With 28 seconds left in the 2012 AFC Championship, Joe Flacco faced a second down with one yard to go. Well, you know what happened next. Lee Evans dropped a pass in the front corner of the end zone to end a season that was filled with tremendous promise and frustration for the Ravens.
So, what should Ravens fans be looking forward to in 2012? As always, there is a fair amount to be excited about. From young players like Courtney UpShaw, to savvy veterans like Ray Lewis, the Ravens always have an abundance of talent to rely on.
But, as of today, there has not been much for Ravens fans to cheer about and it all started with Terrell Suggs. Suggs tore his ACL earlier in the offseason. Some mystery still surrounds the injury but that doesn’t matter to me.
What matters to me are the linebackers that will be assigned to take Suggs’s place. Notice, I did not say replace because no one on the Ravens roster can replace Suggs.
Courtney UpShaw, Paul Kruger, and Sergio Kindle will be assigned to take Suggs’s place at outside linebacker. What is interesting about these three players is that they were all drafted for one reason. That was to provide a pass rushing threat opposite Terrell Suggs but Kruger and Kindle have not been able to make a sizeable impact. While each of these players is capable, it will be interesting to see how they play without Suggs on the field.
Kruger, Kindle, and UpShaw have potential but that only gets you so far in today’s NFL.
Paul Kruger and Pernell McPhee had 12.5 sacks combined last season but what will happen when Suggs is not on the field commanding double teams? Beating double teams is one of the hardest things to learn when transitioning from college to the NFL and even from High School to college.
Therefore, the outside linebackers will be the Ravens biggest weakness throughout 2012, especially with the evolution of the tight end. These young linebackers are going to have to cover at some point and the Ravens will be going up against some of the NFL’s best tight ends.
These tight ends include Jermaine Gresham, Brent Celek, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Tony Moeaki, Jason Witten, Owen Daniels, Heath Miller, Antonio Gates, and Fred Davis.
This weakness will be most evident against the Pittsburg Steelers, a team the Ravens face twice in three weeks. Ben Roethlisberger is the hardest quarterback to tackle in the NFL and there is a big difference between Dean Pees telling his young linebackers how tough it is and actually executing.
If you watched Ron Jaworski’s quarterback countdown on Ben Roethlisberger, one statistic should scare Ravens fans the most. When Big Ben was playing in a three tight end set last season, Big Ben completed 75 percent if his passes. Expect the Steelers to put more tight ends on the field to force Kindle, UpShaw, and Kruger to fight through more double teams.
Albert McClellan is a name to keep an eye on for the outside linebacker position. McClellan played middle linebacker last season against the San Francisco 49ers due to Ray Lewis’s injury. McClellan totaled four tackles and helped limit Frank Gore to only 39 yards rushing. McClellan played defensive end Marshall and totaled 19.5 sacks in three years at Marshall so he has some pass rush ability.
I don’t mean to downplay the Ravens outside linebackers but I think it is important to be realistic. Sergio Kindle has potential but has struggled to get on the field because of an injury. Kindle has also had trouble learning the playbook throughout his time in Baltimore.
Both T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Lee Evans were additions to the Ravens in the last two off seasons. Evans showed great chemistry with Flacco in the preseason and T.J. caught a game-winning pass against the Steelers two years ago. But, both receivers failed the team in the biggest moments.
Enter…Jacoby Jones. Jones is one of three Houston Texans that have been brought in over the last two seasons. Bernard Pollard and Vonta Leach being the other two. Leach and Pollard have been very good players for the Ravens thus far and hopefully, Jacoby Jones can follow suit.
Jones’s presence helps Anquan Boldin the most. This is because Boldin now lacks the speed that is necessary to have a significant impact on the outside. Boldin can now move to the slot where he is much more effective. This will also help Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta because Boldin will command a lot of attention on the inside.
When the Ravens put Jones and Smith on the outside, the defensive backs will be forced to back up to prevent the big play. This will help Joe Flacco beat cover two defenses, a defensive set he struggled with early in his career.
His struggles against the cover two was because the Ravens lacked a deep threat and to beat a cover two defense, you have to be able to stretch the field and challenge safeties.
This is why players like Troy Polamalu had so much success against Joe Flacco early on. They were able to roam free because they did not have to worry about receivers outrunning the cornerbacks.
So, when Flacco starts hitting Dickson, Pitta, Boldin, and Rice underneath, the opponents will start bringing their defensive backs closer to the line of scrimmage. Joe Flacco will now be able to take shots down the field more often. Play-action passes will be deadly in Baltimore’s offense this season.
So how will the Ravens finish the season? The schedule is brutal which should make obtaining a high playoff seed unlikely. The secondary will be tested early with the Bengals, Eagles, and Patriots being the first three opponents.
I see the Ravens winning the division once again. There has been a lot of hype surrounding the Bengals but they are a young team and I don’t trust a team that young against some of the NFL’s elite teams.