The Baltimore Ravens: Sleeping giant

Coming off an awful season and wondering about its QB, one of the NFL's most consistent franchises finds itself in an unfamiliar position.

Shai Landesman ,

The Ravens' Justin Forsett
The Ravens' Justin Forsett
Twitter screenshot

I am a big Pittsburgh Steelers fan. The Ravens-Steelers rivalry is among the most fierce in the NFL. This means I watch a whole lot of Baltimore Ravens games in order to heartily root against them. This also means I've developed a very healthy respect for the quality of the organization, and a deeply entrenched expectation that the Ravens will be good, as I've watched them post solid wins time and again over the years.

Head Coach John Harbaugh won a playoff game in his first five seasons with the team from 2008-2012, culminating in the Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII win over the 49ers (and Harbaugh brother Jim).

As of late though, things haven't been going quite as well, with Baltimore missing the playoffs in two of the last three seasons. The main culprits for the decline are the sudden lack of elite talent coming from the draft picks made by General Manager Ozzie Newsome - widely considered one of the best GMs in the league - and the enormous contract given to QB Joe Flacco after his splendid performance in the 2012 postseason and Super Bowl.

What happened last year: Unmitigated disaster:

2015 Ravens:

Record: 5-11

Total: 17th

Offense: 20th

Defense: 20th

Special Teams: 1st (!)

All rankings by DVOA (see Note about stats)

QB Joe Flacco went down for the season with a torn ACL in week 11, but the Ravens had already under-performed all year, and were 3-7 up to that point, already essentially out of the playoffs. Other injuries ravaged the team throughout the season. By the end, Baltimore's top two running backs, receivers, and tight ends, along with its starting left tackle and center, were all on injured reserve, out for the season. But that's not the whole story.

Most of those players played for over half the season, and neither the offense nor the defense played particularly well at any point. Why?

The first issue is Flacco, and I'll get to that in the next section. The second glaring issue on this team is the secondary. It was a veritable horror show last year, with cornerbacks like Shareece Wright and a past-his-prime Lardarius Webb playing way too big a role in the defense.

The defense as a whole doesn't seem to have the talent to replace some of the old departed stars (such as Ed Reed and Ray Lewis) as the pickins from recent drafts have been kind of slim, with the team's top two picks from 2013 safety Matt Elam and linebacker Arthur Brown the most prominent recent disappointments.

Quarterback situation: Stable, but so very complicated.

Joe Flacco is due $22.1 Million this year. He's being payed like an elite QB. He is not an elite QB. The reason he's being payed like one is that he signed his contract after leading the Ravens to a Super Bowl win with the best four-game stretch of his life. He was slated to be a free agent that off-season, and the Ravens simply couldn't afford to let him go. Thus, a ridiculous contract.

Flacco's enormous cap hits have hindered Baltimore in the quest to build a good team around their QB. The problem is, unlike the truly elite passers in the NFL, it seems Flacco needs a good team around him to succeed. His numbers have actually been fairly average since he came into the NFL in 2008, a fact that is masked by his great playoff success with coach Harbaugh.

Still, when I'm watching and rooting against the Ravens, Flacco scares me. He has an absolute rocket of an arm, and a knack for getting things done when they most matter. Last year was the exception to that rule. The Ravens went 5-9 in games decided by one score, meaning they played nearly everyone close, and lost most of the time. I have a sneaky suspicion that won't happen again, and some Flacco 4th quarter heroics will have something to do with it.

Note on team culture and feel:

The Ravens are one of the teams that have an aura of success and stability about them. The NFL fan just always assumes that the Ravens will be good in any given year. There's a reason for this that goes beyond a simple track record of success. It has to do with the way they've succeeded.

Baltimore has been defined by punishing defenses and legendary long-time players like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. They rarely get blown out, and they rarely look incompetent when playing football. Even in the train wreck that was 2015 Baltimore was close until the end of 14 of its games. Special teams - where much of the silliest-looking mistakes are made in the game - are an area of special strength, and the Ravens finished 1st in DVOA last year.

These are the characteristics of a good organization, of a franchise that has a positive winning culture that transcends the individual players. Pundits look at the roster and see many holes, and yet feel compelled to give GM Newsome and Harbaugh the benefit of the doubt, and assume that it'll all somehow work out, even if Newsome has drafted only 1 pro-bowler since 2009.

Style of play: Zone-blocking and too much passing on offense, make the QB miserable on defense.

Marc Trestman replaced Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator last year, and brought with him a change in habits, and a dip in success (though that's probably not his fault). The zone-running scheme that worked to such perfection with running back Justin Forsett in 2014 regressed last year but should be due for a comeback. If Trestman can resist calling so many pass plays, as is his wont, the running game should bounce back and help set up the deep play-action passes that are Flacco's forte.

Zone-blocking involves the offensive linemen blocking in a more fluid way, trying to move people out of "zones" rather than going after specific defenders to block them in a specific way. The running back is supposed to pick a hole to hit during the play, based on what he sees, rather than according to a predetermined plan. Forsett, at his best, runs it brilliantly.

The defense is heavily dependent on the pass rush, especially with the secondary in shambles, edge rushers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs can carry a defense on their own by simply not allowing the opposing QB enough time to pass. Defensive tackles Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan can be expected to take another step forward in run defense and pass rushing, and they were already very good.

Players to watch who will make you love football more:

G Marshall Yanda

Yanda is the best guard in the NFL. Period. His work on outside zone running plays is wonderful to watch, he almost always takes out two defenders, and has been known to get to 3 on occasion. Just find him on the right side of the center and keep you eye on him once the play starts. You can look at the ball later.

LB C.J. Mosley

The lone pro-bowler selected by Newsome since 2009, Mosley is the perfect linebacker for the new, evolving NFL. He is generally charged with covering opposing running backs in the middle of the field, and has the speed and athleticism to do it with a high degree of success (though Steelers RB Leveon Bell gives him all sorts of trouble). Watch him shed blocks and close in on ball-carriers:

Conclusion and prediction

It just seems impossible that the Ravens won't bounce back after the disaster of last season, the question is just how. Some better luck with injuries will certainly help, but the secondary isn't going to get magically better. And then there is the matter of Flacco.

The Ravens have a really tough division to play in, as both the Steelers and the Bengals have superior rosters, but that doesn't mean they can't challenge for a wild-card. Baltimore's overall strength of schedule will go down from 6th last year to 27th this year, meaning they will be playing the 6th easiest schedule, so that oughta help, and teams with a really bad record in close games over one year tend to get closer to average in the next.

Look for the Ravens to be much more competitive in 2016.

Predicted 2016 record: 9-7

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