3 keys for Ravens to return to playoffs

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 08:  Jimmy Smith #22 of the Baltimore Ravens returns a recovered fumble by Jared Cook #87 of the Oakland Raiders for a touchdown during their NFL game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on October 8, 2017 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Jimmy Smith was one of the most impactful defensive players in the league last year, and the Ravens will need to weather his suspension. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Thearon W. Henderson)
BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 18: Quarterback Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens drops back to pass while teammate offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley #79 blocks against  cornerback Dwayne Gratz #36 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)
Joe Flacco has consistently struggled without time in the pocket, so the state of the offensive line will loom large. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Rob Carr)
BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 09: John Brown #13 of the Baltimore Ravens rushes against the Los Angeles Rams in the first half during a preseason game at M&T Bank Stadium on August 9, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
With a brand-new, revamped receiving corps, Baltimore can only go up in a number of offensive categories. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Patrick Smith)
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OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 08:  Jimmy Smith #22 of the Baltimore Ravens returns a recovered fumble by Jared Cook #87 of the Oakland Raiders for a touchdown during their NFL game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on October 8, 2017 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 18: Quarterback Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens drops back to pass while teammate offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley #79 blocks against  cornerback Dwayne Gratz #36 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 - AUGUST 09: John Brown #13 of the Baltimore Ravens rushes against the Los Angeles Rams in the first half during a preseason game at M&T Bank Stadium on August 9, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — New Year’s Eve 2017. The Ravens were less than nine minutes away from going back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. All Baltimore had to do was hold on against the rival Cincinnati Bengals, a team that had beaten them in five out of their last seven meetings.

But alas, 2018 was not rung in gleefully for Ravens fans. With less than a minute to play, Andy Dalton threw a game-winning touchdown pass that knocked the Ravens out of the postseason, allowing the Bills to slip into the sixth and final spot.

How do the Ravens bounce back from such a devastating end to their season?

In general manager Ozzie Newsome’s final draft before he retires at the end of this year, the team planned for life without Joe Flacco in the near future by drafting 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson out of Louisville in the first round.

Flacco is still the starting quarterback for 2018, and the team signed three wide receivers in the offseason to help bolster the passing offense that ranked dead last in the NFL in yards per attempted pass (5.7) and fourth worst yards per game in the air (189).

Along with improving the aerial attack, here are three things that need to go right for a Ravens return to the postseason.

Go at least 2-2 during Jimmy Smith’s absence

Cornerback Jimmy Smith is one of the best players on the defensive side of the ball, but the Ravens will be without his services for the first four games of the season as he serves a suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.

Warren Sharp pointed out that over the past two seasons with Smith on the field, the Ravens ranked No. 1 in terms of opposing passer rating (76.1) and interception rate per pass (4.53 percent).

Without Smith in that secondary? Baltimore’s opposing passer rating tumbled to 18th in the league (91.5), and the Ravens posted the second worst interception rate per pass (1.53 percent).

Baltimore’s defense is still one of the top-ranked units coming into the season, according to Pro Football Focus. The defense as a whole allowed the sixth-fewest amount of points per game last year and should be equipped enough, even without Smith to hold the Nathan Peterman-led Bills offense in check Week 1.

Weeks 2 to 4 become much tougher. On a short week, the Ravens will travel to Cincinnati on a Thursday night in the second game of Baltimore’s season, where they’ll have to try to contain speedy Bengals WR John Ross along with attempting to disrupt the established connection of Andy Dalton to A.J. Green.

Week 3 sees wideouts Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas and second-round pick Courtland Sutton at new QB Case Keenum’s disposal for the Denver offense. The Broncos’ offense struggled last year, scoring the sixth-fewest points per game (18.1), but should fare tremendously better with Keenum than the trio of 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch (just released), Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler.

Finally, Week 4 will be the toughest test without Smith as the Ravens head to Pittsburgh, where they’ll take on the Steelers on Sunday Night Football. Sharp also pointed out that the Steelers accumulated over 780 yards in the air with five touchdown passes in two games last year against Baltimore. The Steelers top wideout — and the best receiver in the game — Antonio Brown torched the Ravens’ secondary almost by himself, hauling in 11 receptions for 213 yards in the second game alone.

If the Ravens lose to Buffalo in Week 1, they’ll be in dire trouble early on.

But, if they beat the Bills and are able to muster at least one win between their next three opponents (preferably against the Steelers and/or Bengals as they are division foes), Baltimore should avoid any sort of a catch-up scenario early on in the year.

The offensive line must give Joe Flacco time to throw

Since the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII, Joe Flacco has been one of the worst QBs under pressure in the league.

In 2013, Flacco was 33rd in QB rating under pressure out of 41 eligible players. Flacco was dead last in QB rating under pressure in both 2014 and 2015, and he ranked 25th out of 37 in 2016.

There wasn’t much improvement last year, as among eligible QBs, Flacco ranked ninth-to-last in NFL Next Gen’s Time to Throw statistic.

Scott Barrett of Pro Football Focus pointed out that among all quarterbacks over the past three years with 600 pass attempts, Flacco is the third most pressure-sensitive QB, and Baltimore’s offensive line comes into 2018 with depth question marks.

In terms of their starting five, one must wonder how truly effective and dominant almost-34-year-old, six-time Pro Bowl Guard Marshal Yanda will be, since he hasn’t played a regular season game in nearly a year after he fractured his ankle last September.

Flacco is a far cry away from reaching the “elite” levels of 11 TDs and 0 INTs during the Ravens magical Super Bowl run back in 2012/2013. But, if the guys protecting him can provide him just a few more tenths of a second to allow the receivers to get downfield, the Ravens’ offense has the potential to dramatically improve their woeful average yards-per-attempt from last year.

The new receivers and Flacco must click

Flacco has a running game behind him to help set up the pass, as Alex Collins was an extremely pleasant surprise running for 4.6 yards per carry last year, good for a tie in fifth in the NFL. If the offensive line holds up its end of the bargain, it will be on Flacco to prove he’s still a capable NFL starter.

Flacco’s weapons begin with former 49er/Raider Michael Crabtree, who was signed after the team voided former Redskins WR Ryan Grant’s four-year/$29 million contract due to a failed physical in the offseason. Crabtree finished with the highest grade among WRs in the red zone last year, and with first-round pick Hayden Hurst needing foot surgery, this connection inside the 20 will be even more essential.

John Brown is the deep threat that Flacco’s big arm is capable of reaching. Brown has dealt with sickle-cell trait-related symptoms in the past, which has affected his ability to stay on the field. But, he said during his introductory press conference that he’s healthy and feeling good ahead of this year.

Brown flashed brilliance in the preseason with this one-handed catch in the end zone, and according to The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec, he was the standout of camp. If Brown is able to replicate his ability to get downfield (he ranked second among eligible WRs last year in average depth of target), the threat of him being on the field alone should spread out opposing linebackers and secondary.

Finally, there is Willie Snead, who isn’t garnering a ton of attention, but according to Pro Football Focus, has the most valuable wide receiver contract in the NFL. Snead was an impactful WR in both 2015 and 2016 with the Saints, and if he can return to form at just 25 years old, the three newcomers could all see targets from Flacco, which in turn will keep opposing secondaries guessing where the ball is going.


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