Reflecting on Saturday’s season-ending 35-31 loss to New England, the Ravens know there were other reasons why they didn’t advance to the AFC Championship.
A last-minute interception by quarterback Joe Flacco tarnished what had been a banner day for him and a Ravens offense that produced at least 30 points for the second straight week. The decision to take the deep shot, the effort by wide receiver Torrey Smith to break it up, and the throw itself all came under scrutiny, but the offense had been more than good enough to win for the first 58 minutes of the game.
The vaunted pass rush that ranked second in the NFL with 49 sacks during the regular season managed to sack Patriots quarterback Tom Brady only twice with neither coming in the second half as the Ravens squandered a 14-point lead — their second of the night — in the third quarter. Baltimore had accumulated four or more sacks in each of its last eight wins and was 0-5 over that same stretch when failing to reach that plateau.
But it was the Ravens’ greatest weakness that ultimately led to their demise as the secondary was exposed and exploited by Brady and New England’s passing game. In giving up 408 passing yards and four touchdown passes — one thrown by Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman — the Ravens cannnot be fooled by the statistical improvement in the final month of the season that came against opposing passing games led by Blake Bortles, Case Keenum, and Connor Shaw. Baltimore ranked 31st in pass defense entering the final month of the regular season before rallying to finish 23rd.
Fixing the secondary will be a major undertaking for general manager Ozzie Newsome, who misread the Ravens’ depth at cornerback last offseason long before a rash of injuries decimated the position. There are no easy solutions as every notable member of the unit faces a significant question this offseason and secondary coach Steve Spanguolo could draw interest as a potential defensive coordinator elsewhere.
Top cornerback Jimmy Smith will be returning from a Lisfranc injury and is scheduled to make $6.898 million in the fifth-year option of his rookie contract. Emerging as one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL before the foot ailment cut his season short in October, Smith is someone the Ravens would like to keep for the long run, but it’s difficult to ignore the reality that he’s missed 17 games in four seasons when considering the significant money it will likely require to keep him.
Veteran Lardarius Webb made a team-high 11 starts at cornerback, but he carries a $12 million cap figure for the 2015 season. After once appearing on the verge of becoming a Pro Bowl player, Webb will be entering his seventh season and played like no more than average at best after returning from a back injury that cost him all of training camp and three games at the start of the season. Two surgically-repaired knees on top of the back ailment make you wonder if his 5-foot-10, 182-pound body is failing him at this stage of his career.
Cutting Webb would only save $2 million in cap space — he has three years remaining on a six-year, $50 million contract signed in 2012 — and the Ravens would need to replace him in the starting defense, but it’s difficult to justify his salary for such lackluster play for much of the 2014 campaign.
Safety Will Hill was a rare bright spot in the secondary after starting the final eight games upon coming off a six-game suspension, but can the Ravens trust him to stay out of trouble and remain committed to the game? The Ravens wouldn’t figure to have difficulty keeping the restricted free agent, but he’ll need to prove Baltimore right in giving him a second chance before a long-term commitment is even considered.
The in-house options look grim beyond that.
Even if it’s too soon to declare Matt Elam a complete bust, there’s no sugarcoating how disappointing the 2013 first-round pick has been through his first two seasons. In fairness, Elam was forced to play out of position again for much of the year, but he also led the Ravens in missed tackles, which is a problem considering his tackling was viewed as a strength of his coming out of the University of Florida.
Third-round safety Terrence Brooks offered a few glimpses of potential amidst typical struggles of a rookie, but a knee injury cut his season short and the Ravens couldn’t have seen enough to feel comfortable in moving forward with him as a guaranteed starter.
Cornerback Rashaan Melvin was a nice story in becoming a starter late in the year after being signed off the Miami Dolphins’ practice squad in early November, but the Patriots completed 15 of 19 passes for 224 yards, two touchdowns, and a 150.9 passer rating against him in coverage. He proved himself enough to be a solid option for depth, but no more than that at this point.
Injuries limited Asa Jackson to just seven games and his pass coverage wasn’t overly impressive when he played.
Safeties Darian Stewart and Jeromy Miles and cornerback Danny Gorrer are unrestricted free agents, and cornerback Anthony Levine is a restricted free agent.
The draft appears to be the most logical outlet to seek improvement for 2015 and beyond, but the Ravens won’t pick until 26th overall and rookie cornerbacks don’t often provide an immediate impact in significant roles. Baltimore can look no farther than Smith’s selection in 2011 as evidence with the 6-foot-2 University of Colorado product disappointing in his first two years before establishing himself as a starter in 2013.
The Ravens don’t need a top 10 secondary with the strength of their front seven, but it was apparent that even an average secondary might have carried them to at least an AFC Championship appearance.
It will be up to Newsome to make the necessary improvement for 2015.