Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff will be presented with the "Double D Award" this Sunday by Drake University. The award is presented to Drake letterwinners for achievements in their chosen fields of endeavor and/or community service since leaving the University.
Why do I have a feeling the AFC championship won't be brought up during the presentation?
As is usually the case when a team falls short of its ultimate goal, the negative parts of the season tend to stand out immediately after the campaign comes to a close. The flaws are critiqued, specific botched plays are broken down over and over (Cundiff and Lee Evans can attest to that), and players who struggled are singled out.
But for the Ravens to sweep the division, win an AFC North title, earn a first-round bye and get to the AFC championship game, a lot had to go right.
At the Ravens' season-ending press conference, general manager Ozzie Newsome and owner Steve Bisciotti singled out a handful of things which they were particularly proud of this season.
1. Lack of turnovers in the red zone
The Ravens only had one turnover inside the red zone all season long, and got points on 90 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line. Compare that to 2009, when they had seven giveaways inside their opponent's 20, and you can see why Newsome was happy with the team's progress in that area.
"Every time we got in the red area, we got points," Newsome said. "So you can look to that (and say) that was a big improvement, because we had some issues with that years before."
2. Development of Dennis Pitta and Torrey Smith
In 2010, Pitta had one catch for one yard. In 2011, the tight end had 40 grabs for 405 yards and three touchdowns during the regular season, and became one of Joe Flacco's favorite targets. He continued to display his surehandedness and smooth route-running in the playoffs, making seven catches for 70 yards and a TD.
Smith drew a lot of criticism early in the 2011 campaign after a rough preseason, but he progressed nicely and gave the Ravens a deep element to their passing attack they'd previously lacked. The rookie ranked second on the team in receiving yards with 841, led the Ravens in touchdowns with seven, and averaged an impressive 16.8 yards per grab.
3. Finding three young, physical corners
Remember the 2010 season, when the Ravens suffered a few key injuries at cornerback and looked like they had a big hole at that position? Those days seem long ago, don't they? With Lardarius Webb coming back healthy and playing at a high level, Cary Williams emerging as a strong player and rookie Jimmy Smith coming into the fold, the Ravens now have an impressive young trio of corners that they can trot out next season.
Webb and Williams are restricted free agents this offseason, but they should return, and Newsome said he's happy with how the Ravens have progressed at that position.
4. The offense didn't regress despite key subtractions
Prior to the start of training camp, the Ravens lost or cut ties with their top tight end, their most reliable wide receiver, their backup running back and a versatile offensive lineman. Despite the subtraction of Todd Heap, Derrick Mason, Willis McGahee and Chris Chester, the offense improved from 22nd in the NFL in 2010 to 15th in 2011.
"That was the thing that I was most proud of, that our numbers didn't go down on offense when we made so many wholesale changes," Bisciotti said.
5. Terrence Cody's drop in weight and improvement in play
Cody dropped 30 lbs. from his rookie season, and the 2010 second-round pick started all 16 games for the Ravens at the nose tackle spot. He nearly tripled his number of tackles from his rookie campaign and did a nice job taking over for veteran Kelly Gregg, who was released prior to the season.
"Hey, to be able to play in this division, you've got to stop the run," Newsome said.
If Cody continues to progress and stay focused on his technique and conditioning, the big man could help the Ravens remain tough against the run for years to come.