The no-huddle offense was the talk of the preseason as Flacco operated almost exclusively from it, signaling more trust and responsibility for the fifth-year quarterback this season. However, the Ravens also invested $24 million in guaranteed money in a five-year contract for Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, and it remains to be seen how the new offensive philosophy will impact his touches.
Unsurprisingly, Rice was used sparingly in the preseason, but the starting offense also used three-wide, single-back sets on a regular basis, which left fullback Vonta Leach on the sideline quite often. A no-huddle attack doesn’t mean the running game will go by the wayside by any means, but even Rice has acknowledged this summer he expects the Ravens to pass more often and that this is Flacco’s offense.
The running back has said all the right things about the changes — reminding everyone that he views a reception out of the backfield as a long hand-off — but you do wonder if offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and Flacco will lose track of the ground attack from time to time when using the high-tempo approach. There’s no doubt that Rice will remain a prominent part of what the Ravens do offensively, but trying to determine how that part will look is difficult after such limited action in the preseason.
Rice rushed for a career-high 1,364 yards last season and led the NFL with 2,068 yards from scrimmage. It wouldn’t be surprising to see his total number of carries dip from 291 last season, but his ability to catch passes out of the backfield will be a major asset when defenders are on their heels and fatigued, meaning he could see a spike in receptions and receiving yards (76 and 704 respectively last season).
Of course, it still remains to be seen just how much the Ravens use the no-huddle attack and the coaching staff has reminded the media of that numerous times this preseason.
4. Will changes to the special teams pay off?
Cameron undoubtedly receives the most criticism among the coaches on the Ravens staff, but special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg may deserve the most heat after a disappointing 2011 season. According to footballoutsiders.com, the Ravens’ special teams ranked 30th in the league in a percentage contrived from efficiency in field goals, kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts, and punt returns.
Of course, the most notable change was the Ravens’ decision to pull the trigger on trying to improve the kicking game by awarding the job to rookie Justin Tucker over Billy Cundiff with the hopes that Tucker can be a consistent threat from beyond 50 yards this season. The former Texas kicker was tremendous in training camp and the preseason, but how that translates when the stakes become higher remains to be seen.
Rosburg’s units also struggled in both kickoff coverage (31st) and punt coverage (24th) and allowed three returns for touchdowns last season, prompting the Ravens to sign veteran special-team contributors such as Corey Graham and Sean Considine in hopes of improving the deficiency. Coverage was shaky in the preseason as the Ravens surrendered a 45-yard punt return and three kick returns of 42 yards or longer, but it’s difficult putting much stock into those numbers when remembering players no longer on the roster were involved with those plays.
According to Rosburg, Tucker will attempt to boot kickoffs through the end zone nearly every single time and there is no doubting the rookie’s leg despite questions about his ability in that department during the preseason (the Ravens limited Tucker to a five-step approach to the tee in order to shorten his kicks and get more reps for the kick coverage unit).
Baltimore ranked ninth in kickoff return average and 19th in punt return average last season, rarely getting a significant spark from either group as injuries and ineffectiveness forced them to shuffle returners in and out of the lineup. As a result, the Ravens signed former Houston Texans receiver Jacoby Jones to handle both return jobs and will also consider top cornerback Lardarius Webb and rookies such as Deonte Thompson, Bobby Rainey, and Asa Jackson should Jones falter.
With questions surrounding the defense and the offense being depended upon to score more points, improving the overall field position on a weekly basis would go a long way in assisting those two phases of the game. Harbaugh is incredibly loyal to Rosburg, but the special teams units must be more efficient this season.
5. How much better will Joe Flacco be in his fifth season?