Ray Rice on 4th & 29.
Photo by Phil Hoffmann
There are less than ten days until training camp starts. Here are some reasons why we will return to the playoffs this year.
1. Coach Kubiak and Joe Flacco
Gary Kubiak transformed the Texans into a playoff team on the verge of making a Super Bowl run before their colossal meltdown. He generated more production out of Matt Schaub, a pocket passer with an average arm than I ever thought possible. I watched Matt’s entire college career at UVA and never thought he was capable of leading a team to a Super Bowl. Kubiak designed routes that maximized Schaub’s passing abilities. He will do the same for our quarterback. Kubiak will take Joe Flacco to new heights this season.
2. 8-8 is not acceptable
Steve Bisciotti has zero tolerance for mediocrity. He’s been incredibly successful in all that he does. He gave the team a pass last year but the stakes are high now. Mediocrity is not acceptable. His management team has responded to the Jupiter Summit by making his team better. The last time the Ravens finished 8-8, they won the Super Bowl the next year.
3. The defense has a great mix of veterans and young players
The defense played pretty well last year. Suggs, Ngata, Dumervil, Webb, Smith (Daryl), Smith (Jimmy), Bynes, McPhee and Upshaw bring leadership and proven talent. Timmy Jernigan, Kapron Lewis-Moore, C.J. Moseley, Matt Elam, Brandon Williams and Darian Stewart will provide speed, quickness, athleticism and youth. Ozzie has infused the defense with young talent – in just the same way he built his stifling defenses of the past.
4. Ray Rice is motivated to prove his critics wrong
This is a guy whose back is against the wall. His football career and long-term livelihood hinge on the next time he touches the ball. Anybody who can gain 30 yards on 4th & 29 is capable of extraordinary things. I’m not excusing his behavior off the field. He will need to repair his reputation from the ground up and one aspect of that will be his performance on the field. “He has changed his body and appears ready to return to Pro Bowl form,” wrote Ravens Senior Vice President of Public Relations Kevin Byrne.
5. Wide receiver Steve Smith makes our offense better
Smith brings an attitude and identity to an offense that was ineffective last year. The unit never recovered from the loss of Boldin and Pitta. Smith brings an approach to the game that makes him a “special competitor” according to Ozzie Newsome.
The offensive weaponry is now vast and potent. Talk has been focused on a receiving corps Steve Smith, Owen Daniels and Marlon Brown. What about Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Dennis Pitta? We have six receivers who can find the end zone. There’s also Ray Rice in the backfield. The running game may need an upgrade because of Rice’s impending suspension and Pierce’s shoulder surgery. Former Texan, Justin Forsett is expected to fill in for Rice as well as Lorenzo Taliaferro. Don’t be surprised by another addition into the backfield before the season starts.
6. Schedule not as tough as last year
With the Jaguars, Titans and Texans (+3Ws) on the docket, I can easily imagine a scenario where we have 10 wins. That said, the Ravens sometimes play down to the competition. Here is how we get to 10-6 which should be good enough for the playoffs. If we can handle the Chargers and Falcons at home (+2Ws) and beat the Browns twice (+2Ws), we are at 7 wins. Most likely we will split with the Steelers and Bengals (+2Ws) and that will give us 9 wins. We need to beat the Dolphins away as we did last year or the Panthers (+1) at home to win 10. The Saints, Colts and Buccaneers on the road will be difficult and we could get one out of that group. I like our chances of at least one win out of those 5 games. Ravens finish 10-6.
7. The offensive line will be better
Jeremy Zuttah, signed from Tampa Bay brings experience and depth at center. A healthy Osemele at right guard, a rejuvenated Marshall Yanda at left guard, a steady Eugene Monroe at left tackle and 2nd year player Ricky Wagner at right tackle should be an improvement over last year. The zone blocking scheme used last season also had its limitations. Teams overloaded weak spots in the zone allowing people like Jared Allen of the Vikings to be in Joe’s grill on every play during that amazing 4th quarter. Kubiak’s offense calls for a new blocking scheme.
8. The AFC is not that strong
The Broncos and the Patriots are still plenty good—but not invincible. The Colts will have Reggie Wayne back and the Steelers are supposedly the team to beat in the AFC North but that’s pretty much it. I don’t see Denver or the Patriots matching up with the beasts of the NFC West. It could be the 49ers turn to make return trip to Super Bowl “49.” They were a last second touchdown pass away from beating the Seahawks. Why did Jim Harbaugh try once again to win a big game with Michael Crabtree? This time he had Anquan Boldin on his team who had already caught two TDs in the game. Nobody really scares me in the AFC and the Ravens are built like the Seahawks and 49ers.
9. Ozzie has found guys who “play like Ravens”
From Steve Smith to Owen Daniels to Kyle Jusczcyk, Newsome has assembled a team of players who embody the Ravens mantra. To “play like a Raven” means to play championship football. I believe Ozzie has significantly improved this team over last year.
One area of concern: five players have been arrested in the offseason. Hopefully, all of these players will be fighting to change perceptions of them. This suggests that the loss of Reed, Lewis and other veteran players has caused a leadership vacuum. If we can stay healthy and avoid arrests, we will make the playoffs.
10. Coach Harbaugh has taken the 8-8 season personally
“Keep hammering us,” John Harbaugh told the media after receiving questions about not making the playoffs. You have to love a coach who is openly motivated to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Coach Harbaugh will do everything in his power to make sure the Ravens return to the playoffs. It’s almost like he is starting over as well. He came to us a defensive backs and special teams coach. He made it to the playoffs a record-breaking 5 straight times. Ravens fans expect the team to be in the mix in January. Harbaugh is a proven winner. His teams are mentally and physically tough. We will win games because he will outwork his opposing coaches. We will win games because he knows every player and what they can do. He’s seething over last year and he will deliver. It may never be easy or pretty along the way, but we will be in the postseason tournament.