Down 24-20 with about 1:20 remaining, the Baltimore Ravens faced a third and one ten yards away from the goal line. Head Coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg dialed up a delayed run for fullback Kyle Juszczyk. With the season seemingly in his hands, the Harvard University graduate broke a tackle, planted his hand in the ground to stay upright, and lunged into the end zone to help the Ravens to a 27-24 lead with 1:18 remaining. With the season on the line, the Ravens top-five ranked defense just had to make one more stop.
Unfortunately, the defense just could not hold against the firework show that is the Pittsburgh Steelers passing game. Wide receiver Antonio Brown just barely reached the football across the goal line after the failed efforts of tackling by linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Eric Weddle. With those inches, the Steelers clinched the AFC North and the Ravens clinched their third playoff miss in four years. The Ravens must now focus on finishing strong against the Cincinnati Bengals and look towards the off-season. Here is what is next for the Baltimore Ravens.
What is Next for the Baltimore Ravens
Win in Cincinnati
First thing is first, Baltimore has to focus on the week ahead. It would be very easy to just roll over and take a loss in week 17. But these Ravens should not do that. After the tumultuous season that they just had the Ravens must build some momentum heading into next season. The Ravens really feel close to contention and a win here would push the Ravens in the right direction. There are some holes for sure, but the foundation is set for future success and the mental toughness that would be gained from a week 17 win on the road against a divisional rival after a devastating loss would likely help them in the long run.
Coach Harbaugh even clearly echoed this sentiment on Monday. “We want to go win it,” Harbaugh says. “It’s important. It’s important to have one more win than we potentially could have. I do not care what the record is. We want to go win the game.” Harbaugh knows how important this game feels for the future of this team, so expect to see a razor sharp Raven team on Sunday afternoon.
Expect Pass-Rush Help To Be On The Way
Baltimore has steadily been ranked in the top five in total defense all season long. This is even after a slightly disappointing past few weeks. Currently fifth in total defense and seventh in scoring, despite a struggling offense constantly putting them in tough situations, it is clear that this is the strength of the team. However, the one consistent weakness all year has been the pass rush. Ranking 21st in the NFL in sacks is not going to get it done in this league. Imagine this defense with a lights out pass rush. That sounds like a defense no one wants to face.
The Ravens have some young auxiliary pieces like rookie Matt Judon, Za’Darius Smith, and Timmy Jernigan, as well as star Terrell Suggs for at least one more year. What this team is missing however is that true game-wrecker. Someone who can year-in-and-year-out average around ten sacks a year and cause mayhem for opposing offensive coordinators. Suggs and Elvis Dumervil used to be those guys, but no more. With a bunch of young supplemental pieces in place, a true game-breaker would take this defense to a new level. You can bet Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees know this and will be looking for an upgrade. Look for the Ravens to target a pass-rusher in the draft such as Alabama’s Ryan Anderson, Missouri’s Charles Harris, or UCLA’s Takkarist Mckinley.
Get Joe Flacco a Star-Level Threat
Raise your hand if you have heard this one before. All of you should be raising your hand right now because this has been an issue for most of Joe Flacco’s tenure in Baltimore. Similarly to pass-rusher, there are some role players available like tight end Dennis Pitta, deep-threat Mike Wallace, and hopeful breakout candidate Breshad Perriman, but no star is present. This is especially true with the likely retirement of the beloved Steve Smith. Flacco played pretty well as he got more comfortable in Mornhinweg’s system and the offensive line got healthy, but he had nobody who could bail him out when he needed it.
Luckily for Baltimore, it looks as if they will have more cap space than they are used to. They also will be picking relatively high in the draft as well. This means they have the means to potentially go after guys like Chicago Bears’ wide receiver Alshon Jeffery or Cleveland Browns’ Terrelle Pryor. They could also target wide receivers in the draft like Clemson University’s Mike Williams, Western Michigan’s Corey Davis, or a middle round guy like Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel or Eastern Washington’s Cooper Cupp. The Ravens have the means to finally upgrade this struggling position, now let us see if they actually succeed.
The season may not have gone the way that the Ravens organization and fans had hoped. But the framework is there for a true return to contention as soon as next year. The toughness and resiliency has been there. The youth has been there. The star-power however? That has been missing. Besides maybe Weddle, Mosley, and offensive guard Marshal Yanda, no one on this team strikes as a superstar, top-of-the-league type talent. The Ravens hung around in every game this year including games against the elites like the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots. After those games, though, it just seemed painfully obvious that talent-wise, they are just a notch below. They have shown they can hang around long enough but are not good enough to come away with victories consistently.
With improvements from this past draft class, a step forward for Perriman and/or tight end Maxx Williams, and a star addition, this team potentially looks like a real threat going forward. Harbaugh might start feeling his seat get warm if no improvement is shown next year, so expect some changes. But first, a trip to Cincinnati, and hopefully a win, is in order. The Ravens are not going to be looking too far ahead, and neither should we.