I decided to do my preview of the 2009 season after the Carolina pre-season game because I hope that the first line offense and defense does not even get on the field in Atlanta, in fact, don’t even let them board the plane to go to Atlanta. I have seen all I need to see to know that the 2009 Baltimore Ravens are going to be a formidable team.
If they were an NFC team they would be the odds on favorite to get to the Super Bowl. Since they play in the AFC they are one of 3 or 4 teams that can make it to the mid February classic.
There is a lot to like about the 2009 Ravens. But I think the most interesting thing regarding this year’s version of the Ravens is the continued shift in vision of the team. The change in vision and/or direction was set in motion with the firing of Brian Billick 2 years ago. The firing of Coach Billick was as much an indictment of make up of the team as it was a reflection of the poor record in the year in which he was fired. In fact, when it became clear that the players which led the team in the direction it was heading did not support the coach, Brian Billick’s fate was sealed.
The second indication that a change was coming was the passing over of Rex Ryan as head coaching candidate for the Ravens. This would have continued this team on a course of defensive dominance for years to come. Let’s face it, the Ravens are not a sexy team. Even if you are the most devout fan they can be painful to watch at times. They were the NFL’s version of old pick up truck, strong, steady, tough and dependable. Unfortunately, this old truck occasionally had trouble with the sleek sports cars of the NFL. No where was this more evident then in the 2006 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts. I still can’t even watch a replay of that game to this day. All I remember thinking about that loss was that, “it was our type of game and we still lost.”
The third indication that things were about to change at the castle, was John Harbaugh’s hiring of Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator. Cameron has a distinguished and successful career as an offensive coordinator. His offenses have over the years have had good rushing attacks some years and good passing attacks in others. His system is adaptable to the player’s talents, instead of trying to make the players fit into a rigid system.
What Ozzie Newsome set in motion was to take the intensity and passion that the defense played with and transfer it to the offense. To his credit, he started rebuilding the offensive line with an attitude. Once the great Jonathan Ogden retired, the die was cast and the rebuilding of the offensive line became of paramount importance. There was a two pronged shift in philosophy too. The first part of this change was subtle. Originally, it was the Raven’s plan to draft lineman in the later rounds and develop them and then sign older veterans to bolster the weaknesses on the line. After the loss to the Colts that year you saw the Raven’s start to draft offensive lineman with their higher draft picks. Ozzie selected Ben Grubbs in the 1st round, then stole Jared Gaither in the supplemental draft. Marshall Yanda came in the 3rd round as did Adam Terry a few years earlier. Finally, this past year, Ozzie selects Michael Oher again in the first round. Once it was evident that the Raven’s could not keep Jason Brown, Ozzie went back to his old standby and signed a veteran free agent to complete this unit.
The second part of the shift in philosophy of the offensive line was to get away from just sheer bulk and get more athletic. I have watched enough football to know that this offensive line is going to be something special. They are big, strong, fast, athletic and nasty. Gaither is the thoroughbred, and has Ogden’s stamp of approval. Grubbs is the athletic one. Yanda and Oher are just good ole nasty boys. Matt Birk is the point guard that keeps it all together. As the year goes on, this unit will become one of the best in football. Gaither and Oher are big and athletic enough to overpower most and contend with the speed rushers off the edge. Grubbs might be the best pulling guard in the league and Yanda is just a road grader. Chris Chester played well last year filling in for Yanda and is our main back up in the middle of the line. Losing Adam Terry for the year hurts because he was an adequate back up on either side of the line at tackle. Do not be surprised if you see Ozzie bring in a veteran tackle after cut down day to help with depth.
The running back by committee was terrific last year. In fact, it was a brilliant idea that camouflaged the fact that our number one running back failed to report to camp in shape and was not ready to carry the load even though he was paid to do so. I shudder to think what would have happened to Joe Flacco if it were not for Ray Rice and LeRon McClain. After watching the preseason Willis McGahee is relegated to 2nd team, LeRon McClain is the short yardage back and lead fullback; Ray Rice will carry the load. This is the type of back the Cam Cameron likes. He is a quick shifty runner that catches the ball well out of the backfield. Ray Rice is going to have a spectacular year. He is short in stature but is powerfully built. He runs low to the ground, explodes in the hole and changes direction on dime. As my cousin said to me, on that swing pass he caught in the Carolina preseason game where he did the step back, “he looked like Barry Sanders on that play”.
The wide receivers have caused the most consternation amongst the fans, and rightfully so. Thank God, Derrick Mason did not retire!!! Derrick Mason is the consummate professional and really is the heart of our offense. I thought it was interesting last week when Bart Scott made the comment that the real coach of the Ravens in 2008 was Rex Ryan, the only player that felt compelled to say something was Derrick Mason. That being said, both Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams have NFL talent, but their inability to stay healthy does not lend itself to having confidence in these two. Enter Kelley Washington. He has been a pleasant surprise in camp and has had success in the preseason games. He is currently lining up as the number 2 receiver. He is big, strong and fast and he looks to be able to contribute on offense. It is clear that the Raven’s are going to need some production out of either Clayton or Williams to go along with Mason and Washington. If the Ravens keep a fifth receiver it looks that it might be Justin Harper only by default. Todd Heap seems to have resurfaced in the offense and if he can stay healthy he gives us another credible threat down the field. LJ Smith is hurt again; enough said. Do not be surprised to see Ozzie scour the waiver wire after cut down day for help at either wide receiver and/or tight end.
The main reason why the Ravens will continue to be a relevant team and why, barring mounting injuries, they will break the cycle of one good year followed by one bad year is the quarterback. Yes fans, Joe Flacco is that good. I am not trying to anoint him the next Johnny Unitas, nor will I even go so far as to call him Bert Jones…yet. He is only in his second year and there are mistakes to be made, but the kid has IT! He is smart and has a much better handle on the offense. He has a laser arm. He also has a tremendously quick release and is deadly accurate. Did you see the touchdown pass he threw to Todd Heap in the Carolina preseason game? He put the ball the only place it could be. In that same game, he laid out a long ball perfectly down the sideline to Kelley Washington, over the outside shoulder where only our receiver could catch it. It is amazing how much more open our receivers look when Joe Flacco is throwing them the ball. Joe Flacco is now the shining jewel of this franchise and will be a terrific quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens for several years.
There isn’t much that hasn’t been said about our defense and all of the accolades they have received over the years have been deserved. There have been many variations of our vaunted defense over the years with only one remaining constant. I mentioned earlier in this piece that the Ravens are changing direction, and that is true; but as long as Number 52 is in the middle of the defense, we will never totally lose our identity as a defensive minded football team. Whether you like him or not, he has been the heart, body, mind and soul of this football team for a long time. He is on the very short list of greatest linebackers of all time. The defensive line is stout, but some key players are getting a little long in the tooth. Kelly Gregg and Trevor Pryce have to continue to perform at a high level. Justin Bannan filled in well for Gregg last year. Haloti Ngata is a superstar waiting to happen. The key retainee was Terrell Suggs, who is counted on to pressure the quarterback. Second round draft pick, Paul Kruger is touted as a high energy guy in the mold of Michael McCrary. I guess that is why they gave him that number. The Ravens have significant depth at the defensive line positions with the likes of Dwan Edwards, Kelly Talivou and Brandon McKinney.
At linebacker the team is also loaded. The starters will be, Ray Lewis, Jarrett Johnson, Tavares Gooden and Terrell Suggs. Ray Lewis is a Hall of Famer. Terrell Suggs is a Pro Bowl player. Jarrett Johnson plays at that same level but is somewhat overlooked and Jameel McClain will push Gooden for the other starting inside spot. Paul Kruger will back up Terrell Suggs and learn the hybrid defensive lineman/linebacker position that Suggs has evolved into. Antwan Barnes will be brought in on special situations to pressure the quarterback. That leaves a chore of other good football players fighting for one or two back up spots at linebacker. Brendon Ayanbadejo will most likely retain one of those spots due to his special teams status and there is probably one more spot for a trio of players, Prescott Burgess, Jason Phillips and Dannell Ellerbe. I like the mix of veteran leadership with young athletic talent in this group. This position will remain a strength of the team.
The secondary has gone through a transformation. Gone is Chris McAlister; and, at least for a little while, so is Samari Rolle. Fabian Washington covered well last year as a starter, but my mother hits harder and tackles better. Dominque Foxworth was acquired in the off season to replace McAlister and is exactly the type of free agent pick up that makes Ozzie Newsome so dangerous. He is still a young and improving corner and could develop into an elite player, but there are questions concerning his tackling ability as well. It may take him a while to learn how to play defense for the Ravens but he has a chance to become a really good cornerback. As big as Jim Leonard played last year, I am extremely happy to see Dawan Landry back at strong safety. I think he is a big time player and is great in run support. His ability to play close to the line will let Ed Reed continue to do what he does best; roam the field and take the ball away. Reed is a gambler and he will get burned occasionally, but when he gets the ball in his hands he is pure magic. I just wish he would stop trying to lateral the ball all over the field. Ed’s lingering neck and shoulder problem is a growing concern and should be monitored closely. Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura provide excellent depth and special teams play. Nakamura especially has shown flashes of being able to step in and play safety at a high level. In years past, I have always cringed when our first team cornerbacks have gone down, but the last 2 years Ozzie Newsome has done a good job of building depth at this position. Samari Rolle was brought back to play the nickel back and Chris Carr was signed to add depth and return kicks. I have been impressed with 3rd round draft pick, Lardarius Webb. I first saw him at training camp and I am impressed with his attitude and skills. He does not look afraid and he looks to be a pretty good cornerback once he gets some experience. With Samari Rolle starting the season on the IR list, it seems that Frank Walker has received a reprieve and will start the season with the team. While Frank played effectively toward the end of last year, his propensity for committing stupid penalties and his less then effective play this preseason has landed him squarely on the bubble. There is not a lot of experience here, especially with Rolle on the shelf. This is another area that the Ravens may look to improve themselves after cut down day.
Over the years, I have been very critical of Sam Koch as a punter. I did not think he was bad, I was just frustrated by his inability to hit the big kick at times to get the team out of a hole. Whenever he needed to boom one it seemed as though he couldn’t do it. Most point to his ability to place the ball inside the 20 yard line as an indication that he was a high caliber punter. Let’s be clear, there is not a more overrated stat in football, then how many times a punter places the ball inside the 20 yard line on a punt. I have never thought that such a stat was a productive measurement of any punter. That being said, I have to admit that Sam Koch is growing on me, his distance on punts has improved, his hang time has improved and he has become adept at directional punting, pinning the return man against one sideline or the other. Chris Carr was impressive as a returner at Tennessee. He fields the ball well and gets upfield quickly. He gives us the same thing Jim Leonard did last year returning punts with more speed and possibly more ability to take one to the house.
One of the biggest stories in training camp has been the competition for kicker. To be perfectly frank, I don’t understand what Coach Harbaugh is trying to accomplish. I understand that Matt Stover cannot get the distance on kick offs and that adversely effects our ability to defend since it shortens the field for the other team. There is a noticeable trend of opponents starting field position increasing yearly. So I applaud the idea of finding a kicker that is able to kick the ball in the endzone or forcing the opponent’s returner to field the kick closer to the endzone. I have noticed this preseason that we have done a much better limiting the opponents starting field position. However, the 2 kickers in camp have not shown the ability to routinely kick the ball in the endzone and have relied mainly again on directional kicking to pin the return to one side of the field or other. They have also failed to show that they have the ability to hit field goals with any consistency. What it comes down to is this; for a team that is expecting to be in the thick of a playoff run, does it make sense for anyone else other then Matt Stover to kick field goals for this team. I don’t think so.
Those in charge at the castle have proven over the years that they know how to build and run a football team, that cannot be argued; but their strategy regarding the kicking game does not make any sense to me. All I know is that on Sunday, December 27, 2009 at Heinz Field, when it is 17-17 with 1:22 to go in the fourth quarter, the wind is blowing and the flurries are falling and the field is mud pit when the Ravens kick team trots out on the field to try the winning field goal, the only person I want kicking that ball is Automatic Matt.