OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens are banking on a different offensive coordinator and a new big-name target in the passing game to change their fortunes in 2014, but the jury is out because the offense has been up and down so far in camp.
The biggest reason the Ravens didn't defend their Super Bowl title and failed to reach the playoffs for the first time in coach John Harbaugh's six seasons is because of the fourth-worst offense in the league. Quarterback Joe Flacco threw the second-most interceptions in the league, running back Ray Rice averaged a career-low 3.1 yards per carry and the Ravens scored 20 or fewer points in all but one of the team's losses.
Flacco has looked inconsistent so far in camp while Rice appears to have regained his explosiveness after shedding 15 pounds.
The Ravens' offense will have a different look this season after hiring Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator and signing wide receiver Steve Smith in free agency. In Kubiak's system, Flacco will have to get the ball out his hands quicker, make shorter throws and run more bootlegs. The emphasis has been noticeable in drills as Flacco has tried to get rid of the ball after 3-5 steps.
How much improvement Flacco makes in Kubiak's system will likely determine how much improvement the Ravens make this season.
"The thing I like about what Coach Kubiak is doing, it’s a very straightforward offense. It’s very clear-cut," Harbaugh said. "That helps maybe get guys up to speed as quick as possible. But yes, there are always nuances, and you have to experience things sometimes. I’d like to think that we’ll be better at it a year from now than where we are this year, but we can’t be thinking about it that way. We’ve got to get great at it right now, because we’re going to be playing a football game very soon. It happens to be the Cincinnati Bengals, who won our division last year, so that’s what we’re looking at and that’s what we've got to be ready for.”
The football world hasn't been focused on the Ravens' new-look offense. The center of attention has been Rice, who was suspended two games by the NFL for his alleged domestic violence incident.
The Ravens want to get back to their roots of running the football again, and the key is getting Rice back on track. Can Rice have a productive season after such a tumultuous offseason? He certainly thinks so.
"The football field is my safe haven," Rice said. "Honestly, just coming here being a part of the offseason program, getting in shape, working and doing the things that I’ve always been doing on the football field, [I’m] feeling like my old self again. It’s given me some inspiration to go out there and not only just go out there and play football. It’s giving me inspiration to go out there and be the best football player I can be."
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1. Gary Kubiak's track record. Kubiak brings a proven system and an impressive résumé. As head coach of the Houston Texans, the team ranked in the top 10 in offense in six of his last eight seasons. To put that in perspective, the Ravens’ offense hasn't ranked in the top 10 since 1997, when Flacco was 12 years old. From 2009 to 2012, the Texans ranked No. 7 in points scored (23.2). Over that same period, the Texans were one of three teams to rank in the top 10 in rushing and passing (the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles were the others). The players have praised Kubiak during camp for his direct approach which doesn't leave much gray area.
2. Aggressiveness on defense. The Ravens' offensive struggles last season overshadowed the shortcomings of their defense. In the second half of the season, the Ravens managed a paltry 12 sacks in eight games. Only the Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns had fewer. The relentlessly attacking style had disappeared. Based on what the Ravens have shown so far in camp, they want to get back to "in your face" defense. The Ravens certainly have personnel to get after the quarterback with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil crashing the edges. Expect more blitzes and more press coverage out a Ravens defense that has its sights on becoming a top-five unit in the NFL again, and so far in camp a re-energzied Suggs has been leading the way.
3. Improved targets in passing game. Flacco has taken heavy criticism for the worst season in his six-year NFL career, and rightfully so. He made poor decisions that cost the Ravens some games. Let's just not put all of the blame on the former Super Bowl MVP's shoulders. By Week 2 last year, his No. 2 receiver was undrafted rookie Marlon Brown and his top tight end was Dallas Clark, who has since retired. This year, Flacco has two new experienced targets in Smith and tight end Owen Daniels. While Daniels hasn't looked explosive in training camp, Smith has quickly developed a rapport with Flacco. Don't forget about tight end Dennis Pitta, who is fully recovered after missing 12 games last season with a dislocated hip. This could turn out to be Flacco's strongest and deepest supporting cast.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
1. Lack of depth at cornerback. The Ravens have one of the best starting cornerback tandems in the league with Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith, both of whom are Pro Bowl-caliber defenders. The problem is neither has a history of staying healthy. Webb, who is already expected to miss two preseason games with a back injury, has torn two knee ligaments during his five-year NFL career and has started 16 games in a season only once. Smith has missed nine games in his three NFL seasons. After Aaron Ross suffered a season-ending Achilles injury before camp officially began, the Ravens have been left with inexperienced and unproven backups. Chykie Brown played 3 percent of the defensive snaps last season, Asa Jackson has never played a defensive snap in a regular-season game and Tramain Jacobs and Deji Olatoye are undrafted rookies. This is the Ravens' soft spot. Brown has struggled the most of any defender in camp and Jackson has had his share of struggles as well.
2. The progression of the offensive line. There's no doubt that the Ravens will have a better offensive line than last year. To be honest, it couldn't be worse. The line opened few holes in the running game and allowed too much pressure on Flacco. The biggest question on offense is whether this line has improved enough to the point where the Ravens can be effective. Through almost a dozen practices at camp, the line hasn't provided too many definitive answers. Guards Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele have been dominant. But left tackle Eugene Monroe has had struggles and right tackle Rick Wagner has been adequate. Center Jeremy Zuttah is athletic but he's not going to be considered among the top half at his position. The Ravens will learn more about their offensive line when the preseason begins.
3. Age of key players. The Ravens are much younger than when they won the Super Bowl two seasons ago. That being said, the Ravens' hopes rest on aging veterans to rebound from disappointing seasons. Suggs, 31, failed to record a sack in seven of his final eight games in 2013. Steve Smith, 35, caught his fewest passes (64) since 2010. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, 30, hasn't reached 60 tackles in consecutive seasons. Defensive end Chris Canty, 31, finished last season with 30 tackles, the fewest for a full season in his career. Daniels, 31, was limited to five games last season due to a broken leg. The Ravens need to get more than leadership out of their older players this season. While Suggs and Smith have been among the top performers in camp, Canty and Daniels haven’t stood out.
As camp reaches its midway point, Flacco gets a "C" grade. He's made his share of good passes, and there have been some throws that have made coaches cringe. His biggest improvements has been his play-action fakes and his cadence, which he has used to draw more defenders offside than any previous training camp.
It's hard to overlook Suggs because he's always trash-talking with players on offense. But he has stood out in this camp as the most impressive player on the defensive side of the ball. There have been times when he's been dominant. Offensive tackles Monroe and Wagner probably can't wait for the preseason to start, so they get a break from seeing an energized Suggs in front of them.
The Ravens have to feel like they got two first-round picks this year in inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan. Mosley is continually around the ball, and Jernigan is constantly in the backfield. If Mosley makes the same types of plays in the regular season, the Ravens' top pick has a shot at being the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Jernigan, a second-round pick, has been sidelined recently with a back injury. But it's not expected to be long term, which is a big relief for the Ravens.
Bernard Pierce has been the best running back in camp. He played in a similar running scheme in college, and he has had the best transition to Kubiak's stretch, zone-blocking runs.
Fulback Kyle Juszczyk has a chance to have a breakout season. While he isn't the typical physical blocker that the Ravens have at fullback, Juszczyk will make a much bigger impact in the passing game.
Will Hill looks to be the most talented safety on the roster. He's suspended for the first six games of the season, so the former New York Giants defender won't provide immediate help. Don't be surprised if Hill is a starter at some point this year for the Ravens.
The biggest surprise of camp has been wide receiver Kamar Aiken. He started camp as a long shot, and he has quickly worked himself into the conversation for one of the last spots at receiver. Aiken, who has been cut by three teams in his career, rarely drops a pass because of his strong hands.