After rolling over and through the Kansas City Chiefs 30-7 in last years Wild Card Playoff match-up the Baltimore Ravens had momentum, confidence, and were a sexy Super Bowl pick. A week later, after squandering a 21-7 first half lead and losing to the hated Pittsburg Steelers 31-24, the Ravens were left to think what if for yet another off-season.
This off-season was different however, and we all know why. The lockout made it impossible for teams to plan and make decisions as in years past. Free agency, instead of being the entire summer, was about two weeks long. Teams grabbed the guys they needed quickly and now hope they can mold them all into a football team in time for the regular season.
The lockout will have hurt every team when we look back on this coming season. The young quarterbacks being thrown into the fire (Andy Dalton & Cam Newton) didn’t get any time to learn, new defenses will struggle (Cowboys & Texans), and new coaches have been unable to fully put their stamp on their respective teams (Ron Rivera & John Fox).
But it’s the teams that were so close to greatness last year that may struggle the most. A team like the Ravens who’s once great defense is a year older, their young quarterback didn’t get a summer to continue his needed growth, and the shortened free agency period left them young in some spots (Tight End) and shaky in others (along the offensive line).
It’s commendable how GM Ozzie Newsome has kept the Ravens in contention (for the most part) this past decade. He’s always known when to part ways with an aging veteran (cutting Derrick Mason & Todd Heap this off-season) and when to take a chance on a young player in need of guidance (oft-disciplined CB Jimmy Smith out of Colorado, taken in the 1st round of the NFL draft).
Since winning the super Bowl in 2001 the Ravens have had a revolving door at quarterback; enter Joe Flacco, the unquestioned starter and a promising young talent. Their offense has been slow, stagnant, and downright terrible at times; enter Ray Rice (Pro Bowl running back), Anquan Boldin, and Lee Evans (all highly skilled offensive weapons).
On the other side of the ball all of the names that made that vaunted 2001 Ravens D are gone, except for one, Ray Lewis. Now entering his 16th NFL season Ray may have lost a step, but don’t tell him that. He led the team with 140 (102 solo) tackles last year, went to the Pro Bowl yet again, and may still be the most feared man in football. Still, with Ray aging and Ed Reed (the other transcendent star on the Ravens D) getting nicked up each season, the once great defensive juggernaut has faltered; finishing 10th overall in defense in 2010, 5th against the run and 21st against the pass.
Does the onus now fall on Flacco, Rice, and the talented group of receivers to carry the Ravens in 2011?
Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron knew his job may be in jeopardy if the offense were to take a step back after a disappointing 2010 (20th pass/14th rush offense) campaign, so he went to Head Coach John Harbaugh. Throughout the lockout the two worked together, tearing down Cameron’s sometimes complicated offense, and rebuilding it.
They signed Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach (the man who blocked for NFL leading-rusher Arian Foster last year) to block for Rice. They traded for overlooked and underappreciated wide out Lee Evans (stuck in football purgatory in Buffalo) to compliment Boldin and give Flacco a deep threat. They signed Ricky Williams (yes that Ricky) from Miami to spell Rice. And, after everything, they managed to keep the offensive line somewhat in tact. But will that be enough?
The defense needs to be there again, and it will as long as there’s air in Ray Lewis’s lungs. But for the first time, Lewis & Company need help from the offense. Playing in the same division as the Steelers isn’t easy, many would argue the Ravens have been the second best team in the AFC the last few years, they just keep running into the damn Steelers in the playoffs. It’s now or never. The window will close for this defense, the offense needs to make it click, and fast.
If they can put it together, even just for the stretch run into the playoffs, this could be a great team, a championship-caliber team. For that to happen the offense needs to gel, Flacco needs to grow up quickly, and Ray needs to hold the defense together one more time.
As the season draws near every team has more questions than answers right now. For the Ravens: Will the Offense improve? Can Ed Reed stay healthy? Will the O-line gel and protect Flacco? But the only question that should be on everyone’s mind is: What’s Indianapolis like in February?
About the Author
Written by Frank Sullivan
Frank is a graduate of Old Dominion University, sports fan, author, and founder of TheBloosh.com. He's been working with prosportsblogging.com since April 2011, and has covered the Chicago Bulls, Baltimore Ravens, Virginia Tech Hokies Football, and the Washington Wizards. Frank can be reached @franksullivan on twitter.