The last time I felt this much optimism heading into a season, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin headlined the Baltimore Ravens roster. We all know what was accomplished that year. I really like the roster that the front office has assembled for the upcoming season, and I am gonna tell you why it will culminate in a playoff berth for the first time since 2014. And we all know how loud this franchise can be when they get in the tournament.
1. OFFseason = OFFense
It was the Ravens defense that couldn’t close out the season in week 17 last year, as they were caught out of position by Cincinnati Bengals quarterback “The Red Rocket” Andy Dalton, who would find wide receiver Tyler Boyd for a 49-yard touchdown with under a minute left to play. But make no mistake, the defense played very well for the majority of the season and did their part. It was the offense that was clearly not up to the challenge. This offseason, the front office set out to remedy the offensive woes that have plagued the team in recent years. They did a great job in both free agency and the draft, and their aggressive approach really paid off in hindsight. I won’t bore you by listing all the additions that you’re already aware of, but if you’d like to take a look at what the unit should look like, click here.
When the Ravens take the field on September 9 to host the Buffalo Bills in the season opener, a vastly improved offense will take the field. It might just be the optimist in me, but I feel the new additions compliment one another almost perfectly. Ozzie and company did a good job of making sure they have players for every role and go to guys for every situation. I believe we will see a markedly improved offensive unit, one that’s more efficient and more identity driven. Which brings me to reason two…
2. The running game will be a top ten unit in the league
And if I’m being honest that’s the floor in my opinion. Last years rushing attack finished 11th in the league, averaging 116 yards per game, and thats with leading rusher Alex Collins not becoming the full time starter until week 5. Imagine what this kid can do with a full season. Third year running back Kenneth Dixon, who in his rookie season ran with purpose and made defenders work to take him to the ground, looked the part that year. But he missed the entire season last year after suffering a torn meniscus in his left knee. Getting him back healthy should offer a boost to the rushing attack and he’s a wild card for this offense. And expect Buck Allen to keep making significant contributions throughout the year as well. He has improved every year he’s been here and will certainly be given opportunities to make plays with his feet.
Perhaps the most welcome change for the rushing attack this season will be a healthy offensive line. Last season, both starting guards missed essentially the entire season. Left guard Alex Lewis missed the entire 2017 season after suffering a shoulder injury, in the first preseason game, that would require season-ending surgery. All Pro right guard Marshal Yanda suffered a broken ankle in the week 2 matchup with the Cleveland Browns, ending his season. Getting these two guys back in the fold will be huge. In 2016, Yanda ranked number 3 overall in run blocking, per Pro Football Focus. This unit was surprisingly very good with temporary plugs at both guard spots last season. To get both starting guards back will really help open holes up the middle.
I do want to note that two starters from last years line will not be returning this year (center Ryan Jensen and right tackle Austin Howard), but both positions were addressed this offseason via the draft, with the selections of Oklahoma tackle Orlando Brown Jr and Alabama center Bradley Bozeman, in rounds three and six respectively. Bozeman will compete with Matt Skura, a guy who got better with time last season, for the center opening. Brown will compete with James Hurst for the vacancy at right tackle. Hurst played very well as the starter at left guard last season, particularly as a run blocker. But it is worth noting that he’s never fared well when asked to step out on an island at tackle.
Another aspect that could help to improve the rushing attack is the revamped passing attack. If Joe Flacco can keep defenders honest in pass protection, it should pay huge dividends for the running backs. I believe Joe will do just that because …
3. Joe Flacco is both healthy and motivated
Joe Flacco had a miserable 2017 season. There’s no sugar coating that. Sure, you can attribute that to a weak supporting cast, and rightfully so. But I strongly believe he wasn’t 100 percent healthy at any point last season. Flacco was diagnosed with a back injury early in training camp and didn’t rejoin the team until the final week before the season started. I feel the back was an issue for him all season. But all is good now for Flacco, and he should finally be healthy and ready to roll for a full training camp and preseason. That’s of crucial importance throughout the duration of this training camp, because Flaccos got himself a lot of new pass catchers to build chemistry with. While young, this supporting cast could be the best he’s had to work with since the 2012 super bowl season. It’s certainly a talented group. The more work he gets in with everyone before the season, the better it should reflect in the results.
Here’s something that many fans question most years, but it’s undeniable headed into this season: Flacco won’t lack the motivation to give his all this season. For the first time in his career, he has a bonafide playmaking young star waiting in the wings. He is playing not only for his future with the Ravens, but possibly for a contract with another team in 2019. We all saw what Joe did in 2012 in that historical playoff run with a contract on the line. If we can get 80 percent of that Joe Flacco, it’s gonna be a fun season as a Ravens fan. But that’s enough for now on the offense. The defense will also have a huge say in where this team goes this season…
4. A more aggressive approach to an already ballhawking, stingy defense? Yes, please!
While this offseason was all about the offense, the defense had its turn last offseason. 2017’s free agency saw the addition of safety Tony Jefferson, cornerback Brandon Carr and the resigning of mammoth nose tackle Brandon Williams. The draft seemed to be concentrated on this side of the ball as well. First round pick CB Marlon Humphrey headlined the addition of five rookie defenders out of seven draft picks, including the first four picks being defenders. It paid off for the defense last season, who finished ranked 12th in total yards and eighth in total points surrendered.
But one stat that really excites me from last season defensively: first in forced turnovers. In the NFL, turnovers decide games. This team was the leagues ballhawks. Their 22 interceptions led the league, while they also finished fourth in both fumbles forced and fumbles recovered. And this all was accomplished with a defensive coordinator that many said was too conservative.
Former defensive coordinator Dean Pees retired at the end of the season, only to unretire right away and join the Tennessee Titans in the same role. Linebackers coach Don “Wink” Martindale was promoted this offseason as his replacement. The most exciting quality he brings in my eyes is his aggressive personality. “Im an aggressive guy by nature, and I believe in physical, smart football, and I have an aggressive attitude about things.” Head coach John Harbaugh said that’s one of the things he looks forward to as well. “Wink’s the right guy for us. He shares our philosophy in terms of being aggressive, being physical. We think we took a good step toward that last year, and we expect to improve on that this year.” he said. Along with an aggressive approach comes opportunities for takeaways. We may see more forced by the defense this season than we saw last season. It’s almost unfathomable, but sign me up! It could be the difference maker between being a playoff team and being left on the outside looking in. Which brings us to the final reason the Ravens will play into January…
5. The AFC is not a very deep conference
Sure, you have your perennial playoff teams within the conference: the New England Patriots, the Baltimore rival Pittsburgh Steelers. The Jacksonville Jaguars are a young up-and-coming team that almost mirror Baltimore in their makeup. They gave us a beat down I’d soon like to forget last season across seas, embarrassing the overmatched Ravens 44-7. But besides those three teams, the conference is wide open. It’s surely not as strong a conference as the NFC, where there’d be way more competition for wild card spots. Philadelphia, New Orleans, Minnesota, LA Rams, Carolina, Atlanta, and Green Bay all look pretty strong. Chicago looks vastly improved, as well as San Francisco. And Seattle isn’t a team that should be counted out as long as they still have Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll. Arizona with a decent quarterback and a healthy David Johnson back in the mix might make some noise as well. But the point is that there’s not a really bad team in that conference.
My guess is that the Chargers will take the AFC West this year. Let’s assume for a moment Pittsburgh wins our division (which is NOT a lock by any stretch, but they are the favorites still). That would leave the Ravens to battle it out with the Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans, and perhaps the Kansas City Chiefs for the two wild card spots. Buffalo and Kansas City will be starting quarterbacks in their first seasons as starters. Houston has a young electric quarterback in Deshaun Watson, but he’s coming off of a major injury (torn ACL) that ended his season after just six career starts. It’s anybody’s guess how a dual threat quarterback like him will bounce back after destroying his knee. That leaves Tennessee, and I just feel the Ravens are better in all three phases of the game than they are. Maybe that’s just the homer in me. There’s always surprise teams that emerge every season to compete, seemingly out of nowhere. Whoever they might be, I just don’t see them being in better shape than we are right now.
After two really good offseasons, the Baltimore Ravens will be back where they belong: in the playoffs. And as I said before, they tend to make noise once they get in and let the world know that they’re here. Get ready for an exciting season, Ravens Nation. I sure as hell am.