Today we have a special treat. In what is becoming something of an occasional series, a GGN member joins us to share his insights. Please welcome GGNer SioneBaaaoooha. Sione has two NFL teams he roots for. His first love is our own J-E-T-S Jets Jets Jets. But Sione is also an avid fan of the Baltimore Ravens. Since the Ravens are this week's opponent, I thought it might be nice to interview Sione and get his thoughts. One of the most original and astute football minds in the GGN community, Sione shares his thoughts below. Enjoy.
Sione: The easiest thing to point to as a key to sustained success in the Ravens organization, at every level, is the continuity they’ve established. Ozzie Newsome is the star, but behind him there exists a team of veteran front office and scouting guys, many of whom have proved their bona fides coming up through Baltimore’s organization. Assistant GM Eric DeCosta is regularly mentioned as the most coveted GM prospect in the league, and is considered the heir apparent to Newsome when he decides to call it a day. He joined the team in 1996 as a lowly assistant and worked his way up. Beyond DeCosta there are a series of personnel and college scouts who have been with the team since the late 90s. Joe Hortiz, their director of college scouting, has been with the team since 1998. Vincent Newsome (not related) and George Kokinis, who oversee pro personnel scouting, have both been in the organization for nearly twenty years. (Kokinis spent one year as GM of the browns in 2009 before being let go, and returned to Baltimore the following year.) When the people who shape your team work well with each other, all have earned a voice in the room, and have collectively fostered a sense of community for players and corporate alike, the finished product will inevitably reflect that dedication.
Beyond the front office, there has been continuity in coaching. The Ravens have had three coaches in franchise history. I’m not very familiar with their first coach, Ted Marchibroda. Brian Billick spent nine years coaching some of the most notable defensive players in NFL history. John Harbaugh is currently in his ninth season as head coach, and has had a tenure in which one could argue that he has done more with less than Billick did. When Rex Ryan came over to the Jets, he tried to bring that mentality with him. It worked for a while, too. It just wasn’t sustainable here. Swagger without substance gets tired fast. In Baltimore, the front office respects their coach as long as the players still do. There is respect and loyalty all but guaranteed to people who prove that they can do their jobs well, but it’s an unsentimental loyalty.
And of course, there’s the playing field. Continuity was easy to come by when Baltimore had Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs all playing in their prime around the same time. And the list of stars or very good complementary players on that defensive front 7 is endless. Kelly Gregg, Adalius Thomas, Michael McCrary, Peter Boulware, Trevor Pryce, Bart Scott, Jarrett Johnson… it isn’t hard to build a contender with those guys surrounding your all-time great centerpieces.
It is especially worth noting that the on-field continuity past those superstars has primarily been on the defensive and offensive fronts. The Ravens really buy into the popular football adage of winning in the trenches being the key to winning games. Any time there’s even a hint that those fronts might be losing potency, or if the team might be forced to let pending free agent starters go the following season, Baltimore will address it early in the draft.
Sione: There’s little doubt that the recent draft history of the Baltimore Ravens has not lived up to the legendary start the franchise got off to. The thing about a legend though is that it rarely reflects the entire truth. Getting the kinds of superstars that Baltimore found regularly from 1996-2003 is glamorous, but Ozzie’s true strength is that he doesn’t stop working to improve the team, and he will do it by any means necessary. Some of the most important acquisitions in Baltimore’s history have come via free agency and trades. Shannon Sharpe, Rod Woodson, Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa were key players for the 2000 ravens team. Willis McGahee helped keep the pressure off Joe Flacco during his first two years. Anquan Boldin made every catch Flacco gave him a shot at during the super bowl run. Steve Smith was lighting up the league until he tore his achilles. Mike Wallace and Eric Weddle are carving out important roles in this year’s team. The truth is, Ozzie Newsome hasn’t found many lasting superstars at all since 2004’s draft. But what he always does is find players who fit what the coaches want to do. There are downsides too, which I will get to in question 4 as they pertain more to the offensive side of the ball, but given that Baltimore has not had a single instance of back-to-back losing seasons in this century, it’s hard to argue with the popular Ravens fan slogan, "In Ozzie we Trust."
Sione: Some of this I’ve already addressed with the mention of the superstars who formed the core of the team for a decade plus. To get further in-depth and tie some things together from questions 1 and 2, I will answer this in two parts.
So, when I say that the Baltimore Ravens were year-in, year-out contenders thanks to guys like Reed, Lewis, Suggs, Ngata, Boulware, McAllister, Bart Scott, Kelly Gregg, I don’t really think I need to say any more about why the Ravens maintained their level of defensive play from 2000-2010. It’s when you move past that period that things get interesting. By 2011, only Suggs and Ngata were still in their prime. Lewis was still a tremendous field general but had lost a step or three. Same for Reed. While their intelligence and leadership ability definitely factored, it is arguable that Reed and Lewis were two of the least important on-field defensive players on the 2012 championship team. So who were the guys that stepped up? Arthur Jones. Courtney Upshaw. Lardarius Webb. Paul Kruger. Jimmy Smith. Pernell McPhee. Dannell Ellberbe. All of those guys bought in to the system. They played like Ravens. Each of them had at least one notable play and some of them had several leading up to and in the 2012 championship.
When you read that list the common theme is most of them went on to get contracts with other teams that they haven’t played up to. So, how do I think the Ravens stay successful on the defensive side of the ball? They find guys who buy in and play with a full heart. Players who earn reps know they’ll keep seeing reps. Loyalty without sentimentality. And there’s also an undeniable intangible aspect. A certain mystique that comes with putting on that purple jersey. You probably can’t be Ray Lewis or Terrell Suggs for your career, but if you give it your all on every play, maybe you can do a passable impression in short spurts. This later incarnation of Baltimore’s vaunted defense doesn’t have an established gamebreaker, but barring a rash of injuries it has always featured eleven guys who care, who have earned their playing time, guys who take it personally when they mess up and learn quickly from their mistakes. The ones who don’t care usually don’t last.
Sione: Not having a dominant quarterback is definitely one of the biggest problems of much of Baltimore’s past history, but it goes deeper than that. I’d say the biggest thing that has kept Baltimore from ever fielding a dominant offense at this point is the dearth of homegrown talent at wide receiver. If you look at Baltimore’s draft history it is hard to argue against the observation that wide receiver has been the most poorly scouted position for Baltimore since day one. The best wide receiver the Ravens have ever drafted is Brandon Stokely. Second best is Torrey Smith. That pretty much says it all for Baltimore’s college receiver scouting, doesn’t it?
At running back, Baltimore has only recently started to struggle. Until Ray Rice did what he did and got his just desserts, the Ravens had a ground and pound identity on offense. Flacco is the best qb in Ravens history (more on this fascinating subject in the following question), but the Ravens are still tied to the philosophy of using their run game to dictate the pace of the game. They always field a gritty o-line and they’ve always had at least one good receiving TE, but they’ve never had the overall offensive talent to become a successful pass-first team, except for a two year stretch in which they won the super bowl and were one secured pass from another.
So, here’s the thing about Joe Flacco. There isn’t a throw he can’t make. Watching him go through reads when he’s given time is a thing of beauty. He’s one of the hardest qbs to bring down. He can throw on the run. He can throw a laser thirty yards with two guys hanging on him. He’s as fearless as any qb in the league.His grit was forged in the fires of facing Dick LeBeau's best defenses twice a year. His short and intermediate throws are consistently in the right place for his receivers. The guy understands the game. The defensive legends he came up playing against in practice have expressed nothing but admiration for him. And despite all of that, he is maddeningly inconsistent. The guy is one of the streakiest qbs I’ve ever seen. He’ll hit on ten consecutive passes then disappear for a quarter. Nothing about his skill set and the flashes he shows suggests that his ceiling is anything less than elite, yet his overall career all but banishes that thought.
The biggest difference between the first few years of his career and the last few is run support. Defenses have gone a few years without really needing to bring safeties down to stop the Baltimore run game. Joe Flacco has all the ability to be an elite quarterback but he has the gunslinger mentality that comes with that arm. There isn’t a coverage he can’t out-throw, but like so many of that ilk, he sometimes tries to out-throw good coverage instead of taking a five yard gimme. In a league where qb outranks every other position in importance, it’s nice to have a guy with a history of stepping up in the big moments. You know that feeling we get when the Jets are down six with two minutes to go? That sinking feeling and the panicked wait for the other shoe to drop? When a Ravens game is in its final minutes and the Ravens are within a score, I always believe they can win, and Joe Flacco is the reason. But at this point, I don’t know that Joe Flacco is ever going to be consistently above average without above average receiving talent around him. Check back though if the Ravens hit on a gamebreaking receiver. The idea of Flacco with a Julio/OBJ/Hopkins type talent is drool-inducing. Flacco sometimes trusts his JAGs like they are those guys, and it gets him in trouble.
Sione: Baltimore could genuinely be anywhere from 6-0 to 0-6 right now, based on their hot-and-cold play. After last year’s fiasco in which they lost double digit starters over the course of the season, this Baltimore team’s identity is very much up in the air. They have a lot of new pieces, are already dealing with injuries at key positions, and are still looking for a bit of help getting to the quarterback. A number of the young guys on Baltimore’s roster have shown flashes of pass-rushing prowess in the preseason but it hasn’t translated to the regular season yet. To date Baltimore has only gotten to the quarterback 12 times, and 5 of those were by Terrell Suggs, who will likely miss time with a torn bicep. The Ravens will be looking for someone to step up. Rookie 2nd rounder Kamalei Correa hasn’t earned playing time yet but could see the field with Suggs out. Rookie 3rd rounder Bronson Kaufusi is on IR. Rookie 5th rounder Matt Judon is the guy to watch out for here. If anyone steps up in Suggs absence, my money’s on him. He recorded three sacks in the preseason and has played well in limited snaps this year. Second year OLB Za’Darius Smith is also capable of getting to the quarterback but has not been consistent yet.
In last week’s game against the Giants, Baltimore held NY to seven first-half points. Then they lost Jimmy Smith to a concussion and Odell Beckham proceeded to gain 216 of his 222 yards in the second half against Baltimore’s secondary. If I’m looking at the one thing that could make the biggest difference in the game, Smith’s availability is it. It could be the difference between Brandon Marshall getting sixty yards or a hundred and sixty. The Ravens are in the process of rebuilding their secondary and there’s really no way of knowing which version shows up week to week. Eric Weddle is thus far only a little less effective than he was as a pro-bowler in San Diego, but Lardarius Webb is playing himself out of a job. Rookie 4th round CB Tavon Young has impressed at times, but he’s still a rookie with a learning curve.
It’s hard to say exactly which Ravens team shows up or how we match up given that the status of three key players (Flacco, Smith, Mosley) is up in the air for them, but the one thing you can count on is that the team that shows up will give you 60 hard fought minutes. If Flacco and Smith don’t play, I like our chances a lot more than if they do.
On the offensive side of the ball for the Jets, you probably go in to this game planning to have to lean on the pass. Baltimore has a stout trio of run stoppers up front. Timmy Jernigan, Brandon Williams and Lawrence Guy are all space eaters, and if they get blocked out of the play you still have to contend with what is quietly becoming one of the best middle linebacker duos in the league in Zach Orr and CJ Mosley. Orr is a tackling machine. Mosley is questionable with a hammy. He has taken another step forward as a player this year. He already has 3 interceptions and 4 passes defensed in coverage in 6 games, meaning the effectiveness of Forte and Powell out of the backfield gets a boost if he misses Sunday. Without Mosley in there I’d throw a few screens and wheel routes into the gameplan. Regardless of matchup, Baltimore is very hard to run on. Outside of Isaiah Crowell’s 130 yard game against them in week two, Baltimore has not given up a 60 yard game to any other back. Unless our O-line suddenly finds a groove they haven’t shown yet, we’re going to need to throw the ball. Favorable matchups for the Jets would be Enunwa against either safety or Anderson/Peake against Baltimore’s second CB, and Brandon Marshall all day if Jimmy Smith is out. Baltimore has struggled to close out games lately, so if the offense can keep it close we’ll have a real shot to win.
On defense, the Jets will have to guard the deep pass even if Joe Flacco doesn’t play. There’s no avoiding it. New Ravens offensive coordinator (and old Jets pal) Marty Morninwheg has made it clear that he intends to give speedsters Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman every chance to break a game that he can. Running back Terrance West has had a career resurgence in Baltimore and has just about solidified his starting role over the last month, but our D-line should be able to handle him. He’s dangerous if he gets a head of steam or an open lane but with David Harris looking like he’ll play, I’m not too worried about West. I don’t love how we match up with Baltimore’s tight ends. If Flacco plays you can count on Dennis Pitta seeing 5-8 targets against us unless we discourage it early. And Baltimore runs three deep at pass catching TE. Pitta is one of the more sure handed TEs in football. Crockett Gilmore and Maxx Williams are all faster than average at TE and could hurt us if we lose track of them. I’d say the best exploit on D is right where you’d expect it to be. Our as-of-late underperforming D-line. With Baltimore potentially missing Marshall Yanda this week, there is every chance they will be playing their 4th or 5th different O-line rotation in seven games. The D-line needs to finally step up and capitalize on what should be a favorable matchup.
Sione: Good lord. Good gracious. Geno Smith vs. Ryan Mallet. The last time I saw either of these guys play 60 minutes in a real football game, I felt better about my chances to make the NFL as a wildly out of shape and noodle-armed 32 year old rookie. I want to believe that Geno is making the progress that I always thought he had the chance to make, but none of the looks I got in this preseason inspired much confidence in that. I’m hoping, but not hopeful. Especially against a defense that is always hungry for turnovers. If Geno holds the ball too long, or tries to force something in the area of Eric Weddle, or if he forgets to account for the middle linebackers in the Ravens short zone D, he could end this game in the first half.
The bright side, and I use that term very loosely, is that if Ryan Mallet plays, the same can be said for him. Mallet got a handful of starts for the Ravens last year when Flacco was out, and regularly hurt his team. He threw at least one pick in almost every game he played. The only thing Mallet has going for him if he’s starting this game is that he has the arm to hit Wallace and Perriman deep. An arm without a brain shouldn’t be able to beat us though.