Oscar Rzodkiewicz | August 20th, 2018
For three straight seasons, the Baltimore Ravens have been watching the NFL playoffs from their couches, and their magical 2012 Super Bowl run feels like a distant memory. After opening up the checkbook for some key additions on both sides of the ball, Baltimore looks to challenge the defending AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers and return to the playoff picture.
Baltimore Ravens Season Preview
Recap of Last Season
The Ravens puttered away a playoff appearance in Week 17 of the 2017 regular season when they allowed a go-ahead touchdown with under a minute left on the clock against the Cincinnati Bengals which capped off an otherwise hollow 9-7 year.
Baltimore faced just five opponents last season that finished the year above .500—Detroit, Jacksonville, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh twice—and won only one of those contests. The Ravens 2017 strength of schedule ranked 24th in the league. Baltimore’s stout defense coupled with some volatile yet quick-hitting offense allowed the Ravens to finish fourth in the AFC in point differential, 114 points better than the Tennessee Titans and 149 points ahead of the Buffalo Bills. Still, both the Titans and Bills lived to see postseason football last year.
Baltimore’s calling card last season was its defense which led the NFL in interceptions with 22 and finished tied for 8th in forced fumbles with 17. Safety Eric Weddle led the way with 6 interceptions of his own, and LB Terrell Suggs recorded 4 forced fumbles to lead the team. Both players remain on the Ravens’ roster for the 2018 season.
Strengths This Year
Baltimore’s defense looks to remain the stronger side of the ball, with many starters returning from last season, but the offense retained some key pieces as well. Running back Alex Collins came onto the scene in Baltimore quickly and finished last season with 975 rushing yards and 6 TD as the primary early-down back and RB Buck Allen looks to continue his role as the passing-down back as well, after recording 46 receptions in 2017.
Baltimore’s top tier secondary, headlined by returning stars Tony Jefferson, Jimmy Smith, and Weddle, will continue to be the team’s driving force. However, the Ravens face some tough QB matchups (barring injury) including Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, and two games against Ben Roethlisberger. With the team pouring over $35 million into the secondary for this season, the Ravens look to continue capitalizing on their main strength from last year.
Weaknesses This Year
While a tight defense kept Baltimore in position to steal a playoff spot, the lackluster offense failed to complement the opposite side of the ball last year.
Long-time Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco finished the season with 3,141 yards on 64.1% completion, the 11th-highest of any qualified QB, but contributed only 18 TD along with 13 INT. His 18 scores rank as his personal worst since Flacco’s rookie year when playing all 16 games, and his 3.3 TD% in 2017 slotted him 24th in the NFL for all qualified QBs.
The Ravens’ offense as a whole created just 4,886 yards last season, ranking them 27th in the NFL, despite running almost 40 more plays over the course of the year than the league average of 1,013.7. Yards don’t tell the whole story, though, especially for a team that found itself in solid field position because of their defense. However, for the Ravens to compete legitimately into and throughout the postseason, they will need to capitalize on drives that don’t begin with the luxury of a flipped field this season.
The Ravens’ offseason began with the draft selection of TE Hayden Hurst out of South Carolina. Hurst’s explosiveness, toughness, and athleticism will provide a serious threat that can open up the passing game. Hurst’s game revolves around grinding out extra yards and carrying defenders on his back. That type of intensity will bode well if Flacco’s consistency issues persist.
Baltimore also picked up receiver weapons in John Brown and Michael Crabtree. The organization recognized that it needed to surround Flacco with more weapons to help open up the passing game. This will create more room in the box for Collins and Allen to take advantage of the defense.
It’s worth noting that the Ravens’ second first-round selection of former Louisville QB Lamar Jackson was a widely discussed pick for fans and analysts across the country. Unfortunately for Jackson, Flacco’s contract runs through 2021 and includes over $18 million in guaranteed cash next season. However, in the long term, Flacco’s contract can be stretched after 2019. Jackson could become the quarterback of the future in Baltimore if the organization chooses to go that route.
All three of Baltimore’s top target leaders from last season, WR Mike Wallace, TE Benjamin Watson, and WR Jeremy Maclin are gone this season, but all three have been supplemented by Crabtree, Hurst, and Brown, respectively. It’s unclear as to whether the personnel change is an upgrade talent-wise, but with the lack of production the Ravens saw out of the passing game last year, a switch may just be the boost they need to jump-start Flacco again.
Defensively, almost all of the Ravens key pieces were retained or still under contract for the 2018-19 year, with the exception of CB Lardarius Webb who turned 32 last season.
The Ravens focused on mostly down-the-line threats during the NFL Draft but refused to sacrifice the present by signing more proven veterans during free agency.
Flacco should start the entirety of the year, despite some clambering for the rookie Jackson to take hold of the reigns of the offense. I see Alex Collins breaking the 1,000-yard mark this season since he begins the year as the main starter in the backfield. However, I don’t see any receiver finishing with over 1,000 receiving yards this year.
I have the Ravens finishing with a 7-9 record overall and finishing 3-3 in division play. The team in Baltimore hasn’t changed much in the last year, and their strength of schedule is certainly more difficult than last season. The additions of Brown, Crabtree, and Hurst will prove helpful in the passing game, and the defense will continue to play at a league-leading level, but last season’s unconvincing wins lead me to think that Baltimore likely won’t crack the .500 threshold this year.
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Main Credit Image: Embed from Getty Images