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Shutdown Countdown: The Ravens' rebound is all about the offense

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(Yahoo Sports)

(Yahoo Sports)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.

It's great to have a strong defense in the NFL. It can take you a long way. It's also important to have an offense that can move the ball and score, and that's where the 2013 Ravens ran into trouble.

Why didn't the defending Super Bowl champions make the playoffs last season? Here's your trail of crumbs: 25th in points, 29th in yards, 24th in first downs, 18th in passing yards, 25th in passing touchdowns, 30th in rushing yards, 28th in rushing touchdowns, 32nd in rushing yards per attempt. And Joe Flacco's 22 interceptions tied for second-most in the NFL.

Given all that, it's amazing the Ravens finished 8-8.

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Joe Flacco (USA Today Sports Images)

Joe Flacco (USA Today Sports Images)

The failures of the running game trickled down and affected the rest of the offense. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce were supposed to be a great 1-2 punch, but somehow the Ravens averaged only 3.1 yards per carry. Only two teams in the NFL averaged less than 3.5: Jacksonville at 3.3, and the Ravens. Baltimore's running game  was useless.

That put more pressure on Flacco, who had few receivers to throw to once Dennis Pitta went down with a preseason hip injury. Torrey Smith is a great receiver, but the Ravens needed someone who could get a first down on third-and-6. Without that, Flacco forced some throws, had some interceptions, and the Ravens offense really scuffled.

If the Ravens are to be better this season, the offense will need to improve. Steve Smith, added after he was cut by Carolina, might be that guy to lean on when it's third-and-6. Or maybe it's Pitta, who is healthy now. The running game can't be worse, even though Rice will likely be suspended.

We know the defense will be good again. The whole key to getting back to the playoffs is lifting the offense from near the bottom of the NFL to somewhere at least near the middle of the pack. 

2013 review in less than 25 words: The Ravens were 8-6 and in line for a playoff berth, but then lost their final two games by a combined 51 points.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same? It's about the same. Losing defensive end Arthur Jones to the Colts can't help, but he got a huge deal the Ravens weren't going to pay. Smith could be a good addition if he's got something left, but I'm not sure he does. The Ravens' big move of the offseason was retaining left tackle Eugene Monroe before he hit free agency. They had what looked like a solid draft, as usual. There wasn't anything exciting, good or bad, for the Ravens this offseason.

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Steve Smith and Ravens coach John Harbaugh (AP)

Steve Smith and Ravens coach John Harbaugh (AP)

Best offseason acquisition: By default it's Smith, but let's look at it a little closer. Smith's yards per catch, which is 14.6 for his career, dropped from 17.6 in 2011 to 16.1 in 2012 all the way down to 11.6 in 2013. The only other time his average was close to that low over a full season was when he averaged 11.5 in 2007, and that year the Panthers started four quarterbacks including a 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde.

Smith's numbers fell off the table last year with the fantastic Cam Newton throwing him the ball. Now Smith is 35. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, only 16 players in NFL history have had 1,000 receiving yards at age 35 or older, and the incomparable Jerry Rice accounts for three of those 16 seasons. Only nine 35-year-old receivers have had 1,100 yards in a season. To be a top receiver again, Smith would have to fight his own worrisome regression and a lot of NFL history. And don't buy into the "Smith is mad he got cut, that's why he'll bounce back!" narrative, because it's dumb. He was motivated last year on one of the best teams he ever played on. Smith could rebound this year and have a good season, but there's a lot of evidence that the name will outweigh the production.

Achilles heel: The running game is a mystery. In 2012 the Ravens averaged 4.3 yards per carry, Rice was still a star and Pierce was his up-and-coming backup. There wasn't so much upheaval on the offensive line after 2012 to predict a collapse in the run game, but it happened. There's a good chance Rice will be suspended for an altercation with his wife this offseason, perhaps three games, although the NFL hasn't ruled on that. There isn't a ton behind Pierce, so that would put more on his shoulders and he's coming off a bad season. The Ravens need to run the ball better to get back to the playoffs, but it won't be easy.

Position in flux: The pick of Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley in the first round was typical Ravens, drafting the best player possible and figuring out how it all fits later. Well, now they have to figure out how it fits. Daryl Smith, coming off a great season, will start at one inside linebacker spot. There's a battle for the other spot between Mosley and Arthur Brown, a 2013 second-round pick who didn't do much as a rookie but has reportedly looked better this offseason. Rarely are first-round picks or second-round picks drafted to be backups, but it looks like either Mosley or Brown will start 2014 coming off the bench.

Ready to break out: The Ravens probably expected a little more out of safety Matt Elam when they took him in the first round last year. Elam was up and down as a rookie. But many rookies struggle, and Elam will be just fine. He was an impact player at Florida, and he should take a big step forward for the Ravens this season.

Stat fact: The Ravens' regression wasn't a shock; it happens to most recent Super Bowl champions. The Ravens missing the playoffs continued a curious trend. The last defending Super Bowl champion to win a playoff game was the 2005 Patriots. Beware, Seattle.

Schedule degree of difficulty: Baltimore has the 28th-toughest schedule in the NFL, the easiest of any non-AFC South team. In a bit of a quirk the Ravens have divisional games in each of the season's first three weeks, the Bengals and Steelers at home, and a contest in Cleveland. That stretch is key.

Burning question

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: The Ravens almost made the playoffs last season despite having one of the worst offenses in the NFL. Nobody figures they'll become the Broncos or Eagles over the offseason, but a solid running game that can take pressure off Flacco would make the offense good enough to make it back to the playoffs. The schedule sets up well for it too. An AFC North title is a realistic goal if everything goes right.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: The Ravens defense was good, but not great, in 2013. If it's just good again, and we think the offense is going to be average at best, what's the ceiling for this team? It's hard to see the defense slipping much, but if the offense has the same issues it did last season, it'll be hard for the Ravens to make the playoffs again.

The crystal ball says: Because the AFC is top-heavy, the wild-card spots should be up for grabs, and it's a good bet that the AFC North gets at least one.

I have the Ravens as the third-best team in the division, so it'll be a close call. I think they'll be just short of the playoffs again, but maybe the offense will surprise us all. 

Previous previews:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans
24. Dallas Cowboys
23. New York Jets
22. Atlanta Falcons
21. New York Giants
20. Miami Dolphins
19. Kansas City Chiefs

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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