OWINGS MILLS, Md. — This Ravens offense looks promising on paper.
Some observers have even dared to say this is the most talented collection of skill players in the history of the franchise. Of course, we know that bar isn’t all that high with Baltimore being much more known for its defense over the last two decades.
But that doesn’t mean ninth-year quarterback Joe Flacco is ready to call this the deepest group he’s had around him, either.
“I think that has yet to be seen,” Flacco said. “We have to go out there and prove that we’re weapons and that we can do it in live games on Sundays. I think it’s a very promising group and I’m very excited about it, but we have to go out there and prove it.”
It’s easy to be excited about the healthy returns of Steve Smith, Breshad Perriman, and Dennis Pitta as well as the additions of veteran free agent Mike Wallace and rookie fourth-rounder Chris Moore, but the most critical factor will be how well the offensive line performs with two new pieces on Flacco’s blindside. From the moment he arrived in Owings Mills this spring, first-round pick Ronnie Stanley has looked the part of a starting left tackle, but the regular season brings an even faster speed to which he’ll need to adjust.
Fellow rookie Alex Lewis may join him in the starting lineup after third-year guard John Urschel missed much of the summer with a shoulder injury. For either option at left guard, replacing the accomplished Kelechi Osemele won’t be easy and will make life for Stanley even more challenging.
That left side of the offensive line is sure to be tested right away by a Buffalo defense that looks undermanned but will try to throw the kitchen sink at inexperienced linemen. Bills head coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan was very complimentary of both Stanley and Lewis on Wednesday, but he’s also aware of their inexperience and will try to exploit it.
“I’ve never seen it before where two [rookies] start on the offensive line because that is tough,” Ryan said in a conference call with the Baltimore media. “There’s so much to it. But those two guys I’m sure have done a great job studying and things. But it’s not easy, that’s for sure.”
The offensive line protecting Flacco in the pocket is a nonnegotiable prerequisite for success, but opening holes in the running game proved to be a problem last season as the Ravens rushed for an underwhelming 3.9 yards per carry. An offense regularly trailing in most of its games a year ago was predictably going to lean more on the pass, but offensive coordinator Marc Trestman struggled to commit to the ground attack even when opportunities were there.
We know Flacco is at his best as a passer when he has the support of a strong running game, and head coach John Harbaugh has made it clear that improving in that area is a must.
Trying to figure out how the carries will be distributed will be interesting as veteran Justin Forsett is still expected to begin the year as the starter, but both Terrance West and the presently-injured Kenneth Dixon figure to factor more heavily into the equation as the season progresses. It sounds fine to say you’ll use a by-committee approach, but there’s a fine line between giving multiple backs opportunities and allowing the right one to get into a rhythm.
That trio of backs along with 2014 fourth-round pick Buck Allen all have their strengths and weaknesses, but at least one will need to prove capable of being a No. 1 kind of talent when it matters most.
“In the end, wisdom is in the results,” Harbaugh said. “We will all be judged how well we run the ball as a group. My goal is for all those guys to have success running the ball. I think they all bring something different to the table, style-wise [and] ability-wise.”
The same general thought process applies at wide receiver and tight end where health is clearly a factor for the 37-year-old Smith coming off an awful Achilles injury last November and for the 31-year-old Pitta, who hasn’t played in a game in nearly two years and missed most of training camp with a broken finger this summer. Even if those two stay healthy to go along with the rest of the bunch, the challenge is there for Trestman and Flacco to spread the ball around in a way that’s most productive for the overall offense.
More options in the vertical passing game will ideally open up the short-to-intermediate portion of the field for Smith, Pitta, Kamar Aiken, and Crockett Gillmore, but that comes with the understanding that there will be times when the Ravens want to best utilize that speed with certain substitution packages.
Whether you’re a talented first-year player or a 16th-year receiver with Hall of Fame credentials, there’s no room for ego when trying to bounce back from a 5-11 season.
“You know you are going to get your plays, but you are also ecstatic to be able to clear it out and open it up for other guys,” Smith said. “[If] I go down and run a route to open it up for Mike and Mike catches it, then I’m on the hunt. I get to peel back on somebody and knock the s–t out of them. That is what I am excited about, so I can play my role for Mike and Mike can play his role.
“Anyone can catch the ball, but can you be a team player to clear it out and understand the integrity of the play and what you are supposed to be doing for the other guy? That is the ultimate team player right there.”
The Ravens signed Wallace to provide an established speed presence on the outside that the offense sorely lacked a year ago, but the wild card for the aerial attack is Perriman, who is finally healthy after two different knee injuries and flashed his ability in the preseason finale last week.
With a 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame and blinding speed, Perriman is the type of talent at the wide receiver position that the Ravens have lacked throughout their history. We still have no idea whether his talent and size will translate to NFL success, but general manager Ozzie Newsome selected him in the first round last year to help take this offense to a different level.
Patience will be key, but the Ravens hope Perriman can eventually be a major factor in transforming a solid offense into a great one.
“We haven’t had a ton of work together, but [we] just have to keep it simple,” Flacco said. “Hit him in the chest and give him the chance to make plays. I think the more plays that he’s given the chance to make, the more he’s going the make and the more his confidence is going to go up.”
It all sounds great and looks promising a few days out from the season opener, but the Bills will be the first team to give the Ravens offense a real idea of how good it is. Potential is there, but questions exist wherever you look, including with Flacco as he comes back from the first serious injury of his entire career.
The schedule sets up for a potential fast start with only one playoff team from last year on the docket before the Ravens hit their bye in Week 8. But how quickly will it all come together for an offense with several new pieces as well as familiar faces returning from injury?
“I think I know what to expect from these guys,” Flacco said. “I’m really just excited about getting out there and doing it and making sure that we do it — not just go out there and play around. I want to go out there and I want to play well. That’s what I expect from our guys, and I think that’s what everybody else expects, too.”