No team can be serious about hoisting the Lombardi Trophy if they aren’t comfortable with the players they’re putting on the field at the end of the preseason. The Ravens are still toying with their starting units on both sides of the ball, leading many to believe they won’t be ready for the start of the regular season.
Thursday night against Atlanta they better hope the questions surrounding the team are answered loud and clear. Otherwise skepticism will follow them into the season, and any uncertainty may cost them a chance at a title run.
Question #1: Are we going to see Good Joe or Bad Joe?
Joe Flacco could be a quality starter in the league for many years to come, but that remains to be seen. He’s been inconsistent during his tenure as starting QB for the birds and needs to improve his leadership and decision making for this team to take that next step.
Case in point: his play against the Redskins starting defense in the third preseason game. He telegraphed a pass to Anquan Boldin allowing opportunistic CB DeAngelo Hall to jump the route and return the interception for the games first TD. Flacco would follow that pick up with stellar play for the rest of the game, throwing two perfect strikes for touchdowns.
It’s that one mistake that separates the good from the great. Putting your team in a hole early in ballgames changes the whole dynamic of that game; it takes the offense out of rhythm and puts added pressure on the defense. For the Ravens to be great Flacco’s offense needs to put that added pressure on opposing defenses, and the Ravens D needs to stifle opposing offenses.
In 2010 Flacco threw for over 3,600 yards, 25 TD’s, and only 10 INT’s for a quarterback rating of 93.6. That’s a solid season that most teams would kill for from their QB, but this Ravens team has a win-now mindset. They need great, consistent play from Joe, no Jekyll and Hyde stuff anymore.
Question #2: Who’s Up Front?
The Ravens have quietly had the worst preseason for any starting offensive line unit in the NFL. They don’t know what they’re doing at either tackle position, they’re signing guys off the street and promising them starting roles, and their young players have not matured and stepped up as planned.
Thankfully, the Ravens were able to resign Marshal Yanda at right guard; if he had been lured away by another team it would’ve spelled complete disaster for the unit. Still, their plan at left and right tackle backfired when it was clear that rookie Jah Reid was not ready to start at right tackle and veteran Michael Oher is better suited to play right than left.
So they signed Bryant McKinnie, a once good starting left tackle who showed up to Vikings camp nearly one hundred pounds overweight, and told him he’d be their starter at left. He’s penciled in to start there now, let’s hope he’s gotten himself in shape, for Flacco’s sake.
Ben Grubbs and Matt Birk round out the group that will be watched closely during limited action on Thursday night, if the starters struggle it will be the storyline to watch throughout the season. Without a solid O-line in front of Flacco and Ray Rice the Ravens stand no chance against the Steelers in week one and the other elite defenses in the AFC throughout the season.
Will they Defend the Pass Better?
Last season the Ravens were ranked 21st overall in pass defense. It was their poor pass defense that cost them the game against the Steelers in the playoffs as Roethlisberger ripped them apart in the second half. Two things need to happen for the secondary to improve.
1) Ed Reed needs to be healthy and at a Pro Bowl level all season.
2) Another playmaker needs to set himself apart.
Reed led the league in interceptions with eight last season, even though he missed significant time due to lingering injuries. When healthy Reed patrols the secondary better than any safety in football. His speed and skill-set make him every quarterbacks worst nightmare; he can, and has won games on his own.
Even with a healthy Reed, the Ravens need one of their young corners (Foxworth, Carr, or the rookie Smith) or one of their safeties (Zbikowski, Nakamura, or Pollard) to step up and take some pressure off Ed.
Bernard Pollard (Strong Safety) has made a lot of plays during the preseason and his skill-set compliments Reed nicely. He’s a sure tackler, a hard hitter, and partnering with Reed could turn Pollard into a Pro Bowler. He’s listed as the backup now, but that’s going to change in time for opening day; he makes plays, and that’s exactly what the Ravens need in the secondary.
Misc. Questions: Backup Quarterback, Youth at Tight End, Need a Pass-Rusher
There aren’t many holes in the Ravens roster, the offensive line being the biggest problem-area for the team. But there are holes. How the team deals with clear lack of experience and/or depth is something to watch going forward.
When Marc Bulger retired he left a gaping hole behind Flacco at Quarterback. When the Ravens drafted Tyrod Tayler (6th Round QB out of Virginia Tech) he was thought of as a long-term project at QB or a wide receiver convert. No one expected the Ravens to go into the season with Taylor their 2nd string QB. Although Taylor has played well during the preseason, a Flacco injury (he hasn’t missed a start in his career) will put the Ravens in a jam and jeopardize the whole season.
Releasing Todd Heap may have been a bit premature. The ten year vet at tight end was thought of by many as a career-Raven. But next man up, second year player Ed Dickson has the position all to himself. Dickson showed flashes of his athleticism last year and during the preseason, but can he bring the same blocking and consistency that Heap brought every play? We’ll see.
Terrell Suggs is a dominant pass rusher. He re-established himself as one of the games best last year with 11.5 sacks, but he needs help. The Ravens finished 27th in the league last year in sacks (with 27 sacks; Pittsburg, in contrast led the league in sacks with 48). They need to get after the quarterback more.
Sergio Kindle (2nd Round pick last year) was drafted to help fill that role, but a freak accident and subsequent skull fracture had him sit out the entire 2010 season. He’s back now and hopes are high that he’ll contribute (as long as he stays out of trouble). Aside from Kindle’s possible upside however there’s no one who’s set to have a breakout season opposite Suggs.
With all of these questions left unanswered it’s scary to think a week from Sunday the Ravens kick their season off against the defending AFC Champs, the Steelers. This team has a chance to be great, but there are signs that the Ravens are aiming too high right now.
About the Author
Written by Frank Sullivan
Frank is a graduate of Old Dominion University, sports fan, author, and founder of TheBloosh.com. He's been working with prosportsblogging.com since April 2011, and has covered the Chicago Bulls, Baltimore Ravens, Virginia Tech Hokies Football, and the Washington Wizards. Frank can be reached @franksullivan on twitter.