Minding the offense, finding the run game
For the first time in four years, the Ravens will not have a new offensive coordinator. Marc Trestman, the cerebral, bespectacled lawyer who succeeded Gary Kubiak after the 2014 season, is back with the club. In Baltimore, that counts as continuity.
True, Trestman bombed in his two-year stint as coach of the Bears, going 13--19, but he has a considerable acumen for offensive football. Last year Baltimore fans couldn't wait to see how Trestman, who'd worked with Bernie Kosar, Steve Young and Jake Plummer in their primes, might push Joe Flacco; how he'd weld his supercharged version of the West Coast offense with the team's zone running schemes, the hard-nosed signature of coach John Harbaugh.
The truth is, the fans are still waiting. As the Ravens finished with the worst record of the eight-year Harbaugh era (5--11), no fewer than 14 offensive players, including six Week 1 starters, ended the season on IR. Among them: Flacco (left ACL), 2014 Pro Bowl running back Justin Forsett (compound fracture of right arm) and stalwart wideout Steve Smith (torn right Achilles). Trestman wasn't game-planning so much as he was performing triage. Baltimore started four quarterbacks, the last being Texans cast-off Ryan Mallett. It was a testament to Trestman's improv skills that the Ravens wound up 14th in total offense (359.3 ypg).
Last season was a one-off, according to All-Pro right guard Marshal Yanda, who says that, in year two under Trestman, "we're completing more balls, things are clicking quicker, we're just more crisp."
The key, of course, is Flacco, who has made, by all accounts, a complete recovery. So the spotlight shifts to the man charged with protecting his blind side, 6'6", 320-pound Ronnie Stanley, the No. 6 pick out of Notre Dame. How's the kid doing? "The best compliment I can give him," says Forsett, "is that I don't notice him. We haven't missed a beat when he's out there."
It's a tough gig, but Stanley won't have to do it alone. "We have certain protections where we can help," says Yanda, "and Marc does a good job changing up the protections, mixing things up. We lost a lot of games last year, but we didn't give up a lot of sacks."
Yes, they lost 11 games last season—but those 11 losses were decided by a total of 91 points. "We were in a ton of one-score games throughout the season, and we didn't execute," Forsett says. "We were in the red zone a lot, and we couldn't finish."
Forsett's arm is healed, and Harbaugh says he's playing like the feature back who gained 5.4 yards per carry in '14. He is the humble alpha of a young, talented unit that is suddenly, surprisingly deep with Terrance West, Javorius Allen and Kenneth Dixon. They'll make it easier for Trestman to stick to the vow he made upon taking this job. Yes, he had a reputation for airing the ball out. In Baltimore his attack would be built upon "the physicality of our run game."
As it turns out, he's also partial to taking periodic shots downfield. Defense-stretching speedster Mike Wallace, signed as a free agent from the Vikings, gives Flacco a legit deep threat. As evidenced during a scrimmage, when a miked-up Wallace informed a practice official, "Hey, if we're not open, that means they're holding us," he also brings a fair amount of ego.
With Wallace a part of this healed, renewed and improved offense, Baltimore will get some of its swagger back.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE DEFENSE CRUMBLES
Meet Brandon Williams(left), the best football player you've probably never heard of. He's 6'1", weighs 340 pounds and was drafted out of Missouri Southern (Division II) in the third round in 2013. He's become a dominating force, but in a generally thankless role. That isn't to say he can't, and doesn't, flash. Many think of the Ravens' defense as a 3--4, which would make Williams a nosetackle, but in terms of gap responsibilities, it's really more of a 4--3, and Williams is actually a nose shade, lining up over the center's shoulder. His job is to plug the A-gap and take on the double teams that offenses like to dish inside. He still has the freedom to penetrate, though, and he often does. Maybe Williams will be more noticed after this year when he becomes a free agent; the bidding will make plain how formidable and valued he really is.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 8--8
2015 Record: 5--11
SEPT. 11 vs.BUF [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 18 atCLE [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 25 atJAX
OCT. 2 vs.OAK [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 9 vs.WAS [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 16 atNYG
OCT. 23 atNYJ
NOV. 6 vs.PIT
NOV. 10 vs.CLE [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 20 atDAL
NOV. 27 vs.CIN [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 4 vs.MIA [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 12 atNE
DEC. 18 vs.PHI [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 25 atPIT
JAN. 1 atCIN
= PREDICTED WINNER