It Comes Down To Line, Flacco Stepping Up

July 28, 2009|By MIKE PRESTON

While the Ravens' fan base seems to be paralyzed by the recent retirement of two wide receivers, there are greater concerns facing the Ravens as they begin training camp today at McDaniel College.

No, there are no major concerns about new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, or Tavares Gooden or Jameel McClain, the two top candidates to replace inside linebacker Bart Scott. New cornerback Domonique Foxworth will be able to handle himself on the field as well, and most of the injured players who missed extensive time a year ago should be ready for the season opener.

And, please, please, can we stop the insanity about replacing safety Jim Leonhard as if Leonhard were the Pittsburgh Steelers' Troy Polamalu? Leonhard is as easy to replace as a chin strap.

Now, to move on to serious matters: If the Ravens want to advance to the next level, which is the Super Bowl, both the offensive line and quarterback Joe Flacco have to step up their games from a year ago.

Those are the two major keys. The Ravens are sound everywhere else except for finding a field-goal kicker, but they need to get more out of their passing game, and this is the perfect time because this offense, led by a franchise-caliber quarterback, has the potential to dominate.

A year ago, the Ravens' passing offense was vanilla. Flacco was a rookie, and the Ravens didn't want to take a lot of risk. The Ravens also had a young offensive line, and they didn't have a tackle on either side of the line of scrimmage who could consistently block the other team's top pass rusher.

The final proof came in the 2009 AFC championship game. The Ravens couldn't handle Pittsburgh outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison one-on-one and had to keep in their running backs and tight ends to pass-protect for Flacco. Pittsburgh dropped six and seven players into coverage, and Flacco either didn't read the coverage properly or didn't have time to throw.

Final score: Pittsburgh 23, Ravens 14.

A lot of Ravens fans worry about receiver Derrick Mason arriving at training camp on time. Me? I want Michael Oher, the team's top draft pick, here on time. I want him to get adjusted to the speed of the game and not miss any repetitions.

This is an offensive line in transition. Besides Oher, Matt Birk is new at center replacing Jason Brown. Birk is an upgrade but still learning the offense. No one seems to know the starting right guard for the opener because it could be Marshal Yanda, out with a knee injury, or Chris Chester.

Regardless, it's going to take some time for this unit to jell again. On paper, it's a good group and extremely athletic. But for this passing game to improve, Oher and left tackle Jared Gaither have to handle top pass rushers consistently one-on-one.

And then there is the Flacco factor.

He played well as a rookie and showed a lot of promise last season. Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron brought Flacco along slowly, and the Ravens were content allowing Flacco to throw safe patterns to the outside of the field. That will work against most teams when you're stronger than they are in most other areas, but it's hard to be that conservative and win against teams like Pittsburgh, the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts.

The Ravens will need a more sophisticated passing offense. They will need to get more players into passing routes instead of having them pass-block.

And Flacco will have to make more big league throws into tight windows across the middle of the field. He has to make this next step for the Ravens to reach the ultimate goal.

After all, that's why he is here, right? You don't draft a quarterback in the first round to complement your running game. You draft him that high to make tough throws and win games. You pay him $30 million over five years to carry the team, the way Tom Brady carries the Patriots.

It will be a tough assignment for Flacco, as well as the offensive line. It's a young group, and he's a young quarterback. There will be mistakes made early in the season, but if the Ravens can overcome growing pains, they could be an interesting team to watch down the stretch.

It's all depends on whether Flacco and his offensive line can step it up a notch.

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