Ravens-related thoughts on conference championship weekend

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The lack of weapons surrounding Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been a major topic of discussion in two of the last three years.
That’s why Cam Newton’s season for the NFC champion Carolina Panthers is nothing short of exceptional. The fifth-year quarterback wasn’t exactly a popular pick to be the league MVP — especially after the Panthers lost No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a season-ending knee injury in August — but he’s done everything he can to silence critics about his play on the field.
To be clear, Newton hasn’t done it alone as he has a Pro Bowl tight end in Greg Olsen and the league’s No. 1 rushing attack — to go along with an excellent defense — but to watch him throw for 35 touchdown passes and a 99.4 passer rating with former first-round bust Ted Ginn Jr., journeyman Jerricho Cotchery, 2014 undrafted free agent Philly Brown, and second-round rookie Devin Funchess as his top four wide receivers?
That’s not exactly a group that instilled fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators.
We’re used to seeing the likes of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers put up impressive passing numbers despite not always having elite talent around them, but Newton deserves the praise he’s receiving as he prepares to play in his first Super Bowl. He’s always been dangerous with his legs — he’s rushed for 500 or more yards in each of his five NFL seasons — but to see his passing prowess take off this season with a less-than-stellar group of receivers is worthy of praise.
This isn’t meant as a knock on Flacco as plenty of good quarterbacks struggle to post big numbers without enough high-end talent around them, but Newton has had a special season.
Blind side surprise
Another reason that Newton has had such a successful year has been the play of Carolina’s offensive line, which includes former Raven Michael Oher playing left tackle.
Oher was mostly solid but still considered a disappointment in Baltimore as a first-round pick in the 2009 draft. The Ole Miss product was even worse with Tennessee in 2014 and was cut just one year after signing a four-year, $20 million contract with the Titans.
So, why the turnaround with the Panthers?
Oher has been reunited with John Matsko, the Ravens’ offensive line coach in his first two NFL seasons. The two share a good relationship, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that Oher has gotten his career back on track working with his old offensive line coach.
According to Pro Football Focus, Oher has graded 32nd among all offensive tackles in the NFL — Eugene Monroe was 22nd and Rick Wagner was 53rd — so it’s not as though he’s suddenly blossomed into a Pro Bowl player in his seventh season. But there’s no doubt that he’s played a key part in transforming what was a poor offensive line in 2014 into one of the better ones in the league.
Orange crush pass rush
The Denver Broncos registered a remarkable 20 quarterback hits on Tom Brady — the most any quarterback had taken in a game all season — over the course of Sunday’s 20-18 win in the AFC championship game.
But even more impressive was the fact that Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips blitzed a season-low 17.2 percent of the time, according to PFF. It certainly helps when you have a special pair of edge rushers like Von Miller — who will be a free agent this offseason — and DeMarcus Ware, but the Broncos’ success was a reminder that you need to be able to disrupt quarterbacks without leaving your pass coverage compromised.
After losing Terrell Suggs in the opener and having already lost Pernell McPhee via free agency, Dean Pees was left with a front unable to generate consistent pressure with a four-man rush for most of the season. As a result, the Ravens defensive coordinator felt compelled to blitz more, which left an underwhelming secondary even more vulnerable in coverage if the pressure didn’t get there in time. It wasn’t until late in the year with the improvement of rookie Za’Darius Smith that Baltimore started to be more disruptive without blitzing.
It’s easier said than done, but the Ravens need to improve their pass rush for 2016 and can’t just hope that the healthy return of Suggs alone will do the trick.