Shutdown Countdown: Lack of weapons in passing game could hurt Baltimore Ravens in 2013

Brian McIntyre
Shutdown Corner

When the Baltimore Ravens entered the final five weeks of the 2012 regular season, they found themselves at 9-2 and were in the midst of a second four-game winning streak of the season. Despite that impressive win total, there were glaring problems on the offensive side of the football.

The Ravens managed just three field goals and 298 yards of offense in a 9-6 win over the hapless Kansas City Chiefs. Two weeks later, they gained just 176 yards and 12 first downs in a 43-13 pasting at the hands of the Houston Texans. The Ravens managed to hang on and beat a Ben Roethlisberger-less Pittsburgh Steelers team on Nov. 18 and the following week got the infamous "4th and 29" play to force overtime and beat the San Diego Chargers. After gaining 288 yards in a 23-20 loss to the Steelers on Dec. 2, and scoring just one touchdown in the second half of a 31-28 loss to the Washington Redskins, the Ravens dismissed Cam Cameron and promoted Jim Caldwell, who had never coordinated an offense at any level during his coaching career.

Though the Ravens lost a third straight game the following week, the offense began to click under Caldwell, particularly in the running game. Over the final two weeks of the season, the Ravens gained 430 yards on the ground as rookie Bernard Pierce took on a slightly larger role. The Ravens got a 10th win to finish in first place ahead of the 10-6 Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North.

In the playoffs, Caldwell made the curious decision to shuffle the offensive line by Michael Oher back to right tackle, rookie Kelechi Osomele was moved to left guard and Bryant McKinnie was insert at left tackle. That unit would pave the way for a rushing attack that averaged 134.8 yards in the playoffs and would keep quarterback Joe Flacco mostly clean throughout the playoffs, allowing just six sacks as Flacco passes for 1,140 yards with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions as the Ravens defeated the Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and, in Super Bowl XLVII, the San Francisco 49ers to hoist the second Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.

The 2013 offseason has brought about many changes to the Ravens roster. Seven of the 22 players that started the Super Bowl are gone, and an eighth player (Dennis Pitta, who didn't officially start as the Ravens opened in "20" personnel) will miss the season with a hip injury suffered early in training camp. The leadership core of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are gone, with Reed trying to continue his Hall of Fame career with the Houston Texans and Lewis staying in the public eye with a studio gig at ESPN while he awaits his call from Canton, Ohio.

[Related: Ravens' Michael Oher, Terrence Cody will be key free agents in 2014]

Head coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome remain, however, as does Flacco, who was kept off the free agent market with a six-year, $120.6 million contract extension. A return trip to the Super Bowl is unlikely, and the Ravens may struggle to keep the Bengals and Steelers at bay in the AFC Norht, but the presence of Newsome, Harbaugh and Flacco on this team is why the Ravens are so high on this list and why, on paper, they remain one of the top teams in the AFC entering the 2013 season.

Is the roster better, worse, or about the same? The roster is very different from the one that defeated the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII and was paraded through the city of Baltimore nearly six months ago. Ray Lewis and Matt Birk retired, Anquan Boldin was traded (to the 49ers), Ed Reed, Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger and Cary Williams left in free agency and safety Bernard Pollard was released for salary cap purposes. To replace those key players, the Ravens scooped players that were released by their previous teams for financial reasons. Front seven defenders Elvis Dumervil, Chris Canty, Michael Huff and Marcus Spears were added on short-term deals that total $15.1 million in guaranteed money. (Ellerbe, Kruger & Williams received $47.5 million in guaranteed combined on the free agent market) The additions on defense, which include first-round safety Matt Elam and healthy versions of Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb, could mitigate the losses of over half the starting unit at the end of the season. Without Boldin, and then tight end Dennis Pitta to a hip injury early in training camp, the Ravens offense could struggle in the passing game, which might explain the decision to re-sign previously released fullback Vonta Leach on Monday.

Best offseason acquisition: Elam & Huff may sound like a low-rated cable TV show, but the two safeties could eventually be an upgrade over the duo of Reed and Pollard. Elam has the speed to cover a lot of ground in the back-end of the secondary and plays a very physical brand of football. Huff also has great range at safety and can blitz a little bit, picking up four sacks for the 2010 Oakland Raiders.

Biggest hole on the roster: With Boldin gone and Pitta injured, the Ravens have a lack of a weapons in the passing game. Boldin and Pitta combined for 126 receptions, 1,590 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. That's 37.7 percent of the team's receptions, 39.7 percent of the yards and 50 percent of the receiving touchdowns, production that will be very difficult for the Ravens to replace.

Position in flux: With the retirement of Lewis, free agent departures of Ellerbe and Reed, and the release of Pollard, the middle of the back seven of the Ravens' defense is undergoing major changes this offseason. That's a lot of experience walking out the door, but it will be a good test of the team's ability to develop from within. Elam, second-round linebacker Arthur Brown and veteran linebacker Jameel McClain, an undrafted free agent in 2008, are slated to fill three of those four vacancies.

Player you might not have heard of yet, but will soon: Ed Dickson was taken a round earlier than Pitta in the 2010 NFL draft, but has been the team's No. 2 tight end the last few seasons. You've undoubtedly heard of Dickson — he caught 54 passes with five touchdowns in 2011 — so consider this a reintroduction. Pitta played in nearly 60 percent of the Ravens' offensive snaps last season and was Flacco's preferred target in the red zone. With Pitta done for the season, Dickson's playing time and involvement in the offense will increase, particularly in the red zone, where Dickson was targeted just one time in the 2012 regular season.

Stat fact: According to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, undrafted rookie kicker Justin Tucker might have been the best of an impressive crop of rookie kickers as he led the league in gross kickoff value and was third in league in field goal value.

The team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: The defense overcomes the offseason losses on the roster and Flacco picks up where he left off in February as the Ravens repeat as AFC North champions and repeat as Super Bowl champions.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: The reasons Dumervil, Huff, Spears and Canty were available for such bargains are shown on the field, Flacco struggles without Boldin and Pitta and the Ravens miss the playoffs entirely.

The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: Flacco has the $120.6 million contract, but the one individual who could swing this team's season one way or another is offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. The longtime quarterback coach and former Indianapolis Colts head coach replaced Cam Cameron when the offense stagnated ate last season and his tweaks led to an offensive resurgence that the team rode to a Super Bowl win. Caldwell had planned a major overhaul this offseason, stressing efficiency in both the rushing and passing games and success on early downs, which is the offensive equivalent to newly-hired defensive coordinators saying they want their units to be "aggressive". If Caldwell pulls the right strings, the Ravens will be in the playoff hunt. If his offense struggles, so will the Ravens.

The Shutdown Countdown previews you might have missed
32. Oakland Raiders
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Arizona Cardinals
29. Buffalo Bills
28. Cleveland Browns
27. Tennessee Titans
26. Kansas City Chiefs
25. New York Jets
24. San Diego Chargers
23. Philadelphia Eagles
22. Miami Dolphins
21. St. Louis Rams
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
18. Dallas Cowboys
17. Detroit Lions
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. Indianapolis Colts
14. New Orleans Saints
13. Chicago Bears
12. New York Giants
11. Carolina Panthers
10. Washington Redskins
9. Cincinnati Bengals
8. Atlanta Falcons
7. Houston Texans

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