2011 Ravens Regular-Season Report Card
By Joe Platania
No matter how deep the Ravens' playoff run goes, a 12-win regular season -- the second-highest total in team history -- is sure to elicit many positive memories.
Here's how the 2011 Ravens graded out:
QUARTERBACK: Who leads the AFC in quarterback wins since 2008? Joe Flacco. Who is the only current signal-caller to have led his team to the playoffs for four straight years? Joe Flacco. Who has played in 64 consecutive games, the longest streak ever for a Ravens quarterback? Joe Flacco. The bottom line is: Flacco might not be Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees -- as some would like him to be -- but he's the best option for this team, now and into the future.
RUNNING BACKS: Ray Rice is so short, he's been running under the radar for a couple years. No more. He is one of the league's best dual threats, easily flowing into space on running plays and finding pockets to catch the ball on checkdowns. Ricky Williams has been near-perfect in his late-game role in breaking down defenses and Vonta Leach has been the road-grading lead blocker everyone expected.
RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: Remember how two decades ago, the run-and-shoot offense nearly made tight ends obsolete? If that pattern had held, would there have been a Todd Heap, let alone a dual threat such as Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta? Those two have been invaluable in a passing game that hasn't gotten much out of its wide receivers, authors of barely one-third of the team's catches. Drops have plagued this unit as well; the team had 31 this regular season, seventh-most in the league.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Usually, offensive lines are defined by their tackles, which is why they were the first linemen in the league to start making big money. But guard play is important to the Ravens' run-first attack; Marshal Yanda became the first Ravens guard to make the Pro Bowl and Ben Grubbs was an alternate for a third straight year. Tackles Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher were better at run blocking and Matt Birk doggedly hung tough during his 14th year.
DEFENSIVE LINE: The defensive line was perhaps the team's most consistent unit all year long. Despite a slight dip in form during the season's second half, this line didn't budge much and, in fact, dictated tempo to many outclassed opponents. Haloti Ngata gutted out a midseason leg injury to make his third straight Pro Bowl and Pernell McPhee was a fifth-round steal. Cory Redding continues to revel in his newfound second career with a team that actually makes the playoffs and Terrence Cody is living up to expectations.
LINEBACKERS: This is where the team's newfound depth really showed, especially when Ray Lewis missed a quarter of the season with turf toe. Jameel McClain, a 2008 undrafted free agent, put on the headset as well as the leader's mantle, and inside backers such as Brendon Ayanbadejo and the sometimes-injured Dannell Ellerbe got significant playing time. Outside, Terrell Suggs staked his claim as one of the league's best and Jarret Johnson was as consistent as ever.
SECONDARY: There's lots of quantity here, but the quality is a bit lacking. Cary Williams and Lardarius Webb trotted out onto the field week after week as dependable starters, and Webb wasn't burned for any long touchdowns this year. But little was seen from veteran Chris Carr and rookie Jimmy Smith. At safety, Ed Reed seemed to play a bit more passively, especially while tackling, but strong safety Bernard Pollard made his presence felt. Safety depth was a bit lacking when considering the prospects for Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski.
SPECIAL TEAMS: When young players at the bottom of the roster get acquired and released, here's where it hurts the most. This season was the worst in Jerry Rosburg's tenure as coordinator, as the team surrendered three return scores for the first time in nine seasons. Billy Cundiff's nine field-goal misses set an individual team record and even punter Sam Koch's numbers were down a bit. More reliable returners and coverage men will be needed next year.
COACHING: Rice said after his big game in Cleveland how much running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery had meant to him, both personally and professionally. Tight ends coach Wade Harman keeps cranking production out of Dickson and Pitta. Clarence Brooks has relentlessly kept the defensive line among the league's best and coordinators Rosburg (special teams), Cam Cameron (offense) and Chuck Pagano (defense) unflinchingly acknowledge mistakes and criticism while sticking up for their guys.
OVERALL: Coach John Harbaugh's team-first concept and week-to-week tunnel vision have paid off in what has to be considered his best coaching job during his four years in Baltimore. All the players on a roster that got younger overnight have chipped in toward the evolution of a deep, talented roster, with seven players getting at least one interception, 14 with at least one half-sack, seven pass receivers on which they can truly count, and a stalwart kickoff man and punter. The players have an enthusiasm for the game and, more importantly, for one another; witness how the team rallied around Rice when people thought he wasn't getting the ball enough. Despite occasional hiccups, this year proved that this team is one of the AFC's best.
Issue 169: January 2012