Top Five Turning Points For The Baltimore Ravens
Regular Season Synopsis
The 2012 Baltimore Ravens had one of the more topsy-turvy runs for a Super Bowl Champion in recent memory, as they displayed a resiliency that is the calling card for any champion.
Four days before the Ravens opened up the season on Monday Night Football against the Cincinnati Bengals, former owner Art Modell passed away. Modell was the man who moved the franchise to Baltimore, and was instrumental in the lives of numerous Ravens’ players especially Ray Lewis. Thus, the Ravens had an interesting start to their season before they even played their first game
Once play was under way, the Ravens came storming out of the gate to a 6-1 start. They won a series of close games, mostly notably over the New England Patriots in a Week 3 showdown. However, in a Week 7 victory over the Dallas Cowboys the Ravens were dealt a couple of crippling injuries to the defense.
Both Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb were lost for the remainder of the regular season, as Lewis tore his triceps and Webb tore his ACL.With Terrell Suggs still on the mend from his torn Achilles tendon and Haloti Ngata also missing time, the Ravens were throttled by 30 points by the Houston Texans a week after losing Webb and Lewis. To say the Ravens went limping into their Week 9 bye week was an understatement.
To his credit, John Harbaugh had his team refocused and ready to play coming out of the bye week, as the Ravens rolled to four straight wins coming off their bye. The final win of that streak was highlighted by the immaculate Ray Rice fourth-and-29 conversion against the San Diego Chargers, so they had a certain swagger going at that point.
However, that swagger evaporated soon thereafter as the Ravens lost three straight games. Two of those loses came at home, which ended the Ravens’ 16-game home winning streak, so things were unraveling quickly for the sinking team.
In a game of desperate teams, the Ravens soundly defeated Eli Manning and the New York Giants in Week 16 and finally clinched the AFC North. The Ravens rested basically all their important players in a meaningless Week 17 loss to the Bengals.
There was a series of more specific events throughout the season that firmly shaped the Ravens season and served as turning points for a rollercoaster season that ended with a Lombardi Trophy. Those events are thoroughly broken down over the following slides.
The Firing Of Cam Cameron
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron had experienced steady success over his four-plus seasons as the Ravens’ OC. He, John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco all started their tenure with the Ravens in 2008, as the Ravens’ offense became more potent over the years.
Much was expected from the Ravens’ offense this season, as many wondered if this would be the season the Ravens became an offensive team. With so much stability on the offensive side of the ball, breakout seasons were predicted for many of the Ravens’ skilled offensive playmakers.
After a hot start, the offense started to get stale, predictable and inconsistent. Ray Rice’s role diminished while Cameron got pass-happy, which stunted Flacco’s growth as he was seemingly throwing the ball up on any given play.
After a Week 14 loss to the Washington Redskins, the Ravens ranked a paltry 17th in the NFL in rushing yards per game and their offense appeared to be evaporating as the stretch run approached. Thus, the Ravens made a bold move.
With the season slipping away, the Ravens fired Cameron and replaced him with quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell. The former Indianapolis Colts head coach was calling plays for the first time in his career, so the move was a little surprising in that regard as well.
Caldwell’s first game as offensive coordinator was a bit rough as the Ravens were trounced by the Denver Broncos. The offense rebounded nicely in the following week against the Giants, and we know how well the Ravens’ offense clicked in the playoffs.
Considering how Flacco became a new quarterback after Cameron was axed, the move has to be seen as a major turning point in the season. The Ravens’ offense outdueled offenses led by the likes of Eli Manning, Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick, so the post-Cameron offense was at the forefront of the Ravens’ championship run.
Emergence Of Dennis Pitta
The other offensive turning point this season aside from the Cameron firing was the emergence of Dennis Pitta. The third-year tight end out of BYU started the season listed as the second tight end on the depth chart behind incumbent Ed Dickson.
Pitta came out of the gate fast, as he had 188 yards receiving and two touchdowns in the first three games of the season. Pitta and Flacco had built a good repoire both on and off the field, so their chemistry was starting to pay off in the passing game.
By midseason Pitta was the clear-cut number one tight end, as he flourished while Dickson was invisible almost every week.
Pitta finished the season ranked 11th in receiving yards by a tight end with 669 yards, and finished tied for sixth in touchdowns with seven. However Pitta’s value increased in the playoffs as he became a go to red zone target.
Pitta reeled in three touchdowns in the Ravens’ four playoff games, so his impact and emergence went well beyond his strong regular season. Assuming Flacco is locked up in a long-term contract, expect his security blanket Pitta to continue to develop and become one of the top tight ends in the AFC.
Emergence Of Cary Williams and Corey Graham After Lardarius Webb Injury
Coming into the season, cornerback Lardarius Webb was viewed as one of the top corners in all of the league and was arguably the best overall defensive player on his own team. Webb was on his game from the start of the season, as he was locking down wide receivers for the first five weeks of the season. Then disaster struck.
Webb tore his ACL while covering Dez Bryant in the first half of a Week 6 contest with the Cowboys and was lost for the season. The Ravens already had major question marks with their other cornerbacks before Webb went down, so it appeared to be disastrous for the Ravens.
With the injury came opportunity, and a couple of players ran with their opportunity.
Cary Williams, who started the season as the number two corner opposite Webb, was viewed as the weak link in the secondary. With Webb, Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard rounding out the secondary, Williams’ play was the only question mark coming into the season.
Williams relished his new role as the top cover corner and had a breakout campaign as he got better as the season went on. Williams finished tied with Reed for most interceptions on the team with four, and led the team in passes defended. He also finished fourth on the team in tackles, so his impact was big in the absence of Webb.
Williams went on to snare two more interceptions in the playoffs, which included game clinching interceptions against Tom Brady and Andrew Luck.
Williams is a free agent and will parlay his breakout season in a lucrative deal, so it remains to be seen if he will be a Raven next season. Regardless, his ability to fill the shoes of a top-tier player in Webb was key to the Ravens’ turnaround.
The other player who had an impact in the secondary was cornerback Corey Graham. The six-year veteran had a solid regular season with two interceptions after Webb went down, but really elevated his game in the playoffs.
Graham defended seven passes and made some great hits throughout the playoffs, but the game he had against the Broncos in the divisional round was legendary. Graham intercepted a Peyton Manning pass for a touchdown in the first quarter, then clinched the game with another interception at the end of the first overtime.
The way Williams and Graham stepped up in the face of adversity this season was a major part of the Ravens turning around their beleaguered defense. Without their efforts the Ravens would not have been able to overcome such an obstacle and win a championship.
Emergence Of Paul Kruger
There was another opportunity on the defensive side for someone to step up and replace a top-tier player. Like Williams and Graham, linebacker Paul Kruger took his chance and made the most of it.
Kruger entered his fourth season without much fanfare, as he was overshadowed by the likes of Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe. However, Kruger saw a huge increase in snaps after Lewis was lost for the regular season with his triceps injury. Even Lewis himself said that his injury created a huge opportunity for Kruger to step up.
With a spike in playing time, Kruger showed why he is the most versatile player on the Ravens’ defense. He was the only Ravens’ defender this season to register a sack, interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery showing his versatility.
Kruger’s speed rush and impressive hands allowed him to lead the Ravens with nine sacks. That total was double the next closest defender on the Ravens, so his impact was far reaching.
Considering how dinged up the Ravens’ defense was for the majority of the season, Kruger’s emergence helped replace other big playmakers that were out of the lineup. With Suggs missing time and being largely ineffective throughout the season and Lewis gone for the final 10 regular season games, Kruger became an x-factor when his team needed him the most. When all was said and done, Kruger was the most valuable player on the defense.
Kruger continued his breakout season into the playoffs, as he had 4.5 sacks, one forced fumble and a pass defended in the Ravens’ four playoff games. The breakout season came as his current contract with the Ravens expired, so his services will be in high demand. Like Cary Williams, Kruger’s future hinges on much money Joe Flacco is going to get and how much will be left over for the rest of the free agents.
Regardless of where Kruger plays next season, the impact he made on the Ravens’ defense when they needed a playmaker desperately was a major turning point during the season.
The Return Of Ray Lewis
In a season where the Ravens had one of their worst defensive seasons in franchise history, it wasn’t a coincidence that they were without their leader for the majority of the season. The Ravens’ Week 6 victory over the Cowboys came at a huge price as both Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb were lost for the season.
However, as the regular season started to wind down, there were rumblings that Lewis would make a return in what many believed to be his final season. Lewis announced before the playoffs started that he would return and it would in fact be his “final ride,” as he would retire after the playoffs.
Lewis’ skills had obviously diminished from his dominant days, but Lewis was the fourth leading tackler in the league when he went down in Week 6, and was on the field for 453 snaps which was more than any other linebacker. His presence in the locker room was also a huge loss, as the defense was without their heart and soul.
Thus, with Lewis announcing his return and his retirement, he gave the Ravens an enormous lift as they entered the playoffs having lost four of their final five regular season games.
In a season where the Ravens temporarily lost their defensive identity, Lewis’ return helped galvanize a Ravens’ team that hardly anyone thought of as a Super Bowl contender. With their heart and soul back in the lineup and playing in his final postseason, the Ravens went on a magical run that ended with a Super Bowl ring.
Considering the way this team looked as the regular season ended, the news of Lewis’ return gave the team a lift and has to be one of the bigger turning points of the season.