Despite advancing to their first AFC Championship game in three seasons, the 2011 season ended in familiar fashion for the Ravens.
For the fourth straight season the team won its first playoff game, but fell short of reaching the Super Bowl. To be fair, Baltimore did come about as close as you can to the big game without getting there, as it took a Lee Evans' dropped touchdown and a Billy Cundiff missed field goal to deny the Ravens a trip to Indianapolis.
Still, the result was the same, and with defensive standouts Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in the twilight of their careers, the window of opportunity may be closing.
Important Additions: DB Corey Graham, G Bobbie Williams, WR Jacoby Jones, S Sean Considine, DT Ryan McBean.
Important Losses: LB Jarret Johnson, G Ben Grubbs, DE Cory Redding, DB Tom Zbikowski, K Billy Cundiff, LB Terrell Suggs (torn Achilles).
Reasons To Believe
1. Offensive Skill Players - Led by all-purpose back Ray Rice, the Ravens offence is no longer looked at as the weak link of the team. Speedster Torrey Smith brought a new dimension to Cam Cameron's offense last season, averaging 16.8 yards per catch and scoring seven TD's. Anquan Boldin provides a security blanket for quarterback Joe Flacco and should get more room to work over the middle thanks to the signing of deep threat Jacoby Jones and the continued development of Smith.
|Veterans Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are once again the stars of the Ravens hard-nosed defence.
2. Defensive Playmakers - Despite the loss of the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Terrell Suggs, the Ravens defence still features top-notch talent on every level. Haloti Ngata and Ray Lewis are still dominating run stoppers and Upshaw was drafted to help the pass rush. Reports from camp indicate Ed Reed is motivated to have a bounce back year after finishing 2011 with a career low three interceptions. A return to form from Reed, combined with the continued emergence of corner Lardarius Webb -- who led the team with five picks -- will be key if the Ravens are to remain among the NFL's top-five ranked defences.
3. Evolution of Flacco - Baltimore's much-maligned QB did his part to put the Ravens in position to reach the Super Bowl last season and the team is hoping he can carry it over into 2012. Passing for 306 yards in the AFC Championship game did silence some critics, but it has not been enough to convince the team to give him a contract extension. Flacco is entering the final year of his deal and the Ravens may wait to make sure his late-season performance was no fluke before signing him long-term.
Reasons To Doubt
1. Offensive Line - With the loss of Grubbs, and concern building over left tackle Bryant McKinnie's health after he was held out of OTA's for "conditioning reasons," the Ravens line is in a state of flux. Baltimore signed 35-year-old veteran Bobbie Williams to replace Grubbs, but they are hoping second round pick Osmele can win the job out of camp. With multiple question marks on the left side, the Ravens are counting on Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda to provide stability, but Oher battled pass protection issues throughout 2011. If his struggles continue, Flacco could be in store for a long season.
2. Defensive Losses - The losses of Suggs and linebacker Jarret Johnson impact both the Ravens pass rush as well as their run defence. Baltimore will turn to fourth year pro Paul Krueger – who did record 5.5 sacks in backup duty last season – and talented rookie Upshaw to fill the void. What the pair lack in experience, they make up for in talent, but it is near impossible to improve a defence after losing what may be the NFL's best outside linebacker.
3. Defensive Coordinator - Former linebackers coach Dean Paes is the new man in charge of the defence after Chuck Pagano left the same position to become the head coach in Indianapolis. With Suggs not expected to return until late into the season, if at all, Paes will not have the luxury of sitting back and watching his star linebacker wreak havoc, while rushing just four or five. He will likely have to get creative with his blitzing schemes and bring more bodies to generate pressure, and with the Ravens playing 13 games against Pro Bowl quarterbacks, that strategy could lead to trouble.
What To Expect
If the Ravens can overcome the absence of Suggs, and Flacco can continue to play like he did in the AFC Championship game against New England, the Ravens will be back in the mix to contend for a Super Bowl. Playing in one of the best divisions in football, Baltimore will be tested on a weekly basis, but have the talent and leadership to get back to where they were in 2011 and potentially beyond.