end during the preseason. 


Offensive Line

Replacing a future Hall of Fame tackle is never an enviable position, but Jared Gaither will attempt to fill Ogden’s large shoes at left tackle. 

Gaither has great size (6’9” and 330 lbs.), but his work ethic and immaturity are concerns.  In addition, Gaither missed most of training camp with an ankle injury.

Starting at right tackle will be veteran Adam Terry.  Mostly backing up Ogden at left tackle the past few seasons, there are questions as to whether Terry can play on the right side. 

Like Gaither, Terry was slowed by an ankle injury in training camp after undergoing surgery on the same ankle in the off-season.

The interior line looks strong with second-year players Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda lining up at left and right guard respectively. 

Grubbs was the team’s first round pick a year ago, and Yanda plays with a mean streak.

The team’s most consistent offensive lineman is center Jason Brown.  Brown moves from guard to center, where he played in college.

Brown will need to show more leadership after the retirement of Ogden and the departure of long-time center Mike Flynn. 


Defensive Line

The starting defensive line is as good as any other in the AFC. 

Trevor Pryce missed most of 2007 with injuries and is key to the team’s pass rush.  The coaching staff is hopeful that Pryce can regain his 2006 form when he led the team with 13 sacks.

Nose tackle Kelly Gregg continues to be a productive player that goes unnoticed around the league. 

Gregg underwent arthroscopic knee surgery during training camp, so his status at the beginning of the season remains uncertain.  However, Gregg’s health is not expected to be a long-term concern.

Haloti Ngata is one of the most dominating tackles in the league, often taking on two blockers and protecting the inside linebacker Lewis.  Ngata suffered a sprained knee in training camp but returned for the final preseason game.

Ngata should receive strong consideration for the Pro Bowl.

Backups Justin Bannan and Marques Douglas provide solid depth and are strong against the run.

The health of Gregg and Ngata is a concern entering the season, but if they prove to be 100 percent, the defensive line will be one of the team’s strongest units.

 

Linebacker

Linebacker is easily the team’s best unit and has strong depth from top to bottom.

As usual, Lewis is the heart and soul of the linebacker corps and the entire defense.  While Lewis has lost a step or two from his best years earlier in the decade, he is still one of the better inside linebackers in the league.

Next to Lewis on the inside is Scott, hoping to rebound from a disappointing 2007 campaign. 

Scott exploded onto the scene in 2006, posting 9.5 sacks and earning a trip to the Pro Bowl but struggled last season after the departure of linebacker Adalius Thomas.

Lewis and Scott are both in the final year of their contracts, so they will be looking to earn a big payday with strong performances this season.  The team will likely only be able to afford one, so Scott could be moving on after the season.

Outside linebacker Suggs is the team’s franchise player.  Suggs skipped training camp after receiving the franchise tag but reported to camp in time to play in the final two preseason games.

Suggs is depending on Pryce to remain healthy and take away double-teams that Suggs routinely faced last season, limiting him to only five sacks.

The starting unit’s most unheralded player is dependable veteran Jarret Johnson.  Johnson is one of the team’s most consistent tacklers.

The Ravens have quality backups on the inside with Nick Greisen, rookie Tavares Gooden, and special teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo. 

Antwan Barnes and Jameel McClain will provide good speed as backups on the outside.

A name to remember is the third tight end Jones, who could be moved back to linebacker if injuries become a reality at linebacker.


Cornerback

While the Ravens possess well-known names in veterans Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle, cornerback is an area of concern entering the season.

McAlister and Rolle are both on the wrong side of 30 and were slowed by injuries last season.  McAlister’s injured knee continues to be a concern, as he missed large portions of training camp due to continued swelling.

The Ravens acquired Fabian Washington from the Oakland Raiders during April’s draft and will look for him to be the team’s third corner.  Washington could challenge Rolle for his starting position as the season progresses.

Veterans Corey Ivy and Frank Walker struggled in the preseason as injuries forced them into the starting lineup.

Ivy is better suited to play the nickel position, and Walker is slow in reacting to the ball.

Derrick Martin started three games in 2007 and grabbed two interceptions.  He figures to earn more playing time should Ivy and Walker continue to struggle.

Cornerback will continue to be an area of concern with Rex Ryan’s tendency to use blitz packages that leave the secondary in one-on-one situations.


Safety

Free safety Reed is the team’s best player, but serious concerns remain over his status for the entire season.  A nerve impingement in his neck and shoulder continues to limit him in practice. 

Reed has not been cleared for live contact by the medical staff.  The Ravens and Reed continue to be in a holding pattern, waiting for his shoulder to improve.

Reed has told media that the injury could eventually require surgery that would potentially end his career, but this is only being discussed as an option several years from now.

The absence of Reed will severely hinder the defense’s ability to defend the pass, as Reed is known for his instincts to read the quarterback and create turnovers.

The coaching staff will continue to hold their breath and hope that Reed is able to return to the field as soon as possible.

Veteran newcomer Jim Leonhard played well in the preseason and is expected to start in Reed’s place in the early stages of the season.

Starting at strong safety will again be Dawan Landry.  Landry improved his strength and speed in the off-season and will be counted upon to hold more responsibility with the absence of Reed.

Rookies Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura played well in the preseason and figure to be strong contributors on special teams.

Both players seem to have a sixth sense for finding the football and making plays.

The selection of these two in April’s draft looks even better with the unclear status of Reed.


Special Teams

With Harbaugh’s reputation for strong special teams in Philadelphia, the Ravens expect to have good coverage units. 

Ayanbadejo was signed to lead the special teams, leading the team to release veteran linebacker Gary Stills.

Zbikowski, Nakamura, and Leonhard also showed strong ability on kick coverage in the preseason.

Return man Yamon Figurs is a threat to take the football all the way as long as he is able to catch it consistently.

Figurs possesses explosive speed, and the Ravens will count on him to give the offense better field position.

The reliable veteran Matt Stover will once again be the team’s kicker.  Stover may not have much range beyond 47 yards, but he is still one of the better kickers in the league from inside that distance.

Stover struggles to get distance on kickoffs, so the team signed Steven Hauschka to aid in this area if the roster flexibility will allow it.

Punter Sam Koch punted very well in the preseason, specifically with punts inside the 20 yard line.  He will be counted upon to provide favorable field position for the defense.

Matt Katula is one of the league’s most reliable long snappers.

 

How the Ravens will make the playoffs…

  1. Flacco blossoms in his first year, managing the game effectively and posting similar numbers to Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie season for Pittsburgh in 2004.
  2. The defense returns to its dominant form of a couple seasons ago, and Reed and McAlister return to lead the secondary.
  3. McGahee and Rice become the Baltimore version of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, providing a dominant running game for the offense.

How the Ravens will miss the playoffs…

  1. The secondary battles injuries throughout the season, and the defense struggles to get off the field on third down.
  2. The offensive line fails to protect Flacco consistently, and the rookie struggles in his first season in the league.
  3. Heap, Clayton, and Williams are unable to provide the big-play ability needed to pump life into the passing attack and aid in Flacco’s development.

Outlook:  6-10, third place in the AFC North

The Ravens will have a difficult time moving the football with an inexperienced quarterback in the rookie Flacco.  The organization hoped to refrain from playing Flacco early in the season, but injuries have forced him into the starting role.

In addition, the inexperience at offensive tackle creates doubt in the offensive line's ability to provide sufficient protection for Flacco.

McGahee and Rice will have to carry the load offensively, as the team lacks the big-play receivers necessary to scare opposing defenses.

While the defense can still be a dominant unit, the health problems of McAlister and Reed leave the secondary very unstable.

Ryan may have to refrain from blitzing as much as he would like to provide more help to the secondary.

The defensive line will need to provide more pressure on the quarterback than they did a season ago.

Overall, the Ravens simply lack the offensive talent and depth in the secondary to pose a serious threat in the competitive AFC North.

A brutal road schedule, with games at Indianapolis, the New York Giants, Dallas, and division rivals Cleveland and Pittsburgh, will prevent the Ravens from making the playoffs. 

The Ravens are likely looking at a 6-10 season, as the team will look to acquire younger talent at several positions, including defensive end, cornerback, and wide receiver, following the season.

The Ravens will take some positives from the 2008 season as Flacco will continue to improve as the season progresses and other rookies such as Rice will make strong contributions.

 

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