Man but you read slow...
And we're back!
So yesterday we looked at the major changes on the roster and staff in the off-season. One omission due to time constraints was the non-signing of Matt Stover, who had been with the team since the Cleveland days, and was the man who kicked a 43 yard field goal as time expired to put the Ravens past the Tennessee Titans and into that game we are no longer talking about. As of right now he is unsigned and technically available, but the Ravens have had to carry a kickoff specialist for the last few years in order to compensate for Stover's inability to drive the ball. He was deadly accurate from the 30 yard line and in, and would go out on the field every game and see what his range was, but carrying two kickers is wasting a valuable roster spot. There are 2 guys in camp right now competing for the spot, Steve Hauschka, a 2nd year man who was with the team AS the kickoff specialist / say a prayer long range field goal kicker (he made a 54 yarder against the Houston Texans last year), and Graham Gano, who is a rookie. Both are considered strong legged "boomers", and both are a good deal cheaper than Stover. Also, both have something in their favor going for them (you have no idea how hard it is to resist making a "leg up" reference here. And now I have failed). Hauschka (as previously mentioned) is a returning player, so the coaches know what they have and like him enough to bring him back for the open competition, and Gano doubles as a punter (and while the Ravens have no intention of letting Sam Koch go as he is one of the better punters in the league, it never hurts to have a backup / other position player who can step in during a crisis (like if Koch gets hurt in a game). Right now I do not even have an opinion as to who will stick on the team, but things may be clearer after the preseason game tonight (I believe Hauschka is kicking during the 1st half and Gano is kicking during the 2nd half).
One last player not mentioned yesterday is Lorenzo Neal, the fullback the Ravens picked up late in camp, once they realized that Flacco was going to be the starting QB (which was not the plan), and they were going to have to run the ball a lot more than they might have planned originally. La'Ron McClain will be stepping back into a more traditional fullback role this year, but you can expect him to still get some touches, especially near the goal line when the big maulers come to play.
So why the changes? Well, first you need to look at the squad going through the metamorphosis, and that would be the offense.
When Flacco got thrust into the starting lineup right before the 3rd preseason game last year, he was 3rd on the depth chart behind Kyle Boller and Troy Smith. It was expected that one of those two would be the starting QB last year, and if the team stunk to high heaven (which was considered a realistic possibility coming off of a 5-11 season in 2007, and with a rookie head coach in John Harbaugh), AND if he was able to get a decent grasp on the offense in a reasonable time, MAYBE Flacco would start a couple of games at the end of the season. But Boller's shoulder injury and Smith's freak medical problem (tonsillitis that was so severe he had to be hospitalized for an extended period) sidelined them both (and wound up putting Boller on the IR for the season) and Flacco suddenly became the starter. So Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron did the only thing he could do...he stripped down the playbook and used what he had at his disposal to the best of their abilities.
The most obvious move was to emphasize running the ball, and since Willis MacGahee came into camp injured and out of shape and Ray Rice was a rookie, Cameron used McClain more as a featured back instead of as a fullback, and the Ravens brought in Neal to block for them and to help the line block for Flacco. The next thing they did, and something that wasn't as obvious to the casual fan, was to go into "max protect" for the majority of passing plays (keeping the tight end and sometimes even a running back in to help block). This keeps the QB from having to worry as much about being blitzed / sacked, but it also eliminates options for the QB to throw to. This is as big of a reason as any that Todd Heap had such a poor year numbers wise. He was in blocking a lot on plays where he normally would have been a prime target (3rd and mid to go, anywhere from 5-10 yards). It also eliminated the safety valve on those plays where the running back drops out in the flat (a couple yards from the line of scrimmage, to the left or right of the QB) in case all the other options are covered, the QB can dump it off to the RB, who then will have to make somebody miss (but since they are used to making plays in space like that, it is a decent last ditch option to have). This makes Derrick Mason's production that much more impressive, since he was often double covered, with a safety shading his side of the field (2 wide receivers with 4 defensive secondary players covering them does not lead to easy pass plays).
And there was one other thing that Cameron did, something that most people didn't catch on to until late in the season and the postseason, and it led to the team being successful, but not successful enough, and it is the biggest change for the team this year.
Last year the team pretty much only used the left and right thirds of the field for passing plays, except for the occasional slant or dump off over the middle. And this was by design. The middle third of the field is where most interceptions and bad decisions are made. If you keep it towards the sidelines then an overthrow is an out of bounds incompletion and not a game icing INT returned for a TD by some USC grad with long hair (not talking about that game...NOT TALKING ABOUT THAT GAME!!!!!!!) A rookie QB with limited receiving options should avoid throwing into crossing patterns where any mistake can result in 4 guys with the other jersey on fighting 2 guys with your jersey for the ball. It severely limited the offense, but with the defense / running game / punter that the Ravens had last year, it was the right thing to do. And as Flacco got more comfortable in the offense some more plays were opened up for him, and the offense wound up scoring something along the lines of 24 points per game by the end of the season. Now we are going to see the reins taken off more and more. By the way, do not be surprised to see some mistakes made tonight. Flacco has been testing his limits on the field during training camp, trying to see what all he can do and not do with the expanded field openings and how his receivers react to the routes. And with his top 2 receivers (Mason and Mark Clayton) out for at least this game with injuries, he will be working with receivers that he does not have anywhere near the level of experience with (and they with him), which will no doubt lead to someone "zigging" when he expected them to "zag", and there will be incompletions and interceptions as a result. I am not going to panic or fret when this happens through the first two preseason games. By the third I am going to expect these bugs to be worked out and no longer a problem. THAT is when I am going to panic and fret (and possibly throw things, depending on how egregious the mistake is).
Tonight we will begin to see a Joe Flacco with the training wheels off of the offense, and a defense that is set to begin forging a new identity from the one that has been its calling card for the last decade. I'll talk to you later this week and we'll look at what happened right and what happened wrong.