3 things Ravens need to go right to return to NFL playoffs

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 25:  Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens scrambles to avoid the oncoming rush of Sean Davis #28 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the game at Heinz Field on December 25, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
1. Joe Flacco needs to play 16 games People, including myself, may have rushed to judgement after Super Bowl XLVII back in February 2013 to anoint Joe Flacco as “elite” (to be fair, he had an elite postseason that year, throwing for 1,140 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions). While it’s fun to tweet that he’s elite still — or while that word might echo on the Purple Patio in Federal Hill when he throws a touchdown pass — he’s probably not a Top 10 QB in the NFL. That being said, he’s pretty much all the Ravens have. Backup Ryan Mallett wasn’t all that good in college at Michigan, then Arkansas, but his 6-foot-6, 250-pound frame and arm strength has provided him employment in the NFL. Flacco did not play at all in the preseason and barely practiced as he dealt with a lingering back issue. He was candid about the injury only affecting the preseason — that it wasn’t bad enough to derail him once the games counted. “It wasn’t something that was completely crippling to the point that if it were the Super Bowl I couldn’t play,” he said this week. “So I don’t think I was ever really worried about [not playing against Cincinnati]. But what happens on Sunday when Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins breaks through the offensive line and pummels Flacco? It could happen, and Ravens fans will be holding their collective breath to see if Joe Cool gets up and walks it off without a waddle. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Joe Sargent)
BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 18: Quarterback Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens passes the ball while teammate offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley #79 blocks against defensive end Connor Barwin #98 of the Philadelphia Eagles in the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
2. The offensive line must protect Flacco This unit has been in flux all summer and it will be put to the test immediately out the gate in Cincinnati. I mentioned Geno Atkins in the previous slide — the Bengals DT had 25 quarterback hits last year, good for a tie for third in the NFL. Ryan Jensen is the team’s new center and will shoulder the tall task of protecting Flacco from Atkins. Veteran offensive tackle Austin Howard, acquired from the Raiders in August, was ranked as the #52 Tackle in the NFL in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus. On the other side, 2016 first-round pick Ronnie Stanley was graded as the most efficient pass blocker among rookie OTs by PFF. Guard Marshal Yanda is considered one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL, and was named to his sixth straight Pro Bowl last season. Oh and speaking of last season — Yanda did not surrender a sack or a hit allowed in 13 games played in 2016. In fact, you’d have to go back to Week 7 of the 2015 season to see the last time Yanda allowed a sack/QB hit! James Hurst, who was moved to left guard after Alex Lewis was lost for the season, is a huge question mark. In addition to protecting Flacco, the offensive line needs to do a better job of creating a push so running backs Terrence West and Danny Woodhead can get some tough yards and set up the passing game. The team finished near the bottom in terms of run game efficiency in 2016, clocking in at 28th in the league in rushing yardage and 30th in rush attempts. With Flacco still recovering, the Ravens will need to run the ball more, something that can only be accomplished if this offensive line gets some push. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Rob Carr)
BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 4: Quarterback Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Miami Dolphins is sacked by outside linebacker Terrell Suggs #55 and defensive end Timmy Jernigan #99 of the Baltimore Ravens in the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on December 4, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
3. The defense needs to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable often Remember in the AFC Championship, back in January 2016, when Von Miller nearly single-handedly beat the Patriots by himself, hitting Tom Brady almost every time he threw the football? When you’re able to disrupt an offense on a consistent basis you can make up for a lackluster offense, which is an adjective that could probably characterize the Ravens’ O coming into the 2017 season. Terrell Suggs hit the quarterback 17 times last year, tied for 11th in the NFL. “Sizzle” is considered old by NFL standards at 34, but he still finished with a 78.3 overall grade from PFF last season which was the eighth time in his illustrious career in which he has graded at a 78 or higher. Suggs also led the team with eight sacks. The nice thing about having a very good secondary like the Ravens do (seventh-ranked in the league, according to PFF) is that it provides you the opportunity to blitz and bring pressure. Cornerbacks Jimmy Smith, newly-acquired Brandon Carr from Dallas, and top pick Marlon Humphrey are all at least six foot and can play physically. That takes pressure off linebackers like C.J. Mosley, who was unable to register a sack last season despite being ranked as the 11th LB according to PFF. Defensive tackles Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams must show an ability to collapse the pocket like they did in the preseason, and linebackers like Matthew Judon (who had the highest pressure percentage on the team last season) need to help the aging veteran Suggs when he gets winded. If so, maybe we can start to talk about how the Ravens are building up their defense like the Baltimore glory days when they would win games without scoring touchdowns. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Rob Carr)
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PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 25:  Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens scrambles to avoid the oncoming rush of Sean Davis #28 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the game at Heinz Field on December 25, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 18: Quarterback Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens passes the ball while teammate offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley #79 blocks against defensive end Connor Barwin #98 of the Philadelphia Eagles in the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 4: Quarterback Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Miami Dolphins is sacked by outside linebacker Terrell Suggs #55 and defensive end Timmy Jernigan #99 of the Baltimore Ravens in the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on December 4, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

In lieu of standard team previews for the Ravens and Redskins this year, we instead asked our resident experts to tell us the only thing that really matters to fans — what it will take to get the two teams back to the playoffs.


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