Best and Worst-Case Scenarios: Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens just missed the playoffs the past two years with mediocre records of 9-7 and 8-8. Defense has always been their strong suit, so, in his final year as general manager, Ozzie Newsome went all in on offense. In the first round of the draft, the Ravens had two picks. They selected Hayden Hurst, a tight end from South Carolina, and then later chose Lamar Jackson, Louisville’s former Heisman Trophy winner, projected to be the quarterback of the future. In free agency, the Ravens focused on playmakers, so they brought in receivers Michael Crabtree (Oakland), Willie Snead (New Orleans) and John Brown (Arizona).

Best case:

Jackson pushes incumbent Joe Flacco to his best season since 2014, when the veteran set career highs in touchdowns (27) and QBR. The Ravens went 10-6 that year. Crabtree steps in and becomes the number-one target. He caught the eighth-most touchdown receptions in the league in 2017 after catching the ninth-most in 2016. He becomes Flacco’s most productive receiver since Steve Smith Sr. in 2014 (79 receptions and six touchdowns).

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The offensive line gets a boost with Marshal Yanda returning. He missed the final 14 games last year with an ankle injury, but, he comes back this year and earns his seventh Pro-Bowl selection. 2017 All-Rookie guard Jermaine Eluemunor and third-year tackle Ronnie Stanley both improve and help bolster the line beside Yanda.

Ideally, running back Alex Collins reduces his turnovers and maintains his yardage production, which was tenth-best in the NFL last year.

The Defense stays sharp after a solid 2017. They get top cornerback Jimmy Smith for the season opener after he missed the final four games in 2017 with an Achilles injury. He bounces back and replicates his early season form from last season. The Ravens led the NFL in takeaways, three of which were Smith interceptions (He had a pick-six and a fumble returned for a touchdown).

Baltimore gave up the tenth-fewest passing yards last year, and with the turnovers they forced, were ranked the second-best pass defense by NFL.com. With returning linebacker stars Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley able to control the run and disrupt the pass game, they continue to force takeaways and smother opponents on defense.

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The Ravens sweep the Bengals for the first time since 2012 and they take both games from Cleveland for the third straight year. They split with Pittsburgh and finish with an 11-5 record, winning their first AFC North title since 2012, their Super Bowl season.

Worst case:

Flacco sputters and Jackson does not appear to be ready to start. Flacco’s QBR in 2017 was his worst since his rookie year in 2008. He gets off to another mediocre start, putting Head Coach John Harbaugh in a difficult position where he has to bench the quarterback who has started in each of Harbaugh’s seasons in charge. It takes a while for Jackson to get used to running a pro-style offense, and early losses bury the Ravens’ chances at the postseason.

The rest of the offensive weaponry doesn’t live up to expectations. Brown and Snead both have poor outings after they struggled in 2017. Without another quality receiver, Crabtree gets smothered by defenses. Collins’ fumbling issues do not go away. He was third in the NFL in fumbles for running backs last season, and this year, due to poor quarterback play, he gets extra action and fumbles more often.

Unfortunately, the Ravens’ past strength, defense, takes a hit after coordinator Dean Pees retired, unretired and then took a job with Tennessee. During six years in Baltimore, Pees led three top-ten scoring defenses.

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Age also factors in the defensive production. The 35-year-old Terrell Suggs starts to slow down after a Pro-Bowl year, and with their outspoken leader struggling, the rest of the defense loses some edge. With their offensive woes, the defense spends a lot of time on the field, which taxes them later in the season, leaving them vulnerable.

The Ravens miss the postseason for the fourth year in a row with a 6-10 record, and Coach Harbaugh’s seat starts to heat up.

Prediction: 10-6

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Louisville stripped of 2013 title

Louisville’s impressive run through the 2013 NCAA Tournament — one in which the Cardinals overcoming an unforgettably gruesome injury to guard Kevin Ware — has been removed from NCAA record books after the University’s appeal fell through.

The Cardinals have also been forced to vacate 123 wins between 2012 and 2015, all as a result of the recent scandal involving former head coach Rick Pitino and illegal benefits for under-aged recruits.

In the 2012-13 season, Louisville earned the No. 1 overall seed after finishing the regular season 26-5 and winning the Big East championship over Syracuse.

The Cardinals rolled through the midwest regional, losing Ware in a dominant elite-eight win over Duke, before picking off Wichita State in the Final Four.

In the national championship game in Atlanta, Louisville defeated Michigan, 82-76, behind 22 points from Luke Hancock and another 18 from tournament MVP Peyton Siva.

Of course, the record books say otherwise following the NCAA’s ruling, but that won’t change the tattoo on Pitino’s back commemorating the red-hot 2013 run.

Pitino was fired prior to the 2017-18 season in response an entirely different scandal, the recent FBI probe involving Adidas and players receiving financial compensation in return for college commitments.

Since Pitino’s firing, head coach David Padgett has led Louisville to an 18-9 record and will likely have the Cardinals playing in the NCAA Tournament.

Sideline Intel Bracketology: Feb. 9

Great, more chaos.

Ohio State beats Purdue. Texas A&M beats Auburn. Bubble teams drop like flies — and some step up to take their spots, for now. St. John’s beats Duke and Villanova.

No, St. John’s is not in the field of 68. I mean, not yet at least. When they beat Xavier, Creighton, Seton Hall and Marquette I’m sure we’ll have a spot for them.

But with all that said, this week’s field is extremely shaken up from even just a week ago. The biggest drop? Louisville down from a No. 5 seed to a No. 8 seed. The biggest jump? Texas A&M up from a No. 8 seed to a No. 6 seed.

Even the bubble looks a whole lot different, as you can see:

Last Four Byes
Houston
Providence
Alabama
NC State

Last Four In
Missouri
Syracuse
Virginia Tech
UCLA

First Four Out
Kansas State
Washington
Marquette
SMU

Next Four Out
Western Kentucky
Nebraska
St. Bonaventure
Temple

Four More
Wyoming
Maryland
Baylor
Penn State

Looking at the bubble, there are a few teams who’ve made some noise and a few who’d rather kill the noise they made this week. Syracuse and UCLA caught the right side of the bubble with key wins. While the Orange won at Louisville, the Bruins defeated both USC and Arizona to jump from completely off the bubble to in the tournament field.

Fellow Pac-12 school Washington played its way out of the field with a 65-40 loss at Oregon. With its win over Texas, Kansas State was a tough team to keep out, but a 38-point loss to West Virginia and an RPI outside the Top 50 were tough to forgive.

But enough about the bubble, here’s how the full tournament field shakes out:

Ed. Note: all-caps denote current conference leaders

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SOUTH REGIONAL | Atlanta, Ga.

(Charlotte, N.C.)
No. 1 VIRGINIA (23-1, 12-0 ACC)
No. 16 NICHOLLS ST. (15-9, 9-2 Southland) / No. 16 WAGNER (18-6, 11-2 NEC)

No. 8 
Texas Christian (16-8, 4-7 Big 12)
No. 9 Arizona State (18-6, 6-6 Pac-12)

(Boise, Idaho)
No. 5 Oklahoma (16-7, 6-5 Big 12)
No. 12 VERMONT  (20-5, 10-0 America East)

No. 4 Miami (18-5, 7-4 ACC)
No. 13 LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE (20-4, 10-1 Sun Belt)

(Nashville, Tenn.)
No. 6 RHODE ISLAND (19-3, 11-0 Atlantic 10)
No. 11 Houston (18-5, 8-3 American)

No. 3 Tennessee (18-5, 8-3 SEC)
No. 14 UC SANTA BARBARA (19-5, 8-2 Big West)

(Charlotte, N.C.)
No. 7 Seton Hall (17-7, 6-5 Big East)
No. 10 Alabama (15-9, 6-5 SEC)

No. 2 North Carolina (18-7, 7-5 ACC)
No. 15 BUCKNELL (17-9, 11-2 Patriot)


MIDWEST REGIONAL | Omaha, Neb.

(Detroit, Mich.)
No. 1 Michigan State (23-3, 11-2 Big Ten)
No. 16 NC A&T (15-9, 8-1 MEAC)

No. 8 
Gonzaga (22-4, 12-1 West Coast)
No. 9 Butler (17-8, 7-5 Big East)

(Boise, Idaho)
No. 5 ARIZONA (19-6, 9-3 Pac-12)
No. 12 NEW MEXICO STATE (21-3, 8-0 WAC)

No. 4 West Virginia (18-6, 7-4 Big 12)
No. 13 EAST TENNESSEE STATE (21-4, 12-0 Southern)

(Dallas, Tex.) 
No. 6 Kentucky (17-7, 6-5 SEC)
No. 11 Syracuse (16-8, 5-6 ACC) / No. 11 UCLA (17-7, 8-4 Pac-12)

No. 3 Texas Tech (20-4, 8-3 Big 12)
No. 14 BELMONT (19-7, 11-2 Ohio Valley)

(Nashville, Tenn.)
No. 7 Florida State (17-7, 6-6 ACC)
No. 10 Providence (16-8, 7-4 Big East)

No. 2 CINCINNATI (22-2, 11-0 American)
No. 15 CHARLESTON (19-6, 10-3 Colonial)


EAST REGIONAL | Boston, Mass.

(Pittsburgh, Pa.)
No. 1 XAVIER (22-3, 10-2 Big East)
No. 16 FGCU (19-8, 10-0 Atlantic Sun)

No. 8 
MIDDLE TENNESSEE (19-5, 11-1 Conference USA)
No. 9 Michigan (19-7, 8-5 Big Ten)

(San Diego, Calif.)
No. 5 Florida (16-8, 7-4 SEC)
No. 12 BUFFALO (18-6, 10-1 MAC)

No. 4 Clemson (20-4, 9-3 ACC)
No. 13 LOYOLA-CHICAGO (20-5, 10-3 Missouri Valley)

(Wichita, Kan.)
No. 6 Texas A&M (16-8, 5-6 SEC)
No. 11 BOISE STATE (20-4, 10-2 Mountain West)

No. 3 Duke (19-5, 7-4 ACC)
No. 14 RIDER (18-7, 11-2 Metro Atlantic)

(Detroit, Mich.)
No. 7 Nevada (20-5, 9-2 Mountain West)
No. 10 Texas (15-9, 5-6 Big 12)

No. 2 Purdue (23-3, 12-1 Big Ten)
No. 15 MONTANA (19-5, 12-0 Big Sky)


WEST REGIONAL | Los Angeles, Calif.

(Pittsburgh, Pa.)
No. 1 Villanova (22-2, 9-2 Big East)
No. 16 UNC ASHEVILLE (17-9, 10-3 Big South)

No. 8 
Louisville (17-8, 7-5 ACC)
No. 9 Arkansas  (16-8, 5-6 SEC)

(San Diego, Calif.)
No. 5 Wichita State (18-5, 8-3 American)
No. 12 Missouri (16-8, 6-5 SEC) / No. 12 Virginia Tech (17-7, 6-5 ACC)

No. 4 OHIO STATE (21-5, 12-1 Big Ten)
No. 13 SOUTH DAKOTA STATE (21-6, 9-1 Summit)

(Dallas, Tex.)
No. 6 SAINT MARY’S (24-2, 13-0 West Coast)
No. 11 NC State (16-8, 6-5 ACC)

No. 3 AUBURN (21-3, 9-2 SEC)
No. 14 WRIGHT STATE (19-7, 11-2 Horizon)

(Wichita, Kan.)
No. 7 Creighton (18-6, 8-4 Big East)
No. 10 Southern California (17-8, 8-4 Pac-12)

No. 2 KANSAS (19-5, 8-3 Big 12)
No. 15 PENNSYLVANIA (16-6, 6-0 Ivy)