Touch-ups would polish team

January 20, 2009|By MIKE PRESTON

The foundation for future success was laid in 2008 by the Ravens, but there need to be some changes made in the offseason if the team is to take the next step and play in the Super Bowl.

By any standard, this season was an overwhelming success. No one predicted the Ravens would win more than six to eight games, much less play the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game.

The Ravens found out that rookie head coach John Harbaugh has a system that works, and they also discovered their quarterback of the future in Joe Flacco, a rookie out of the University of Delaware.

But the 23-14 loss to Pittsburgh also revealed again two glaring weaknesses of the Ravens: the lack of a speedy, go-to wide receiver to start opposite Derrick Mason and a big, physical cornerback who can take out the other team's top receiver.

Harbaugh and his coaching staff got the most out of this team during the season, but the absence of a big-time receiver was clearly evident Sunday night. Mason had three catches for 41 yards against Pittsburgh, and it was obvious the Steelers wanted to take him out of the Ravens' game plan.

When that happens, someone else has to step up. Who did Sunday? Receiver Mark Clayton had just two catches for 18 yards. Tight end Todd Heap had three for 26, one of those for 20 yards. When Flacco tried to throw long to Clayton, who has only average speed, there were times he couldn't get separation from Pittsburgh defenders, and one time he just dropped the ball.

The Ravens could make a deal for a receiver such as the Arizona Cardinals' Anquan Boldin, but Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome would prefer for his team to get younger, and it seems as if the Ravens would most likely wait until the NFL draft in April.

That's the most likely scenario for a cornerback as well. It's highly unlikely the Ravens will want to keep around the disgruntled Chris McAlister, and the other starting cornerback, Samari Rolle, played well at the end of the season but can't stay healthy.

Besides Rolle and McAlister, the entire defense could get a face-lift. Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who helped develop the culture of the Ravens as one of the best defensive teams in the NFL during the past decade, agreed to a four-year deal yesterday to become the head coach of the New York Jets.

The key question for Harbaugh and the Ravens is: Do they bring in an outsider to replace Ryan and possibly a system that his been in place since 1996, or do they promote an assistant such as linebackers coach Greg Mattison or secondary coach Chuck Pagano?

The Ravens might also lose quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson to the Cincinnati Bengals or the Jets, who are looking at him as a possible offensive coordinator.

And then there are the players. The Ravens have to make decisions on linebackers Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs, all headed for free agency in March unless they can reach new deals with the team.

It seems unlikely that the Ravens can re-sign all three unless they designate Lewis the franchise player. Lewis will be in high demand, particularly by the Dallas Cowboys, and now Ryan in New York.

It could be a season of turnover in regard to other players such as Heap and kicker Matt Stover, but that's nothing new in the NFL with its salary cap. Plus, when you win, everybody likes to raid your coaching staff.

Overall, though, it was a great run by the Ravens in 2008. One of the big questions coming into the season was how Harbaugh and his tough, strong work ethic would fare in Baltimore with its share of surly veteran players.

It took time, but Harbaugh won over the team, even though there still has to be some cleansing of several sour veterans in the offseason.

The Ravens also have a solid offensive system in place installed by coordinator Cam Cameron. Between Cameron and Jackson, they tutored Flacco well.

Flacco's play was the surprise of the season. Since moving here from Cleveland, the team has struggled to find a franchise-caliber quarterback, but the wait is finally over with Flacco.

Besides having the arm, size and strength, he has the coolness to lead the Ravens for a long time barring injury.

The young offensive line, considered a weakness at the beginning of the season, should be a strength in the future, even though the Ravens still might need help at tackle. Too many times this season the team had to help its tackles pass protect by chipping with tight ends and running backs, which hurt the passing game.

Overall, there were many more pluses than minuses with the Ravens. A good foundation, which includes a strong work ethic, has been laid, and there is a solid nucleus to build around. There might be some new faces for the Ravens going into next season, but if the team is to take the next step, some of these changes have to be made.

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