2013 Team Preview: Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore Ravens

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  • 2012 Record: 10-6 (1st in AFC North, won Super Bowl 48 against San Francisco)
  • 2012 Point Differential: +54 (11th out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): -0.5 (17th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.11 (14th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.75 (12th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.05 (15th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.26 (1st)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 333.81 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 324.43 points

The 2012 Baltimore Ravens were definitely not the unlikeliest Super Bowl champions of all-time – really, you’d have a tough time arguing they were the unlikeliest Super Bowl champion of the past two seasons – but if there was anybody out there (other than the hordes of Ravens homers across the Beltway region, of course) before the postseason started who had this team ending up as the team to win the final game of the year…I don’t believe you. Baltimore won the AFC North for the second year in a row, but did so with only a 10-6 record (same as division-mate Cincinnati, who got bounced in the Wild-Card Round by the Texans again) and probably the worst team of John Harbaugh’s tenure as Ravens head coach.

In Harbaugh’s first four years in Baltimore, the Ravens finished 4th (2008), 9th (2009), 10th (2010), and 7th (2011), respectively, in the year-end Predictive Yards per Play rankings. Each one of those years, they won at least one playoff game and in 2010 and ’11, they scared the snot out of the eventual AFC champion before eventually losing in excruciatingly painful circumstances. In 2010, they blew a fourteen-point halftime lead to the hated Steelers and lost the game for good when T.J. Houshmandzadeh’s corpse dropped a 4th-down pass from Joe Flacco on their final possession. And in 2011, they had a fourth-quarter lead against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and had a golden opportunity to get to the Super Bowl when Flacco threw a perfect pass to Lee Evans in the end zone in the final minute of the game.

Unfortunately, Evans dropped the ball/was stripped by Sterling Moore, Billy Cundiff’s resulting field goal try went sailing away like an out-of-control frisbee and the Ravens seemed to cement their bridesmaid status once and for all. Nothing about the way the team performed during the 2012 regular season suggested that would be the year they finally shook that label for good. Their vaunted defense was killed with injuries and generally performed much closer to a league-average unit than Ravens fans were used to. And offensively, Flacco and Co. showed flashes of brilliance in wins over the Bengals, Patriots, Raiders and Giants – but also suffered bouts of remarkable ineffectiveness in discouraging losses to the Eagles, Texans and Broncos.

Ray Lewis returned from a nearly-year-long injury to return for the team’s first playoff game against Indianapolis and the Ravens ended the Colts’ feel-good run with a 24-9 victory that they controlled for the entirety of the game. But the major storyline coming out of the game didn’t entail whether or not the Ravens had a shot at avenging their regular season loss to the Broncos, but rather Ray Lewis winning his final home game ever as a Raven. For all the world, Lewis’ emotional final game at M&T Bank Stadium looked like it was going to be the highlight of the Ravens’ season. Everyone knew that the Ravens would give the Broncos a good fight in the Divisional Round, but when you’ve acquired the bridesmaid label it’s generally assumed that you’re going to come out on the losing end of those fights.

And so it seemed when the Ravens took over at their own 23-yard line down 35-28 with a little over a minute left and no timeouts remaining. Baltimore had outplayed Denver at the line of scrimmage in their own stadium, but two return touchdowns from the Broncos’ Trindon Holliday on special teams had put them in a hole they were unlikely to climb out of. No doubt most sportswriters’ leads were already written at that point (they are, after all, among the lazier members of the professional workforce): another valiant effort from Baltimore that came up short in the end.

As they finished the first draft of their stories in the Invesco Field at Mile High press box, Flacco threw an incomplete pass, scrambled for seven yards (but stayed in-bounds in the process) and then heaved a prayer 60 yards down the field into double coverage with less than 40 seconds remaining. It was the type of throw you have to try when you’re down by seven at your own 30-yard-line with less than a minute left and no timeouts left to use, but that didn’t make it any more likely to be successful. For 2.7 or 2.8 of the 3 seconds that Flacco’s pass hung in the air, I’ve got to believe 99% of the stadium thought the throw would wind up either incomplete or intercepted and the Ravens’ season would be over.

But one of the good things about being a bridesmaid in sports is this: you’re always giving yourself a chance. Especially in the NFL, where the postseason consists of four different one-and-done rounds, simply getting in the dance gives your team a pulse. And if you get in the dance often enough, you increase your chances of a bout of good fortune falling into your lap. Not every team that’s consistently made the playoffs over a five-or-six-year span has received that good fortune, of course (ask the ’70s Vikings or early ’90s Bills what they think about luck if you’re in a masochistic mood). But some do.

If you’re even a casual observer of the NFL, you, of course, know what happened when Flacco’s pass neared the ground: Denver safety Rahim Moore momentarily forgot he was playing a football game, inexplicably allowing Ravens receiver Jacoby Jones to get past him and come down with a game-tying 70-yard touchdown catch. The game went into overtime and there the Ravens intercepted Peyton Manning and kicked a game-winning field goal on the fourth play of the second overtime period to get an AFC Championship rematch with the Patriots. This time, the outcome was much different as Flacco’s receivers generally caught passes he threw them in the end zone and the Ravens held New England scoreless in the second half on their way to a 28-13 victory.

They, of course, also wound up winning the Super Bowl, but that almost seems tangential to the real story of their season. They built up a 28-6 lead over the 49ers early in the third quarter when the blackout hit, then got shredded by San Francisco the rest of the way but managed to be stingy enough in the red zone to hang on for the franchise’s second Super Bowl title. And, obviously, the story wouldn’t have felt complete if the Ravens hadn’t ended up winning Super Bowl 47: an NFL season (much like life) is about both the journey and the destination and you can’t entirely enjoy the journey if you don’t end up at your desired destination.

But my gut feeling is the games that most Ravens fans will be most sentimentally attached to 20 or 30 years from now will be the two playoff wins prior to the Super Bowl. Partly because he AFC Divisional Round and Championship Game were the two lily pads that the Ravens could never leapfrog over and Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were two of the opponents that had kept them from reaching their preferred lily pad in the past. But mostly because up until Flacco’s miracle throw landed in the arms of Jones, 2012 was in line to be just another in a string of regular Ravens seasons: a very good year but ultimately not good enough. After that throw? I’ve got to believe after that throw, Ravens fans felt 2012 was its own year unlike any other.

2013 will probably be unlike any other year the Ravens have had, either. Approximately half the team’s defensive starters left in the offseason and Baltimore will fully transition from a defense-dominated team led by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to a squad building what they believe to be a franchise quarterback. If you think Flacco’s 2013 performance will mirror his play in the 2012 postseason, the transition will be a smooth one; if you think he is more likely to replicate his performance from the first five years of his career up to that point, the passing of the baton may be less graceful than preferable. Whatever happens this season, however, Ravens fans should always treasure what happened in 2012 and I genuinely believe they will. Because championship teams live forever – especially championship teams that had to wait a long time to get there.

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
5.088455 -0.875 0.989662 +1.098675 333.814

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: FB Vonta Leach, WR Anquan Boldin, C Matt Birk, G Bobbie Williams

2013 notable offseason additions: C A.Q. Shipley

Most of the focus on the Ravens’ offseason has centered around the departures on their defense, but there are also some major veteran contributors on offense who won’t return as well. Boldin’s the most well-known of the group, but Leach has arguably been the best blocking fullback in the league over the past three years and Birk was a knowledgeable veteran center whose absence may have to be filled by Shipley, who up to this point has been most well-known for this picture. Suffice it to say, there may be some awkward times for Baltimore’s offense, too…Flacco throws a ton of deep passes, which explains his wild bouts of inconsistency up to this point in his career. If those passes are landing, he looks as good as any quarterback in the league and when they’re not, he looks like Herman Munster. The Predictive Yards per Play projection model assumes his completion percentage will remain well south of 60% again in 2013. Optimists could quite reasonably counterpoint that Cam Cameron isn’t running the offense anymore, having been replaced before the playoffs started last year with someone who actually knows what he’s doing (i.e. Jim Caldwell). We’ll see how things pan out…Predictive Yards per Play is also projecting the Ravens to face the toughest slate of opposing defenses in the league, which is another reason why their ultimate points scored projection is so low. Personally, I find the projection to be way too low: Ray Rice is still around and Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta, Ed Dickson and Jacoby Jones aren’t a bad supporting cast to back him and Flacco up.

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
4.561584 0.9375 1.010338 -0.36012 324.426

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: DE Maake Kemoeatu, ILB Ray Lewis, ILB Dannell Ellerbe, OLB Paul Kruger, CB Cary Williams, S Ed Reed, S Bernard Pollard

2013 notable offseason additions: DE Chris Canty, DE Marcus Spears, ILB Daryl Smith, ILB Arthur Brown, OLB Elvis Dumervil, S Michael Huff, S Matt Elam

HERE’S where the issues may be. Both the inside linebackers and safeties who started against San Francisco in the Super Bowl are gone: Lewis to retirement and ESPN, the others to various other locales around the NFL. Postseason sack leader Kruger and year-end #1 corner Williams are also gone, but their replacements are more than capable: Dumervil’s contract fax mishap with the Broncos was Baltimore’s gain and Lardarius Webb will be back at cornerback after missing most of last year with a torn ACL. The question marks will be up the middle where Smith only played two games for Jacksonville last year before going down with a season-ending groin injury and Brown is a talented rookie but still a rookie nonetheless. Safety is also a concern with fellow rookie Elam and the former Raider Huff as the most likely suspects to end up starting opening night at Denver. Elam shares the same worries of inexperience that Brown does and as a member of the Raiders secondary, it was Huff’s contractual obligation to get torched at least 13 weeks a year. Don’t pay attention to Predictive Yards per Play’s point projection in this case: it can’t assume that the majority of the important contributors from one season somehow won’t be around the next. Getting league-average point prevention out of the defense is the most likely event for the Ravens and maybe the best-case scenario, too, depending on how long it takes for the unit to gel.

Special Teams/Schedule/Miscellaneous

1 September 5 @ Denver Broncos
2 September 15 Cleveland Browns
3 September 22 Houston Texans
4 September 29 @ Buffalo Bills
5 October 6 @ Miami Dolphins
6 October 13 Green Bay Packers
7 October 20 @ Pittsburgh Steelers
8 Bye Week
9 November 3 @ Cleveland Browns
10 November 10 Cincinnati Bengals
11 November 17 @ Chicago Bears
12 November 24 New York Jets
13 November 28 Pittsburgh Steelers
14 December 8 Minnesota Vikings
15 December 16 @ Detroit Lions
16 December 22 New England Patriots
17 December 29 @ Cincinnati Bengals

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: +0.74 points per game harder than average (12th-toughest)

Special teams were the Ravens’ (somewhat) secret weapon last regular season. Jacoby Jones’ Pro Bowl season as a kick returner made highlight films, but Justin Tucker’s performance on field goals and kickoffs gave the Ravens’ offense several more points than an average kicker would have and their defense some of the best average starting field position in the league. John Harbaugh’s background as a former special teams coach leads him to prioritize finding players for these units in the offseason, so it’s reasonable to assume this unit will be strong again in 2013…Let’s just complain one more time about the NFL’s failure to give the Ravens a home game during the opening Thursday of the season. I know the Orioles have a home game scheduled the same night, but what exactly was keeping the league from putting the season opener on a Wednesday night again? Ravens fans have a right to be upset about the NFL’s handling of the situation…An indication of how Predictive Yards per Play views the two conferences: even though the Ravens’ projected strength of schedule is just the 12th-hardest overall, it actually rates out as the toughest in the AFC. That mainly comes from playing in what looks like the toughest division in the conference and getting standings-based games against Denver and Houston instead of Oakland and Tennessee, like Pittsburgh is getting.

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 8.2 wins (2nd in AFC North)

Flacco struggles to adjust to his new status as the leader of the franchise and the Ravens experience some bumps in the road during their reconfiguring year but still make the playoffs thanks to a weak AFC wild-card field.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 9-7 (2nd in AFC North)

Flacco posts the best numbers of his career – and he has to because Ray Lewis and Ed Reed ain’t walking through that tunnel anymore.

 

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