Playoffs made it clear: Ravens must focus on offense this offseason

ON THE RAVENS

January 24, 2007|By MIKE PRESTON

The worst thing the Ravens can do this offseason is to maintain the status quo, which could be disastrous.

Instead, the No. 1 priority should be to upgrade the running game and then re-sign several of the team's possible unrestricted free agents. The Ravens also need to insert new personnel on the offensive line, find a starting cornerback and, of course, add overall depth.

The most glaring difference between the Ravens and the three other final teams in the AFC playoffs was offensive effectiveness. Throughout the postseason, it was clear the Ravens, indeed, had the No. 1 defense in the NFL, but they couldn't match the offensive firepower of the San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots or Indianapolis Colts.

At times, the difference was appalling. The Ravens showed progress offensively once coach Brian Billick took over the play-calling after their sixth game, but what worked against such teams as Cleveland, Atlanta and Kansas City wasn't going to work against the NFL's big boys.

Next season, the schedule gets tougher because the Ravens finished 13-3 and won the AFC North. There are several road games on the West Coast. The mentality of this team could be different. In 2006, it was a last hurrah for some veterans trying to win a championship near the end of their careers.

It's hard to believe that the Ravens will get that same maximum effort again. Such veterans as Ray Lewis, Steve McNair, Trevor Pryce, Jamal Lewis, Samari Rolle, Jonathan Ogden, Edwin Mulitalo and Mike Flynn are at a age at which they aren't going to get better individually, but are more concerned about trying to maintain a certain level of play.

So, this team has to upgrade to keep pace in a parity-filled league.

It has to start with the running game. Clearly, based on eight years of hard evidence, this offense and its coach are limited as far as scheming. But if you can run the ball, you don't need to be fancy or cute. You just push people around.

The Ravens need to find a featured back. Jamal Lewis isn't the answer, and neither is Mike Anderson. Even in a shared role, they can't get it done. But there are some intriguing options such as the Tennessee Titans' Chris Brown and the Colts' Dominic Rhodes, both unrestricted free agents. San Diego's Michael Turner is a restricted free agent and would be an excellent choice if the Ravens were willing to make a deal.

The Ravens prefer big backs, and the draft also will offer such alternatives as Louisville's Michael Bush, even though he broke his lower leg in this past season's opener against Kentucky. Two others are Cal's Marshawn Lynch and Nebraska's Brandon Jackson.

Of course, the top runner is Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson, but he'll be gone with one of the top 10 selections.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said Bush "was a first-round pick, but might drop down to the second now. It all depends on his combine numbers and medical record. But he is a big back with a lot of athleticism."

The blame for the inconsistent running game can't be solely placed on Lewis. He was hesitant at times because he didn't have full confidence in the offensive line. The Ravens plan to make some changes. If rookie Chris Chester can gain 15 to 20 pounds during the offseason, he'll probably replace Mike Flynn as the starting center.

The team also needs to find a starting spot for second-year guard Jason Brown. He is more athletic than former starting left guard Edwin Mulitalo and more powerful than right guard Keydrick Vincent. Brown also is younger than both.

Vincent seems to be the odd player out because he has no extended ties with the team. The Ravens drafted Mulitalo, who has become close friends with Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden. Do you think Mulitalo's return might be used as leverage by Ogden to return next season instead of retiring?

There are other keys to this running game, as well. The Ravens need to re-sign right tackle Tony Pashos and fullback Ovie Mughelli, for continuity if nothing else. If they solve their running-game problems, the offense will become much more complete because the passing game is predicated on play-action passes.

There aren't as many issues on defense. The Ravens can simply put the franchise tag on outside linebacker Adalius Thomas or they can re-sign his backup, Jarret Johnson. If those options fail, there are "tweeners" in the draft who can play part-time outside linebacker and defensive end, such as Michigan's LaMarr Woodley and Purdue's Anthony Spencer, both defensive ends.

They may have to dig deeper to find a cornerback. It appears the plan is to move Rolle from starter to nickel back. There isn't any player on the roster the Ravens trust to start at cornerback opposite Chris McAlister.

"You can always find a corner [in the draft]," Kiper said. "Some are good; some are overrated. There will be a lot of juniors in the draft that are coming out, so teams are going to have to do their homework."

The Ravens have done their homework extremely well over the years, and if they stay active this offseason, they should be able to upgrade and possibly move up to the next level in 2007.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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