The 2014-15 NFL Regular Season begins Thursday night in Seattle, and with the preseason finally at a close and the teams trimmed down to their 53-man rosters all that’s left is to play football. The Baltimore Ravens are coming off an 8-8 season in which they failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in the Flacco-Harbaugh era.
We know that offense really was the story for the Ravens this past season, but not for good reason. The running game was utterly pedestrian, Flacco had his worst statistical season yet, and the offensive line was in shambles. It is becoming very old, but all eyes are laid upon this offense to finally pay true dividends for the franchise. Too long have the Ravens as a collective unit been overshadowed by their gold standard; defense. If the offense and Flacco do not deliver this year, that extension that was given to Flacco after that Super Bowl win two years ago will be in question (if it already wasn’t).
Gary Kubiak boasted a high-octane running game featuring Arian Foster during his fairly successful tenure at Houston. This was complemented by a strong play-action passing game highlighted by Andre Johnson. Kubiak’s offensive system could perhaps be the best thing to happen to this offensive unit in years. The Ravens are traditionally a physical, smash-mouth football team that is undoubtedly more inclined to run than pass. While Cam Cameron was in Baltimore, his system was almost a mirror image of the one that will be used by Kubiak this year. The running game was strong, and the majority of passes were run out of the play-action and bootlegs.
Along with Kubiak we of course cannot forget about the acquisition of Steve Smith and Owen Daniels (the Big O played for Kubiak in Houston), who bring big potential to this aerial attack. Steve Smith without question is nearing the end of his days in a football uniform, but is still perfectly capable of being a gamebreaker. Owen Daniels is as good in the passing game as he is when contributing to the rushing attack. Torrey Smith has yet to truly hone his receiving skills, but he’s pretty damn close. Marlon Brown and Jacoby Jones will play the slot positions as they’ll present huge matchup problems speedwise. Dennis Pitta will in all likelihood reprise his role as the safety valve for Flacco on third down situations, though will need to become a better blocking TE to help out in the running game.
Ray Rice will be absent for the first two games against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, it will be rather intriguing to see how Bernard Pierce fairs the first two weeks. Though it may only be two games, Pierce’s performance will dictate how often he’ll receive snaps for the remainder of the season. When Rice returns he will most likely be the Week 3 starter, but if he is not as productive as Pierce may potentially be, he could find himself as the second tier back.
The offensive line could not in the least but be worse than last year. The running game suffered mightily as a result of porous blocking, and Flacco was constantly under pressure. Monroe, Osemele, Zuttah, Yanda, and Wagner (listed LT to RT) have shown good and bad flashes in the preseason. It’s now just a matter of how consistently good the line can be. Kubiak’s system is known for zone running schemes in which the backs make cuts in response to the lanes given to them by the line. This years offensive line must present a big improvement from last year if the Ravens hope to have any success in this potent offensive system they’ve inherited.
Joe Flacco makes or breaks this season, that’s really all there is to it. He claimed in 2012 he was among the elite, he won the Super Bowl, he received a blockbuster extension following the victory, he flaunted heavily this past season and put up his worst statistical season. This Kubiak system should make things a bit smoother and easier for Flacco to get back into his former groove. The plays can only go so long of a way to create making decisions less of an issue, but in the end, it’s how Flacco runs the offense that is drawn up for him that will ultimately determine the offensive success of the Ravens.
The defense has shown that there is no real concern among the unit aside from the closest issue being fairly young secondary. Let’s be honest, when has anyone really worried about whether the Ravens would have a good defense or not?
The defensive front may end up being among the best Baltimore has had in a good while. Haloti Ngata is as dominant as ever at the tackle and end position, Chris Canty should turn in an improved second year, and the nose tackle, Brandon Williams was making a strong case during the preseason. The first level could very well end up being the best by seasons end.
The linebacking unit has a good mix of young and veteran talent. Terrell Suggs and Courtney Upshaw should be strong coming off the edge as well as supporting the pass defense, and Pernell McPhee and Elvis Dumervil will have their chances to contribute in the pass rush. The inside backers, with the exception of Daryl Smith, are youthful talents. CJ Mosley is a Dick Butkus Award winner and is among the best defensive rookies. Just like the outside linebacker position, the inside backers will see rotation, Arthur Brown should see some rotation with Mosley while Bynes is projected to receive limited reps.
The secondary is fairly young, the only true veteran being Lardarius Webb. Matt Elam is a returning starter and newly acquired free safety, Darian Stewart has all but extinguished Terrence Brooks’ hopes for becoming the starter. Jimmy Smith had the most to prove, with Cary Williams and Corey Graham gone, he has thus moved from the nickel position to now having to cover wideouts. Chykie Brown will full the void at Smith’s former spot along with Asa Jackson.
John Harbaugh is a special teams coach, so having good special teams this year is the one of the highest and least talked about expectation. Sam Koch and Justin Tucker are right near the top of their classes and should be for years to come. Jacoby Jones is still in the minds of many the best return specialist in the game and if the kicking and punt coverage continues to be consistent that title will not leave him for awhile.
Expectations and pressure are sky high for this Baltimore Ravens team. The defense is expected to and should be one of the best units in the league this year mainly because of depth over anything else. The special teams will be unsung heroes if they continue to play like they have since Harbaugh came to Baltimore. The offense is under a microscope and Flacco is the subject being studied most closely. The time has come for the Ravens to be known for their offense just as much as they are for their defense. If the Ravens play to what many of us expect, they will find themselves returning to the postseason, if not, it will be a rare case in which they’ll have missed the postseason two years in a row.