The Baltimore Ravens finished 2010 with a 12-4 record, but bowed out to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs for the second time in three years. With an aging Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, this may be one of the last couple of years for the Ravens to win a Super Bowl with their vaunted defense. As good as the defense was, it really struggled defending the pass last season versus the run. Baltimore fans must put their faith in Joe Flacco taking the next step in his progression to give the offense more punch to take the pressure off of the D.
Joe Flacco was solid last season tossing 25 touchdowns and totaling over 3,600 passing yards, but struggled down the stretch. In the final 6 games, including the 2 playoff games, Flacco topped 250 yards only once. This feat occurred during the Ravens’ blowout win over Kansas City in the first round. The wearing down of veteran receiver Derrick Mason and lack of other options could be the biggest reason for the dip in production. This season Flacco hopes to improve upon those numbers with a speedier supporting cast. Gone are Mason and slow but steady tight end Todd Heap. In steps speed-demon Lee Evans who was acquired in a trade with Buffalo and Ed Dickson, more of a receiving than blocking tight end. Baltimore also took a burner in the draft with the selection of Torrey Smith out of Maryland. These new targets getting downfield quickly could open up more things for Anquan Boldin. Boldin, one of the NFL’s better possession receivers, now has one season under his belt working with Flacco and should turn in better numbers. The biggest acquisitions could be in the running game. Vonta Leach, the fullback in charge of creating the holes for leading rusher Arian Foster, was brought in to pave the way for Ray Rice. Rice could be in store for his best season yet as long as the offensive line holds up. Backing up Rice will be Ricky Williams, who fills in for the departed Willis McGahee. Speaking of the O-line, veteran Bryant McKinnie was signed over from Minnesota and takes over at left tackle. The move puts Michael Oher back at right tackle, his more natural position. The team has added depth at the center position with former Cowboy Andre Gurode in case starting center Matt Birk, who is dealing with a knee injury, is unable to go at the start of the season.
The Ravens defense has been the strong point of the team for the past decade, but with its key pieces getting up there in age, their time will be coming to a close soon. Veteran leaders Ray Lewis and Ed Reed will spearhead the defensive unit looking to make one more run at a championship. Last season the problem for Baltimore was their pass defense which finished ranked 21st. Their corners were weaker than they have ever been. To compensate for the weakness, the Ravens blitzed a lot less than in recent years with poor results. The team totaled only 27 sacks on the year. The return of last year’s 2nd round pick Sergio Kindle could help boost that number significantly. Kindle, an outside linebacker, missed all of 2010 with a fractured skull and his health issues will be a major concern all year. He will likely face a lot of single-man blocking with terror Terrell Suggs occupying the opposite side. Suggs was responsible for 11 of the teams 27 sacks and will gladly welcome some help. The other linebackers receiving playing time are Jarret Johnson, Paul Kruger, and Jameel McClain, none being exceptional in any area. The battle in the trenches will be fought by franchise player Haloti Ngata and Cory Redding at defensive end. Now manning the nose guard position will be second year Alabama player Terrence Cody who is taking over for the departed Kelly Gregg. Cody, a mammoth 6’4 and 350 pounds, will always have his conditioning questioned, but if he can occupy blockers enough on running downs to give Ray Lewis freedom to roam, he will be fine. To address their secondary issues the Ravens drafted corner Jimmy Smith out of Colorado. Smith, who has never had his talent questioned, suffered from off the field issues and lack of focus in college. Management hopes Ray Lewis and Ed Reed can steer him in the right direction. Cary Williams and Dominique Foxworth will get the rest of the playing time across from Smith. Tom Zbikowski is a decent option with limited range, but his deficiencies are made up for by Ed Reed’s exceptional athleticism and instincts. Keeping Reed healthy for enough time will be a tall task for the Ravens’ medical staff.
Improved progress and production by the Baltimore offense could go a long way. The AFC is relatively weak and a similar performance should get them back to the playoffs barring major injuries. The real question is what will happen in the playoffs. Will they be able to beat the elite teams in the conference? A better offense will put the defense in attack mode, a scary thought for opposing offenses. If Flacco and company are able to step up, this team could be the class of the AFC.