This is the first installment of a three-part series in which Baltimore Sun staff writer Matt Vensel examines all three phases of the Ravens and how those areas can be improved this offseason. He will tackle the Ravens defense in Friday's newspaper and the special teams unit on Saturday.
The Ravens, who made significant changes to their receiving corps during each of the past two offseasons, would benefit from continuity and stability on offense as they transition into 2012.
They traded for Anquan Boldin and signed fellow wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh in 2010. Last offseason they released the two most productive pass-catchers in franchise history — and two of quarterback Joe Flacco's favorite targets — in wide receiver Derrick Mason and tight end Todd Heap, and acquired a pair of speedsters: Torrey Smith in the draft and Lee Evans via trade.
Despite a handful of young and relatively new faces in Flacco's huddle, the Ravens made strides offensively in 2011, though they didn't make the giant leaps and bounds some had hoped for.
The Ravens improved from 22nd in total offense in 2010 to 15th. Their passing and rushing offenses rose to 19th and 10th, respectively. Scoring increased slightly to 23.6 points per game.
"Are we satisfied with where we are right now? No," general manager and executive vice president Ozzie Newsome said last week. "But we think the best way to get there is to maintain the continuity of having Cam [Cameron] and then to bring in someone like a Jim Caldwell."
Caldwell, who coached Peyton Manning in Indianapolis for a decade, will mentor Flacco as his new quarterbacks coach, allowing Cameron to shift more of his focus to the offense as a whole.
Here are three tweaks the Ravens could consider to improve their offense for the 2012 season:
1. Allow Flacco and his receivers to grow.
Flacco impressed in the team's 23-20 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, completing 22 of his 36 attempts for 306 yards and a pair of touchdowns. If Evans holds on to that one pass in the end zone in the final minute, the Ravens likely make the Super Bowl.
"He was really sharp," said ESPN analyst and former NFL fullback Jon Ritchie, who called himself a Flacco fan. "No one has had any doubts about his arm. It's a top-two arm in the NFL, really."
The Ravens should keep giving him the green light to unleash it. With 46 career interceptions to go with 80 touchdowns, he has done well in avoiding interceptions. Smith's emergence enabled Flacco to launch bombs downfield and he has shown that he can zing it outside the numbers, as well.
At the team's season-ending news conference last week, Newsome mentioned adding another wide receiver. Unless the Ravens shed serious salary, though, you can probably forget about DeSean Jackson and Vincent Jackson. They are more likely to continue developing Smith and other youngsters such as Tandon Doss and LaQuan Williams — having a full offseason to work with them is significant — and bring in other receivers in the draft or free agency to push them.
Flacco built a rapport with Smith, who set a few major Ravens rookie receiving records in 2011, and talented tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, who were both in their second NFL season.
"From what I've seen of Dennis Pitta, he has a chance to be a star," Ian Eagle of CBS Sports said. "And with the way the NFL is headed, the combination of Pitta and Dickson could be lethal."
Flacco, who is entering his fifth NFL season, will be the key. There's nothing wrong with being a game manager. But Flacco is more than that and it's time to show it every week. Having receivers he is familiar with and a new position coach will help him be more consistent.
2. Upgrade the offensive line.
The team's offensive line is in limbo this offseason. Left guard Ben Grubbs is a free agent, and Newsome admitted it will be a challenge to give new contracts to Grubbs, Flacco and running back Ray Rice, who is also a free agent. Center Matt Birk's contract is up and he could retire.
Left tackle Bryant McKinnie didn't sit out a snap in 2011, but he will be 33 in September.
There will likely be turnover on the offensive line again. That might not be a bad thing. This group had an up-and-down regular season and was outmuscled in both postseason games.
"There were too many times I saw [Flacco] get bogged down under pressure, tuck the ball away or be safe with it, instead of looking downfield to make a play," Ritchie said.
The Ravens want to be physical, even when spreading teams out, but they are clearly shifting into a passing offense. This is an opportunity to add personnel that fits what they want to do. Jah Reid, a rookie in 2011, could move inside to guard. And the Ravens should consider drafting at least one lineman in the first three rounds of April's draft (their first pick is No. 29 overall).
Improving the offensive line, which Newsome acknowledged will be one of his top offseason priorities, is one step that could help Flacco reach that proverbial next level. Eli Manning, now being hailed as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL after winning a second Super Bowl, had some great weapons with the New York Giants, but his offensive line was just as important.
3. Keep walking the tight rope.
Even if it's true that Flacco is on the verge of a breakout, balance is the key word in Baltimore.
There was a shift in the run-pass ratio after the Ravens threw 53 times in a loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Rice averaged 21.7 carries a game as the Ravens won seven of their final nine games.
Flacco appears to be poised to carry the offense on his back when needed, but he doesn't have to do the heavy lifting all the time. Rice, perhaps the NFL's most versatile back, will need to be the focal point often times, like when he rushed for 191 yards and two touchdowns in Week 17.
"Rice is a guy that can get the ball 10 times in a row on a drive," Ritchie said. "Just keep feeding him. I would love to see that. He kind of hearkens back to the early 90s when you have a guy like Emmitt Smith that can carry the ball, be your feature back without spreading the ball around."
Ritchie acknowledged, though, that the Ravens were wise to rest Rice instead of running him into the ground. But with Ricky Williams in retirement, they need a new No. 2 running back. Is it Anthony Allen or Damien Berry? Or will they sign another big-body veteran similar to Williams?
Having that 1-2 punch in the backfield was a smashing success for the Ravens in recent seasons.
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