By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Coming off of a defy-all-odds Super Bowl run, the Baltimore Ravens quest to defend their title hasn't quite gone as planned.
Nobody said it would be easy. In fact, in the past decade, no defending Super Bowl Champion other than the 2004 New England Patriots has even won a playoff game the following year.
The assumption was the Ravens were different. But, are they headed in the same disappointing direction?
Since arriving in 2008, the tandem of head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco has won a playoff game every year. Couple this on-field chemistry with a front office adept at procuring young talent via the draft, and the Ravens were seemingly bulletproof.
In professional sports, change is inevitable. Some by choice, some by circumstance. The Ravens were braced for retiring players - Ray Lewis and Matt Birk - and the inevitable vulturing of their roster in free agency. In all, they lost eight starters - nine if you include Dennis Pitta who was lost in training camp - from last year's team.
The miscalculation in their assumed ability to absorb this radical roster turnover was the amount of on-field experience they lost in the process. Replacing older talent with younger talent is commonplace, but replacing figurative coaches on the field is a unique challenge.
A key figure that was brought back to fill part of the leadership void was Flacco. Flacco led by example in the playoffs, throwing for 11 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 117.2 passer-efficiency rating.
As such, the Ravens made Flacco a member of the exclusive nine-figure contract club, signing him to a $120.6M ($52M guaranteed) deal, the richest in NFL history. Whether Flacco is worth that amount is entirely debatable, but the fact of the matter is Flacco bet on himself in a contract year and won. Big time.
After Jim Caldwell was promoted to offensive coordinator (replacing Cam Cameron) in season, the Ravens struck a greater balance in their play-calling. They ran the ball more frequently and effectively, which opened up play-action and the deep-passing opportunities. Flacco attempted the most passes over 20 yards in the league, and was highly successful on those attempts.
This year, the Ravens offense is still searching for an identity.
There are a variety of reasons as to why the Ravens offense has stalled this season, with the biggest being a lack of go-up-and-get it receivers (think Pitta and Anquan Boldin), an unsettled and less talented offensive line, and an anemic run game.
They're throwing the ball 60% of the time, but with fewer yards per attempt and a higher interception rate, and the explosive plays haven't been there. Other than Torrey Smith (41 receptions, 753 yards, 18.4 yards per catch, 2 touchdowns) and Jacoby Jones, Flacco is throwing to receivers - Marlon Brown, Tandon Doss - that he's not familiar with.
That lack of chemistry and trust has forced Caldwell to deploy a more controlled, quick-timing passing scheme out of shotgun and pistol sets. Couple that with the lack of a running game - the Ravens rank 30th in the league, averaging 73 yards per game - and opponents can comfortably sit back in coverage to keep everything underneath, and force the Ravens to string together long drives, which they've been incapable of more often than not.
Ray Rice suffered a hip injury against the Browns in Week 2. While he claims to be fully recovered, the sudden change of direction that's made him special isn't there. Rice is averaging a mere 2.5 yards per carry for the season and even fewer over his last two games (1.6). Rice's counterpart, Bernard Pierce, isn't faring much better (93 carries, 261 yards, 2.8 yards per attempt).
An offensive coordinator can't call what the team can't block. They primarily use zone-blocked running plays, but are giving up far too much penetration both playside and backside. Even their combination blocks have given way at the line of scrimmage, and it appears that Caldwell's realized that.
Recently, they've shown a bit more imagination - reverses, bootlegs, unbalanced lines, splitting Rice and Smith out together on the weak side - and will need to continue to do so if they want to get back into the playoff hunt. Flacco's accuracy hasn't been there on his deep throws, but he's been effective on the move.
Defensively, the Ravens aren't as creative with their 3-4 fronts as they've been in the past, but they can still get after the passer.
Given the fact he lost six starters - Lewis, Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, Cary Williams - defensive coordinator Dean Pees isn't able to deploy the multi-level and multi-angle blitz package he did last season. Instead, Pees relies on a stout front four to get pressure on their own.
Free-agent additions Elvis Dumervil and Chris Canty, have filled in nicely on the Ravens front.
Pairing Dumervil with Terrell Suggs has given the Ravens a dominant pair of outside linebackers. Suggs is fifth in the NFL with nine sacks and Dumervil is ninth in the league with eight sacks. Pees has dialed up more blitzes of late out of the slot, and also sent Suggs and Dumervil together on an overload last week against the Bengals.
On the interior, Canty joins an already stout group led by Haloti Ngata and Arthur Jones. Canty has experience both as a 3-4 five technique and a 4-3 defensive tackle.
Replacing Lewis and Reed in the same year is nearly impossible. Yes, their physical talents had deteriorated, but Lewis was the quarterback of the front seven, and Reed the back four, collaborating on an amoeba defense that knew the opponent's scheme better than the offense running it.
Free-agent Daryl Smith (Jaguars) has filled Lewis' void admirably, leading the team in tackles and providing solid pass coverage.
James Ihedigbo has filled Pollard's void at strong safety, providing steady tackling and coverage, and rookie Matt Elam has taken over for Reed at free safety. Ihedigbo's in a contract year, and his play should get him some attention on the open market. In the long run, Elam is better suited to play strong safety.
Cornerback Lardarius Webb had a slow start to the season, but had a strong performance against the Bengals, both as a blitzer and in coverage. Webb is paired with former first-round pick Jimmy Smith, and former-Bear Corey Graham. This group has been inconsistent and is prone to giving up big plays.
Defensively, the Ravens can compete, but can they find an offensive identity in the second half of the season? With a shaky offensive line and underperforming running backs, their best bet is to go to their '11' personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers), work Smith out of the slot, and put the onus on Flacco to earn his raise.
It's hard to write off a team that's been to the playoffs five straight years. The Ravens are still very much alive in the AFC North and the Wild Card race. Outside of the Broncos, Chiefs, and Patriots, the AFC is wide open.
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