by Paul West
The Baltimore Ravens‘ 2014 season actually got off to a funky start as of the release of this season’s NFL schedule. As luck would have it, the Baltimore Orioles had a home game scheduled for the same night, and to the consternation of quite a few people, they reportedly refused to relocate their game. This marked the first Super Bowl champion to open their season on the road since 2003, and to add insult to injury (or perhaps injury to insult, as we’ll see shortly), they had to travel to Denver to play the Denver Broncos. At mile-high altitude, in the first game of the season. Against the team they barely beat to make the Super Bowl, a team which has added parts like Wes Welker and Julius Thomas.
You can tell where I’m going with this: it didn’t go particularly well for the Ravens. They lost 49-27, setting a franchise record for points allowed. Peyton Manning tied an NFL record with seven touchdowns. Ray Rice was conspicuously absent for long stretches of the game, and when he was on the field, he seemed to have a hard time getting yards–and Joe Flacco seemed to have trouble getting him the ball. If all that wasn’t bad enough, wideout and kick returner Jacoby Jones was helped off the field with a hyperextended knee. He sustained this injury just after signaling for a fair catch, when his own teammate freight-trained him in the open field. Last but not least, right tackle Michael Oher left the game with an ankle injury.
Now, getting blown out by Peyton Manning and the Broncos, especially in Denver, puts the Ravens in pretty good company. But independent of mitigating circumstances, there were signs of trouble for the Ravens going forward.
First of all, they clearly have some work to do on defense. Again, Manning throwing to that stellar array of receivers will shred a lot of teams. But the Ravens looked discombobulated on defense at times, and clearly missed the leadership and on-the-fly reads of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. Second, and equally troubling, was the relative absence of Ray Rice. Rice is typically an every-down back, and was even described as such early in last night’s telecast, but for much of the night he was absent from the backfield. I mean no disrespect to Bernard Pierce, who performed admirably in last night’s game and is legitimately a good NFL running back. But Ray Rice is one of the league’s most feared threats, and he’s the guy who did this. Why was he not in the game more?
Last but not least, the Ravens’ offense seemed to sorely miss one of its key components from last season: Anquan Boldin, whom they foolishly traded for a sixth round pick despite the objections of both their quarterback and their top wide receiver. In March, I wrote on Tarnation Sports about how ill-advised this trade was, but let’s revisit. Boldin is not only an excellent route runner and possession receiver with one of the strongest, most reliable pairs of receiving hands in the NFL. He’s a veteran player, a clubhouse leader and a wide receiver with tight end size and physicality. He was an important checkdown for Flacco, he was a huge presence in the red zone and on third down, and he prevented defenses from over-allocating resources to stop the Ravens’ speedy wideouts. Without Boldin, it’s easier to double-team Torrey Smith. And now with Dennis Pitta and Jacoby Jones (who began the game looking in good form) gone, well, Flacco doesn’t have a of options. It’s easier for defenses to lock down the Ravens’ best wideout, and/or collapse on the run. Because Flacco, while underrated by many, isn’t the sort of do-it-yourself game-changer that, a short list of other teams have, asking him to make something from nothing–especially without a key offensive lineman–seems like a tall order.
While last night’s blowout still only counts as one loss in the standings, it held troubling signs of what’s to come for the Ravens if they don’t make speedy adjustments. In an era of increased parity, where Super Bowl losing teams often miss the playoffs the next season, the clock may already be ticking in Baltimore.