As training camp gets underway in Owings Mills, Md., this month, I have one particularly pressing question about the 2017 Baltimore Ravens. It's a question I definitely won't be able to answer before the regular season begins. And yet it's a question that will shape exactly what I'm looking for during camp and the preseason.
The single-biggest factor that will determine the fate of the 2017 Ravens is: Are they in better position to win close games?
You will likely remember that in 2016 the Ravens did not play a game that was decided by more than one possession until Week 10 (a 28-7 win against the Cleveland Browns on “Thursday Night Football”). For the totality of the season, only four of their games were decided by more than eight points, including the Week 17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals that lacked much in the way of interest after the Ravens were eliminated from playoff contention by the Pittsburgh Steelers the week before.
While close games are seemingly a normalcy in the NFL, the Ravens' propensity for close games in 2016 was still exceptional. Their two biggest rivals in the AFC, the Steelers (nine games) and New England Patriots (11) had significantly more games decided by more than one possession last season.
And while it would be nice to think the Ravens could help solve this issue by simply winning more games by lopsided scores, the easiest way to fix it would be more offense. New England and Pittsburgh were both top 10 scoring offenses in the league last season, while the Ravens were 21st. Considering the number of questions that remain on the offensive side of the ball, it's hard to anticipate Baltimore being much better in that department.
Clearly, the Ravens are counting on their defense to help carry them in 2017. But a team with an average offense and a quality defense is still likely to play a number of close games -- games that are decided by a score of 17-10 or so. The Ravens had a top 10-ranked defense in terms of yards and scoring a season ago, but that quality defense couldn't get Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger off the field in Week 16, when he got the ball back with less than a minute-and-a half to play and engineered the game-winning drive during a 31-27 Pittsburgh triumph.
All of this is to say that I fully expect the Ravens to be in a number of close games again this season. What I don't know (yet) is whether they're ready to win more of them. Fittingly, during a season in which they finished .500, the Ravens went 6-6 last year in games decided by one score or less. Two more wins would have totally changed the outcome of their season.
Of course, their ability to win close games isn't really something we can know for sure until they play real games in September. Regulars won't be on the field at the end of preseason games, and even the scripted pressure situations the team works on in practice (like when they have the offense take the field with 45 seconds on the clock trying to “win”) can't replicate the pressure of Heinz Field in December. (Reminder, the Ravens return to Pittsburgh Dec. 10, after their playoff hopes were dashed there on Christmas last year.)
So what am I watching for in training camp? Sacks and touchdowns.
For all of the overall quality of the Ravens' defense last season, there were only six teams in the NFL that had fewer sacks than the Ravens' 31. The best way to make a stop at the end of the game when teams have four downs to get 10 yards is to get a quarterback on the ground (admittedly not easy against Roethlisberger), and take them from second-and-10 to third-and-19. The Ravens will hope for a renaissance year from linebacker Terrell Suggs, but I'll be closely watching young pass rushers Za'Darius Smith, Matt Judon, Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams to see if they're ready to make an impact.
Only six teams scored fewer than the Ravens' 30 offensive touchdowns last season. If they want to finish off games when they have the ball, someone is going to have to prove to be a reliable end-zone target. I'll be watching tight end Ben Watson in particular to see if he can help in that department.
I won't get an actual answer until the season starts. But without any clear indication that these two areas have improved, it will be difficult to expect much better from the Ravens in close games this season.
Issue 235: July 2017