Sitting back and looking at the flurry of moves within the Baltimore Ravens coaching staff recently, I’m convinced 2014 is a make or break season for the team. It could very well be make or break for head coach John Harbaugh.
The coaching names brought in should help the Ravens become a better team in 2014, and that reflects the thoughts of the front office who think with retaining some of their own free agents and supplementing that with free agent signings and smart drafting, this coming season could propel them back into the AFC playoff picture, win the division and make some noise in the playoffs.
As tumultuous a season as it was in 2013, there are reasons to believe things can turn around. Here are six Ravens story lines heading into 2014 that are the most important.
1. Can Gary Kubiak revitalize the Ravens offense?
Based on the numbers, it’s very possible Gary Kubiak can turn around an offense that was ranked 29th overall last season, and turn it around very quickly.
Kubiak returns to a position he last coached in 2005 with the Denver Broncos, but his experience speaks volumes for what he can do for an NFL offense. With the Texans as head coach, Kubiak called his own plays and transformed Houston’s offense with an average QB in Matt Schaub and blossoming stars in Arian Foster and Andre Johnson, into a perennial Top 10-ranked unit yearly. From 2008-2010, Houston’s offense landed in the Top 5, and during the 2012 season, the team averaged 372 yards per game and finished seventh in total offense.
He’ll use play-action to cater to Joe Flacco‘s strong arm downfield, he’ll throw in misdirection and bootlegs to get Flacco rolling out with an athletic offensive line to move with him. Kubiak likely will install more wide receiver screens and rubs; things you don’t see frequently in Ravens offenses of the past.
The Ravens still need to get a little more talent on the field, despite the wealth of knowledge Kubiak possesses, so expect big things out of this offense next year with a healthy and focused Ray Rice and the potential of bringing Dennis Pitta back.
2. How will the team handle the decisions on what to do with Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and others?
The decisions will be an interesting one for Baltimore as they could part ways with Terrell Suggs who, at 31 years old, recorded just two sacks in the second half of the season in 2013. Still he led the team with ten sacks, so an extension could be in his future as well. One thing seems to be certain, the Ravens will not restructure any contracts including that of defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
The Ravens have decisions on players like Dennis Pitta, Eugene Monroe and Daryl Smith and how they tread with veterans like Suggs and Ngata will go far in who is part of the future. Suggs’ contract, which according to Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com, will take up $12.4M of next year’s cap space. Nearly $8M can be saved if the team parts with the six-time Pro Bowler.
Ngata, on the other hand, is slated to make $8.5M in 2014, but “dead money” would factor in the equation, costing the Ravens $15M if he’s released before June 1. Cutting Haloti after June 1 would lessen the blow as the $15M can be spread over both ’14 and ’15 according to Brian McFarland of RussellStreetReport.com. That money could then be used to create deals for both Pitta and Monroe, two of the Ravens top priorities this offseason.
Tough decisions for Ozzie Newsome and ones that Ravens fans will wait with bated breath. As we saw last year with the trade of Anquan Boldin and others moves of the past, Newsome will stand firm, telling the media recently, “we’re not afraid and I’m not averted when it comes to letting guys walk out the door.” Stay tuned.
3. Will the offensive line perform better in a zone-blocking scheme under Kubiak and new QB coach, Rick Dennison?
Based on the experience of both Kubiak and Dennison, the answer should be yes. Then again, anything would be better than what the offensive line did last season.
The line performed better as the season went along after trading for Eugene Monroe and Marshal Yanda‘s health progressing, but overall the line struggled to adapt to the zone-blocking scheme under then “run-game coordinator”, Juan Castillo. Various times during the season lineman missed assignments and simply didn’t know who to block or which way to run. It was a mess.
They’re putting emphasis back into the running game and will look to correct issues moving forward. Head coach John Harbaugh named Castillo the offensive line coach, bolstered by the experience of Dennison who’s spent time as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach during his 19 seasons as an NFL coach.
Dennison learned the scheme from his time in Denver under then offensive line coach Alex Gibbs. His understanding and familiarity of how Kubiak wants to run an offense during his time with the Broncos and Houston Texans is good for continuity. He’ll be able to implement and pass along instruction to Castillo on what they want to see out of the zone-blocking scheme, a scheme that helped make Texans RB Arian Foster a star in the league.
The Ravens have athletic pieces on the offensive line, now they also have proven experience on how to run it correctly.
4. Can Joe Flacco bounce back after a subpar 2013 season?
No one wants to see Joe Flacco bounce back more in 2014 than Joe Flacco himself after posting a career low QB rating of 73.1 and career high in interceptions with 22 in 2013.
The offensive line didn’t do Flacco any favors as he was sacked 48 times, also a career high. It seemed Flacco was constantly on the run, scrambling to make something out of nothing when the pocket collapsed.
It also falls on the $120.6 million dollar man because the deep pass wasn’t his friend last season, regressing from his numbers in 2012. William Stokes of BaltimoreBeatdown.com points out that Flacco’s accuracy in deep passes fell from 40.2% in ’12 to just 26.4% in ’13 on passes of 20 yards or more.
What’s more concerning is he threw just one touchdown last season on deep passes, down from 11 in 2012. Many factors can be attributed to this; not having a go-to receiver when Torrey Smith saw double coverage, the line not giving him enough room to operate efficiently.
More importantly, Flacco needs to make better decisions not throwing into a crowd of defenders, forcing the football where it shouldn’t go. Passes that hit receivers in stride in previous years seemed like dying quails last season as they had to come back for the football on a number of occasions. Dennison will look to correct that.
With a revamped offensive game plan from Gary Kubiak and better protection from the offensive line, Flacco most certainly can see an up-tick in his numbers. The deep ball can be Flacco’s friend again with more emphasis on play action. After all, Kubiak turned Matt Schaub into a two-time Pro Bowl QB during his tenure in Houston.
5. Even more importantly, can Ray Rice bounce back in 2014?
Re-establishing Ray Rice as one of the top running backs in the NFL will be a major priority for Gary Kubiak and John Harbaugh in 2014.
Rice posted career lows in yards, touchdowns and yards per game in 2013. The Ravens rushed for just 1,328 yards which set a franchise worst in that category, in addition to just seven touchdowns scored, tying the previous low set in 1997.
Rice suffered a hip flexor injury and was never quite the same, admitting he “should have thought twice” about coming back and playing through his hip injury as quick as he did.
Fixing the offensive line issues will help Rice become a premier running back once again and it will be interesting to see what he can do in a Kubiak-led, zone-blocking rushing attack.
The work load Rice has accumulated the last few seasons could be catching up with him, but at 27 is still on the right side of his career. Bernard Pierce could take away some carries in ’14 to keep Rice fresh but everyone on the offensive side of the ball knows getting the three-time Pro Bowler going gets the rest of the offense into a good rhythm.
6. Will the new coaching hires around John Harbaugh help or hurt his stance moving forward?
If anything, the talent of coaching around Harbaugh should benefit him greatly. He seems energized by new blood around, but I also think this is a wake up call for Harbaugh that Newsome and Steve Bisciotti won’t tolerate underperformance anymore.
The Ravens fired Wilbert Montgomery and allowed Andy Moeller, Jim Hostler and Wade Harman to leave in the Ravens major coaching shake-up. Juan Castillo gets one last shot to help his cause, focusing on just the offensive line, while the Ravens bring in Brian Pariani to coach tight ends. Thomas Hammock (a coach highly sought after by the Green Bay Packers) will coach the running backs and Bobby Engram, who played with the Seattle Seahawks for eight seasons will coach the wide receivers.
Amassing a talented group of coaches could pay huge dividends if all goes right in 2014. If it doesn’t however, the hot seat could start getting warm quickly for Harbaugh.