We’re a little over two weeks removed from the Baltimore Ravens winning their second Super Bowl championship in franchise history.
When the offense was struggling, head coach John Harbaugh relieved offensive coordinator Cam Cameron of his duties and Jim Caldwell began calling plays for the team. The Ravens and quarterback Joe Flacco never looked back as the team won five of seven games since Caldwell was promoted.
Joe Flacco went on one of the greatest runs in postseason history, tying Joe Montana for most touchdowns thrown without an interception in playoff history with 11 and earning Super Bowl MVP honors.
Now the Ravens will have plenty of decisions to make heading into the 2013 season, starting with what to do about the contract situation of Joe Flacco. Let’s first look back at the 2012 Baltimore Ravens.
Joe Flacco had his struggles in the 1st half of the season on the road and even later at home in games, but once Jim Caldwell was inserted into the offensive coordinator position and had time to put his imprint on the game plan, Joe Flacco and the offense took off.
The switch that came to the offensive line was a necessity and also a big help for the way Flacco played in those final weeks of the regular season and then, of course, his incredible run during the playoffs.
But we saw marked improvement from Flacco and the coaching staff finally took the kid gloves off and let Flacco go out and make plays and win games for the team. Something that seemed to be lacking while Cam Cameron was coordinator, changed when Caldwell took over. Flacco went out and played the way he was capable of playing, to be confident in his ability to throw the football down field and to improve his pocket awareness and get rid of the football instead of taking sacks.
What stood out most was the improved pocket awareness of Flacco. When you don’t have to sit in the pocket and wait around for things to develop – like they did while Cameron called plays – Flacco is quick enough to break from the pocket and get moving and make plays with his arm to get guys open. We saw it time and time again in the playoffs (Jacoby Jones TD) and what we’ve seen from other QB’s (Ben Roethlisberger comes to mind)
We saw Joe make some damn gutsy calls at the line of scrimmage which worked to his favor. That being a testament to him growing as an NFL quarterback, reading what a defense is giving him and reacting to it. The audible on the third-and-short in the Super Bowl against San Francisco was his growth in a nutshell. The throw was exactly where and when it needed to be and it was the right call.
Flacco will now command upwards of $20 million a year as a FA, and he deserves every penny. Baltimore, you finally have your franchise quarterback.
A very solid season from Ray Rice, finishing with 1,143 rushing yards, down slightly from 2011 because the Ravens offense is much more balanced now. He rushed for nine touchdowns and did his part in the passing game as he usually does, catching 61 passes for 478 yards.
Rice, at 26 years of age, is still the Ravens featured back as he has the ability to change a game with his running or pass-catching abilities. He’s a huge asset to Joe Flacco coming out of the backfield to catch passes because he is able to change direction so easily and accelerate when Joe looks his way on checkdowns. Who can forget 4th-and-29 in San Diego?
The Ravens ran Rice up the middle quite frequently during the season with not a lot of success, but Rice ran for tough yards. The team had more success running him on tosses to the left, behind Bryant McKinnie and Kelechi Osemele and hopefully with an off-season to tweak things, Jim Caldwell will use this more. Ray Rice is still the Ravens lead back, he’s in top physical shape and entering the prime of his career. The Ravens also have a backup running back who was just as much a part of the offense down the stretch as Ray Rice was…
Bernard Pierce exploded onto the scene for Baltimore in 2012 as a splendid compliment to Rice. Pierce brought power and a physical running style to the offense to keep drives going and move the chains. The third round draft pick last season from Temple ran for 532 yards on just 108 carries. He rushed for 202 yards in four playoff games.
Pierce in his 2nd season, will look to continue working on his pass-catching abilities and blocking as the team potentially shifts away from a traditional fullback like Vonta Leach who could become a cap casualty. He’s motivated and doesn’t apologize for his bruising approach to running the football. The Ravens sorely needed a guy like this. Running Backs Coach Wilbert Montgomery has to be pleased with what he’s coaching.
The great thing we’re seeing with Rice is while being a leader on this team, is just as happy with Pierce being involved in giving the Ravens a dangerous combination at running back. One of the strongest areas of the team heading into 2013.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
The Ravens took their offense to the next level in 2012, and the wide receiver play was a major part of that.
While no one player had a huge season, the group was very balanced, led by veteran Anquan Boldin. “Q” led the team in receptions (65) and yards (921) to go along with four touchdowns. He would score four touchdowns in the playoffs as Flacco found the right matchups for Boldin whether on a smaller cornerback or getting past the safety on a seam route, it didn’t matter. Boldin is flat out stronger than most defenders in the league.
Boldin has stated that he will retire if the Ravens cut him as he is due a $6 million salary in 2013. He wants to play only for the Ravens and for the city of Baltimore and Boldin exudes classy professionalism. At 32 years of age, he’s up there in terms of wide receivers, but has plenty left in the tank and would be huge for the Ravens if they can somehow re-structure his contract keeping him around as another sure target for Joe Flacco.
Torrey Smith took a gigantic step forward, becoming the Ravens deep threat they’ve long dreamed of when they drafted him out of the University of Maryland. Smith caught 49 passes for 855 yards and a team leading eight touchdowns. He had two games where he went over 100 yards receiving and twice caught two TD’s in a game, then did it again in the divisional round against Denver.
His route running has become pretty impressive and has the speed to beat just about anybody over the top, right Champ Bailey? He’s also gotten much better in his blocking abilities and that will come into play as he continues to round out his game.
Dennis Pitta is Joe Flacco’s security blanket and for good reason, Pitta has some of the best hands on the team. Pitta, in his third year from BYU, caught 61 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns. Pitta loves the middle of the field and doesn’t mind taking contact making him a huge asset for this offense.
Jacoby Jones could have an increased role next season depending on what the Ravens do with Boldin. Jones began to see more targets his way as Caldwell settled into the coordinator position and has pretty good hands despite the stigma that followed him here to Baltimore after he was let go by the Houston Texans (thanks again Houston), his ability is in the kick return game as he changed games quite a few times during the season. His 108 yard kick off return in the Super Bowl had the 49ers reeling on the ropes to start the 2nd half.
With an off-season to figure things out, the wide receivers could see another big season in 2013 with some new routes being worked in to showcase the talents of each. The air show will be fun to watch.
Offensive line play overall was solid all season, but we really saw it happen when John Harbaugh finally made the switch, moving Bryant McKinnie to LT, Michael Oher back to RT and Kelechi Osemele to LG. When it happened, they kept Joe Flacco upright only allowing 35 sacks and very effective in run blocking.
They shut down some very good players in the playoffs – Robert Mathis, Dwight Freeney, Elvis Dumervil, and Aldon Smith just to name a few. The combination of McKinnie and Osemele were very good as they often teamed on their side to neutralize defenders and both are athletic enough to get out in space and block.
Bryant McKinnie played well once he got back into the starting lineup, although it remains to be seen if he comes back for 2013. It’s a matter of if the team feels it could go in a different direction and try to get younger at the position through free agency or the draft. The Ravens could also bring him back at a reduced rate.
Kelechi Osemele really turned his game up and has proven to be a great draft pick by Ozzie Newsome. The 2012 2nd round pick from Iowa State is versatile enough to play at tackle but is probably better suited to play interior at guard. He was in such a groove that no one was getting past him, his level of play was that stellar. Kelechi has solid footwork and can move pretty well for a guy that is 335 pounds. These are the kind of players the Ravens wanted – big, strong and mobile lineman that can overpower you on one play and finesse you on another.
Matt Birk finally got himself a Super Bowl ring in what has been a very solid career here in Baltimore. It looks as though his time is up as he’ll either retire or the Ravens will cut him and go with the future center Gino Gradkowski. Birk at times had trouble with speed up the middle as the Ravens had to give him help from both guards, but Birk is a Harvard grad, so his smarts are some of the best in the game. He did an admirable job down the stretch.
I’ve talked many times during the season how much of a nasty streak Marshal Yanda has on the field. He’s a mauler at 6’5″, 315 pounds who like Osemele is very agile and athletic for a guy his size. When he’s not on the field the line suffers without him. He is the key cog to the line playing in unison with each other. He’s only going to get better at just age 28 and can help Michael Oher a ton if Oher stays on the right side where he is better suited.
Michael Oher has a habit of getting called for a variety of penalties, but down the stretch, something clicked and we saw the mistakes stop happening. Sometimes it comes down to a decision internally to just focus, relax and play football that the player is capable of playing.
Oher is much better suited for the right side of the field but the Ravens could again elect to move him back to left tackle if McKinnie is not resigned. Oher has enough size and strength to stop pass rushers from getting to the quarterback, even if his technique isn’t the most sound. He does use his hands well to combat a speed rusher and most times neutralizes a bull rush because he’s able to move quicker and use his hands quicker because of his length. Oher played really well in the Denver game against Dumervil and in the Super Bowl when seeing some action against Aldon Smith.
Look for the Ravens to go after depth for the offensive line through the draft and possibly in the late stages of free agency when some players are cut.
Haloti Ngata battled through injuries all season long, but started 14 games and recorded five sacks. When he is healthy and moving, it’s tough to run the football up the middle against Baltimore. He commands double teams, but he’s so incredibly strong that he sheds blockers with ease when healthy. In the playoffs he was tough to move but was hurt in the Super Bowl and the 49ers took advantage of that weakness with Ngata out of the game. Ngata is one of the premier players on this defense, but he’s going to need help next season.
A solid season for Arthur Jones who finished the year with 4.5 sacks and was becoming hard to block late in the season, into the playoffs. He’ll look to build upon that for 2013 as he sees more play time. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees rotated these guys a lot to not only keep them fresh, but also to have the best players out there at the right times.
One guy who had a disappointing season was Terrence Cody. Cody is a guy many had hoped would turn the corner in 2012 but did not do so. Cody had a very quiet season and just wasn’t able to generate any pressure on the quarterback, even with Haloti Ngata playing next to him. He could get passed by with guys like DeAngelo Tyson seeing playing time this season
Ma’ake Kemoeatu returned to the Ravens this past season and provides nice depth for Baltimore. He saw more play time with injuries and inconsistencies and recorded a sack this season.
The one area that worries me the most on this team. Overall, the line didn’t get much pressure to the quarterback all season, despite the size of the unit. The Ravens will most likely look to the draft for help on the defensive line. They need to get younger and find guys with some potential.
Ray Lewis rides off into the sunset as champion once again. The 17-year all-pro linebacker hung up his spikes for the final time after the Super Bowl and played incredible football in the playoffs coming off an injury that sidelined him in October. Lewis tore his tricep muscle in the win over the Cowboys and aggressively rehabbed to get back in time for another playoff run. When he returned, Lewis shocked the football world by announcing his retirement at season’s end.
What he did in the playoffs only adds to his lore. 51 total tackles in four playoff games, helping the Ravens win their 2nd championship. It’s as if we saw the Ray of old briefly, if only for a fleeting moment. He willed this team to a championship. Ray wasn’t the same player as old, but his knowledge on the field is superior and helps the defense as a whole. Lewis saw more double teams from offensive lineman who came straight at him because Ray doesn’t move well side to side anymore. But his return breathed new life into this defense, sorely missing their emotional and spiritual leader.
Having a healthy Terrell Suggs in 2013 will be huge for the Ravens in getting to the quarterback. Suggs partially tore his achilles tendon before the start of the season, and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year was feared to be lost for the season. Somehow, Suggs rehabbed and returned from injury, deeming himself healthy to play. Suggs played in eight regular season games, recording two sacks. Suggs got stronger into the playoffs, recording two sacks in the Denver game and while recording only two tackles in the victory over San Fran, provided good pressure on Colin Kaepernick.
Paul Kruger was one of the more improved players on the team in 2012, but because of that, the Ravens will likely lose him in free agency as he’ll be too costly for a team trying to stay under the cap. Kruger had a huge season for Baltimore, recording nine sacks in 15 games and then getting 4.5 more in the playoffs. His motor constantly runs and finally blossomed into his own this season, drawing double teams at times. The team would love to keep Kruger opposite Suggs, but that’s just business and the Ravens hope Courtney Upshaw can take the next step forward.
We saw some nice things out of Courtney Upshaw in his rookie season. The standout from Alabama started nine games for the Ravens, recorded 1.5 sacks and recovered two fumbles, both of which he forced. He has a knack for popping a football out of someone’s grip and recovering the football. His biggest play of the season came in the Super Bowl, forcing a fumble from LaMichael James in the 2nd quarter. The future is really bright for Upshaw who is supremely athletic for a guy his size and can play a variety of roles, either in coverage or a hand-in-the-dirt pass rusher.
Jameel McClain will look to return from a very serious injury sustained in 2012. An important part of the future at linebacker for Baltimore, McClain suffered a spinal cord contusion injury in the game against Washington and was lost for the season. He’s making progress and is expected to go through additional testing this off-season. McClain finished the season with 79 total tackles and the Ravens will need him now that Ray Lewis has retired.
Dannell Ellerbe had an outstanding season, starting seven games and is the future for the Ravens. Ellerbe’s tackling got better as the season wore on and his experience on the field while Lewis was out will prove to be invaluable. One area that not just Ellerbe but the linebacker core in general hopefully improves on is pass coverage in the middle of the field, an area teams like to attack the Ravens. Ellerbe is the 2nd most important FA to be re-signed after the team figures out what they’ll do with Joe Flacco.
Albert McClellan had a nice season, recording 49 tackles and a sack. He provides nice depth for the Ravens heading into 2013. Josh Bynes also got some valuable experience in 2012 with injuries to Lewis, McClain and Ellerbe.
The secondary battled an assortment of injuries and ineffectiveness all season long. Lardarius Webb was lost for the season, tearing the ACL in his right knee against Dallas in Week 6. He had played fairly well, recording 25 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble before the injury. You do have to worry a bit about the number of serious injuries Webb has already had to his knees being just 27 years of age, but he’ll come to camp fully healthy and ready to be the team’s #1 cornerback.
Cary Williams took a lot of criticism this season and a times it was warranted, but began to play well down the stretch and into the playoffs. He still is susceptible to getting beaten with a double move, but Williams kept a good majority of plays in front of him and got to the ball quicker to make tackles as the Ravens moved into the playoffs. But because of the Ravens pressing cap needs, he’ll likely be another Raven that will find a new home in 2013.
Jimmy Smith will have another opportunity next season to show the Ravens why they drafted him 27th overall in 2011. Smith looked to build on his rookie season this year, briefly starting opposite Cary Williams. Had a leg injury he dealt with during training camp, struggled in coverage early in the season, then later had surgery for a sports hernia after Week 10 that kept him out four games.
Once he returned, Smith saw some time in nickle packages as Corey Graham took over starting duties for Smith. Later in the season, he was in on special teams as well, notching a couple tackles against the Bengals in Week 17. He got better in open field tackling, something he has struggled with. Of course, he was part of the final play against the San Francisco 49ers where both he and Michael Crabtree had contact in the endzone which was not called and the Ravens held on the Niners goal line drive. His play in the post season could be a confidence boost heading into 2013.
Corey Graham replaced Ladarius Webb in the starting lineup and did a good job becoming the Ravens strongest cover guy. He had some big interceptions in games too, notching both of his regular season interceptions against Pittsburgh and then picking off Peyton Manning twice in the Ravens victory over Denver in the playoffs.
He is a physical corner that signed with the Ravens primarily to play special teams and nickle dime packages as well. Thrust into the starting spot, he helped to come up with big plays using his physical style. Graham is a smart player, good teammate and someone the Ravens love having as depth in case of injury.
Ed Reed finally won a championship in his 11th season with the Ravens and capped that performance with an interception in the Super Bowl. Reed at 34 years of age, isn’t the Ed Reed of old, but much like Ray Lewis, brings experience and knowledge to the defense that can’t be discredited. Most times, Reed was playing with one arm or one leg as injuries have taken toll on his body. He’s a free agent this off-season and wants to remain a Raven to finish his career. But with other pressing needs, Reed’s time in Baltimore may be over. And if it was, it was a hell of a career #20.
Bernard Pollard catches a lot of flack for the way he plays football, but here in town, he, “plays like a Raven.” Pollard’s hard-hitting style evokes anxiety into offense players. Stevan Ridley never saw the mack truck that hit him in the playoff game against Baltimore, causing a fumble and proving to be the nail in the coffin for the Patriots.
Pollard tackles well and supports in run coverage which some say he didn’t do well in Houston. When Pollard doesn’t play, the secondary is a mess. That’s how important he is.
The Ravens will most likely be thin in the secondary, so this is one area that Ozzie and company will look to replenish through the draft and free agency, particularly at safety.
Jacoby Jones was the biggest FA addition for the Ravens this season. His game-changing abilities gave the Ravens an added dimension they haven’t had since Jermaine Lewis. If Joe Flacco wasn’t as outstanding as he was in Super Bowl XLVII, Jones would have won MVP honors. 108-yard kick off return to start the 2nd half, 56-yard touchdown reception. He did it all. Jones has pretty good hands as well, something that at times he was knocked for in Houston. In 2013, he may see more of an increased roll in the offense, catching passes for Baltimore. He also could be up for a contract extension, which would help the Ravens out in terms of cap space.
Justin Tucker was the right choice all along, beating out Billy Cundiff for the kicking job and the rookie didn’t disappoint. The rookie went 30-for-33 this season, kicked the game-winning FG against the Broncos in frigid conditions to send the Ravens to the AFC Championship game and then kicked two more in the Super Bowl, one giving the Ravens a five point lead late in the 4th quarter. He’s that damn good.
Sam Koch had an interesting season. He finished with a 47.1 yard per punt average, the highest of his career. But his kicking in the post season was inconsistent and didn’t really have the leg we’ve become accustomed to seeing from Koch. His punt late in the game against the 49ers caused minor heart stoppage from fans here in Baltimore. Luckily he played linebacker at one point in his life, saving a potential touchdown from Ted Ginn, Jr on that return.
Koch will be fine as he’s still one of the better punters in the league, but don’t be surprised to see some competition with him this coming summer.
Special teams overall in punt and kick return coverage improved from 2011 with the addition of guys like Graham, Sean Considine, and another season with Brendon Ayanbadejo to name a few. Outside of the mental lapse in the Denver playoff game, a solid effort this season from this unit.
More often than not, head coach John Harbaugh has his team ready to play every Sunday. At times, you wonder about the challenges and timeouts that get called, but Harbaugh trusts his assistant coaches to coach each side of the ball, make adjustments and play to the team’s strengths. Harbaugh is good at reading the pulse of the team. And now he’s a Super Bowl champion coach.
Letting Cam Cameron go was a gutsy move, but a necessary one. The Ravens needed a new voice and that voice was Jim Caldwell. The playbook didn’t change much, but Caldwell let Flacco be the quarterback and put the offense on his shoulders. Caldwell, with an off-season to work, will add some new dimensions to the offense to fit Flacco’s strengths and I expect the passing game to get even better in 2013.
Dean Pees is an outstanding coach and is good at getting the most out of his players. I liked that he rotated the defensive line to keep them fresh but to also have the best players out there in different situations. His work to get the cornerbacks playing better should be commended as well.
Matt Lund is a contributor for BaltimoreSportsReport.com and co-host of the BSR Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @MattCLund.