OWINGS MILLS — Ravens coach John Harbaugh held up his index finger and thumb and held them close together. After one practice in August, Harbaugh was simultaneously rejecting the premise of a question and revealing the difference between past Baltimore teams that were contenders and those that missed the playoffs.
The coach’s point: The difference between success or failure can be, at times, a matter of inches.
“I just don’t think it’s that dramatic of a thing,” Harbaugh said.
The Ravens, in year 10 of the Harbaugh era, open their 2017 campaign Sunday against division rival Cincinnati in unfamiliar territory: mired in a postseason slump.
The franchise made the playoffs each of Harbaugh’s first five years, but in the four seasons since winning the 2013 Super Bowl, Baltimore has missed the playoffs three times, including the last two years after going 5-11 in 2015 and 8-8 in 2016.
“I know there were points in time in the season where we could have killed the game on offense, could have got one more first down and we didn’t,” wide receiver Mike Wallace said. “It’s just those make-or-break plays when you have to put the game away and don’t put the defense back on the field, even though we have confidence in them. Just one more touchdown in that last Steelers game, you know?”
The game Wallace is referring to is a 31-27 loss to Pittsburgh in December. Like a lot of games last year, the Ravens went back and forth before the Steelers marched downfield in the final minute to score with nine seconds left.
While the defense was on the field when the game was lost, Wallace said it was on the offense to put up more points.
Scoring, to put it kindly, was a challenge for the Ravens in 2016. They averaged 21.4 points a game, 20th in the league.
In four of their eight losses, they failed to score more than 17.
After a 3-2 start, the offense was ugly enough to cost offensive coordinator Marc Trestman his job.
Things improved when Marty Mornhinweg took over as coordinator — though not enough to make the playoffs.
Mornhinweg is back, along with new offensive assistant and tight ends coach Greg Roman and a new power run scheme aimed at revitalizing a run game that ranked 28th in the league.
Wallace said having Mornhinweg for a full offseason will help, with quarterback Joe Flacco expected to take more shots down the field this year.
“Last year, we couldn’t just take everything out because we still had to go with some of coach Trestman’s plays because that’s what we practiced the whole offseason,” Wallace said. “The middle of the season, you don’t want to go totally away from that. I think this year, it’s more what Marty likes to do.”
Despite the problems, the 31-year-old Wallace had a 1,000-yard receiving season for the first time since 2011, when he was with the Steelers. After leaving Pittsburgh in free agency following the 2012 season, he had struggled to catch on with the Miami Dolphins and the Minnesota Vikings.
Still, there are skeptics and questions surrounding the Ravens’ ceiling — especially on offense.
The top receivers are Wallace and Jeremy Maclin, who was signed in June after being released by the Kansas City Chiefs. Maclin, 29, had a career-low 536 yards last year in 12 games. Running back Danny Woodhead was also brought in to give Flacco another potential playmaker.
The first game hasn’t been played yet, but injuries are already piling up — giving some fans flashbacks to 2015’s decimated 5-11 team.
Eight players so far have been placed on injured reserve, including promising second-year running back Kenneth Dixon and guard Alex Lewis.
Last year’s starting tight end, Dennis Pitta, was released outright after he suffered his third severe and most likely career-ending hip injury. Another starter, guard John Urschel, retired abruptly after three seasons in July.
The real questions, however, center around Flacco after he missed the entire preseason with a back injury. He will start against the Bengals, though timing and rhythm still need to come together for the quarterback who, like Harbaugh, is entering his 10th year.
“It is not ideal, because obviously, we have some new guys out there and some new things that we are doing, and I have not had as many reps at that kind of stuff,” Flacco said Wednesday. Flacco said his back felt good.
If there is reason for optimism, it’s the Ravens defense. The unit ranked sixth in DVOA last year and allowed the ninth-fewest points per game.
Baltimore signed Tony Jefferson to a four-year, $34 million contract to be the other starting safety next to Eric Weddle. Both are coming off career years and give the Ravens a dynamic secondary capable of multiple coverage looks. Behind the Seattle Seahawks, the Ravens possibly have the best safety duo in the NFL.
If the defensive unit lives up to expectations, the formula for this year’s Ravens might look similar to previous years.
“The history of the Ravens shows that you play great defense, you run the ball, you don’t turn the ball over, you win, and you’ll have a chance at the Super Bowl,” Weddle said. “We’re going to show that and see where it takes us. I think it’ll be great.”
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