BALTIMORE RAVENS: 2013 RECORD: 8-8 (3rd, AFC North)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2012, defeated San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII

HEAD COACH (RECORD): John Harbaugh (62-34 in six seasons)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Gary Kubiak (first season with Ravens)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dean Pees (third season with Ravens)

Final Numbers in 2013:

Points Scored 20.0 (25th), Offense: 307.4 (29th), Rushing 83.0 (30th), Passing 224.4 (18th)—-Defense: 335.5 (12th),  Run D 105.4 (11th),

 Pass D 230.1 (12th), Takeaways 24 (19th), TO Diff (-5), Points allowed 22.0 (12th)

KEY ADDITIONS: RB Justin Forest (from Jaguars), WR Steve Smith (from Panthers), TE Owen Daniels (from Texans), TE Crockett Gillmore (third round, Colorado State), C Jeremy Zuttah (from Buccaneers), DT Timmy Jernigan (second round, Florida State), LB C.J. Mosley (first round, Alabama), DB Dominique Franks (from Falcons), FS Terrence Brooks (third round, Florida State), SS Darian Stewart (from Rams)

KEY DEPARTURES: RB Bernard Scott (free agent), RB Shaun Draughn (to Bears), FB Vonta Leach (free agent), WR Tandon Doss (to Jaguars), WR Brandon Stokley (free agent), TE Ed Dickson (to Panthers), TE Dallas Clark (retired), T Michael Oher (to Titans), DE Arthur Jones (to Colts), LB Jameel McClain (to Giants), LB Rolando McClain (to Cowboys), CB Corey Graham (to Bills), SS James Ihedigbo (to Lions)

Recap of 2013 (8-8 second in AFC North, missed playoffs)

Last season, the Baltimore Ravens missed the playoffs for the first since head coach John Harbaugh and QB Joe Flacco arrived in the Charm City in 2008. The 2013 version of the Ravens offense can only be described as offensive to all that watched it each week. Injuries along the O-line wreaked havoc throughout the entire unit, as Flacco was sacked a career high 48 times, tossed more INT’s than TD’s (19-22). The once vaunted rushing attack, led by Ray Rice, finished 30th in the NFL averaging 3.1 yards per attempt. The defense didn't dominate, as it did in years past but it played well enough to keep the club in games considering the fact that it was first season without future HOFers like Ray Lewis & Ed Reed.

Three Reasons The Ravens Return to the Playoffs:

1. New offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak’s scheme:

The former Texans HC brings his zone based scheme to Baltimore and when looking at the Ravens offensive personnel, it could be a match made if football Heaven. While all eyes will be on Joe Flacco, Kubiak’s offense is a run zone blocking scheme that accentuates the strengths of the quarterback but more importantly, it heavily relies on a powerful running game. If the O-line does its job, the offense can’t help but produce league leading numbers from the men carrying the ball. From 2008-12, Kubiak’s offense was one of only two teams (Denver) to have its total offense, passing offense and rushing offense each rank in the Top 5 at least once during that span. They led the NFL in passing in 2009 and ranked second in rushing in 2011. However, Kubiak’s offense is also predicated on scoring.  His offenses have ranked among the NFL’s Top 10 scoring units 14 times.

2. QB Joe Flacco

Many felt that coming off his MVP performance in Super Bowl XLVII Flacco took a step back last season. He finished with a passer rating of 73.1 and a dismal touchdown-to-interception ratio of 19:22. But I’m predicting a nice season for No.5 in 2014. If you know me, then you know this wasn't an easy thing for me to write. Simplifying things for Flacco has become a priority in the new system. Kubiak expects two things of his franchise QB—he wants Flacco to get rid of the ball quicker and improve his completion rate of 59 percent in 2013. The Ravens lived and died on the long ball during the past two seasons. Since 2010, Flacco has thrown 123 passes of 25 or more yards, sixth most in the NFL during that span. The ability to go deep will still be there but Flacco will just take a different approach. They will use more play action and screen passes to set up the long ball. Both will be new concepts to Flacco and the Ravens offense. Despite having limited success with the screen pass at times under Cam Cameron, since 2001, the Ravens have thrown 123 screen passes, fourth fewest during that span.

When looking at his targets following the snap, Joe Cool must work through his progressions quickly to find the open receiver. If he does, he should complete 60 to 65 percent of his throws and finish with a passer rating around the mid-90s. Matt Schaub had a completion percentage of 60 percent or better in all seven of his seasons with the Texans, and a rating of 90-plus in five. Flacco has a better set of skills than did Schaub and an overall better compliment of weapons this season than Schaub ever did in Houston. Flacco finished the preseason with a 64.4 completion percentage, two TD’s, no INT’s and a passer rating of 102.5. The completion percentage and passer rating would be career highs and Baltimore is 35-6 when Flacco produces at least a 95 passer rating and 18-3 when he’s been able to hit 110 or better.

Flacco is a winner, plain and simple. His 62 regular season wins rank second to Drew Brees since 2008 and are the most by a starting QB in his first six seasons in NFL history. There are no more excuses for Flacco; his success will depend on him in 2014 and I’m betting Flacco finally has that breakout year.

3. Ray Rice Returns to Form:

Rice will serve a 2 game suspension to start the season for violation of the leagues conduct policy stemming from his February elevator incident in Atlantic City NJ. But once Rice returns—-so should his game. He looked great in limited play during the preseason, which is at least a bit soothing to Ravens fans considering No.27 is coming off his worst season as a pro. Last season, Rice played in 15 games while battling a hip injury and rushed for a mere 660 yards on 214 carries with just four rushing touchdowns.

As a team the Ravens ended with 1,328 yards on the ground, the lowest yardage total in franchise history, while their 83 rushing yards per game was the third-worst in the NFL. Some of this was due to the performance of the offensive line. According to Pro Football Focus, the Ravens offensive line had the sixth-worst run blocking in the league. The play calling was a bit unusual at times as well. Take the game in Buffalo last season when Flacco threw 5 INT’s. Baltimore threw the ball 50 times and ran it a mere nine times. One could also point to the Green Bay Packer game at home and the play calling sequence which led to three unnecessary points for the Packers just before the half. For the record, Baltimore lost both games by a combined five points (3 in Buffalo—2 at home to GB) and winning either of them would have been enough for a sixth straight playoff trip.

As his system will do for Flacco, Kubiak’s scheme will benefit Rice—perhaps even more. As a team during the preseason, the Ravens pounded the ball on the ground. Baltimore finished the preseason as the NFL’s best rushing offense, averaging 171 yards a game. The Ravens averaged 15.2 more yards per game than the second-ranked Eagles. In this system, Rice is likely to return to the back that is a three time Pro-Bowler and owns the NFL’s most total yards from scrimmage (8,487) dating back to the 2009 season, registering 42 games where he’s gained 100-or-more total yards. As he has in the past (see 4th & 29) Rice will play a pivotal role in helping Flacco out of trouble.

Kubiak’s offense will prevent defenses from keying on Rice as a passing option out of the backfield. How critical is it that Rice returns to the duel threat back he was for his first five seasons—-very critical when you consider the following. Rice ranks first in the NFL in catches and second in receiving yards by a RB since 2008, amassing 369 receptions for 3,034 yards. Rice also owns 104 catches for 961 yards on third down during this time, tying Darren Sproles (104 for 1,042) for the most such catches and second-most such yards among NFL RBs.

Three Reasons the Ravens Fail to Make the Playoffs:

The Secondary:

Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith proved to be a solid CB duo last season, and both will once again be the starters in 2014. However, there are concerns here. Webb has had an injury-filled career and while he did recover from his most recent ACL tear to play in all 16 games last season, he’s currently dealing with a back injury that kept him out of the preseason. Smith, whose play improved seemingly every down last season, also failed to finish the preseason, and has a tendency to be “nicked up” prone. While both are good players both can inconsistent from one series to the next and take unnecessary penalties, which chew up big chunks of yards.

The top backup at the position, Asa Jackson was also injured in the preseason and missed the final two exhibition games. By the way, it’s worth noting Jackson has never played a down during a regular season game.

As of today (Saturday August 31) all of the Ravens injured CB’s returned to practice and are expected to play in the season opener. If either Webb or Smith miss significant time there isn't much on the depth chart. Corey Graham, who could play outside or in the slot, is in Buffalo. Chykie Brown, who has appeared in 39 games with one start over parts of three seasons in Baltimore, is also listed on the depth chart.

At safety, the Ravens are blessed with young talent but with youth comes inexperience. Matt Elam struggled in his rookie season and was quiet in camp while third round pick Terrence Brooks started to come on. The former FSU star is a ways from starting and sits behind Darian Stewart, whom the Ravens signed from the Rams. However, Brooks may prove to be valuable as he slid down and played some corner in the preseason and didn’t look all that bad.

Technically, the Ravens were below average in the NFL last year generating 40 sacks, if they fail to build on that number in 2014, opposing QB’s may have their way with a secondary that isn't yet ready to shut down any portion of the field. This could have a trickle-down effect. The Ravens want to play a ball control offense with the ability to hit the big play—but if they are forced to play catch up or become involved in shootouts that could spell doom and a second straight year of missing the playoffs.

2 The Youth of the Team Fails to Deliver

During the first 5 years of the John Harbaugh era in Baltimore, veteran leadership keyed the team’s success. Early on, along with Ray Lewis & Ed Reed there was Todd Heap and Derrick Mason. During the Super Bowl season of 2012, Lewis, Reed and players such as Anquan Boldin, Bernard Pollard and Danelle Ellerbe were all key veteran contributors. Due to retirement, free agency or in Boldin’s case, a trade, all are gone. Each, while their contributions considered invaluable were seen as road blocks to this truly being John Harbaugh’s team. With all of them gone in 2013, the Ravens finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs—you could hear the whispers that maybe just maybe Harbaugh couldn't do it without some of them, which is why all of the young talented players GM Ozzie Newsome has drafted in the last four three years must now step up and become play-makers.

Speaking of the draft and excluding this past Mays selections, there have been 47 players drafted by the Ravens since their last Pro Bowl player, running back Ray Rice in 2008.  They have drafted good players but not Pro Bowlers. No one could have predicted the success the Ravens enjoyed by selecting players such as Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Ed Reed, Jamal Lewis and Terrell Suggs. In the franchise's first 13 drafts, the Ravens selected 19 Pro Bowl players, which was tied with the New England Patriots for the most during that period. Now, the Ravens are one of four teams who have failed to select a Pro Bowl player since 2009, and the others (Jaguars, Jets, and Raiders) have all fired their general managers during that time.

It’s not entirely fair to criticize the Ravens but expectations are rising. In 2012, the Ravens won their second Super Bowl with 39 homegrown players on their 53-man roster. In comparison, the Seahawks won the championship three months ago with 29 players who were drafted by the team or signed as undrafted rookies. You can’t’ say that the draft classes since haven’t produced talented players. Being a perennial playoff team means they've been able to add productive starters such as offensive tackle Michael Oher, cornerback Lardarius Webb, tight end Dennis Pitta, defensive lineman Arthur Jones linebacker Courtney Upshaw and wide receiver Torrey Smith . Without any of the above players, the Ravens aren't Super Bowl champions in 2012.

However, if this team is going to return to the playoffs, players such as Bernard Pierce, Matt Elam, Brandon Williams, Arthur Brown and rookies CJ Mosley and Lorenzo Taliaferro must step up and produce when called upon. Teams that consistently make the playoffs in the NFL get solid contributions from their younger players. The Ravens have always been fortunate to have veterans play above their age in this league. While it’s not expected that all become Pro-Bowl caliber players, the Ravens current crop of veteran leadership may not be capable of carrying this team, as their processors once did. You need not look any further than last season for proof of that.

3 The Division:

One of the biggest reasons the Ravens have experienced so much success during the Harbaugh / Flacco era is because of how the team has done versus its own division, the tough AFC North. Since 2008, the Ravens, Bengals and Steelers have combined to post an amazing 171-116-1 record. The North has been arguably the best division in football during this span. Winning nearly 60 percent of their games, the three teams have combined for 12 playoff appearances, while the Ravens & Steelers have appeared in five AFC Championship games and three Super Bowls, with each team winning one. The Steelers lost to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV in Dallas. The Bengals do not have any post season wins during this time but Baltimore & Pittsburgh combined to post a 14-6 mark in January and February.

Harbaugh’s teams have been able to win twice as many games against the division as they have lost (24-12). The team was just 18-18 vs the division prior to his arrival. Baltimore is 13-11 against the Steelers and Bengals since Harbs took over in 2008.

With that said and according to my calculations, it’s likely the Ravens will need to sweep one of their three divisional foes in order to make the playoffs—and even 4-2 may not be good enough to win the division. The Bengals managed to win the division last year by posting a 3-3 record but that’s the exception and certainly not the rule. Since 2007, the average number of division wins recorded by the division champ has been five. On three occasions, the division winner went undefeated within the rugged AFC North (Baltimore 2011, Cincinnati 2009, & Steelers 2008).

The Ravens will need to continue taking advantage of the Cleveland Browns. Under Harbaugh, the team is 11-1 vs the Brownies but Cleveland does appear poised to be better than their four-win record last year; even at just four wins, one of those was still over the Ravens, the first time that had happened since 2007, a year before Flacco and Harbaugh arrived.

Schedule:

AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC South
Swing Games: San Diego, at Miami
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.1% (28th)

Speaking of winning within the division, the Ravens will have an opportunity to establish what type of team they want to be very early. Baltimore will start with three straight AFC North games before hosting Carolina.

New OC Gary Kubiak will need to have his offense ready to play, as three of the first four teams the Ravens face all finished in the top 10 in defense last season. The other team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, finished No.13 in team defense in 2013 and figures to be much improved in 2014. Starting less than 2-1 in the division would put the purple and black behind the eight ball early.

That may sound like a tough start but even with the fourth easiest schedule; nothing is ever as it seems in the NFL. As they usually do in October, the Ravens will take to the road. Baltimore will play four of five games away from M&T Bank Stadium where they are 39-9 under Harbaugh. It begins with an Oct. 5 trip to AFC South favorite Indianapolis, where the Ravens are 0-5. After a road game in Tampa Bay and a home contest against Atlanta, the Ravens play consecutive road games at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

If the Ravens can survive that stretch— and outside of a trip to New Orleans Thanksgiving week– they have a favorable homestretch. Their final seven opponents combined for a 45-67 record (.401) in 2013. Baltimore should finish strong over the final month, as they face the Dolphins, Jaguars, Texans, and Browns in the final four weeks of the season. Harbaugh’s teams are 34-18 in November & December, so he knows how to prepare his teams for a stretch run.

Prediction:

Missing the playoffs was a huge underachievement for the 2013 Ravens. However, if the team returns to the playoffs in 2014, then Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and company will have completed one of the quickest rebuilding-retooling efforts in the last 10 to 15 years. Lost in the expectations of last year’s transition was replacing nine contributing players (seven starters) from the Super Bowl winning team. The two biggest issues were on defense and at wide receiver.

Newsome has spent two drafts taking care of the defense. The Ravens selected eight defensive players with their first nine picks combined in each of the last two drafts. Players such as CJ Mosley, Matt Elam and Timmy Jernigan were drafted to help rebuild the toughness, regain the quickness and recapture the middle of the field—all areas the Ravens dominated or at least controlled during their top ranked defensive days. At WR, the Ravens signed veteran wideout Steve Smith to take over the Anquan Boldin role, re-signed Jacoby Jones, and added TE Owen Daniels from Kubiak’s old team in Houston. They also kept seven WR’s on the final 53 man roster.

John Harbaugh said he wants the defense to be a top 5 unit in 2014—that might be a bit too much to ask but it may not matter if the offense can finally do their part on a consistent basis. Joe Flacco simply must be better than he was last year and the Ravens rushing attack must be the engine that makes the offense go. Flacco is the guy that drives the engine but he must work within the system. If he does, I see Flacco passing for 4,100 yards with 25 TD’s. Despite sitting for the first two games, RB Ray Rice should hit 1,200 all-purpose yards. Anything less than that in 2014 and the Ravens are no better than 8-8 and then the pressure really starts to mount in the charm city.

There will be growing pains on offense with a new system and on defense, where the Ravens have a lot of youth and inexperience at critical areas. They could lose a game or two to start the season that many feel they should have won but it won’t be too late to figure it out once Halloween is has passed. Given the potential for an easy strength of schedule to finish the year, the Ravens should win nine games but I’ll say they win a game late many didn’t expect them to win (New Orleans). I look for a return trip to the playoffs and one more playoff win on the Harbaugh / Flacco playoff resume.

2014 Record

10-6 second in AFC North—First Wild Card.