The Baltimore Ravens return to glory will rest once again on the play of Joe Flacco.
It’s fitting the first AFC team we look at is the reigning Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens rode an emotional wave generated by their inspirational leader Ray Lewis all the way to the Lombardi Trophy. The Ravens have lost seven players from their championship team, but have retooled with youth and speed.
Don’t look now, but the Ravens are poised to make a legitimate run back to the big game.
The Baltimore Ravens have moved on from their Super Bowl XLVII victory and the retirement of Ray Lewis to focus squarely on the 2013-14 campaign.
Joe Flacco is a $20 million man with a target placed squarely on him. The pressure on Flacco to perform this season exceeds anything he’s faced in his previous five seasons in Baltimore. There’s no Ray Lewis pre-game speech or Ed Reed ball-hawking to fall back on. It’s on Flacco to carry the Ravens from day one.
In his first five seasons, Ray Rice has given the Ravens exactly what they’ve needed in the backfield. For the fourth consecutive season, he has over 250 carries and 60 receptions. Rookie Bernard Pierce was a huge help in spelling Rice during the regular season and stepped right in when Rice was injured in the Wild Card game against the Indianapolis Colts. Pierce rushed for 103 yards on 13 carries in a Ravens win. Coach John Harbaugh is looking to give Pierce more overall touches this season. Fullback Vonta Leach has found a home with the Ravens — who don’t mind giving him quality touches (57 in the last two seasons).
Anquan Boldin may not have been the receiver the Ravens hoped for when they traded for him four seasons ago, but he was money when it counted. Boldin was phenomenal in the playoffs, averaging 17 yards a reception to go with 4 touchdowns — including two in the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots.
Boldin has moved on, but the receiving unit is in the capable hands of Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. In his second season, Smith was second on the team in receptions and led the team in touchdown receptions and yards per catch. Smith played through the tragic loss of his brother early in the season and seemed to gain momentum as the season played on. Jones was a nice complement to Boldin and Smith, catching 30 passes for 407 yards. An increased role at receiver may cut into Jones’ touches as a return specialist. His explosiveness (three scores in 2012) would be hard to replace. Tandon Doss and David Reed are among a handful of receivers looking to move up the depth chart.
The Ravens lost tight end Dennis Pitta for the season (hip) in the opening days of training camp and backup Ed Dickson (hamstring) a week later. The outlook is better for Dickson — who can extend the field with his 4.6 speed. Visanthe Shiancoe was signed after Pitta’s injury and with a full camp and preseason, should push Dickson for the starting job. Former Colts and Buccaneers tight end Dallas Clark has also been signed.
The offensive line is athletic and relatively young. Marshal Yanda and Michael Oher power the right side. Bryant McKinnie is settled in at left tackle. The unit gave up 38 sacks — ranking them among the bottom half in the league.
Truth is the Ravens defense was aging quickly and needed an infusion of youth and depth. The additions of Chris Canty and Marcus Spears, paired with Haloti Ngata gives the defensive line a physicality not seen in some time. Terrence Cody is coming into his own at nose tackle — which allows Ngata to play on the end at times. The strength of the defense lies on the edges, occupied by outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and the newly acquired Elvis Dumervil from the Denver Broncos. Losing Dannell Ellerbe in free agency prompted the move to sign Dumervil. Inside linebacker Rolando McClain announced his retirement before the ink was dry on his free agent deal — which could move Courtney Upshaw to the inside.
The secondary was decimated, losing safeties Ed Reed (Texans), Bernard Pollard (Titans) and cornerback Cary Williams (Eagles). They are secure with their cornerbacks, led by Jimmy Smith and Ladarius Webb. Corey Graham could crack the starting lineup and at worst will be a nickel corner. There are as many as five or six players vying for the two open safety spots including, first-round pick Matt Elam out of Florida.
The Ravens kicking game is solid with punter Sam Koch and place kicker Justin Tucker — who was fearless as a rookie. Jacoby Jones is looking to duplicate his Pro Bowl season as a return specialist.
Considering what the Ravens lost in physicality and leadership, the team is still in capable hands. The team still has leaders in Flacco, Ngata, Rice and Suggs. The additions of Canty, Dumervil and Spears were huge and probably make this team better than last year’s squad, at least on paper. It’s hard not to see the Ravens anywhere short of the AFC Championship Game.