Thursday, August 13, 2009

If you haven't read yesterday's post, page down and read that first, then come back here. I'll wait...

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.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Okay, I am going to try to break this down into 2 parts, due to time constraints today. Before we can look at the season upcoming and the possibilities therein, we need to look at what happened since the team played their last game (I will mention only once that heart breaking loss to the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game, and that was the mention right there. No more).

First and foremost, they lost their Defensive Coordinator / Assistant Head Coach Rex Ryan (the last remaining staff member from the 2000 season) to the New Yotk Jets when he took the job of head coach there. I liked the thought of him being the coach here last year (although in retrospect it is obvious that John Harbaugh was the right man for the job), and I think he will do well in NYC. He definitely has the right attitude for New York, and he certainly isn't afraid of the spotlight that comes with coaching a team in the biggest sports city in the country (even if the Jets are the bastard stepchildren of New York football to the Giants). Also of note, he took LB Bart Scott and S Jim Leonhard with him.

From a fan's point of view I will miss both of them, as they are both playmakers. But from an analytical standpoint, they have replacements on the team that are cheaper and set to do the job. Look for Tavares Gooden to step up in Scott's place (he was having an excellent rookie year until he injured his hip (out with a hip? Was he drinking lattes in oversized mugs while people smoked clove cigarettes and recited morose poetry in an affected style? You see why I hate that "out with a" crap yet?) last year early in the season. Scott was and is a good player, but the Jets overpaid for him as Ryan plans to use him like he used Ray Lewis in Baltimore, and Ryan needs someone in the middle who knows how to run that defense (which Scott has done and done admirably in the past). And if Gooden doesn't work out, Prescott Burgess (technically an outside LB, but he could slide over), or (more likely) Jameel McClain is ready to step in.

As far as Leonard goes, he wasn't even supposed to be the starter, but stepped into the lineup and played well after Dawan Landry bruised his spinal column (and that is as scary as it sounds, folks) during the 2nd game of the season. Leonhard was invaluable as a punt / kick returner as the team seemed to lose faith in Yamon Figurs down the stretch of the season (early prediction, look for Figurs to get cut and rookie Ladarius Webb, who is already turning heads as a gunner on the punt and kick return teams, take over the return duties before the season starts, unless Figurs has one hell of a camp, or the team decides that using Webb back there is too risky for his potential as a true "shutdown" corner)., but the fact is that Leonhard wasdeemed the inferior player to Landry after camp last year, and Landry (who was voted to the Pro Football Weekly All-Rookie team in 2006) has better upside as well. As long as he is fully recovered from his injuries (and again, early reports out of camp are that he is, as his nickname of "Whop" - so given for the sound his pads make when he tackles or hits someone - is a testament to) he is a better player than Leonhard, so there is no drop off there.

Ryan loved to go with crazy schemes and blitzs packages, but his replacement Greg Mattison seems set on running more out of base formations (having as deep a front four as the Ravens have makes that much easier), which could relieve some of the pressure on the secondary (cornerbacks and safeties, like Ed Reed and Samari Rolle), which is also deep if not as talent loaded).

The other big loss was C Jason Brown (but as we looked at before, since the salary cap for linemen is figured as an average of all 5 positions, and since Left Tackle is usually the 2nd or 3rd highest paid position on the offense, he was too expensive to keep. But instead the Ravens signed Matt Birk, a 12 year player, Harvard graduate (!), and voice of experience on an othewrwise young and talented bunch (made even better with the addition of 1st round pick Michael Oher as Right Tackle, who was pretty much just handed the job with the season ending knee injury of Adam Terry, who has probably played his last game here as a Raven). Brown had better size, and was a good deal younger. But Birk might just be a better fit for this team right now, with his ability to help keep the line focused, and as a voice of reason on the field for Joe Flacco, who is going into his 2nd season with MUCH higher expectations on him (and for himself from all reports).

One loss the team DIDN'T suffer was Ray Lewis, who flirted with the idea of free agency after being hurt by the team allowing him to enter a contract year to begin with, but found that the market for a 34 year old middle linebacker with s bit of an injury history and some marketing issues (whatever the courts decided, no matter if he was guilty or innocent - and I truly believe he was guilty only of panicking when something serious happened, because he is human and humans panic sometimes - he isn't the easiest player to sell to the public at large). And having him there makes the Rex Ryan / Greg Mattison transition a lot easier.

Another loss they didn't suffer (or to be more accurate, suffered and then UN-suffered) was the retirement and subsequent return of Wide Receiver / Flacco safety blanket Derrick Mason. Him being back makes things a lot easier.

I mentioned the two big additions in Birk and Oher. Other than that (and the return of Kelly Gregg, who was also on IR all last season, so it is almost like a big free agent signing just getting him back in the fold), there isn't much that was done with the team roster. It is more on how they are going to build off of what they accomplished last year And THAT is what we are going to look at next time (probably tomorrow while I run a bunch of boring work reports).

See you soon!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Okay, I wasn't planning on doing this right now, but I was just reading a "blog" that covers the Ravens and it was full of non-sensible ramblings that made me want to reach through the interwebs and choke the "writer". It was a bunch of one line observations that sounded like they were posted by a drunkard on a bender. I am not going to link to it, because I work with them (in a roundabout sort of way) and I don't want to call them out and ask them what the hell they were smoking when they posted that load of claptrap. But I am all about copying and pasting this load of poop so you can read it for yourself...

If West Coast rapper, Snoop Dog, feels so compelled to show up to pre-season camp to see what the “Organized Chaos” is all about, maybe he should put on a practice jersey and take the place of the injured or 401k plan players that are missing in action.

Let’s take a brief look inside the Raven’s training room:

• WR Drew Bennett chucked the deuces and said “Where can I rollover my 401k plan” when he abruptly retired after coming to the conclusion that his knee would not withstand the brutal pounding of a full season.

• OT Adam Terry took a page from the injury handbook and is out with a knee ---for the season! This tubby on the o-line just gave the RT position to the rookie, Michael Oher. Get that pancake ready Oher.

• WR Mark Clayton hurt his hammy and after some tests there is still blood swirling around the area, so Coach Harbaugh “put him out” for 2 to 3 pre-season games.

On the field there were plenty of kinks, learning curves and hope to be had:

• Apparently, WR Derrick Mason checked his portfolio and realized that we are in the midst of a recession. Hence, “I’m back, B*tches!” after three weeks off.

• Micro-fracture surgery be damned, NT Kelly Gregg is doing his best Amare Stoudemire and is practicing after a yearlong rehab from a knee injury on his third day of practice in 2008’s summer camp.

• C Matt Birk and QB Joe Flacco have a case of fumbles and missed snaps, but what do we expect with a new big’ in at center?

• Three running backs – Ray Rice (rookie!), Willis McGahee, and LeRon McClarin give offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron (“CC”) all kinds of joy. Who said you needed receivers when Ray Rice is catching the ball in traffic?

• New defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison (the man who we will light on fire if the defense slips even a smidgeon), wondering how TD Jesus left him with so much in the secondary – Domonique Foxworth, Chris Carr, Fabian Washington, Samari Rolle (coming off the PUP) and rookie Lardarius Webb. Rex who?

• Terrell Suggs was rocking a t-shirt underneath his practice jersey that said,”You Bet Your Sweet A** I Hate the Steelers.”

Let the trash talking, chants, chest bumping, Ed Reed snatching cookies from a kid (aka interceptions) begin!!

Now, let's look at facts. Drew Bennett missed all but about half of the first game of the season last year with a horrific knee injury. He rehabbed it and when the Ravens went looking for a replacement for the (then) retired Derrick Mason, he went for it, felt good after the tryout, and signed a 1 year deal. The next day his knee was swollen, and not recovering from the tryout. He knew right then and there that his knee was not recovered, so he pulled out of the deal. Nothing wrong or untoward about that. Adam Terry is injured and out for the season (side note...I CANNOT STAND that "out with a ____" crap. "Out with a knee"? Is it serious, or are they just dating. This leads to things like "Out with a groin". Was Anquan Boldin "Out with a face" last year? It just sounds stupid), but the "tubby" line just smacks of trying (and failing) to be funny and cute. It is a fact that offensive linemen are, as a rule, very fit. The sheer amount of trapping and pulling they do on a regular basis, not to mention getting to the second level on runs and QB scrambles, keeps them from being "tubby". D-linemen are the ones tipping the scales and making the jerseys look like spandex when they shouldn't be. Tony Siragusa, Gilbert Brown...THEY were / are tubby. Jonathan Ogden, Jim Parker, Tony Boselli...they were huge, but not at all fat. Don't be so obtuse, lady. And Mark Clayton did "hurt his hammy" (use the word hamstring like a real reporter, eh?), the same one that has been a problem since college. But it wasn't Coach Harbaugh that "put him out" at all. It was the training staff. Again, if you are going to attribute something to someone, know what the hell you are talking about, please.

Derrick Mason did not look at his portfolio, nor did he factor in the recession. One of his best friends died in a senseless, horrible, stunning way, and Mason needed to take some time to process what had happened and the fact that because he had played football for all of these years he had missed a lot of his children growing up. He doesn't play for the money, because he was smart with the money he already made. He had to see if after that shock to his system if he still wanted to play the game. That is why he "retired" without turning his paperwork into the league to make it official. Basically, he respected his team and the league too much to "pull a Favre", as I call it, and sit there waffling publicly, or to look like a petulant holdout. See, he has class. Maybe you could learn a thing or two.

The Kelly Gregg story is something that you could actually explore as a writer (and something I will cover in greater detail in a future post, since it is obvious to me that the Ravens need all the intelligent, cogent point making bloggers they can get covering them on the off chance that it keeps other idiot's page views down) instead of making an off-hand reference to the type of surgery he had, mentioning a star in another sport that had the same surgery, and then saying that Gregg practiced hard one day in camp.

It's "big'un", not "big'in". Keith Jackson is spinning in his grave, and the man isn't even dead. The best point she made in the entire article is that their is going to be some miscommunication between a QB and a center as they get used to each other. Maybe you could look at the why of it, though (this is something else I can cover if you all are interested)?

Ray Rice is not a rookie. If you can't get THAT right, how in the hell can we be expected to believe anything else you say?

Greg Mattison hasn't been at Notre Dame since 2001, and he has since been at Florida (not to mention the Ravens as linebackers coach). And while we have plenty of depth at the cornerback position, what we lack is a true shutdown corner. Don't go gloating until we see what they can do on the field.

OOOOOOhhh, Terrell Suggs had on a shirt that will provide bulletin board material for the Steelers. This is news?

"Ed Reed snatching cookies from a kid"? First of all, if you have to explain your joke, it isn't funny. Secondly, if you have to explain your metaphor, it isn't effective. Third, do you mean "candy"?

Tomorrow or Thursday I will get into a real recap of the off-season and what to look for in the first pre-season game Thursday night, and no later than Monday I will review the preseason game (against the Redskins, so you know I am going to have opinions).

It looks like my work here is NOT done. But in the mean time, go ahead and check out my Orioles blog (there is a convenient link either up and to the right, or below this post. Either way you cannot go wrong reading my opinions on all things Orioles there and all things sports here!).