So, what do you get the quarterback and coach who already have just about everything they could possibly need to make another run at the promised land?
How about this late summer haul…A Pro Bowl fullback to compliment a Pro-Bowl package-of-dynamite at running back. And a rock star wide receiver who can run the go pattern with the best of them. Oh, and how about a pair of Pro Bowl offensive lineman? And a handful of talented college players who look to be ready for prime time even though none of them have really played a game that matters.
As I wrote and predicted here about 5 weeks ago, once the dust settled and Labor Day rolled around, Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta would once again come out smelling like roses.
And they did.
The records will show that only one team in the entire NFL has won a playoff game in each of the last three seasons. That team, of course, is right here in Baltimore.
But with no Super Bowl appearances to show for it, the Ravens have started to earn the “bridesmaid” tag. And they don’t like it. They especially don’t like it when they’ve been eliminated by the Steelers (twice) and the Colts in each of the last three playoff campaigns. Losing is one thing. Losing to those two rat-finks is just unthinkable.
So the Ravens move on into 2011 with one of the AFC’s most complete rosters. That said, having really good players is important, but winning games is all that matters. And winning those January games is crucial to the team’s quest to reach the big game in Indianapolis next February.
With that, I offer you my five keys to the Ravens 2011 season. This won’t be about individual players, per-se. We all know the skill position players have to play either at or above their level in order for the Ravens to be better than the likes of the Patriots, Chargers, Jets, Steelers and Colts.
This is about the intangibles, the things you can’t necessarily coach DURING the game, but you need to be aware of from week to week in order to put your team in position to win. Some of these things the Ravens have been decent at doing over the last John Harbaugh era, some they’ve been less-than-decent at doing.
One thing for sure…if the Ravens can tidy up in these areas and be among the league leaders in the categories and departments I’ve outlined, that February trip to Indy just might become a reality. They aren’t listed in any real order of importance, although each one could probably be ranked #1 depending on your personal preference for how football is played.
The Ravens primer for reaching the Super Bowl:
1. The biggest priority on the defensive side of the ball is simple. PUT A LOT MORE PRESSURE ON THE QUARTERBACK than in year’s past. Could it be Pernell McPhee who finally solves the team’s “edge” rushing woes? Maybe. He looked awfully strong and athletic during the pre-season. Will Sergio Kindle add an off-the-edge spark? He might. Will Terrell Suggs benefit from the likes of McPhee and Kindle and not face as many double teams? That would be great, for Suggs in a one-on-one battle with ANYONE is a good bet to come out a winner. The Steelers secret sauce on defense isn’t hard to figure out. They have a decent line to protect themselves against the run. Their secondary is basically average, at best, but Polamalu is obviously the life-raft back there when things get bumpy. Their secret sauce is simple: They chase after the quarterback. They do it with defensive backs, linebackers, lineman, etc. At some point in the game, every defensive player’s number gets called on some kind of blitz scheme. That’s what the Ravens need. They simply need better players who can go get the other team’s quarterback. And they need the right scheme to pull that off.
It’s that simple, but extremely complicated, of course, because the other team’s are trying every week too. But for the Ravens to be an elite team and a championship contender, they MUST have much better pursuit of the quarterback week in and week out.
2. On the offensive side of the ball, the Ravens MUST improve on 3rd-and-short situations. Last year, the club ranked 28th in the NFL in 3rd and 3 or less – in terms of first down efficiency – and that was entirely the fault of the running game. Time and time again last season, with the chance to salt games away with down-and-distance-churning-drives in the 4th quarter, the Ravens couldn’t get the big first down to put the contest to bed. Games in Atlanta and Houston turned on the team’s lack of confidence in their running game. They nearly squandered a home game against hapless Buffalo because they couldn’t pick up a first down on 3rd and 2 twice in the 4th quarter. I realize the NFL is a passing league these days, but when the situation calls for a running play and your team needs 1 or 2 yards, you better damn sight be able to pick it up. Last year, they couldn’t. This year, the addition of Vonta Leach should GREATLY improve Baltimore’s 3rd down efficiency. Leach’s signing could have been Ozzie and Eric’s best move, for it not only makes life easier for Ray Rice, it takes some of the pressure off of Joe Flacco in crucial situations where he’s forced to make a play on 3rd and 3 when running the ball would be so much easier to do.
3. By hook or by crook, the Ravens MUST host at least one playoff game in 2011. It’s just asking too much of a team to do what the Ravens have done in each of the last three seasons — namely, win post-season games on the road, year-in-and-year-out. The Ravens haven’t played a home playoff game since the 2006 campaign. That needs to change in 2011. I understand that John Harbaugh can’t get the cart before the horse, but playing for a HOME playoff game has to be the team’s biggest priority heading into the season.
4. This one sounds easy enough, but ask the Buccaneers how it went for them last season when they lost a week 16 game to the Lions that ultimately cost them a playoff spot. It’s simple: The Ravens MUST win the games they’re supposed to win. That means they need to go 2-0 against both the Bengals and Browns. They need to beat the Cardinals and 49′ers in Baltimore. They need to win at Jacksonville and Tennessee. Those are eight games in which the Ravens will be favored – heavily so, in most of them – and those need to be W’s. That’s 8 wins. Pick up 3-4 more and you have yourself a division title and a home game. I laugh at people who say, “The problem with the Ravens is they always win the games they’re supposed to win but they struggle against the really good teams.” Huh? That’s exactly what EVERY good team does, really. They win the lay-up games and then battle their nuts off to beat the good teams. Remember last season? The Ravens won in the Meadowlands to start the season. That was a coin-flip type game – on the road, no less – and the Ravens stole it. You have to win the games you’re expected to win and then battle in the other ones. It sounds simple, but again, ask the Buccaneers about it. They lost out on the playoffs last year by losing a home game to the Lions. The Ravens can’t afford to stub their toe at Jacksonville or Cincinnati — or at home against the 49′ers or Cardinals. Those games ruin your season if you somehow lose a couple of them.
5. The Ravens have to beat Pittsburgh in the regular season…preferably twice. Here’s an easy way to make sure Pittsburgh doesn’t slap the Ravens around in the post-season again. KEEP THEM OUT OF THE PLAYOFFS. I’d be willing to bet that if Baltimore beats Pittsburgh twice in the regular season (or, God forbid, vice versa), the Steelers will miss out on the post-season. It just works that way. There’s no sense in re-hashing how Pittsburgh has managed to have the Ravens’ number over the last three years when the games have mattered. That’s old news. What’s “new news” is this: Pittsburgh stands in Baltimore’s way again this season and the Ravens need to beat them at least once, maybe even twice. And that’s that.
So there you have it. Chase the quarterback, be much better on 3rd and short situations, win the division and play at least one home playoff game, win the games you’re expected to win…and beat the Steelers twice in an effort to keep THEM out of the p0st-season.
That’s how the Ravens can earn a trip to Indianapolis next February.
One thing for sure — I’m ready to watch it all unfold. After another miserable season of following our beloved baseball team, Sunday’s opener against the Steelers and 20 weeks or so of “end of the world” football games is just what I need.