The Ravens started off their season as well as could be expected by trouncing their rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers 35-7. Baltimore marched through the season notching their second straight 12 win year, knocking off every playoff team they faced, including sweeping the Steelers. The Ravens earned themselves a bye, and knocked off the Texans in the divisional round of the playoffs. Baltimore then went on to outplay the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, only to lose due to a dropped pass in the end zone and a botched FG attempt.
The Ravens won in an old school fashion with a strong rushing attack and a top 5 defense. Ray Rice was mister- do- everything for Baltimore, and it essentially became a battle for opposing defenses to stop him. When they were successful, you could maybe beat the Ravens, when you weren’t, you didn’t have a chance. The Ravens defense was just spectacular throughout the season, finishing in the top 10 in just about every major defensive category.
NFL Draft: 2nd- OLB Courtney Upshaw, 2nd- OL Kelechi Osemele, 3rd-RB Bernard Pierce, 4th- G Gino Gradkowski, 4th- S Christian Thompson, 5th- CB Asa Jackson, 6th WR Tommy Streeter, 7th DE DeAngelo Tyson
Key Losses: WR Lee Evans, G Ben Grubbs, DE/DT Cory Redding, NT Brandon McKinney, DE/OLB Jarret Johnson, CB Chris Carr, SS Tom Zbikowski, S Haruki Nakamura
Key Additions: WR/KR Jacoby Jones, G Bobbie Williams, G/C Tony Wragge, DT Ryan McBean, CB Corey Graham.
It had looked like Joe Flacco was emerging as a top level quarterback, and with the added additions of weapons these past two seasons, everyone thought he’d take that next step, but 2011 was a step in the wrong direction. He regressed as a complete passer and saw his quarterback rating take a significant hit. Despite the added additions at WR and TE, the Ravens couldn’t count on their passing game when it mattered most.
Flacco’s supporting cast will be pretty similar this year, but hopefully an added year of expereience to some of the youngsters will help their development. Anquan Boldin remains Flacco’s top target, but he’s not a true number 1 receiver, so the rest of the pieces are very important. Torrey Smith is expected to step up this year after a promising (though inconsistent) rookie campaign. Young tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson are a bit banged up this preseason but they should be able to contribute for most of the season. Flacco would like one of his other young targets to step up. Tandon Doss, selected in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft, didn’t log a single reception as a rookie, perhaps because he was coming off sports hernia surgery. Tommy Streeter, chosen in the sixth round in April, has major upside but is very raw.
Ray Rice, of course, will continue to serve as Flacco’s true No. 1 target. Rice is the heart and soul of the offense. Having Rice at less than 100 percent could be disastrous for Flacco; the elusive back has caught at least 76 passes the previous two seasons. Baltimore spent a third-round selection on Bernard Pierce, a talented back who will have a large role if Rice is unavailable for whatever reason.
Rice’s numbers could be down even if he he is healthy, because left guard Ben Grubbs signed with the Saints. Grubbs wasn’t the best blocker in the world, but he was a very solid starter who will be missed if 2011 third-rounder Jah Reid, newly signed, aging Bobbie Williams and second-round rookie Kelechi Osemele struggle as replacements. With, left tackle Bryant McKinnie holding out, the Ravens line will need these young/new guys to step up.
The Ravens spent two draft choices on linemen. Osemele was the first, while Gino Gradkowski was selected in Round 4. Gradkowski will be Matt Birk’s future successor; the 36-year-old legendary center was solid overall last season but seemingly wore down the stretch. He plays next to Marshal Yanda, one of the top guards in the NFL. Of course, the most recognized figure up front is Michael Oher, needs to rebound from a horrific 2011 campaign in which he was guilty of 11 penalties and 10 sacks.
-With Boldin and the tight ends working the short and intermediate routes, Smith has a chance to be the Ravens go to deep threat. He showed a lot of promise in this area last year. Smith needs to showcase better hands and awareness, but he had a lot of promise coming out of Maryland, so hopefully with a year of work he’ll be ready to take his game to the next level.
Unfortunately, it’ll be extremely difficult for Baltimore to match their impressive defensive stats from last season. Terrell Suggs, who led the team with a whopping 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles, tore his Achilles and could be out for the year. The Ravens’ next-best pass-rusher was defensive end Pernell McPhee, who registered only six sacks. At least one player will have to pick up the slack in Suggs’ absence.
The most likely candidate is the player whom General manager Ozzie Newsome spent a second-round selection on: rush linebacker Courtney Upshaw. The Alabama product was once considered a possible top-10 prospect, but dropped because he was overweight (279 pounds) at his Pro Day. He is very talented, however, and it wouldn’t be a complete shock if he led Baltimore in sacks. Of course, Paul Kruger may do that; he notched 5.5 sacks last season in limited playing time. He was a second-round pick in 2009 who will finally get to play on a full-time basis in the wake of Suggs’ injury and Jarret Johnson’s departure.
Suggs’ Achilles isn’t the only reason the Ravens may decline. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are bound to regress sooner or later. Lewis recently celebrated his 37th birthday. Though he was terrific in 2011, his skills could rapidly erode without notice. Reed, meanwhile, will be 34 in September. He’s been wishy washy about continuing his professional career the past three springs, but has always performed to expectations each following season. That’s not going to happen one of these years.
Newsome was not able to find sure successors for either future Hall-of-Famer in the 2012 NFL Draft. The best he did was spend a fourth-round pick on safety Christian Thompson. Reed will once again start next to Bernard Pollard, an excellent run-stuffer who struggles in coverage, while Lewis will line up adjacent to Jameel McClain, an above-average linebacker who is solid in run support.
Lewis and Reed aren’t getting any better and Suggs is out, so the top player on Baltimore’s defense is arguably Haloti Ngata, a monstrous force at defensive end who has absolutely no weaknesses. He’s part of a three-man line along with the aforementioned McPhee, who will take on a larger role now that Cory Redding signed with the Colts, and Terrence Cody, a 360-pound nose tackle who had a bit of a lackluster 2011 campaign. He’ll have to improve.
Another young player who will be counted on is cornerback Jimmy Smith. Selected No. 27 overall in 2011, Smith barely played in the beginning of the year, but finished really strongly. He’s penciled in across from Lardarius Webb, one of the top corners in all of football. Webb intercepted eight passes and allowed zero touchdowns last year.
-Upshaw has big shoes to fill, but I think he is more than capable of filling them. He is a very talented pass rusher, who should benefit from Baltimore’s aggressive defensive style. He had a great NFL apprenticeship under Nick Saban at Alabama, so I’d say he’s a safe bet to have a big year as a rookie..
The Ravens are still capable of taking this division, but with some questions surrounding Flacco, their offensive line and replacing Terrell Suggs, I think they will be just short. It’s a bit of a tougher schedule this year, but I still think Baltimore will win more than 10 games and make the playoffs.