Baltimore Ravens  

 

Exit Interview: Offseason questions abound for aging Ravens

With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror for all but two teams, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.

2011 in a Nutshell: While not exactly the Headless Horseman, Baltimore was a Super Bowl contender that sometimes won in spite of its quarterback. Joe Flacco wasn't awful, but he often played just well enough to be viable. The defense and ancillary parts were solid enough to deliver a 12-4 record and AFC Championship Game berth in a season that was mostly a success.

What Went Right: Ray Rice. When does he not go right? The diminutive back paced all players with 2,068 yards from scrimmage. His 15 touchdowns weren't too shabby, either.

Head coach John Harbaugh leaned on Rice for offense a lot, but he leaned on the entire defense for just about everything else this past season. These weren't the 2000 Ravens, but they were definitely a good enough defensive unit to win it all. Baltimore finished third in the NFL in points allowed, and tops in the league once a team got inside the 30. The front seven -- led by the usual suspects in Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and Ray Lewis -- often imposed its will on teams. The Ravens only allowed 92.6 yards rushing per game, and opposing offenses converted just 32.6 percent of third downs against them (both tops in the AFC).

A couple of rookies made a big difference in Baltimore this season. First-time defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano promised to "wreak havoc" when he was formally introduced last year, and that's exactly what the defense did. Torrey Smith might have been less consistent, but considering his inexperience, his 2011 campaign was impressive. The former Maryland product caught 50 passes for 841 yards and seven touchdowns and became one of the legitimate home-run hitters in the NFL, all in his first season.

What Went Not So Right: Smith could've hit a few more home runs if Flacco could've put the ball where it needed to be in the AFC Championship Game. His underthrow on a rollout in the first half caused a wide open Smith to slow down and slide for the ball. The Ravens settled for three on that drive, but it should have been seven. Bear in mind, Baltimore lost by three points.

Joe Flacco's struggles this season
  Total NFL rank
Completion percentage 57.6 26th
Yards per attempt 6.7 24th
Passer rating 80.9* 18th
*87.5 career passer rating

Flacco had some nice moments late in games. Sometimes offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's play calling was suspect, and Flacco's AFC Championship Game performance was good. But missed throws like the bomb to Smith was the difference between the Ravens being champions and almosts. He's flanked by a great running back and a dominant defense. It could be much, much worse. Time to lose the Fu Manchu, stop messing around and capitalize on what could be a rapidly closing window to win it all.

The offensive line certainly didn't have its best game against the Patriots. Overall, Matt Birk and company did a nice job in the run game (4.4 yards per carry), but didn't always thrive in pass protection. They struggled on both counts in the postseason, as Rice averaged just three yards per crack.

Going to the outside, Flacco's wideouts must be more consistent. Both Anquan Boldin and Smith could disappear in games. Ditto the tight ends. Ed Dickson leaves some plays out on the field, like he did in the AFC title game. Again, on a Super Bowl contender, every play matters. Harbaugh's club has the running game and defense to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, but a lack of consistent execution dooms the Ravens.

Offseason Crystal Ball: Will the Ravens keep that running game? That's the big question, as Rice is a free agent. Using ye olde franchise tag is always an option.

Vice President Ozzie Newsome should get credit for pushing the right buttons last offseason, letting some older guys walk and plugging in holes. What will he accomplish this spring, particularly when he can't count all Baltimore's unrestricted free agents on both hands? He'll need to make a decision on Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs. Moving over a few inches, center Matt Birk is also a free agent, and could retire. (He turns 36 in July.) Defensive starters Cory Redding (DE), Jarret Johnson (OLB) and Jameel McClain (ILB) are also free agents.

Team Needs and Draft: Those tough calls will impact the club's approach in April's draft, or vice versa. With the uncertainty surrounding the aging Birk, Wisconsin center Peter Konz could be a solid choice at the bottom of the first round. Guard is another potential serious need. Really, offensive line as a whole should be a focus for this franchise.

Linebacker is a hot spot. Former second-round pick Sergio Kindle has barely played, two starters are free agents, and Lewis will turn 37 in May. That's a lot of question marks for one position group.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL

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