Saturday, June 30, 2007

WHY THE RAVENS WILL BE BETTER IN '07 THAN '06


When the Ravens lost a gut wrenching heartbreaker to the Colts during the Divisional Playoffs last January, many wondered if the Ravens had blown their last chance in quite a while to win another Super Bowl. I remember wondering the same.

As the stands emptied and I sat in my seat alone with my son staring out on to the field, into the surrealism provided by an empty, losing battleground, I wondered if AD had played his last game. I wondered if Steve McNair was on his last legs. I wondered if the Ravens could resurrect a running game that at best was on life support.

And in the midst of all that wondering, there was a tap on my shoulder from one of the Safe Management ushers who clearly recognized and perhaps even felt my pain, allowing me to soak up that sobering moment.

“Excuse me sir, it’s time to leave”, said the usher. “It’s over.”

Indeed it was.

The dream was over and that February trip to Miami was cancelled.

Time has a way of healing and it has a way of providing clarity. And I think I’ve experienced both the healing and the clarity and today, I’m here to tell you why the 2007 Ravens will be better than the 2006 Ravens.

1. Perhaps the biggest concern heading into the offseason was the loss of Adalius Thomas. AD was a stud for a player and an even better person. Yet the argument could be made that he has peaked. Should the Ravens handsomely pay a sentimental favorite for what he’s done or use the money to pay someone else for what they will do? Give the Ravens credit for not franchising AD. They could have but their reluctance to do so for a great organizational man sends a statement to players and agents around the league. It promotes trustworthiness and it buys goodwill that might pay dividends in the future.

But how does that help today you ask?

Rex Ryan perhaps better than any other assistant in the league, knows how to get the most out of a player’s unique set of skills. And while AD’s skills were clearly very unique, I have no doubt that Ryan will utilize the talents of Bart Scott, Jarret Johnson, Gerome Sapp, Antwan Barnes and perhaps even Dan Cody to fill the void left by AD. I also believe that the development of Terrell Suggs as an all-around LB and not just a pass rusher and STILL only 24 years old, will nicely compensate for the loss of the All-Pro Thomas.

2. Another concern heading into the offseason was the position of right tackle given the departure of Tony Pashos and the subsequent impact upon the offensive line. Pashos had a solid season and the Ravens did a nice job of scheming each week when a speed rusher was head up on Pashos by chipping the DE with backs and tight ends. Some worry that Adam Terry won’t be able to handle the position. The Ravens coaches believe otherwise.

Terry they believe simply needs repetitions at the position. He is clearly a better athlete than Pashos and he’s added some bulk to his frame with no apparent loss in mobility. He also gets to the second level more adeptly than Pashos. Last summer because of Jonathan Ogden’s absence from camp due to the loss of his father, Terry was forced to take all of the reps at left tackle. This summer he will be a permanent fixture at right tackle.

And when you factor in the versatility and the balance of the offensive line, it opens up the playbook and slows down the defense. What was an offseason concern has been addressed and then some through the draft, added competition and experience. The Ravens offensive line will be much more balanced in ’07 and as a result more effective.

3. The running game went nowhere in ’06 and naturally that placed more pressure on the passing game. Steve McNair’s most effective years as a Titan were accompanied by a solid rushing attack led by Eddie George. McNair is effective when using play action early in down sequences but that assumes a measure of respect for the running game by opposing defenses. Jamal Lewis’ lack of versatility, poor vision and slow initial burst commanded little respect in ’06 and that left the Ravens with the league’s 25th ranked rushing attack and they ranked No. 31 in average yards per carry (3.4).

To affect a needed change, not only did the Ravens invest in the offensive line, they added Willis McGahee. It’s somewhat possible yet unlikely that McGahee’s numbers won’t be significantly better than Jamal Lewis’. Yet even if it does shake out that way, McGahee brings a much higher degree of versatility to the offense and his ability to operate out of a single back set provides more opportunities for the developing Demetrius Williams whose skills have to be respected by opponents. Rolling coverage towards the dangerous Williams could open up running lanes for McGahee who has excellent vision, runs behind his pads well, has solid cutback skills and is a greater threat in the red zone.

4. Steve McNair’s second season in the Ravens' offensive system bodes well for the team. His reads and his reactions to defensive sub packages and pre-snap alterations will be cleaner and more natural. There will be less thinking and he will more adeptly find the soft spots in coverages sooner. Another year of experience with his receivers is also key and his ability to hit McGahee (a much more accomplished receiver than Jamal Lewis) out of the backfield on the run can turn a seemingly short gain into a game breaking play.

During the bye week last year and after Jim Fassel’s departure, Brian Billick determined that it was better to fit the system’s style to McNair’s and not McNair’s style to the system. Expect more of that in ’07 and an even more effective Steve McNair.

5. Mark Clayton has added bulk to improve yards after catch and his hamstring appears to be 100%. He showed a burst in his routes and off the line of scrimmage in OTA’s and a confident mastery of the offensive system that may not have been present in his first two seasons. He will emerge as the Ravens’ de facto No. 1 receiver. Derrick Mason appears rejuvenated and he’ll be the guy looked upon to make the tough catches and move the chains. Demetrius Williams has looked very solid in OTA’s and seems to have refined his route running skills. And while he may not be a true burner in the sense of a Joey Galloway, Williams has gears and can lure defenders to sleep and then accelerate out of his breaks, creating separation which ultimately makes him a deep threat. Mix in Yamon Figurs speed and ability to stretch defenses, even if only as a decoy, Todd Heap and the versatile Daniel Wilcox and the Ravens will arguably field a Top 5 receiving corps in ’07.

6. Expect more consistent play from the Ravens’ secondary in ’07. Last year Samari Rolle, much like a hitter in a slump or a golfer with the yips off the tee, was the “beneficiary” of too much information from too many coaches and players trying to help him through his struggles. The predictable result was paralysis by analysis and very soft coverage on the edge. Look for improvement there and even if that doesn’t happen, the Ravens have a few young corners with another year of experience that might be ready to step in should Rolle’s slump continue.

Rolle will also get more consistent help from the safeties this season. Last year Ed Reed took chances early on, perhaps trying to justify his record contract for a safety. As the year progressed, Reed learned that sticking to his assignments and Rex Ryan’s defensive calls would provide him with the opportunities to make plays that he desperately craves in addition to minimizing the defensive soft spots.

Dawan Landry will certainly benefit from an added year of experience with the team as will the scrappy Corey Ivy. If David Pittman can shake his hamstring woes, he could contribute as well. His one-on-one cover skills are as good as any DB’s on the squad.

7. Early on in ’06, some wondered if the Ravens had spent too much for Trevor Pryce. But when Rex Ryan’s defense clicked in along with his familiarity with new teammates, Pryce was an absolute beast. Expect him to get off to a faster start in ’07 and don’t be surprised if he’s in Hawaii come February ’08. Kelly Gregg continues to improve and his sidekick Haloti Ngata should find the going a bit more familiar this season and that should lead to even more production from the behemoth DT. Antwan Barnes is a promising rookie. He has the potential to create havoc and look for Rex Ryan to put him in position to do exactly that.

8. Last year was the first year for Special Teams Coach Frank Gansz, Jr. and obviously the first exposure for most of his players to Gansz’ approach to special teams. Most were accustomed to the philosophies, terminology and style of former Special Teams Coach Gary Zauner.

In ‘07 there is reason to believe that given the depth on the Ravens roster and their familiarity with Gansz, that they should improve upon their special teams’ ranking of No. 10 in ’06.

According to Ravens’ long snapper Matt Katula, Gansz’ unit is well ahead of the game.We are all excited about the [unit]. Frank Gansz is excited about it. Katula added, “Mini camps were flawless. They were great. We felt awesome about it. Last year was the learning curve. [Now] we are in mid season form.”

9. Competition at various positions will be fierce and the desperation to preserve jobs and in some cases careers, will heighten focus and make the team better. Will Chris Chester's play nudge out Mike Flynn at center or Keydrick Vincent at right guard? What about first round pick Ben Grubbs? Will he start? Will the feisty Marshal Yanda push Terry? Who will win the battle for kick returner? Will Justin Green get the nod at FB or rookie Le’Ron McClain? Will Devard Darling continue his progression shown at OTA’s and will it be enough to squeeze out Clarence Moore? If Dan Cody is healthy, who will he press for time?

All of these battles intensify the will to compete; they intensify the ability to focus and the attention to detail. The end result is a more focused and improved team.

10. The Ravens were once known for their swagger and cocky bravado and they used those emotions for on-the-field rocket fuel. That has changed a bit. If the OTA’s are any indication, there is less bravado with the ‘07 Ravens and more of a quiet resolve and simmering determination.

The abrupt and unexpected end to the 2006 season has burned in the souls of the Ravens, seemingly to a man. They recognize that for some, ’07 could be their last chance to be a Super Bowl Champion.

Last year at this time, there were many unanswered questions about the Ravens. How long would Brian Billick be around? Why was Ray hinting at a trade and throwing teammates under the bus? Could Steve McNair make a difference and could he stay healthy? Was Jamal Lewis finished? How would they fill the hole created by Will Demps’ departure?

As a result of the questions, the season’s outcome was highly unpredictable.

The Ravens now know that they are an elite team and they are carrying a businesslike approach into the season. The sting of that 15-6 loss to the Colts and the missed opportunities will provide value albeit a season later.

Better late than never.

And in ’07 the Ravens will be just that – better!

6 comments :

tkeller said...

that fired me up! training camp can't get here soon enough

Fred Flintstone said...

EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEYABBA DABBA DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Anonymous said...

I've been making the same arguments for 4 months. People consistantly underestimate the fact that we have yet to see the best out of Ngata,Suggs,Reed,Landry,McGahee,Clayton,Williams and Scott. That will more than offset the loss of Thomas and Jamal

Eric

Eric of ITH said...

I agree with the comments regarding the Ravens being a better team in 2007 than 2006. I don't believe however that they will go 13-3 again with a more difficult schedule in 2007, particularly the last 6 games. Talk about a "meat-grinder". The Ravens avoided injuries to key players in 2006, and McNair in particular remained upright most of the campaign. Not wanting to "rain on the parade", I will only point out that the changes in the O-line while positive, will need time to gel and I'm not convinced that Willis McGahee can turn around the rush attack in one season. That said, I like our depth at the RB position. I have no concerns about our defense, it will be a top 5 unit in 2007.

I think that the Ravens can win the division again in 2007, but it will surely not be as easy as it was in 2006. The Ravens will have played 10 games by the time we sit down with family for Thanksgiving dinner. If they are 7-3 or better and McNair is healthy you can order your playoff tickets. If either fails to happen, I don't like our chances.

Anonymous said...

I THINK THE RAVENS SHOULD NOT OF SIGNED BILLICK TO 4 YR DEAL.THEY SHOULD OF KEPT HIM FOR A YEAR, AND IF THE RAVENS DON'T GO TO SUPERBOWL , THEY SHOULD PROMOTE REX RYAN TO HEAD COACH, 'CAUSE I HATE TO SEE REX RYAN LEAVE BALTIMORE.

Rashad Gray's Blog said...

T.Lombardi, you deserve the Pulitzer Prize if the Ravens end up in Arizona(Which they will, maybe). Of course this season is going to be tough, every season is tough(that's life in the NFL). Oh well, Just ignore the haters and keep your loyalty to the purple and black. (oh yeah, I haven't told anybody else this but, I keep having visions of McNair wearing a ripped jersey throwing the game winning touchdown in the AFC championship game. Maybe it's just me). Anyway, Go Ravens!!