Ravens: How to Build a Contender (Part 2)
In this three part series, we’ll take a look at one of the most consistent winning franchises, in recent history, that is also similar in a lot of ways to the Ravens. Where have the Ravens gotten off track, how can they get back on it following another model.
Part 1 – The Brass/Coaches
Part 2 – The Offense
Part 3 – The Defense
Today we’ll look at part two of the three-part series, how to build a contender. I mentioned before that this is unchartered territory for the Ravens brass. It is important to take a step back and examine how the Ravens got here. It is even more important to identify the problems and come up with solutions to remedy them. We take a look at a comparable team to the Ravens in the Cincinnati Bengals for answers.
The Bengals are comparable because they are in the same position as the Ravens were a few years back. Perennial playoff team, looking to get over the hump and make a Super Bowl run, and having to do it without the luxury of one elite unit. Whether that’s having a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, or a historically stout defense like the Seahawks. Even the 2012 Ravens had the luxury of a couple first ballot hall of famers on the squad. That team seemed driven by emotions above all, after Ray Lewis announced that it would be his last ride.
The Bengals, like the Ravens have been in recent years, are well rounded. That’s what the Ravens need to get back to, so we’ll look at how they did it. We looked at each team’s front office and coaching staff in part 1. Now we’ll look at the offense.
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Andy Dalton, like Joe Flacco, was drafted with the hopes of being the franchise quarterback one day. Neither is elite, which makes having a strong supporting cast all the more important. Dalton has done enough to get the Bengals on their way to their fifth straight playoff appearance, and this time a possible first round bye, currently at 9-2 and slotted as the #2 seed in the AFC. Dalton has been blessed with some weapons around him, which we’ll get to throughout the article.
Evident by previous events, the Ravens certainly have a man in place in Joe Flacco, who is capable of winning big games, and the biggest game. No worries there as long as you build around him. He can’t turn water into gold with poor receivers like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have done. Few guys can.
Both teams employ a west coast style of offense. The system uses the passing game as an extension of the running game. An attempt to spread defenses out and create mismatches. In Bill Walsh’s creation, Roger Craig once caught 100 passes to lead the league. Marc Trestman got 100 catches out of Matt Forte last year with the Bears. Giovanni Bernard is the primary pass catching back for the Bengals, playing on 267 passing plays, and 147 running plays. His counterpart, Jeremy Hill, has played on just 137 passing plays, and 144 running ones.
Justin Forsett, prior to his gruesome injury, was the all around every down back for the Ravens. Second year back, Lorenzo Taliaferro, is out for the year, and rookie Buck Allen would be rotated in, but not an even split in touches by any means. He’s the lead dog now.
(Numbers prior to week 12)
If you compare Forsett to Bernard, it’s clear that Bernard is much more effective in the receiving game than Forsett. Bernard averages 9.6 YPC this year (8.9 for his career). Forsett….4.9 (6.7 for his career). Bernard can also run the ball as he is doing it at a 5.4 Y/A clip, while Forsett is just 4.2.
Forsett had already seen 480 snaps this year. Buck Allen is up to 155, while the Bengals Bernard has played 414 snaps, and Jeremy Hill, 281.
Two young backs, keeping each other fresh, not over using one or another. The Ravens will get a good look at Buck Allen over these last five games. It is very important that he have a good showing because you will want the younger legs running in your offense in 2016. You will want the older Forsett to be able to take a back seat to Allen, or at least allow him to decrease his role and keep his older legs fresh. Buck Allen also averages 8.2 yards per catch on his 13 receptions on the year. Trestman likes to throw to his running backs and Allen is more efficient than Forsett in that department.
Another thought on running backs in today’s NFL. The big running backs from the days of Larry Csonka and John Riggins are making a comeback in a big way. Guys like Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount are tipping the scales at around 250 pounds. Cincy’s Jeremy Hill is no slouch at 6’1” 235 pounds. Defenses are getting smaller. Maybe not the hog bodys in the trenches. But linebackers these days are built for speed and coverage with such an emphasis on passing in this age of the NFL. More passing means more three wideout sets, means more defenses taking out a linebacker to place an extra defensive back on the field. Makes the defense smaller overall, right? Why wouldn’t you want a big RB to pound away at the smaller defenses? Buck Allen is 6’0”/220. Not a bruiser like Bell. But bigger than Forsett at 5’8”/195.
Another reason bigger, bruising backs are key. Tackling is at an all time worst level in pro football. The CBA limits the amount of practice time a team can get in. They spend most, if not all of their time installing the playbook in the offseason. Then they spend all week installing the game plan week to week in season. There is no time to teach fundamentals. If a guy can’t tackle fundamentally in college, he never will. Try arm tackling Le’Veon Bell. See how that works out for you.
Lastly, running backs need to be young, not just for freshness. But because on their rookie contracts they take up minimal space on the salary cap. The Steelers with Bell, The Bengals duo of Hill and Bernard, the Rams with rookie Todd Gurley, are getting amazing value from their young backs on cheap, rookie contracts with base pay under $1M. The Ravens need to hope for a breakout from Buck Allen, so they can lean on him, and get similar value in 2016. Forsett still seems like he can be a useful asset, so I wouldn’t just kick him to the curb (saving $2.3M against the cap, but costing $1.4M in dead money). But on the other hand, he shouldn’t be starting in 2016, and $3.7M against the cap is a lot for a backup running back.
It was widely reported that the Ravens liked Terrance West prior to the 2014 NFL Draft. He quickly flamed out of Cleveland, with questions of his maturity and work ethic. In the game last night against his former team, he showed well. Some burst, decent blitz pick-up. Like Allen, he gets the remainder of this 2015 season to show he belongs to be part of Baltimore’s future. West averaged 5.8 yards per reception in 2014 with Cleveland, but should hardly be relied upon. His attitude has cost him jobs with two teams in as many years. He could be an asset if he matures, but any contribution from West should be considered a bonus at this point.
If Allen (or West) doesn’t show well in the next five games, you could make a case for the Ravens drafting a RB in 2016. Forsett another year older, Allen not showing well, Taliaferro is completely unreliable. Alabama’s Derrick Henry (Ozzie Newsome love Alabama guys, right?) is the biggest back in the draft at 6’2”, 242 pounds. He’s second on most big boards behind Zeke Elliott (Ohio State), and could be had in the early second round if other teams continue to discount the importance of RBs in the pass heavy league.
I’m going to try not to beat the dead horse here. The Ravens clearly have a deficiency at WR. The Bengals on the other hand have an elite playmaker in A.J. Green, drafted fourth overall by the Bengals in 2011. In that draft, Julio Jones went off the board two picks later. I mean, the Bengals could have botched the pick and ended up taking Jones and still been in great shape.
I try not to bash Ozzie Newsome and the front office for not addressing the position more aggressively. Fans clamber for a superstar like A.J. Green. Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones. But those guys don’t just grow on trees. In fact, Steve Smith, prior to injury, grades out higher on Pro Football Focus than A.J. Green. Smith ranks seventh (92.0), and Green 10th (89.3). Sure, you want to supplement that kind of talent with players that can at least beat a teams second CB, since the teams top CB will be mirroring Smith all day. The Ravens I believe tried to do that when they drafted Breshad Perriman. They committed a first round pick to the WR spot. It’s not like they waited and tried to fill the void with some mid-to late round guy. Just unfortunate that Perriman never got to see the field. Nothing you can do about that.
Believe it or not, Kamar Aiken ranks higher than the Bengals number two receiver, Marvin Jones, according to PFF. Aiken ranks 28th (80.7) and Jones ranks 44th (75.8). Aiken and Jones are mirror images of one another.
Aiken: 637 snaps, 75 targets, 43 catches, 536 yards, 4 TDs
Jones: 638 snaps, 72 targets, 42 catches, 540 yards, 3 TDs
I mentioned in part 1 that the Bengals are one of the more efficient passing offenses, despite ranking in the bottom half of league in passing attempts. The Ravens are third in the NFL in attempts. With nearly identical receiving talent (although I would take Green’s size, hands, and age over Smith any day), the Bengals are far less reliable on their receivers and are more efficient when the go to them. Why is that?
Is it the play calling? Is it the quarterback?
Flacco: 64.4% completion, 6.76 Y/A, 14 TDs, 12 INTs, 83.1 passer rating
Dalton: 65.7% completion, 8.21 Y/A, 23 TDs, 6 INTs, 105.3 passer rating (3RD in the NFL)
It can’t be lack of separation among top receivers. Green and Jones combine for 436 yards after catch. Smith and Aiken combine for 399. Consider a couple of games that the Ravens have not had Smith and this is likely another mirror image between the two teams.
Flacco, pre injury, was not having a great year. It really comes down to too many interceptions. His completion percentage is fine. But there we’re some really poor decision on his part through the season. Maybe some of that is play calling, coaching. Lack of continuity with Flacco having so many different offensive coordinators in a short period of time. Some of that is just Joe’s tendencies. He will stare down a receiver from time to time. He will decide where he is throwing before the snap and not even bother going through progressions. So while a lot of people want to jump on Ozzie for not have three A.J. Green’s on the roster, I’ll place the blame elsewhere. The Bengals get it done with a similar top end of the receiving group.Worth noting that while Marlon Brown is nothing special, neither is Bengals number three, Mohamed Sanu.
Will Steve Smith return? Who knows at this point. The Ravens need to proceed as if he won’t. If he doesn’t retire as planned, you have an aging receive coming off an Achilles. How much will he be able to give you?
The Ravens will be picking in the range in the draft where the elite WRs like A.J. Green and Julio Jones get selected. But between the top two prospects, Laquan Treadwell (Ole Miss) and Michael Thomas (Ohio State), I don’t see Green or Jones like talent there. Maybe I’m wrong. I know I’m in the minority. More on that as draft season approaches.
The Bengals Tyler Eifert has become a red zone beast. He leads the league with 12 receiving scores, three more than the four guys in second with nine scores a piece (Marshall, Gronkowski, Hopkins, Beckham Jr.). Is this where the efficiency is hurting the Ravens, but helping the Bengals? Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu are no better than Kamar Aiken/Marlon Brown (or Chris Givens now that Brown has been benched).
They utilize Eifert. He sees the field a ton. For 760 of the Bengals offensive snaps, he played 719 of them. The Ravens have run 784 plays, and Crockett GIllmore only has played 506 snaps. Granted, he missed two games, so that number would be closer to 600. They have rotated in Nick Boyle and Maxx Willimas in for 234 and 268 snaps respectively. But it goes back to continuity for Flacco, doesn’t it? How does Gillmore get into a grove if every couple drives you are subbing him out more often? How does Flacco benefit from having three guys running the same routes, but slightly different based on skill level, speed, and size?
Back to the efficiency aspect. The Bengals have a star receiver, an okay receiver, and not much else. They lean on their tight end down in the scoring area. A.J. Green has gotten 18 red zone targets this year, and Tyler Eifert is right there with him earning 16 of them. He’s caught 12 balls, and 11 of them for scores. The Ravens leader in red zone targets is Steve Smith at 12, then Kyle Juszczyk? He has seven, along with Crokett Gillmore. Smith only caught four of his 12 red zone targets while Gillmore caught five of his seven. Yet Gillmore is not the primary target in scoring range. Why?
Even Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams have only been targeted once, all year, inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Gillmore has shown the he can be every bit the tight end Tyler Eifert is. They just need to find him more. At 6’6”, it shouldn’t be hard.
When the receiving group isn’t great, don’t be afraid to lean on the tight ends. Especially in the red zone where the taller one’s, like Gillmore, can go up over defenders for tough grabs.
I feel like the O-line is always a fluid situation. Those guys tend to get banged up, injured, more often than any other other position. All you can really do is put the best guys out there you can, and more importantly guys that fit the system, whether it’s a power blocking scheme, or a zone one.
Both the Bengals and Ravens have elite players on the line.
LT: Andre Whitworth – Elite
LG: Clint Boling – Very good run blocker, just signed his first large contract after his rookie deal
C: Russell Bodine – Not good
RG: Kevin Zeitler – Has been a starter since day one, drafted late in round one in 2012, will get a nice contract after this year. Very good guard.
RT: Andre Smith – #6 overall pick in 2009. Injury plagued early on, never lived up to the hype, but serviceable enough to earn a three year, $18M contract in 2013
LT: Eugene Monroe – Good enough…when he plays. Protects Joe Flacco well…when he plays. Often injured
LG: Kelechi Osemele – Very good find in the second round of the 2012 draft. Pro Bowl caliber at times, but injuries have held him out once again.
C: Jeremy Zuttah – A good fit in the Ravens zone running scheme. PFF ranks him 10th out of the the centers. On IR for the rest of 2015
RG: Marshal Yanda – Elite. The Joe Montana of guards. When he has to shift to right tackle, he is the Joe Montana of right tackles.
RT: Ricky Wagner – Roller coaster like. Thrown into the mix as a 5th round pick. Played at a Pro Bowl level in year two, and regressing back to below average in year three.
You will be hard pressed to find an offensive line where all five guys are above average players, and the team can keep that unit and level of play together for multiple years in a row. It just doesn’t happen. When you get an elite talent, you hold on to them. You try to find good players cheap to fill in the gaps around your Yanda’s and Whitworth’s. The draft is key when it comes to finding a very good lineman to plug in. The Bengals Zeitler, and the Ravens Osemele are examples of that.
The Ravens have some shortcomings on the line, but it’s commonplace to have at least one area of improvement in this unit. The Bengals have them too, but it hasn’t hampered Andy Dalton’s efficiency, nor Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard’s ability to run the football. It’s not a position in dire need of improvement like it was in 2013.
Diagnosis: Joe Flacco is here to stay and con win the big games. He is a lot like Andy Dalton where he is good enough, but needs a well rounded supporting cast to do that. Justin Forsett is not a fit for Marc Trestman’s pass heavy playbook. His receiving skills, a huge factor in Trestman’s version of the west coast offense, are not on the level of the Bengals Gio Bernard. Imperative that rookie Buck Allen have a great run to finish 2015 so he can challenge for the starting job in 2016. Wouldn’t be a bad idea to target a big RB, or pass catching specialist RB in the draft either. Not much you can do about injuries to the wide receivers. Fans want elite talent, and they pretty much had that in Steve Smith. They wanted that position bolstered and they tried when they drafted Breshad Perriman. Trestman just plain doesn’t draw up enough plays to his big tight end, Crockett Gillmore, opting to check down to his RBs, or having Joe target lesser receivers like Marlon Brown and fullback, Kyle Juszczyk more than he should. With deficiencies in the receiving group, tight ends can pick up the slack. They are receivers too after all. But with Steve Smith’s status unknown for 2016, efforts should be made to bolster the position even more. Offensive line isn’t a huge problem, but the Ravens will be faced with having to add to the depth on the line when Kelechi Osemele likely is lost to free agency.
All in all, I think we’ll get to see if continuity helps Flacco become more efficient in 2016. It has helped Dalton. A more efficient QB will lead to more wins, despite the other shortcomings. Justin Forsett can’t be a starter for Marc Trestman’s playbook. It’s Buck Allen’s job to earn, and he needs to. Crocket Gillmore needs, and deserves more action. Especially in scoring range where exploiting mismatches can lead to six points on the spot. Coaches, and Flacco, should be able to find those mismatches for the 6’6” tight end through better preparation, and in game recognition by Flacco. If Gillmore doesn’t catch more that 12 TDs in 2016, the coaching staff isn’t maximizing his potential.
Mike was born on the Eastern Shore, raised in Finksburg, and currently resides in Parkville. In 2009, Mike graduated from the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland. Mike became a Baltimore City Fire Fighter in late 2010. Mike has appeared as a guest on Q1370, and FOX45. Now a Sr. Ravens Analyst for BSL, he can be reached at [email protected]