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Are the Baltimore Ravens unlikely kings?

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Kings of the North. It’s a phrase commonly thrown around when the NFL season is over, and somebody emerges as the first place team in the AFC North. The Pittsburg Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, and Baltimore Ravens have all enjoyed ownership of this title over the last decade. The Cleveland Browns, well, they’re more of the court jester than anything else. Maybe someday. But it is not this day.

Going into the 2016 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are widely regarded as the favorites to claim the title again, with their high-powered offense led by Ben Roethlisberger. The Bengals are also in the conversation, with Andy Dalton coming off of his best year, and the defense from last year largely in place, sans Reggie Nelson. But what about Joe Flacco and the Ravens, who are coming off of the worst year that they have had since 2007?

The football world seems to be torn on whether the Ravens are indeed on a downward slope, or whether they should still be considered contenders. So I’m going to break down last season, as well as what can make them succeed in the 2016 NFL campaign. (The good and the bad, so as to avoid any accusations of bias.)

steve smith

The Good

Admittedly, there isn’t too much to list in this section, but I will do my best to break down every bright spot that the Ravens had in a bleak season.

Let’s start with Joe Flacco, since he is generally the most talked about player on the team. Flacco was averaging 279 yards per game before he went down with an ACL injury at the end of the Week 10 matchup, a number that would have put him over 4,400 yards for the season. He had thrown for 14 TDs at this point, which would have been 24 TDs over the course of the season. Another bright spot; that Week 10 matchup that I mentioned? He finished the last series in the game to ensure a victory, playing through his ACL injury. The man is TOUGH.

Kamar Aiken was another bright spot in an otherwise dark season, ending up just outside the top 20 receivers in the league, netting almost 1,000 yards and and 5 TDs on the year, with an average of over 12 yards per catch. The Ravens were unsure of what they had with Aiken, considering he only made 24 receptions for 267 yards and 3 TDs the year before, but it’s becoming clear that he can gain some yardage and get them to the red zone.

The TE corps as a whole was amazing, ranked as the best tight end trio in the league. Crockett Gillmore shone especially bright, while rookies Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle also made an impact.

The offensive line got off to a rocky start, but Ricky Wagner really stepped up mid-season. Marshal Yanda was once again the best guard in the league. The departure of Kelechi Osemele is detrimental, but changes have been made to make up for it. Replacing John Urschel with Jeremy Zuttah helped, as well.

Timmy Jernigan is a top 25 option on the front lines. Brandon Williams is the unsung hero, leading ALL DTs in ratings on the season. Za’Darius Smith, the rookie, found a foothold, notching 30 tackles and 5.5 sacks on the season. C.J. Mosley struggled in comparison to 2014, but was still a solid leader on the inside. Shareece Wright was the best CB on the team, who also had a rough start, but only allowed 225 yards over 10 games once he got going. Kendrick Lewis moved up to the 24th-best safety in the league by the end of the season.

The Ravens lost 9 games by single digits, which arguably makes them the best 3rd place team in the league. A simple mistake fixed here, a bad throw made there, and the record could have been much different than it was.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Oakland Raiders

The Bad

I’m going to list this first, because it is a huge hindrance, even though the Ravens weren’t playing good football before they started mounting. 21 key players were on IR for the 2015 season, which led the league in injuries for the second year in a row. The strength and conditioning program needs to be revamped, or this will be a recurring problem. The Ravens can’t have injuries starting in training camp and continuing through Week 16, not if they hope to return to the postseason.

Eugene Monroe was his usual broken down self, being one of the 21 on IR. At the end of the 2015 campaign, he had played in under 60% of games, since receiving his $11M signing bonus. (He has since been released.)

Joe Flacco goes on this list as well. He was playing subpar football last year; the worst he has played since his rookie campaign, back in 2008. He threw 12 interceptions, showing that he was trying to force the ball in a lot of situations, and took 16 sacks, instead of dumping the ball off. I like Flacco. I know what we have, with him. However, he needs to play smarter football if the Ravens have a chance to return to glory this season, especially after being paid so much in return for so little.

The secondary was a mess last year, especially through the first half of the year. Jimmy Smith was ranked 74th CB overall, and Lardarius Webb was singularly horrible, ranking at 85th. (Webb has since been moved to safety, alongside Eric Weddle, and has shown massive improvement.) Will Hill was a bright spot, especially when returning a blocked field goal for a walk-off touchdown to beat the Browns in a nail-biter. (Since released, per suspension.) The secondary as a whole improved the second half of the year, ranking #8, after ranking 24th through the first 8 games.

Dean Pees. Enough said. I’m still unclear as to whether it was a talent issue, cohesion issue, or play calling issue, but whatever it was, it dropped the normally stifling defense down to something that wasn’t a threat to anybody, let alone some of the high-powered offenses that it faced.

Marc Trestman. I hesitated to put him on this list, being that it was his first year with the Ravens, and he was unfamiliar with the offense. However, the Ravens have always been a run first team, and Marc took the team away from that. Granted, the offensive line was subpar, so the run game may not have been successful, but he didn’t even try. Hopefully this year will prove to be better, as it is the first year having the same offensive coordinator in years.

eric weddle

Improvements and the 2016 Campaign

Benjamin Watson. Eric Weddle. Two big names, two different positions. Two big additions to the Ravens in the offseason. Watson is coming off of a career year with the Saints, notching 74 grabs for 825 yards, and 6 TDs, with an average of 11.1 yards per catch. He can function as a great blocking TE, or as a big red zone threat for Joe, supplementing the already deep TE corps of Gillmore, Williams, Pitta, and Boyle (After he serves his suspension). Weddle has already mobilized the Ravens’ secondary, fitting right in as if he has always been there. He has brought motivation, leadership, and experience to an understaffed area. Barking orders to the defensive backs, using hand signals, and roving the field, he looks to confuse offenses in the 2016 season.

Ronnie Stanley looks to be a Day 1 starter, replacing the injury prone Eugene Monroe. Jimmy Smith will enjoy his first injury free season, after returning 100% from his surgery. Breshad Perriman comes back from a rookie season where he was injured in training camp, and ended up missing all 16 games, looking to take the top off of defenses with his blazing speed. He is joined by Mike Wallace, another off-season acquisition, providing the Ravens with some much-needed speed at WR. Steve Smith, Sr. returns as well, hoping to cap off a HoF-worthy career with catches and yards.

Marc Trestman seems to be settling into his role as offensive coordinator, becoming more familiar with the system that is already at place, as well as modifying that system, and employing 3 and 4 TE offenses, taking advantage of the talent that they have at that position on the roster. Dean Pees also seems to be shoring up a defense that was full of holes last season, a trend that is rare in Baltimore.

The Ravens are traditionally a team that plays better when nobody believes in them, and this is the season that will prove that. At the end of the 2014-2015 campaign, the Ravens were slated by many to appear in the Super Bowl at the end of the 2015 season. Now, coming off of a 5-11 season, they are viewed to be in a slump, being a sub .500 team since their Super Bowl win. That means a chip on the shoulder from many of the players, an attitude that can translate to a fire on the field, and points on the board.

The Ravens have a schedule that could either be extremely easy, or too difficult to overcome, and unfortunately, that aspect is out of their control. They play the Browns twice, of course, which historically translates to wins, though the Browns did eek one out last season. They also play the NFC East, which boasted 3 sub .500 teams, with a 1st place team that ended at 9-7. The Eagles look to return stronger than they were last season, though that is a precarious prediction. The Cowboys are returning healthy, with a shiny new 1st round pick at running back, and the best offensive line in the league. The Redskins continue to be the Redskins, a slightly above average team, though they did add standout Josh Norman at CB. The Giants made some solid moves in the offseason, so we should see them take a good step forward this year.

Baltimore has just two primetime games this season, against the Browns and New England, though they do play on Christmas against their rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. They only face one playoff team in their first 7 games, down from 3 out of 4 in the first 4 games, and 4 in the first 7 last year. This year, their first 7 opponents have a combined record of 48-64. 5 out of 6 AFC North games, always tough contests, are in the second half of the year, letting injured players get their feet back under them, with less heat and competition coming from opponents. They also have less road games, though they do travel to Cincinnati for their final game, finishing the year against the Bengals for the 5th time in 6 years. With the end of the season stretch being the toughest (including road trips to New England, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh), the Ravens will have to be at their best in the final 4 weeks, so the easier teams on the schedule being in the first part of the season, is a good thing.

By now, I’m sure you have seen my predictions for the AFC North, with the Ravens ending at 10-6 and a Wild Card spot, but there’s another path that they could take, if all goes well in Charm City. They could very well go into the bye week at 6-1, then rollercoasting to a 12-4 record, snatching the AFC North Kings title from the grasping hands of the 11-5 Steelers. Is it a bold, even crazy, prediction? Yes. But hey, Any Given Sunday. (Or Monday, or Thursday, or occasionally Saturday.)

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Robert D. Cobb
Founder, Publisher and CEO of INSCMagazine. Works have appeared and featured in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post, ESPN and NBC Sports to name a few. Follow me on Twitter at @RobCobb_INSC, email me at robert.cobb@theinscribermag.com