Eisenberg: Next Offseason Move – Fix Penalties

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Pro football teams spend the offseason attempting to fix what ailed them the year before, and the Ravens are no different. Since their 2009 season ended with a playoff loss in Indianapolis, they have sought to fix as many items as possible on their list of things they believed needed improving.

Seeking to give quarterback Joe Flacco more dangerous targets and add pop to their passing game, they traded for Anquan Boldin, signed Donte' Stallworth and re-signed Derrick Mason.

Looking to pump up their pass rush and add depth to their defensive front, they drafted linebacker Sergio Kindle and defensive tackle Terrence Cody with their fist two selections.

Seeking to get more out of their tight ends and also find a successor to tight end Todd Heap, they drafted two candidates, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta.

Although they haven't addressed what could become a pressing need at cornerback if Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington aren't fully recovered from the knee injuries that prematurely ended their 2009 seasons, there's still plenty of time to get to that.

With that many fixes checked off, the Ravens expect to field a better team in 2010. I wouldn't be surprised to see many experts pick them to win the AFC North.

But while the vast majority of the offseason focus and conversation have centered on personnel issues, one major item on the Ravens' fix-it list has received scant mention – penalties.

Sorry to bring it up and spoil a Friday, but in case you had forgotten, free-falling flags were a major problem last season. The Ravens ranked second in the NFL in penalty yards per game. They were flagged 11 times in a loss in Pittsburgh, and five times for pass interference alone in a loss to Green Bay -- the most pass interference calls against any team in any single game since 2001.

Penalties were such a problem that Ravens Owner Steve Biscotti, when asked about them at the "State of the Ravens" press conference on Feb. 3, said, "I'm certainly not happy about it; I'm not going to lie to you."

Cutting down on their penalties could be a tougher fix than adding pop to their passing game or depth to their defensive front. The P-word could be the Ravens' toughest fix of all. They can't address it with a trade. They can't solve it with a draft pick. They have to look in the mirror, take a deep breath and fix it themselves behind closed doors, in minicamps, practices and training camp.

Understand, the Ravens and five other teams that made the playoffs were at the top of the yards-per-game penalty rankings in 2009, so the correlation between flags and failure is murkier than you think. And Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh repeatedly said during the 2009 season that he didn't want a fear of flags to prevent the Ravens from playing the hard-nosed ball for which they're known. Their style is one of their strengths, and penalties are going to arise out of it.

But having said that, the team did commit way too many correctable offenses -- false starts, ill-advised personal fouls and illegal contact and pass interference mistakes resulting from lapses in technique more than hard-edged play. Plain and simple, they gave away too much, starting with the two touchdowns that could have reversed a late-season loss to the Steelers.

When the flags were flying, the Ravens said technique penalties couldn't really be addressed on the fly, during the season; they needed to be fixed in the offseason, when coaches and players have time to pore over film and make adjustments. Well, with the first major minicamp of the offseason opening today, the time to make those fixes has arrived. It's time to get with the defensive backs and stress anew what can and can't be done; time to emphasize the importance of keeping a level head and not going overboard while playing hard; time to drill legal techniques until they become second nature.

We won't know if the fix is in place until the Ravens start playing games again. For that matter, the Ravens themselves probably won't know. Unlike personnel fixes, this one is strictly performance- based.

But if the Ravens can succeed in cutting down on their flags in 2010, they'll make what might be their most important fix of all.

John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.

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