The question is not whether the Ravens can play with the NFL's elite; it is whether they can string together the victories in January and February needed to capture the franchise's second Lombardi Trophy they so covet.
For all of the Ravens' success recently, they have made the Super Bowl only once in franchise history, and their inability to get past the Steelers in the divisional round a season ago might have been their toughest defeat yet. The Ravens blew a two-TD lead, and the Steelers not only won the game but eventually captured the AFC title.
The Ravens had legitimate Super Bowl aspirations a season ago, and they could not be faulted for having them again this season. Their defense and special teams are strong, and the offense has some intriguing playmakers.
That said, it is hard to escape that lingering question that has surrounded too many Ravens teams: When the stakes are highest, can the offense come through? It surely did not in that January loss to Pittsburgh, gaining just 126 yards on 53 plays.
This is one of the NFL's proudest, toughest and most talented teams, one capable of winning anywhere, anytime. But it is not a young group. The AFC North again will come down to Baltimore and Pittsburgh, who have had some wonderful battles the past three years. The competition between the clubs is all the more compelling considering the Ravens' race against time to win football's ultimate prize.
Coordinator Cam Cameron was panned for the Ravens' offensive woes last season. The team struggled to establish the run, and the passing game faltered late in the campaign. Cameron is under pressure to find a way to jump-start what was the NFL's 22nd-ranked offense in 2010 and continue to help QB Joe Flacco develop.
Quarterbacks: Joe Flacco surely is one of the NFL's better quarterbacks, and some would argue he eventually could belong among the league's elite with further development. Already he has put together a strong résumé, with four playoff wins to his credit. Just as importantly, he has improved throughout his NFL career, and he threw 25 touchdown passes and only 10 interceptions a season ago. Flacco has a strong arm and throws with accuracy. He has proven he can adjust to opposing strategies; when the Chiefs did a stellar job taking away the Ravens' outside receivers in their wild-card matchup in January, Flacco responded by successfully attacking the middle of the field. Flacco is not especially mobile, but he is capable of sliding in the pocket and rolling away from pressure and finding open receivers. However, there are some who say he can struggle to read defenses, and he has had a tendency to force the action at times. It will be interesting to see if the Ravens add a veteran backup with Marc Bulger retiring. If they stand pat, rookie Tyrod Taylor could be the top backup. He's athletic and possesses solid intangibles but is short and lacks accuracy. Hunter Cantwell will vie to be the third QB.
Running backs: Ray Rice is an integral part of the Ravens' offense. He is tough enough to run in between the tackles and quick, strong and elusive enough to be dangerous in space as a rusher or receiver. He can make defenders miss, and he has the lower-body strength needed to run through tackles and pick up valuable extra yards. A dump-off pass to Rice isn't a concession to tight downfield coverage; it is a legitimate weapon for the Ravens, and Rice's unique skill set makes it so. Rice has had a lot of work the past two seasons but is only 24, so wear and tear isn't a real concern just yet. The Ravens went out and got Rice an elite fullback in Vonta Leach. He's a physical, tone-setting lead blocker who will be a major asset when the Ravens want to grind it out. Ex-Dolphins RB Ricky Williams is likely to be the top backup to Rice. At 34, Williams still has some life left in his legs and catches the ball well, too. He figures to contribute in the passing game and would be well-suited for a role giving him about 8-10 touches per game. Jalen Parmele could be the No. 3 back. He has good size for the position but only average speed. Curtis Steele and Matt Lawrence also could contend for reserve roles. Both are instinctive but lack top speed. Rookie Anthony Allen is big and powerful but lacks speed.
Receivers: In recent years, the Ravens have not lacked for experienced, tough targets who work the middle of the field well, know how to get open and have the concentration, constitution and skill to make contested catches, take big hits and keep on fighting. What the group has lacked, however, is a serious field-stretching threat, a la Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace. Perhaps Lee Evans, acquired from Buffalo after Baltimore's first preseason game, can fill the bill. If nothing else, the presence of the speedy Evans will keep defenses honest, which could help Anquan Boldin. Evans played well in his first two preseason games with Baltimore. Boldin started the 2010 season on a tear, but his production fell off late in the season. Opponents did a nice job containing him, and Joe Flacco spread the ball more to other targets, leading to the drop in catches. Boldin is a strong, physical presence, a very good short and intermediate target who can be a real challenge for some cornerbacks. However, he is not sudden, and he might have been lost in the shuffle at times last season. The Ravens need to make a concerted effort to get him the ball. Rookie Torrey Smith, who has excellent speed, strong character and plenty of upside, is less likely to start with Evans' addition but should be a contributor nonetheless. Rookie Tandon Doss and veterans David Reed and James Hardy provide further depth at wideout. Doss and Reed are possession catchers who aren't burners but know how to get open. Doss got off to a good start in training camp. Hardy's biggest asset is his size. The Ravens released TE Todd Heap, whose athleticism and toughness made him so difficult to cover. Ed Dickson will have a bigger role in Heap's absence. He flashed playmaking ability as a rookie in 2010. Fellow second-year TE Dennis Pitta didn't play much as a rookie but has upside. Davon Drew is also in the mix.
Offensive linemen: The O-line didn't play especially well last season. The team gained 3.8 yards per carry, fifth-worst in the NFL. Also, QB Joe Flacco was sacked 40 times, five more than the league average. The Ravens had their problems picking up blitzes at times, too. OLT Michael Oher's second NFL season was somewhat disappointing, as he struggled on occasion in pass protection. He'll move to right tackle with the signing of ex-Vikings OLT Bryant McKinnie, who will protect Flacco's blind side. McKinnie is talented but has struggled with his conditioning. His play slipped last season, one evaluator told PFW, but McKinnie's size is an asset. The Ravens like to run behind athletic OLG Ben Grubbs, who's an above-average starter at his position. C Matt Birk has had a long, productive career. However, he gave up 4½ sacks last season, the most he has allowed since 2006, and the Ravens were not great running up the middle. He had knee surgery at the beginning of training camp, which could force Baltimore to seek another veteran center. Bryan Mattison filled in at center in Birk's absence early in camp. ORG Marshal Yanda has the strength and athleticism needed to kick out to right tackle, as he did a season ago, but he is best inside. The team made retaining him an offseason priority. Rookie Jah Reid is likely to be the top reserve tackle. Reid has outstanding size and length but plays too tall and needs to add lower-body strength. Massive but raw Ramon Harewood is an intriguing reserve tackle. Mark LeVoir can play tackle and perhaps guard as well.
Chuck Pagano replaces Greg Mattison as defensive coordinator after Mattison took the same job at the University of Michigan. Don't expect many sweeping changes to the defense, which uses the 3-4 scheme as a base defense but has the flexibility to employ other fronts. Pagano could be a touch more aggressive than Mattison, who would sometimes dial back the pressure with a lead. This is still a very good defense, but it is one that allowed 318.9 yards per game a season ago, the most since 2002, and age is something of a concern.
Defensive linemen: DT Haloti Ngata is a special talent, possessing a rare blend of size and athleticism. He is a nightmarish matchup wherever he lines up, whether at nose tackle, defensive tackle or defensive end. He has improved significantly as a pass rusher, making him even tougher to handle. Ngata can affect the game even when he's not sacking a quarterback or tackling a ballcarrier. He routinely draws double-teams, clearing the way for others to make the tackle. And when the Ravens notched their OT win at Houston in December, it was Ngata bursting through the line in overtime to force an early errant throw from QB Matt Schaub that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Second-year NT Terrence Cody will take over for Kelly Gregg, who was released. Cody has rare size and surprisingly good athleticism, all things considered, and he flashed some intriguing potential as a rookie. However, he needs to be more consistent. If he takes a step forward, the Ravens will continue to be stout up the middle. Arthur Jones will vie for more time at defensive end and could push starter Cory Redding. Jones has ideal size and arm length for the position. Lamar Divens provides further depth at end, and Brandon McKinney will step into Cody's old role as the top reserve nose tackle. Rookie DE Pernell McPhee has good size and strength but needs time to develop.
Linebackers: There is a case for ROLB Terrell Suggs being the club's defensive MVP, considering Baltimore doesn't have another pass rusher of his caliber. Strong and athletic, Suggs is a very good finisher. He can win most matchups with his power and speed. He uses his hands well, too, but his primary impact comes from rushing the quarterback. ILB Ray Lewis continues to be a difference maker. He's a force vs. the run and solid in coverage. Lewis is smart, instinctive and tough and has been the tone setter for this defense for 15 years. ILB Jameel McClain started 15 games last season and provides another stout presence in the middle. LOLB Jarret Johnson is strong and dependable and can make an impact as a pass rusher when matched up against a running back. Tavares Gooden, Dannell Ellerbe and Brandon Ayanbadejo are the top backups inside. OLB Sergio Kindle returns after missing his rookie season because of a head injury. An edge rusher with upside to develop, Kindle would bolster the pass rush if he shows the explosiveness he possessed while starring at Texas. Paul Kruger and Prescott Burgess also will vie for reserve OLB spots. Kruger, a 2009 second-round pick, has one sack in two NFL seasons.
Defensive backs: FS Ed Reed is a sure-fire Hall of Famer and one of the top playmakers to ever play the position. In just 10 regular-season games in 2010, Reed intercepted an NFL-high eight passes. Reed has a rare understanding of the game, the product of hard work and instincts. His ball skills are first-rate, and few defensive players have ever looked more natural with the ball in their hands. The major concern with Reed is his durability, as he has missed 10 games the past two seasons. Tom Zbikowski, Haruki Nakamura and free-agent addition Bernard Pollard are among the potential starters opposite Reed. Nakamura has become a key member of the Ravens' sub packages; he's tough and instinctive. Zbikowski is a little better in coverage than the departed Dawan Landry. Pollard, who's best near the line of scrimmage, has pushed Zbikowski. CB Domonique Foxworth, who missed last season with a torn ACL, is quick and has good coverage skills when healthy, but he's rounding back into form. He started the third preseason game on the left side and is listed as the LCB starter on the depth chart. Cary Williams, who has good size and speed, had a very good summer and started the second and third preseason games at right cornerback. Rookie Jimmy Smith has the most upside, with a combination of rare size and speed for the position, and if he matures, he could be a star. However, Smith's on-field consistency and off-field decision making were problematic at Colorado. Fast and tough but small CB Lardarius Webb is also capable of starting. Chris Carr has developed nicely in two seasons in Baltimore. He's smart and athletic. Rookie Chykie Brown, who's long and athletic but lacks instincts, adds depth.
The Ravens have one of the NFL's top specialist tandems. PK Billy Cundiff was spectacular last season, hitting 26-of-29 field-goal attempts and booming 40 touchbacks. With the kickoff line of scrimmage moving to the 35, Cundiff could reach or exceed that touchback total in 2011. P Sam Koch (39.2-yard net average in 2010) has very good leg strength but is also adept at placement and directional kicking. David Reed averaged 29.3 yards on 21 kickoff returns last season and could have a bright future in that area. The Ravens aren't as explosive on punt returns, with Lardarius Webb the top option.
The Ravens have a very good shot at a fourth consecutive playoff appearance, and they are far from being the most unlikely conference-champion candidate. Baltimore's primary concerns are a lack of passing-game punch, more slippage from a still strong but aging defense and the presence of division foe Pittsburgh. The title window is open, but for how much longer? It could be one of the season's most compelling story lines.
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