Tag Archive | "juan castillo"

Building offense around Flacco only offseason priority that matters

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Building offense around Flacco only offseason priority that matters

Posted on 09 January 2014 by Luke Jones

The uncertain future of linebacker Terrell Suggs and the decision to retain assistant Juan Castillo were topics that understandably garnered the most attention at the Ravens’ season-ending press conference on Wednesday.

But it was something owner Steve Bisciotti said that laid out the top priority of the offseason as Baltimore tries to bounce back from missing the postseason for the first time in the John Harbaugh era. In fact, it’s the only objective that really matters if the Ravens hope to climb to the heights they reached 11 months ago anytime soon.

Bisciotti has always acknowledged his opinions on football-related matters shouldn’t — and usually don’t — hold as much weight as those of general manager Ozzie Newsome and Harbaugh, but that hasn’t stopped the 53-year-old owner from publicly calling for more accountability from his employees in the past as former head coach Brian Billick and former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron learned years ago. That’s what made his answer over how concerned he was about the underwhelming play of quarterback Joe Flacco so telling as it spelled out what the Ravens must do this winter.

There was no over-the-top comment about needing more of a return on the $120.6 million contract he forked over to the 28-year-old quarterback last winter, even though the Ravens will certainly expect a much better Flacco in 2014. Yes, Flacco must improve, but so must Newsome, Harbaugh, Castillo, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell (if he does indeed return), Ray Rice, the offensive line, and everyone else with a stake in the Baltimore offense next season and beyond.

“When you look at these guys who have been coaching in the league and have had success in the past and you look at our players that have had success in the past, if we could have fixed it, we would have,” Bisciotti said. “I certainly expected more in the second half of the season. As interrelated as the running game is to the play-action pass and the execution of the offensive line, trying to divide up the blame is something I’m really not much more qualified than you guys are to do. But, when you have a short window of failure that comes out of the blue, the key is not to make wholesale changes.

“I know that Ray Rice was limited this year, and Bernard Pierce was limited. And, if they had been better, then maybe the offensive line would have performed better. Obviously, if the offensive line were blowing open holes, then maybe [Rice and Pierce] could have achieved more with their physical limitations. And, if that had worked a little better, then I think Joe would have performed a little better. All the things, the numbers that are so striking to me to find yourself in the bottom five in offense in almost every category is again something that — had we not had a [good] history in the last five years – then I would probably demand wholesale changes. But I think you have to be careful to not to look in a vacuum and decide you have to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and [you] let people get healthy, let these guys work together for another year, add some people to the team in the draft and free agency.

“I think it’s safe to say that we’re going to look at the offense with the same fine-tooth comb that we looked at the defense last year. I think you’re going to see a lot of changes in personnel and how we approach that. I’m pretty proud of the defense for being able to retool on the fly, and I’ve got the same amount of confidence with these guys in building the offense.”

The final few sentences of his drawn-out answer said everything you need to know. Yes, the Ravens must address Suggs’ $12.4 million cap number, find a free safety, and tinker with various parts of their defense and special teams, but building a better supporting cast around Flacco is paramount. Last offseason saw Newsome focus solely on revamping a below-average defense while allowing the offense to suffer as a result, a perplexing strategy considering the Ravens had just won a Super Bowl with their offense doing the heavy lifting.

Fixing the offense won’t be easy as the dynamic pass-catcher the Ravens covet doesn’t just grow on trees and the organization doesn’t exactly have a stellar history of developing — or even finding — many quality wide receivers in their 18-year history. Adding bulk on the interior line is a necessity, but potentially finding three quality starters — if the Ravens are unable to re-sign Eugene Monroe to remain with incumbents Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele — will be a daunting task. Flacco’s $14.8 million cap figure in 2014 will indeed be an obstacle — just like the large numbers currently held by Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Lardarius Webb, Rice, and Yanda — as Newsome tries to use limited resources to infuse the offensive side of the ball with more talent.

But the Ravens must build a better supporting cast around their quarterback, whether you think Flacco is a potential Rolls-Royce or only a Mustang in the hierarchy of current NFL quarterbacks. He’s proven he has the ability to take the franchise all the way to the top, but he can’t do it alone as last season so painfully showed. A record-setting contract understandably brought high expectations, but it didn’t suddenly change his ability or who he is as a quarterback.

Making some difficult decisions such as parting ways with Suggs and sacrificing some ability defensively may be necessary to create sufficient cap space in order to add more dynamic offensive pieces. The Ravens have no choice but to take giant leaps forward offensively in the increasingly offensive-minded NFL.

Flacco did not have a good year in 2013, and he must own his share of the blame just like anyone else involved. But the Ravens didn’t set him up to have a strong season following an offseason trade of Anquan Boldin and the retirement of veteran center Matt Birk without adequate replacements behind them. That coupled with unforeseen injuries to the likes of Dennis Pitta, Rice, and Osemele left too much to overcome.

From the Suggs financial decision to improving the offensive line and running game, nearly all offseason moves will be tied to the theme of doing what’s best for Flacco so the Ravens can get the most out of their steep investment.

It’s fair to expect much more from the quarterback, but only if the front office, coaching staff, and supporting cast hold up their end of the bargain as well.

Even after handing Flacco the richest deal in franchise history last year, Bisciotti could recognize that simple truth on Wednesday.

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I called it last week — and Harbaugh confirmed it yesterday

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I called it last week — and Harbaugh confirmed it yesterday

Posted on 09 January 2014 by Drew Forrester

A nice gesture by John Harbaugh in January of 2013 turned into a whopper of a train wreck for the Head Coach.

He took steps in an effort to fix it yesterday at the annual “State of the Ravens” press conference at the team’s facility in Owings Mills.

What did Harbaugh do?

He gave Juan Castillo the title he should have given him last January when the Ravens hired him to oversee their offensive line.

Last week as Luke and I reviewed the 2013 Ravens season, one of the topics centered on coaches and who we thought might return and who was on the bubble.

This was before Wilbert Montgomery was “moved on” for, essentially, insubordination.

As Luke and I went over the names, we eventually came to Castillo.  I contended then that Harbaugh’s biggest mistake was giving Juan Castillo the title of “Run Game Coordinator”.  I can see why Harbaugh did it that way, but hindsight tells us the title was a mistake.

To give Castillo a “new” title (the Ravens didn’t have a “Run Game Coordinator” before Castillo showed up) implied he was coming in to do something so specifically different that no one else on staff could manage it.  The only problem, of course, is the Ravens already had someone overseeing their run game.  His name was Wilbert Montgomery.  And, since a major component of running the ball is blocking for the ball carrier, they also had one of “those guys” in charge of coaching the offensive line — Andy Moeller.

Honestly, as I said last week, Harbaugh’s mistake wasn’t in hiring Castillo.  He’s a bright guy with a terrific resume.  John’s mistake was in giving Castillo the title of “Run Game Coordinator”.  When the running game fizzled in 2013, everyone simply pointed to the new guy who came in to coordinate the running game and said, “There’s the problem!”

Look, I understand John Harbaugh and Steve Bisciotti and everyone else at Owings Mills couldn’t care less about what the “armchair quarterbacks” (aka, the fans) think about their style, scheme and methods of coaching.  Frankly, the fans don’t know anything about football, truth be told.  They know when a player does something well and they know when Matt Elam gets beat by A.J. Green that Elam was to blame, but the fans don’t know anything, really, about the true inner workings of all eleven players on either side of the ball and how Player A’s mistake and Player B’s inability to cover up for it leaves Player C exposed.

That said, Harbaugh and Bisciotti do owe it to the fans to review the performance of their coaches and players and determine who deserves to carry on with the team and who doesn’t.

What “the fans” think about Juan Castillo shouldn’t have anything to do with whether the Ravens keep him or not, but it’s clear from yesterday’s press conference that Harbaugh IS aware of the scrutiny and criticism his “Run Game Coordinator” endured during the recently completed 8-8 season.

That’s why Castillo is now the team’s “Offensive Line Coach”.  It’s basically what he was all along, even with Moeller in the fold, but the Head Coach didn’t want to create a potential firestorm by stripping Moeller of his title.

And, for anyone who thinks Castillo was the guy who wrecked the running game, let me tell you this:  He didn’t coach the running backs.  Wilbert Montgomery did.  As someone in the organization said to me yesterday, “Wilbert’s job was to make the running backs better.  Whether or not he did that is up to you (the media) guys to decide and report on in whatever fashion you want.”

Oddly enough, the Ravens also brought in a smart football mind in 2013 to help with their defense.  His name was Steve Spagnuolo. The former Rams Head Coach joined the club as their “Senior Defensive Assistant”.  The Ravens defense, as we saw time and time again, couldn’t get off the field on 3rd down.  They had a tendency to give up the big play in the 4th quarter as the Ravens tried to steal a win or two in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Cincinnati.  Even though the defense outperformed the offense in 2013, the team’s defense was certainly a liability on a somewhat regular basis.  Why, then, was Spagnuolo not the same sort of lightning rod as Castillo?  One reason:  Title.

Castillo’s title suggested he was going to “fix” the running game.

Spagnuolo’s title suggested he was there to watch game film with Harbaugh and play racquetball with the coaches and front office members on Tuesday afternoons.

In theory — and based on his day to day duties — Castillo was brought on board to work with the offensive line.  We all know, of course, that was quite a mountain to climb for anyone…based on the personnel.

It would have helped the running game, for sure, if the offensive line that Castillo coached would have been better.  And, perhaps, the running game would have been better if Castillo and Andy Moeller coached their players better.

The running game might have also performed better if the running backs were in shape when training camp started — and capable of taking the punishment of an NFL season.

Here’s the one bullet point from yesterday that was reinforced to me by a staffer: The biggest loss the team incurred – player wise –  was Matt Birk.  And, as the staffer emphasized, “It wasn’t even close.  Our most significant loss was Birk.  We’re a playoff team if he’s the center.”

Moving forward, now, Juan Castillo is the team’s Offensive Line Coach.

There’s no word what that means for Andy Moeller.

And the team currently doesn’t have a “Running Backs Coach” after the departure of Montgomery.

One thing, for sure…regardless of title, the microscope remains focused on Juan Castillo.

For better or worse, he’s the new scapegoat in town moving forward.

And Baltimore, perhaps like no other city in the country, loves themselves a good old fashioned scapegoat.

Have fun, Juan.

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Castillo to remain with Ravens as offensive line coach

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Castillo to remain with Ravens as offensive line coach

Posted on 08 January 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens are still in the early stages of formulating their offseason plans, but their most-maligned assistant coach will return for the 2014 season with a new job title.

Head coach John Harbaugh announced Wednesday that run-game coordinator Juan Castillo will remain with the Ravens as the offensive line coach. However, other staff changes could still be on the way as offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell’s future remains up in the air as he completes his third NFL head-coaching interview this week.

“Juan will be the offensive line coach next year,” Harbaugh said at the Ravens’ season-ending press conference. “The rest of it’s a little bit in flux right now. As all this NFL coaching drama goes on, some of our guys are involved in that. We’ll just have to see how it shakes out. But we’re going to build a great coaching staff again [next] year.”

The decision to retain Castillo is surprising after the Ravens finished last in the NFL in yards per carry (3.1) and 30th in rushing yards per game (83.0). Both were franchise-worst single-season marks as running back Ray Rice gained only 660 yards in the worst campaign of his six-year career.

Castillo’s return also indicates that the Ravens feel their biggest blocking issues were with personnel as their starting offensive line at the end of the 2013 season featured just two starters from the Super Bowl XLVII team. At this point, Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and guard-tackle Kelechi Osemele are the only safe bets to be starters next year with tackles Eugene Monroe and Michael Oher both free agents — re-signing Monroe is a top offseason priority — and center Gino Gradkowski figuring to have serious competition for the starting job.

Though the Ravens have publicly downplayed the changes Castillo made this past season, the alterations to the zone blocking schemes as well as a second-year center replacing retired 15-year veteran Matt Birk proved to be a combustible combination for the offensive line.

Harbaugh confirmed Wednesday that Castillo really served as the team’s head offensive line coach in 2013 despite being given the innovative title when he joined the Ravens’ staff in January 2012. The change in Castillo’s job description may not bode well for incumbent offensive line coach Andy Moeller, who was essentially demoted after being in charge of the offensive line in 2011 and 2012. Assistant offensive line coach Todd Washington also remains on the staff after recently turning down an offer to become the offensive line coach at the University of Southern California.

The Ravens parted ways with running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery last week after a six-year relationship, leading many to wonder if Castillo would be the next to depart. Castillo served as the offensive line coach of the Philadelphia Eagles for 13 years — spending two additional years as their defensive coordinator before being fired in 2012 — and worked with Harbaugh for a decade under Andy Reid.

Though acknowledging everyone on his staff must coach better in 2014, Harbaugh shouldered the blame for giving the unique title to Castillo and leaving him open to even more criticism with the running game struggling so mightily.

“I can understand why Juan is a lightning rod right now because the way we set up the structure and then we go into the season and we have our worst-ever year running the ball and he’s got that title,” Harbaugh said. “That’s on me. When we hired Juan, the idea was to add another great coach into our mix. Juan functioned as the lead offensive line coach last year. That was his job. The title was a way to have three great offensive line coaches in our mix right there. Andy had a big contribution last year. It was a little bit different than he had the year before.

“We had three guys working together and I thought it was going to be a really good mix. I thought those guys did a really good job of coaching together. We didn’t get the result that we wanted to get, but Juan was the offensive line coach and that’s his title going forward.”

The Ravens will now wait on the fate of Caldwell in terms of his prospects of once again become a heading coach. However, no firm commitment has been made that the offensive coordinator will return next year as Baltimore tries to improve an offense that finished 29th in yards and 25th in points scored in 2013.

Caldwell has interviewed with Detroit, Washington, and Tennessee, but the former Indianapolis Colts head man hasn’t been publicly regarded as the favorite — at least to this point — to land any of those head-coaching vacancies.

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Harbaugh expects competition, changes along offensive line

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Harbaugh expects competition, changes along offensive line

Posted on 31 December 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens coach John Harbaugh wasted no time in spelling out the biggest reasons why he thought his team fell short of the postseason for the first time in his six-year tenure in Baltimore.

The biggest downfall started up front with the offensive line, a unit that was so instrumental to the team’s Super Bowl XLVII run but one that also underwent several changes this season.

“We’re going to need to run the ball better, we’re going to need to protect Joe [Flacco] better,” Harbaugh said. “Offensively, those things will make us better.”

Finishing the season with three new starters from the line that protected Flacco so effectively in last year’s postseason, the Ravens averaged a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry and rushed for 1,328 yards, two marks that shattered previous single-season lows in franchise history. Baltimore also allowed 48 sacks, the second-highest total in team history and the most given up since the 1999 Ravens were sacked 56 times.

Media and fans have pointed fingers most often at run-game coordinator Juan Castillo, who implemented a new zone-blocking scheme in his first year with the Ravens that didn’t fit an offensive line featuring a new center responsible for making calls at the line of scrimmage. Harbaugh said Tuesday that no changes to the coaching staff were in the works for now, but the coach alluded to the possibility of staff members potentially moving on to take other jobs as the Ravens’ brass will meet next week to make further evaluations within the organization.

Even if Castillo isn’t retained, Harbaugh was quick to point out that the former Philadelphia offensive line coach has a strong track record and was just one of many responsible for the shortcomings of the Ravens’ failures in the trenches.

“Being in those meetings every single day and being a part of that thing every single day, I know better, and every one of our players knows better, and every one of our coaches knows that there are a lot of things that go into that,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve got complete confidence and belief in all of our coaches. I believe in our coaches. That goes for Juan Castillo; it goes for all of our guys. I think he’s a great coach, but I think all of our guys are great coaches. But, we’ve got to coach better. We’ve got to find a way to use our personnel better. We’ve got to get better.”

The Ravens are all but guaranteed to feature a new-look offensive line in 2014 with starting tackles Eugene Monroe and Michael Oher both unrestricted free agents. Harbaugh complimented Monroe’s play and expressed hope that he would re-sign with Baltimore after he was acquired from Jacksonville for fourth- and fifth-round picks in early October, but the Ravens will not have a great amount of cap space and can’t overspend for an above-average tackle who has yet to make a Pro Bowl in his five-year career.

Meanwhile, Oher is expected to depart via free agency after a disappointing season at right tackle and failing to pan out as the left tackle of the future when he was selected in the first round of the 2009 draft. The Ravens will evaluate 2013 fifth-round pick Rick Wagner for the right tackle spot and likely turn to the draft in early May to add more offensive line help.

Beyond the obvious holes at both tackle positions, Harbaugh made it clear that only Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda — coming off an underwhelming season by his high standards — is a sure bet to line up at the same position next year. The Ravens are encouraged with the progress made by second-year lineman Kelechi Osemele from his November back surgery to repair a herniated disc, but where he’ll fit in the 2014 puzzle remains to be seen. Osemele played right tackle during the regular season of his rookie year before being shifted to left guard for the 2012 playoffs and started 2013 at that spot before landing on injured reserve.

His versatility will provide general manager Ozzie Newsome with more options when trying to address two open tackle positions at the start of the offseason.

“I think there will be a competitive situation pretty much at every spot on the offensive line except right guard,” Harbaugh said. “We will be looking forward to getting [Osemele] back. Whether he plays left guard or right tackle, we will have to make a determination on that. He can play either one of those spots. I would assume that he will be in that lineup somewhere, because he’s that kind of a player, but he’s got to come back and do it.”

Adding new bodies to the mix at tackle will be a top priority, but the competition at center might be more intriguing as 2012 fourth-round pick Gino Gradkowski struggled in his first season as a starter. Replacing 15-year pro Matt Birk, Gradkowski struggled to make the right protection calls for most of the season but improved as the year went on, according to Harbaugh.

Reserve lineman A.Q. Shipley competed for the starting center job in training camp before ultimately being needed to replace Osemele at left guard and rookie Ryan Jensen is considered an intriguing prospect with a 6-foot-4, 318-pound frame that would figure to physically hold up better than the smaller Gradkowski. However, the Ravens could elect to search free agency and the draft for more competition and a better option at center.

Gradkowski received the worst cumulative grade of any center in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

“Early in the season, Gino would probably be the first to tell you that we had a lot of problems,” Harbaugh said. “You go from Matt Birk that does everything, that makes every call, and in some ways tells every lineman what to do in the heat of battle because he is so good — because you’ve got an offensive line coach basically in there playing center for you — to a guy that is doing it for the first time. That was part of the reason that we didn’t have a hat on a hat a lot of times early on, and that was a tough transition for us.

“And yet, Gino fights through it, and by the end of the year, he is making all those calls and doing a good job with that. [He is] a really smart guy, huge student of the game.”

A variety of other issues must be addressed on both sides of the ball as the Ravens try to regroup after their commendable run of five consecutive playoff appearances comes to an end, but the 2013 struggles of Flacco, Ray Rice, and the passing game were all impacted by the inconsistency along the offensive line.

It’s just one area that needs to be fixed, but it’s a critical one in which the Ravens must explore every avenue in hopes of improving by the time training camp rolls around in late July. Decisions in terms of coaching and personnel must be made carefully in arguably the most important offseason of the Harbaugh era.

And losing the battle up front was one major flaw the Ravens simply couldn’t overcome in 2013.

“Everything is going to be on the table that way [to improve],” Harbaugh said. “Every one of our guys, all of us understand in this league that it is a production business — coaches and players. We all have to be accountable for producing and winning.”

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Ravens Remain “In The Zone”

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Ravens Remain “In The Zone”

Posted on 04 November 2013 by Thyrl Nelson

Going into the Ravens bye week many were hoping for wholesale changes, particularly on the offensive line. Since we knew that those changes wouldn’t ( or couldn’t) come by way of new personnel, in fact the injury status of Kelechi Osemele only further limits the teams personnel options, many were instead hoping for (or expecting) a change in philosophy.

So far, Juan Castillo’s tenure in Baltimore has been met with a lot of criticism and not much patience. It’s really easy to understand why, as the offensive line’s performance in the post-season seemed to be the catalyst for the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, and since for the first time in the John Harbaugh / Joe Flacco era the line was coming back 80% intact. Add to that Castillo’s shaky recent track record and the dramatic shift in philosophy to a “zone based” blocking scheme, and many have affixed the blame for the Ravens poor offensive line play directly to their new “Run Game Coordinator”.

 

Whether that’s an accurate assessment or not is beside the point for now.The Ravens opened their post-bye portion of the schedule looking pretty much the same on the offensive line personnel wise, scheme wise, and effectiveness wise too. And while Sunday’s loss doesn’t officially end the Ravens run of playoff seasons under their current regime, the road to 10 wins has suddenly become really tough to navigate or even to envision.

 

If it is the end of the Ravens string of playoffs, it’s probably long overdue. Maintaining a consistent contender in today’s salary cap driven NFL isn’t supposed to be as easy as the Ravens have made it look, especially in a division like the AFC North 2008-2012. Given the chance to trade a Super Bowl win for a losing season thereafter, there’s not a player, coach, executive or fan who wouldn’t have signed up for that scenario before last year’s magical run. And while no trade like that was actually made, the Ravens themselves may have consciously made a similar “tradeoff” in order to lay the groundwork for their next string of competitive success.

 

Those that began this year expecting Joe Flacco’s new contract to sink the franchise may have been more right than we’d like to acknowledge, even if it was in a way that no one outside the organization may have seen coming. The truth is that for 2013 at least, Flacco’s contract is very “cap friendly”, but it won’t remain that way. Given the future constraints of his contract, and the turnover the Ravens have continually seen on the offensive side of the ball, it shouldn’t be a reach to think that the front office is thinking about the long term a little differently.

 

The problem with the Ravens zone blocking scheme, in addition to the growing pains of getting everyone comfortable in it, has been that the Ravens don’t exactly seem to have the right personnel to run it. The team that seemed to run it best, and made it most famous were the late 90′s and early 2000′s Denver Broncos. At the time, the Broncos were known for having small, athletic offensive linemen who weren’t prototypical, and who therefore weren’t in great demand by other teams. That Broncos team also developed a reputation for being able to throw any back in the backfield and pile up big yardage.

 

In a salary cap era, with a QB earning big money, in an organization that still sees the value of stocking the defense with talent, the Ravens have to make a conscious effort to cut corners somewhere. Continually “coaching up” offensive linemen to the point that other teams are willing to offer them big money, and having paid “top dollar” to a running back who may already be on the down slope, has put the Ravens in a tough spot…a tough spot that could be avoided in the future if they’re able to successfully implement a new offensive philosophy that gets the most out of unconventional, not in demand talent that won’t cost a mint or have to turn over quite so rapidly.

 

If this is the case, you have to applaud the Ravens commitment to change, even on the heels of their recent success, in order to get and remain one step ahead in the future. It’d clearly be easier to abandon the new scheme, and go back to the old, simple, conventional style of play that led them to New Orleans last year, but if the Ravens believe that this is the right path for the long term, then they just might have to be willing to suffer a little short term pain for some long term gain.

 

A couple of years ago John Harbaugh was selling the symbolism of the shovel and the sword, signifying the Ravens building and fighting at the same time. If this time around the Ravens have to tear down in order to build up stronger, they seem to have run out of hands for those swords. Hopefully soon enough, they’ll be able to put down the sledgehammers and get back to the fight. For now…they’ve earned our patience.

 

 

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After post-bye clunker, “What now?” becomes Ravens’ biggest question

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After post-bye clunker, “What now?” becomes Ravens’ biggest question

Posted on 03 November 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

Coming off the Week 8 bye was supposed to be a chance for the Ravens to start anew after a rocky 3-4 start to the 2013 season.

With the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals losing on Thursday night and most of the AFC wild-card contenders looking mortal, the Ravens simply needed a win — no matter how it looked — to get back to .500 and begin the second half of the season on a positive note. A week off not only gave players a chance to rest but provided head coach John Harbaugh and his staff the time to make much-needed corrections in all phases of the game.

Instead, the Ravens responded with an ugly 24-18 loss to the Cleveland Browns, snapping an 11-game winning streak over their AFC North foe and digging an even bigger hole in their quest to advance to the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season. Expecting the bye week to provide a much-needed tuneup, the Ravens instead stalled getting out of their driveway as they’re now off to their worst start since the 2005 season.

And the question echoing over and over in the closing seconds as the Browns finished a scoring drive lasting more than six minutes was a frightening one.

What now?

A running game averaging a league-worst 2.8 yards per carry entering Sunday produced only 55 yards on 21 carries with quarterback Joe Flacco accounting for 25 of those on three scrambles. The offensive line was once again dominated at the point of attack and Ray Rice finished with 17 yards on 11 carries, not looking any more explosive or elusive despite claims that he was once again 100 percent.

Though once again plagued with a running game that was a non-factor and suspect pass protection for much of the day, Flacco played poorly through much of the first half, missing several open receivers and throwing a head-scratching interception late in the second quarter. To his credit, the sixth-year signal caller rebounded over the game’s final 30 minutes, but his poor first-half showing was disappointing coming off the bye and was a major factor in the Ravens offense once again getting off to a slow start.

The defense allowed veteran Jason Campbell to throw for 262 yards and three touchdowns and, even worse, wasn’t able to get a stop at a crucial point in the second half for the third straight game — all losses. Dean Pees’ unit hasn’t been the biggest problem this season, but the Ravens defense simply hasn’t been able to come up with a big play when it needs it late in games unlike stellar units of the past that often carried inferior offenses.

Not to be outdone by the first two phases, the special teams were a major problem as well as normally sure-handed punt returner Tandon Doss muffed a punt at his own 11-yard line, setting up the Browns’ third touchdown of the game in the third quarter and putting the Ravens behind 21-10. And punter Sam Koch continued his rough season, failing to pin the Browns inside the 20 on three separate opportunities kicking inside Cleveland territory in a game in which field position loomed large.

Hoping for the light to come on after the bye, the Ravens looked like they did in the first seven games of the season — appearing to be a below-average football team.

How does it get fixed? Can it be fixed this season?

The Ravens are as healthy as they’re going to be until the expected return of Dennis Pitta later this month, but the talented tight end isn’t going to remedy all of the team’s problems. At this rate, the Ravens may not be in a position for Pitta’s return to matter in terms of their playoff hopes for 2013.

General manager Ozzie Newsome and Harbaugh have already trimmed fat on the roster with the jettisoning of veterans Michael Huff, Marcus Spears, and Bryant McKinnie. Many are clamoring for the ax to fall on run-game coordinator Juan Castillo, but there have already been murmurs that his influence has waned since the bye week with offensive line coach Andy Moeller now having a louder voice.

If Castillo were to be fired — a move that would be very difficult to challenge at this point — do the likes of Marshal Yanda and Michael Oher suddenly start winning one-on-one battles that they’ve lost too often this season?

The answers aren’t simple when you have issues all over the place and that’s where the Ravens find themselves as they began the month of November with their third loss in the last four games. There’s a certain amount of understanding that comes with the struggles of unproven players like Gino Gradkowski and veteran newcomers who simply don’t fit, but a number of veterans who have been counted on year in and year out have been even bigger disappointments, which brings greater concern for the future.

Even with the problems along the offensive line, it’s getting more difficult every week to dispute the growing notion that Rice’s best days are behind him. He continues to struggle to break any tackles in the open field and no longer looks like the home-run hitter on which the Ravens relied for years. Rice has three years remaining on his current contract and is scheduled to account for $8.75 million on next year’s cap.

Oher and Yanda have appeared to be shells of their former selves, which might not be as problematic with the former scheduled to become a free agent, but the Pro Bowl right guard has a cap figure of $8.45 million next year and is under contract through the 2015 season.

Top cornerback Lardarius Webb was faked out of his shoes by Browns receiver Davone Bess on a 20-yard touchdown in the second quarter Sunday and has struggled to find his pre-injury form coming back from ACL surgery, but he certainly deserves some benefit of the doubt and should get stronger in the second half of the season. Still, he carries a $10.5 million cap figure in 2014 and is being paid as one of the best cornerbacks in the league.

Having arguably the worst season of his career, Koch carries a $2.8 million cap figure next year, which is a high number for a punter not getting the job done.

And perhaps the most disappointing and concerning of the group of standouts failing to deliver in 2013 is defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who holds a $16 million cap number next season and no longer looks like the game-wrecker he was before the Ravens signed him to a five-year, $61 million contract in 2011. For the third straight season, nagging injuries are limiting his impact in games.

Regardless of what happens over the final eight games in terms of the Ravens trying to rebound to extend their run of five consecutive playoff appearances to a sixth, Newsome and Harbaugh must be in evaluation mode when it comes to the aforementioned players. Some contracts have bigger cap ramifications than others, but it’s a scary proposition to be forced to reconsider your thinking on players who previously weren’t of any concern — and carry huge price tags.

The debate went on through much of the offseason whether the Ravens were rebuilding or simply reloading after a slew of personnel changes. The result to this point has been a flawed roster that will need to go 6-2 in the second half of the season just to give the Ravens a chance at 9-7.

And barring a drastic turnaround in the final eight games, the Ravens will be forced to start thinking about their offseason much sooner than anyone anticipated.

And they’ll definitely have their work cut out for them.

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Our Ravens/Browns “Slaps to the Head”

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Our Ravens/Browns “Slaps to the Head”

Posted on 03 November 2013 by Glenn Clark

After Baltimore Ravens victories, Ryan Chell and I award players who made positive contributions with “Pats on the Ass” during the Creative Deck Designs Postgame Show on AM1570 WNST.net.

The Ravens fell to the Cleveland Browns 24-18 Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, meaning there were no Pats to be awarded.

So instead of offering “Pats on the Ass”, Ryan and I offered “Slaps to the Head” postgame. A slap on the side of the head from a coach tends to come along with them saying something along the lines of “you’ve gotta do better than that.”

Same rules as there were with Pats. Two offensive players, two defensive players, and a Wild Card (Special Teams player, coach, or another Offensive or Defensive player). One player gets “two slaps” (or a slap on both sides of the head), it’s the opposite of a “Player of the Game” honor.” Ryan and I select five different players/coaches after each game.

Here are our five Ravens that have “gotta do better than that.”

Glenn Clark’s Slaps…

5. Corey Graham

4. Matt Elam

3. Michael Oher

2. Ray Rice

1. Juan Castillo (Two Slaps)

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How does Rice fit into Ravens’ running game woes?

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How does Rice fit into Ravens’ running game woes?

Posted on 16 October 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

Ravens running back Ray Rice knew nothing but success in the first five years of his NFL career.

With three Pro Bowl selections, over 5,000 rushing yards, and more than 2,700 receiving yards, the 26-year-old had firmly cemented his place as one of the league’s top running backs and appeared on schedule to easily supplant Jamal Lewis as the Ravens’ all-time leading rusher at some point late in the 2014 season. That’s what makes his start to the 2013 season that much more alarming as the Ravens figured to lean more on the running game after the offseason trade of wide receiver Anquan Boldin and the long-term hip injury suffered by tight end Dennis Pitta in the first week of training camp.

Baltimore ranks 27th in the league in rush offense with just 72.7 yards per game and is 31st of 32 teams with an anemic 2.7 yards per carry. Through the first six weeks of the season, Rice has managed just 197 yards on 71 carries and has averaged 2.8 yards per carry, 1.7 yards lower than his career average entering the season.

Labeling himself “a little frustrated” with the overall lack of production in the running game following Sunday’s 19-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers, Rice has run for no gain or negative yardage on 20 of his 71 carries this season. No one would blame him for being frustrated as he finds himself with a long run of 14 yards on the season and ranked 34th in the NFL in rushing as even three quarterbacks — Michael Vick, Russell Wilson, and Terrelle Pryor — have collected more yards on the ground than the 2008 second-round pick.

Once holding the undisputed title as the Ravens’ most explosive offensive weapon, Rice is now part of a running game on pace to shatter the franchise record for fewest yards per attempt average as the 2006 Ravens — a team that ironically finished with a franchise-best regular-season record of 13-3 — collected 3.4 yards per rush for the lowest mark in the team’s 18-year history.

“Ray has handled it as well as you can,” wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “Obviously, you’re going to be frustrated, especially when you’re him [and] you’re used to producing a certain way. He’s not putting himself above anything else. The biggest thing is that we haven’t been winning and we haven’t been doing as well as we wanted to on offense. It’s not necessarily about him and his own stats.”

Of course, no one would dispute the poor performance of the offensive line as the greatest cause for the running game woes — Rice and second-year backup Bernard Pierce are each averaging 2.8 yards per carry and aren’t finding any consistent room to run — but trying to evaluate just how well Rice is performing has been tricky this season. Before offering any potential criticism of Rice, it’s fair to acknowledge Pierce hasn’t fared any better after many wondered in the offseason if the Ravens should use more of a 50-50 split this year.

Any assessment of Rice’s play must acknowledge the left hip flexor strain he suffered in the Week 2 win over the Cleveland Browns, an injury that forced him to miss his first game since his rookie season when he was sidelined for three games with a shin injury. While not a serious injury by nature, a hip ailment would understandably hamper any shifty runner such as Rice who depends on lateral movement and the ability to change direction quickly.

Coach John Harbaugh deferred to Rice when asked how healthy his starting running back was — Rice wasn’t made available to the media on Wednesday — but it isn’t unfair to wonder how healthy the sixth-year back may be as the Ravens play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday before entering next week’s bye.

“He was banged up for a couple weeks, and this is really his first couple weeks back,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “Anytime you get a little banged up and aren’t 100 percent, you have to take a little bit of time before you can really expect to be back there and have full explosion.”

While the offensive line has faced the most scrutiny as its struggled to adapt to run-game coordinator Juan Castillo’s zone blocking schemes, Harbaugh has acknowledged the need for the running backs to show better vision in reading blocks and being more explosive in hitting their running lanes — no matter how small they might be.

Many observers have opined that both Rice and Pierce have appeared hesitant in hitting holes, pointing to examples over the first six weeks of the season where holes were missed or cutback opportunities weren’t taken when the offensive line managed to do its job effectively. Just like any other position on the field, a running back isn’t immune from losing confidence in not just the players around him but himself when the ground game isn’t clicking.

Lewis, one of only seven players in NFL history to run for over 2,000 yards in a season, recalled times in his career in which a lack of confidence in what was happening up front hindered his ability to make plays even when the running lanes were there. The Ravens’ Ring of Honor member saw his 5.3 yards per carry average in his 2003 Pro Bowl season drop nearly two full yards per attempt just two years later.

“I’ve had a few years where you were hesitant [and] not sure in your line’s ability in blocking this scheme,” Lewis told AM 1570 WNST on Tuesday. “Is your line too light for the scheme you are running? When you do that, and that sinks in, it’s a mental thing that can really hurt you. You’ll never get on track. It’s kind of feeling it out, dealing with it, finding a solution to the problem. But, you just can’t have the hesitation because there’s going to be wide-open holes and you’re going to miss [them]. It’s more of a ‘hit it where it’s supposed to go.’

“Look at Adrian Peterson. When he hits the hole, if it’s closed, he bounces off and he hits the next one. At the same time, this is the NFL, it closes up quickly. It’s not always a hole as wide as all daylight.”

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Changes coming to Ravens’ struggling offensive line

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Changes coming to Ravens’ struggling offensive line

Posted on 14 October 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens head coach John Harbaugh didn’t offer a specific list of adjustments to be made to an anemic running game, but the head coach isn’t shying away from the biggest problem that plagues his 3-3 team, either.

Addressing the media a day after a disappointing 19-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers in which the Ravens gained just 47 yards on 22 carries to continue a season-long inability to run the football, Harbaugh acknowledged that he and his coaching staff aren’t standing pat with a struggling offensive line. While most fingers are pointed in the direction of new run-game coordinator Juan Castillo and second-year center Gino Gradkowski, the head coach repeatedly said all individuals invested in the running game — coaches, offensive linemen, and running backs — need to make improvements as the Ravens rank 31st in the league with their 2.7 yards per carry average.

“We’re definitely making changes. We’re not going to sit there and just stand pat with what we’re doing,” Harbaugh said. “It may not be visible from the outside looking in, but they’re visible to the people we play against, and they’re definitely visible to us. We know what changes we’re making, whether it’s personnel changes or, more likely, scheme changes. Not major things, just things that will give our guys a better chance to be on the same page. That’s what we need to do.

“We’ve got too many situations where we don’t have a hat on a hat. When you don’t have a hat on a hat, that’s a problem. That’s just not acceptable.”

Harbaugh mentioning the inability to simply find one-on-one matchups suggests the Ravens could be moving away from Castillo’s zone blocking scheme that relies on lateral movement, timing, and finding the proper positioning and angles and moving toward a man-power approach that involves more physicality and simply identifying a defender to block based on how the defense is lined up before the snap.

The Ravens have repeatedly been dominated at the line of scrimmage this season, with many observers seeing too much hesitation and a lack of proper communication in identifying blitzes and stunts. Harbaugh has repeatedly downplayed the changes made by Castillo this season, but the acknowledgement of scheme adjustments being made suggests what the former Eagles offensive line coach has tried to implement hasn’t worked well with the personnel up front.

“We’re not stuck on any particular scheme or any particular technique or any particular way of doing something,” Harbaugh said. “We want to find the best way to do it, and we work hard at that, and we’ll continue to do that. We’re going to find our way into our run game.”

It remains to be seen whether there are any noticeable changes such as the possibility of A.Q. Shipley taking Gradkowski’s place in the starting lineup, but an attempt to simplify their overall strategy could at least provide short-term relief for a running game struggling to simply get back to the line of scrimmage far too often.

Of the Ravens’ 22 rushing attempts in Sunday’s loss to the Packers, five went for negative yardage and six netted no gain as quarterback Joe Flacco and the passing game were constantly faced with third-and-long situations because of such little success on first and second down. There were a few occasions where a delayed blitzer came untouched to blow up ballcarriers in the backfield.

“We had some mental mistakes, some errors that just cost us,” Harbaugh said. “You need no runs for negative yards. There has got to be at least a gain of some kind moving forward. We’ve got to get a lot better at that.”

Even if a simplified man-power approach doesn’t provide as high of a ceiling in terms of explosive plays, increasing the yards-per-carry average to a respectable level — say even an underwhelming 3.5 yards per carry — would alleviate pressure on a passing game still evolving in its own right.

Whether the results improve this Sunday in Pittsburgh or we see much of the same from a running game that’s yet to get in gear as the bye week approaches, the Ravens need to change things up. All parties involved with the running game continue to say the right things, but it’s now clear that what was once thought as an early-season aberration is threatening to become a year-altering crisis with each week of ineffective rushing.

“Frustration can be a great motivator,” Harbaugh said. “I like that. Let’s be frustrated, and let’s go to work and see if we can get better.”

Jensen’s role moving forward

With Gradkowski not performing well and Shipley not drawing an opportunity at the center position to this point, many have turned their attention to sixth-round rookie Ryan Jensen and what role he might serve along the offensive line.

The Colorado State-Pueblo product finally returned to the practice field last week after breaking his foot in the first week of training camp in late July, but it’s unlikely the 6-foot-4, 318-pound lineman will be a factor on game days until after the bye. It’s clear the Ravens wanted to keep Jensen around as an option for 2013 since they refrained from placing him on season-ending injured reserve, but Harbaugh’s vision for Jensen — at least publicly — doesn’t suggest a move to the starting lineup anytime soon.

“He’ll be a backup to start with, and then we’ll see what he does from there,” Harbaugh said. “We haven’t seen much of him yet. Developmental backup — that will be his role.”

Truthfully, the Ravens are unsure what they really have with Jensen who only played at the Div. II level, but they like his upside as an interior lineman.

Harbaugh defends Elam

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No signs of life from Ravens’ stagnant running game in loss to Packers

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No signs of life from Ravens’ stagnant running game in loss to Packers

Posted on 13 October 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

BALTIMORE — The post-game comments have become as predictable as the offensive woes every week as the Ravens fell 19-17 to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

The same buzzwords and clichés have been echoed in describing an offensive line and running game that have been miserable through the first six weeks of the season. After showing signs of life in running for 100 yards in the second half against Miami last week, the Ravens are back to the drawing board again after being held to 47 yards on 22 carries against the Packers to fall to 3-3 on the season.

This week, there was no Bryant McKinnie to pick on as the newly-acquired Eugene Monroe took his place as the starting left tackle, but the results weren’t any better. The combination of young center Gino Gradkowski and the implementation of run-game coordinator Juan Castillo’s zone blocking schemes have received the bulk of the criticism, but the end result can’t be overstated or oversimplified in blaming only two individuals, either.

The entire Baltimore offensive line has been bad. Really bad.

“The thing that we’re not going to do is overreact,” coach John Harbaugh said. “You don’t go in there and make any kind of major adjustments when you know you’re doing things well, and you’ve got the people to do it. We’re a work in progress, no doubt about it.”

That line of explanation was acceptable over the first few weeks of the seasons when the Ravens faced some talented front sevens and were adjusting to new personnel, but in order to be a work in progress, there actually has to be some progress being made. And as the Ravens approach the midway point, the same problems continue to plague an offense that has been shut out in the first quarter four times in six games this season.

Though many might describe the decision to trade for Monroe in the middle of the season an example of overreacting, perhaps it’s time for Harbaugh to shake things up even more. There are simply too many holdovers from an offensive line that played terrifically in the Ravens’ march to Super Bowl XLVII nine months ago to accept being this bad. That’s why the fingers pointed in the direction of Castillo and Gradkowski are understandable.

Baltimore entered Week 6 gaining just 2.8 yards per carry and averaged 2.1 against the Packers as neither Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice nor backup Bernard Pierce could find consistent room to run. The offensive line was once again dominated physically and more miscommunication allowed unblocked defenders to blow up plays in the backfield on several occasions.

“What you saw out there is not what we put out in practice,” said Rice, who was held to 34 yards on 14 carries. “We practiced so hard. I guess I’d use the words ‘a little frustrated.’ You can’t take our hard work away. We work so hard.”

But that hard work isn’t paying off as the absence of a productive running game is making life too difficult for quarterback Joe Flacco, who played commendably in throwing for 342 yards and two touchdowns in defeat. Critics will mock Flacco’s pedestrian numbers this season in the aftermath of the 28-year-old receiving a $120.6 million contract, but he isn’t good enough and doesn’t have the sufficient weapons to thrive without any semblance of a running game.

No Dennis Pitta, no Anquan Boldin, and no running game? You might as well ask Flacco to play without three of his four limbs, and that’s not even considering the pass protection that’s been better than the run blocking but still too inconsistent this season.

The Ravens were 2-for-14 on third down against the Packers on Sunday and only four of those opportunities required less than nine yards to convert. In the first quarter, the Ravens gained nine yards on nine plays on first and second down, leaving Flacco and the passing game with an uphill climb over and over.

“It’s tough when you don’t have any success on first and second down,” Flacco said. “You’re putting yourself in third-down situations and the only way you score touchdowns or kick a field goal is you convert four third downs to get there — and you get 12 yards at a time. Twelve yards, 12 yards, 12 yards. In order to sustain drives, you need to get first downs on first and second down, and you need to get a couple chunks in there, and we’re not doing that.”

The frustration is clear, because even with the personnel changes made from last year, there is still too much talent present to be this poor offensively, especially when it comes to the running game.

The Ravens simply can’t expect to overcome the slow starts by the offense on a weekly basis to win many games. The defense allowed a 64-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson late in the third quarter and wilted in the final 15 minutes as Green Bay put together a field-goal drive lasting more than seven minutes, but the overall effort of giving up 19 points to one of the best offenses in the NFL should have been enough to win.

The offense isn’t doing it’s part and it starts up front. As Flacco described it after the game, the 17 points scored in the second half were “too little, too late.”

“We’ve just not getting it done as well as we want to in the first half,” Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda said. “We come in at halftime and it’s like, ‘We’ve got to get going. We’ve got to do this.’ And it’s been like that almost every game this year. We want to start faster and help the defense out. I think they played tremendous today. Versus Aaron Rodgers, they did awesome. We all want to get it right. Everybody’s frustrated.”

There are no easy solutions as it’s clear Harbaugh and his coaching staff haven’t found them through the first six weeks of the season, but they must take a look at Castillo’s schemes and Gradkowski’s performance, specifically when it comes to making the proper calls at the line. And perhaps it’s time to reassess how offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell starts games since that’s when the Ravens have been particularly bad offensively.

Instead of hoping to establish the running game early, maybe the Ravens need to come out throwing to set up the run as the game progresses. At the very least, it would put the ball in Flacco’s hands to give him more control in preventing the third-and-long situations he’s pointed to as being a major problem.

It’s becoming apparent that giving the ball to Rice won’t automatically fix the Ravens’ problems despite what many had you believe after last week’s game.

“I always feel like we can mix it up a little bit more on first and second down just to get everybody going,” Flacco said. “It’s tough to say when we’re just not running the ball up to the ability that we think we should run it. If we were running the ball better, we wouldn’t be saying it. We wouldn’t be talking about it.”

But we are.

And it continues to be the biggest problem plaguing the Ravens this season.

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