Urgency faces AFC North's elite

Posted Aug. 17, 2011 @ 1:47 p.m.
Posted By Mike Wilkening

The Ravens had a need for a fast, veteran wide receiver. Their GM, Ozzie Newsome is in the solutions business. 

Welcome to Baltimore, Lee Evans.

The acquisition of Evans signals the Ravens are not retreating, even after making some tough cuts early in the offseason. Among the culled was TE Todd Heap, whose departure weakened the passing game.

To me, the Ravens don't look quite as strong as they did a season ago, but the Evans move was a lift — and a reminder that Newsome moves stealthily, decisively and smartly.

So, I don't count out the Ravens, for that would be foolish, but time is of the essence for the talented veteran core that has made them so formidable for so long. MLB Ray Lewis is 36. FS Ed Reed, bothered by injuries the past two seasons, turns 33 on Sept. 11, the day of the season opener. 

Their division rivals, Pittsburgh, have some of the same issues. The Steelers' starting defensive linemen are all older than 30. The playmaking inside linebacker, James Farrior, is 36. WR Hines Ward, an all-time all-around player at his position, is 35.

Waiting in the wings for the Steelers, however, are a couple of talented receivers who eventually will have bigger roles  Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Brown made the decisive catch in the Steelers' comeback playoff win against the Ravens last January and has followed that with a fine summer.

The Steelers' offense can cause fits for defenses when it spreads the field. But their defense has had its issues defending that kind of attack, too. Re-signing 31-year-old CB Ike Taylor was a priority for Pittsburgh. Now the attention is turned to avoiding the poor stretches of play that doomed them in 2006 and '09, the last two times they missed the postseason. With QB Ben Roethlisberger in his prime, the defense stout and the roster a nice mix of old and new, the Steelers would appear to be AFC contenders now and in the near future.

Perhaps Baltimore can fit that bill, too  formidable today and tomorrow. The addition of Evans helps QB Joe Flacco, who throws a nice deep ball and has developed nicely in his first three seasons. It also can't hurt rookie WR Torrey Smith, an intriguing talent with excellent speed. RB Ray Rice, drafted in the same class with Flacco, is already a standout.

The defense doesn't have quite as much young talent as the offense does, but first-round CB Jimmy Smith could be a key building block in the secondary. Can he help the Ravens match up with potent passing games better?

To win the AFC, not to mention winning the Super Bowl, you have to be stouter vs. the pass than the Ravens were a season ago. Several NFC powers have strong air attacks. Surely you remember Green Bay taking apart Pittsburgh's secondary in Super Bowl XLV.

The Ravens have won at least one playoff game in each of the past three seasons but have no Super Bowl trips to show for it. In each of those years, they have been a wild card. Here is a team that can play with anyone  and believes as much; the Evans move is not one a rebuilding squad makes — but the Ravens could use a home playoff game one of these years. Think those two games vs. Pittsburgh this season will lack for intensity and meaning?

 

The digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL preview magazine is now available in The PFW Store. This product was completed after the lockout ended and free-agent signings and player trades are reflected in the 32 team previews.