Published August 25, 2014
(SportsNetwork.com) - When the 2013 season ended without a playoff berth for the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, it ushered in an offseason figured to be littered with questions about what the club would have to do to return to elite status.
What the Ravens didn't anticipate was the offseason shenanigans some of their players would get caught up in, leading to a number of unwanted distractions as the franchise tried to figure out what went wrong.
On the field, Baltimore managed just an 8-8 record and missed the postseason for the first time since John Harbaugh took over as head coach in 2008. An inability to steal some games was partially to blame, with the Ravens going 5-4 in contests decided three points or fewer.
"We have a bad taste in our mouth," said linebacker Terrell Suggs. "It's been the first time since Coach got here, since 2008, that we didn't make the playoffs. It is clear how something like that can be taken for granted."
While the defense didn't dominate like years past, it still played well enough to keep the club in games considering the turnover, with last season marking the first without the likes of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Dannell Ellerbe manning the unit.
Instead, the offense failed to do its part as the run game finished 30th in the league at just 83.3 yards per game. With little help on the ground, Joe Flacco and the passing game could only will the team to 20.0 points per game.
Even with those troubles, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell moved on to become head coach of the Detroit Lions and the Ravens responded by replacing him with former Houston Texans sideline boss Gary Kubiak.
Installing a new offensive scheme comes with its own ups and downs, so the Ravens didn't need to see a number of its players -- including the likes of Ray Rice, Jimmy Smith and Jah Reid -- arrested over the offseason.
Rice's arrest on assault charges in February received a ton of coverage due to surveillance video of the incident with then-fiancee Janay Palmer that featured the Ravens running back lifting a motionless Palmer out of an elevator and onto the floor.
In May, Rice was accepted into a pretrial intervention program that allowed him to avert prosecution and avoid serving any time in jail and he and Palmer have since married, but the talented running back will still serve a two-game suspension to begin the season.
Thus, when the 2014 Ravens began to come together and prepare for the upcoming campaign, Harbaugh and company had to first endure the circus of questions regarding the off-the-field behavior.
"It's pretty hard to be successful in any walk of life without great self- discipline," Harbaugh said back in May. "When it starts showing up in other areas of your life, to me, that's a major red flag for where you're going as a football player.
"We tried to get out in front of it with those guys. There have been a number of things that ... over the years, haven't been public that guys have moved on from this team for. Your spot is never guaranteed on any football team or in any job. You have to know how to carry yourself and handle yourself (and it) is going to be reflected in how many opportunities you get to do your job. Our guys need to understand that."
While the league and team has handled the situation, the Ravens must now get back to business and improve on the field. The answer to how that gets accomplished won't come as easy for Harbaugh.
"(There is no takeaway from last season) that I could give you in one sentence that would make any sense that way. I don't have a cliche handy for that right now," said Harbaugh.
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)
KEY ADDITIONS: RB Justin Forsett (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)
QB: The lack of a running game last season caused Flacco to put up personal bests of 3,912 passing yards, 362 completions and 614 attempts, way more than his previous high of 542 pass attempts in 2011. And despite increased chances, Flacco threw three fewer touchdown passes (19) than 2012 and also set new highs with 22 interceptions and 48 sacks.
Flacco has had a history of winning since joining the league, but the pressure will be on him given the massive contract he signed after of 2013 and he'll also be piloting a new offense, but doesn't expect that to slow him down.
"No doubt about it. That's why I said I don't care if it's a new offense or not. I expect to come out here and be precise and operate at a high level," noted the quarterback.
Flacco has not missed a start since getting selected 18th overall by the Ravens in 2008 and Baltimore has gambled by not keeping more than two quarterbacks on the roster since 2009.
However, with Kubiak's new system wiping the slate clean, both Tyrod Taylor and rookie Keith Wenning could make the roster this season.
RB: Rice was already looking at playing under the microscope in 2014 due to his struggles last season. He played in 15 games while battling a hip injury and rushed for a mere 660 yards on 214 carries with just four rushing touchdowns.
Rice had surpassed 1,000 yards rushing in each of his previous four seasons with 33 rushing touchdowns in that span and will try to recapture his quickness and contribute once again to the passing game (58 receptions in 2013).
He'll do all that while trying to make amends for the incident between himself and his wife back in February.
"I think he's working very hard," Harbaugh commented. "He's been committed, really, from the beginning. He's really motivated by the season last year (with) the disappointment he had (of his performance). He has himself in great shape and he's really determined to have a great year, so that's what I like. That's where we're at, and we'll see what kind of year he has."
Rice's year will get off to a late start with the two-game suspension and give backup Bernard Pierce his own chance at a bounce-back campaign. Pierce averaged 4.9 yards per carry as a rookie in 2012, but saw that average fall to just 2.9 last season on nearly 50 more carries.
Justin Forsett joined the Ravens as a free agent and has some familiarity with Kubiak, while fullback Kyle Juszczyk is expected to enter his second NFL season in a starting role.
WR: While the Ravens will try to help Flacco by getting the ground game on track, they also hope that pairing the emerging Torrey Smith with veteran free agent acquisition Steve Smith will improve things as well.
Torrey Smith broke out in 2013 to establish himself as one of the top deep threats in the league. He set career highs in his third season with 65 receptions and 1,128 yards, though he found the end zone just four times despite ranking fifth in the NFL with 17.4 yards per catch.
With Torrey stretching the field, 13-year veteran Steve Smith will concentrate on just catching every pass Flacco throws his way.
"Just his natural ability to catch the ball with his hands," said Flacco of what stands out about the former Carolina Panther wideout. "He catches everything with his hands, and he does a great job doing it. He is strong to the ball, even though he's not very high in stature. He is just strong to the ball and his hands are really, really good."
While certainly not as feared as in past years, Steve Smith has been selected to five Pro Bowls and posted seven 1,000-yard receiving campaigns.
The 35-year-old hopes both he and Torrey Smith will be making headlines all season.
"I think you can call us, 'The Law Firm: Smith, Smith & Associates,'" Smith said.
The signing of Steve Smith will also allow Marlon Brown to continue to grow with less pressure after he set Ravens franchise rookie records in 2013 with seven touchdown receptions.
Jacoby Jones was re-signed by the Ravens to a four-year deal and he'll reunite with Kubiak. Jones has always been an explosive special teams returner and started to factor into the passing game in the last two of his five years in Houston under Kubiak before joining the Ravens ahead of the 2012 campaign.
TE: A healthy Dennis Pitta could also go a long way in bettering the passing game.
A reliable target, Pitta missed 12 games a season ago due to a hip injury and was signed to a five-year extension this past offseason. He'll look to recapture the form and chemistry that saw him catch 61 balls in 2012.
With Ed Dickson having signed with Carolina, the Ravens brought in another player that Kubiak is familiar with in tight end Owen Daniels, who had a number of monster years with the Texans but was limited to only five games last year.
Baltimore drafted Crockett Gillmore in the third round of this year's draft and the big tight end should jump into a blocking role early on.
OL: After Flacco was sacked 48 times last season, the Ravens are hoping some upgrades and healthy returns will improve things along the offensive line.
The Ravens acquired left tackle Eugene Monroe from Jacksonville on Oct. 3 of last year and he made 11 starts. He was re-signed to a five-year deal this past offseason and Baltimore will hope he gets even more comfortable this season.
Left guard Kelechi Osemele is penciled in next to Monroe after making seven starts last year because of a back injury, while right guard Marshal Yanda is a year further removed from his shoulder surgery.
Baltimore believes it found its center to run Kubiak's schemes in former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Jeremy Zuttah, a former third-round pick acquired in a trade, while Rick Wagner appears in line to edge out Reid for the starting right tackle spot. That spot became vacant when Michael Oher departed via free agency.
Center Gino Gradkowski will now serve as a backup after making 16 starts last year and guard A.Q. Shipley played in 16 contests with nine starts in 2013.
DL: Haloti Ngata anchors the defensive line at tackle having made five straight Pro Bowls and is a force as long as healthy. He'll hope nose tackle Brandon Williams can take a step forward in his upcoming sophomore campaign after playing in just seven games as a rookie.
Williams will help to replace Art Jones along with end Chris Canty, who was solid as well last year, his first with Baltimore.
Veteran Terrence Cody is around for depth, while second-round pick Timmy Jernigan will push for time. Jernigan slipped in the draft due to a reported diluted urine sample at the NFL Scouting Combine and will have to adjust to Baltimore's 3-4 scheme, but the talent was there to make him a solid gamble in the second round.
LB: With Lewis retired and Suggs entering his 12th season, the Ravens hope they grabbed the new face of their defense in the first round of the 2014 draft in inside linebacker C.J. Mosley.
Mosley should start alongside Daryl Smith and brings to the table great instincts and the ability to react to the play. He'll learn alongside the veteran Smith, who had 123 tackles in taking over for Lewis last season, and isn't afraid of the pressure playing for Baltimore's respected defense.
"Just one thing about me coming from Alabama is it's all about tradition," said Mosley, "always had great defensive players, great linebackers that came out of Alabama, and for me to come to another great team, another great defense, the history and some of the players they still have now on the team, it's just for me to add on and try to keep that tradition going. I'm just doing what I can to fit in."
He'll try to fit in along with Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, who combined for 19 1/2 sacks a season ago. However, both struggled in the second half, with Suggs notching only one sack in his final eight games and Dumervil having just one in his last seven.
Dumervil will be on the field with the goal of getting to the passer, while Courtney Upshaw will spell him at times to slow down the run.
No matter who is on the field, Suggs is looking for a bounce-back season from the defense.
"When we're in the heat of the moment, we've gotten accustomed to and we've been playing a certain defense, a certain style, for so long, then maybe we may start to do some of those things -- reacting too much to personnel groups or personnel -- and let's just get back to the basics. We forget sometimes that (teams) have to stop us. We've always been a very fast and violent defense, and we need to get back to that," noted Suggs, who signed a four-year extension in the offseason.
Depth linebackers include Pernell McPhee and Arthur Brown, a 2013 second-round pick who covers well and contributes on special teams.
DB: Baltimore will hope that veteran corner Lardarius Webb can stay healthy all season long and take some pressure off the rest of the unit after Corey Graham left in free agency. Webb played all 16 games last year after recovering from the second torn ACL of his career.
Jimmy Smith will try to prove his third NFL season last year was no fluke as the former first-round pick had a career-high 58 tackles in 16 starts, though he has nabbed only four interceptions in his career.
"Jimmy is a big, physical, long guy, so that's something he's going to be able to naturally do well," said Harbaugh. "That's a strength for him, and you probably want to play to your strengths -- no matter what the endeavor. But it's not just that. You have to play off, you have to be able to play the zone coverage responsibilities that you have to play. He's improved all across the board."
Baltimore inked Aaron Ross to compete for the third cornerback spot, but he tore his Achilles tendon during a conditioning test in late July, opening the door for Asa Jackson.
Baltimore is still waiting to see what Jackson can do and hope he is on the rise after missing 12 games to suspension over his first two years due to PED violations: four games as a rookie and eight last year.
Safety Terrence Brooks was selected in the third round of the recent draft after playing at Florida State with Jernigan and is an option at nickel corner as he learns his main position behind veteran Darian Stewart and Matt Elam.
Stewart adds a veteran presence and will play free safety, allowing Elam to shift back to his natural strong safety. Elam had 77 tackles last year as a rookie and is already taking an on-the-field leadership role in 2014.
"Matt is going to have a huge year this year -- I'll say it now," declared teammate Jimmy Smith. "He's going to be lightening back there. His natural position, when you see him on film right now, he looks great. He's making all the calls; he's commanding the defense. Sky is the limit for that guy."
Backup Jeromy Miles played in 13 games lasts season and will push Stewart while also contributing on special teams.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This is a unit that the Ravens hope they don't have to worry too much about.
Kicker Justin Tucker set a franchise record with 140 points last season, hitting on 38-of-41 field goals. He made 33 in a row at one point last season and became the first kicker in NFL history to make a field goal from 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 yards in the same game, doing so versus Detroit on Dec. 16 and capping the performance with a game-winning 61-yard boot.
Punter Sam Koch is a steady leg entering his ninth NFL season, while long snapper Morgan Cox is entering his fifth.
Sparked in part by Jacoby Jones, the Ravens ranked second in the NFL last season with 26.4 yards per return on kickoffs and were third on punt returns at 14.2 yards per return.
Jones had 19 punt returns to 23 by Tandon Doss, now a member of Jacksonville, so Jackson could spell Jones as the main punt returner to keep the wide receiver fresh.
COACHING: Harbaugh has racked up the third-most regular season victories in the NFL since 2008 with 62 and has gotten his club to three AFC Championship Games. Winning has become his thing, so the pressure will be on him and Flacco to return to the postseason.
Landing Kubiak should help given the success of his past offenses. The Houston Texans often had little trouble putting up points and Kubiak did run an offense in Denver from 1995-2005 that at one time feature John Elway, Shannon Sharpe and Terrell Davis.
THE SKINNY: There is no doubt that missing the playoffs was a huge underachievement for the 2013 Ravens and further proved how real the "Super Bowl hangover" is.
However, lost in expectations was the transition of several positions from the old guard to the new, especially on defense and at the wide receiver position. Baltimore has restocked with some young talent and has enough talented veterans that a rebuild is not in the cards.
Not making the playoffs only increases the pressure for Flacco, Suggs and the other core members, but this team also seems to play better with a chip on its shoulder.