Last season ended in heartbreak to say the least. It took over a month for me to even think about Ravens football after the disastrous ending the the AFC Championship game. So many questions have entered my mind since then about what happened those final 30 seconds in Foxboro. I’m ready to put that behind me, though, and talk about what should be another outstanding season in Baltimore.
First things first, lets discuss the offseason for the Ravens. In many ways, it was an offseason that Ravens fans have seen nearly ever year. A DC lost, some under the radar signings, and a loss of veteran talent that the Ravens have stockpiled but could no longer afford. Chuck Pagano became the latest Ravens defensive coordinator to take a head coaching job elsewhere in the league. He joins a list that includes Marvin Lewis, Rex Ryan, and Mike Nolan. He probably won’t be the last either as it seems that anyone running the defense in Baltimore is bound for success. Which is the primary reason that I don’t see a major dropoff in production. Dean Pees takes over the reigns of the defense, and actually has a strong track record on the defensive side of the ball. He was the Linebackers coach the last two years and should take some credit in the advancement of Jameel McClain who has solidified himself next to Ray Lewis. He also led the Patriots defense from 2006-2009.
Pees’ defense will include the bulk of starters from last year, but will not include two of the key cogs of last years team. Jarrett Johnson switched coasts to become a Charger when the Ravens could not match their offer. That was too be expected for the most part as Baltimore simply could not afford to keep all of the talent that had accompanied this defense. What was not to be expected was the loss of Terrell Suggs. Suggs injured his Achilles this offseason either on a conditioning workout or basketball game, depending on who you ask. Injuries to the Achilles can be career threatening, but from all reports, it doesn’t seem to be the case for Suggs. He apparently only partially tore the tendon, which isn’t ideal, but considering the potential severity of worse injuries it isn’t the worst case scenario. He claims he will be back towards the end of the season, but I still find that hard to believe. Even if he does come back, it will be hard to imagine him with the same explosiveness off the edge that he had before.
Few teams could lose the Defensive Player of the Year and not completely panic about the state of their defense, but the Ravens have the talent to still maintain a top tier defense. Ngata returns as one of the best lineman in the league, and arguably a more important piece than the playmaking Suggs. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed return as well. The two future Hall of Famers have lost a step in their later years, but are the heart and soul of this defense and can still be effective at their positions. Add in Lardarius Webb who in my mind is one of the most underrated corners in the league. He can solidify himself as a shut down corner this year, despite his small frame, with another outstanding performance this year. Cary Williams returns, but will have to hold off 2011 first round pick Jimmy Smith for a starting job. Add in hard hitting Bernard Pollard and this secondary is probably the best it has been in nearly a decade. The biggest factor I’m looking for this year is the development of young players such as Cody, McPhee, and Kruger who will be forced to take on bigger roles this year with the absences of Johnson and Suggs. First overall pick for the Ravens Courtney Upshaw can take on part of the production lost from Suggs. He has huge upside as a pass rusher, but will still have to fight for playing time as every Ravens rookie does.
As for the offense, it could be a much bigger aerial attack this year. Through three preseason games, Flacco has been operating a no huddle attack most of the time. He has looked mostly in tune, easily running down the field, but struggled a bit in the red zone. Torrey Smith has improved his route running and looks to be Joe’s new favorite target. In a contract year, Flacco will be motivated to match his statistical success with his win total that has been elite since entering the league.
The only major subtraction from last year is Ben Grubbs who took a big contract to replace Carl Nicks in New Orleans. The Ravens will have a battle to replace the huge left guard that will go on throughout the preseason. Once a clear favorite has emerged I’ll write more in depth about the situation. Most of the offense remains the same, and with Ray Rice’s five year contract extension, it should remain the same for quite some time. Ricky Williams retired, so the second string job will come down to a rookie in Pierce, Rainey, or second year guy Anthony Allen. The third receiver job looks to be new addition Jacoby Jones’ to lose. Both Pitta and Dickson are currently on the sidelines with injuries, but should be back very early in the season if not the first week. I think both can be in for a big season with this no huddle look. Of course, Anquan Boldin returns, and will add some serious veteran leadership in the huddle.
The Ravens face one of the hardest schedules in the NFL this year, but still have an extremely talented team. The defense should still play well, but may take a slight step back this year. The offense needs to step and play to their potential if the Ravens want to be true Super Bowl contenders. Cam Cameron seems to have finally taken some of the reigns off of Flacco, which could mean some serious points for the offense. The AFC North will likely come between Pittsburgh and Baltimore once again, but Cincinnati will be in the discussion as well. Look for another exciting season in Baltimore this year, and follow me for the entire ride.