Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ravens don't need a stud receiver to capture AFC North title

The Ravens are just a wide receiver away from overtaking the Steelers in the AFC North.

How many times have you HEARD that?

If the Ravens had a true No. 1 receiver they may have advanced to and won Super Bowl XLIII.

How many times have you SAID that?

The Ravens would love to have a player in the mold of Larry Fitzgerald or one with the skills of Brandon Marshall. But is that the only way for the Ravens to take that next step? Can they take that next step with the wide receiver talent currently on their roster provided they improve in other areas?

That’s a reasonable assumption don’t you think?

But before we go there, let’s look at the receiving talent the Ravens do have heading into the 2009 season.

Derrick Mason: It’s safe to say that Mason can at least duplicate what he did in 2008given that he expects to be fully recovered from a shoulder injury that limited him last season when he still managed to haul in 80 catches for 1,037 yards and 5 TD’s. As a point of reference Anquan Boldin had 89 receptions for 1,039 yards and 11 scores.

Mark Clayton: Yes he’s been a disappointment but isn’t it logical to conclude that his productivity could improve now that he’s had some experience with Joe Flacco and now that he’ll have a full training camp with the second year signal caller?

Demetrius Williams: The big “IF” in this corps of receivers…if Williams can stay healthy, his skills immediately improve the unit.

Kelley Washington: A big target with a solid work ethic and familiarity with the AFC North.

Marcus Smith: Raw talent, a former running back now more familiar with his surroundings…through experience a better player.

This group certainly won’t make you forget the targets Kurt Warner throws to in the desert but one could reasonably conclude that they are at least marginally better.

Is that improvement alone enough to elevate the Ravens above and beyond the Steelers?
Probably not, but there are other ways to close that gap without dramatically improving the receiving corps…

Last season the Ravens were victimized by a Steelers’ hat trick, dropping three games by a total of 16 points. Can those losses be pinned on the team’s receivers?

Seems to me that the Ravens were beaten on the line of scrimmage and they were unable to get their running game untracked. Perhaps they just failed to remain committed to the run. In either case it allowed the Steelers to unleash their impressive pass rush.

Not wanting to expose his quarterback, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron held Todd Heap in to support in pass protection. He even held in his tailback to try and keep Flacco clean and that in turn allowed the Steelers to cover three receivers with six defenders. Troy Polamalu, primarily responsible for Todd Heap was allowed to track Flacco’s sight lanes and jump routes.

Defending the Ravens became too simple for the Steelers.

If the Ravens had a No. 1 receiver would the Steelers alter their defensive game plan? Well not if the Ravens are unable to keep James Harrison and Lamar Woodley off Flacco.

The Ravens spent their first pick in the ’09 Draft on a right tackle adding to a young and developing offensive line. The addition of Michael Oher might enable the Ravens to get more receivers out in patterns presenting a greater challenge to opposing defenses.

They spent their second pick on a player who will give the pass rush a boost. The third pick was invested in a player who can provide a spark to the return game and add depth to the secondary.

The Ravens made a couple of free agent moves to build even more depth to the back end of the defense. Dawan Landry returns; Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura are more seasoned; Kelly Gregg is back while Justin Bannan has grown as a player; Haloti Ngata is more accomplished and was an absolute beast against the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.

Joe Flacco is now battle tested and ready to absorb more of Cameron’s playbook. Ray Rice is stronger and more rested. The team’s improved depth bodes well for better special teams play.

Add it up and the Ravens are a more solid football team today than the one that walked off Heinz Field as losers this past January.

Do the Ravens need a No. 1 receiver? Of course they do.

Would that make them a better team? Absolutely!

Must they have such a player to achieve greater things in ’09? Absolutely not!

Winning in the NFL is all about improving as a team, exploiting opponents’ weaknesses better than they exploit yours and controlling the line of scrimmage. And you CAN do that without a prototypical No. 1 receiver.

Need proof?

Go back and take a peek at the roster of the Super Bowl XXXV winners…


Jerry B said...

Many things went through my mind as I read this "Blog", TL, but the conclusion I've reached is the same as yours - that the Ravens' offense should be much improved over last year because of improved line play providing Flacco and his receivers more "time". The common denominator of most championship teams is solid defense and consistent quaterback play! The Ravens should have both this coming season.........