After barely missing out on the Super Bowl last season, the Ravens kept their roster largely intact and had every reason to believe they’d be Super Bowl contenders again this year. At least, until one of the biggest pieces of their roster took a big offseason hit.
Terrell Suggs, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in April, and there’s simply no replacing him. Suggs insists he’ll be able to return to the field in 2012, but he’s surely going to miss the start of the season, and it’s still possible that he’ll miss the entire year. The Suggs injury raises questions about just how much Baltimore’s perennially great defense will decline.
Still, this looks like a very talented roster, from top to bottom, and at No. 5 in our power rankings, we believe the Ravens will be in the mix all year.
The greatness of the Ravens’ defense extends far beyond Terrell Suggs. Ray Lewis remains Baltimore’s spiritual leader, and although he’s not quite as fast a player as he was in his prime, he’s still a very good linebacker at the age of 37. Similarly, Ed Reed may have lost a step, and he’s been making noises all offseason about possibly walking away from the game, but when the season starts Reed, like Lewis, is going to be on the field and leading a good defense.
And then there’s defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who was ranked in a poll of his peers as the ninth-best player in the entire league. Ngata took issue with that ranking, saying he doesn’t think he’s the Ravens’ best player, but he’s undoubtedly among the league’s elite defensive linemen, and a dominant presence in the middle.
Jimmy Smith, last year’s first-round pick, missed four games early in his rookie season with an ankle sprain and didn’t really get into the swing of the defense until midway through the year, but as 2011 wore on he looked like a very good young cornerback. Smith appears to be another example of Ravens G.M. Ozzie Smith’s knack for finding talent in the draft.
The strength of the offense is Ray Rice, whom the Ravens can cout on to gain 1,300 or so yards and catch 70 or so passes out of the backfield. At age 25 Rice should have a few more good years left in him, so locking him up with a contract extension this offseason was a wise move.
The biggest question facing the Ravens is whether quarterback Joe Flacco will be a strength or a weakness of this team. It’s not that Flacco is a bad quarterback, it’s that he hasn’t emerged as the kind of high-quality starter the Ravens were hoping he’d be when they spent a first-round draft pick on him in 2008. It’s also alarming that Flacco’s completion percentage, passing yardage and passing touchdowns all decreased from 2010 to 2011, while his interceptions increased — and in a season in which quarterbacks around the NFL were putting up big numbers. Of course, the reality of the quarterback position in the NFL is that we mostly remember a few big plays at a few key moments, and if Lee Evans hadn’t dropped a pass from Flacco in the end zone late in the AFC Championship Game, we’d probably be talking right now about what a big step forward Flacco had taken in leading the Ravens to the Super Bowl. This year the Ravens need Flacco to really take that big step forward.
On the offensive line, age is a concern. Center Matt Birk, left guard Bobbie Williams and left tackle Bryant McKinnie are all getting long in the tooth, and an offensive line that’s getting old is alarming especially for a team whose quarterback can be shaky under pressure.
Unless the Terrell Suggs injury hits the Ravens hard, they really have no weaknesses on defense. But there are glaring weaknesses on special teams. Billy Cundiff is not a good kicker, and that goes beyond missing a potentially game-tying field goal at the end of the AFC Championship Game: Since signing with the Ravens in 2009, Cundiff has gone just 1-for-10 on field goals of 50 yards or longer in the regular season. The Ravens’ coverage units were weak last year, and may be even weaker this year with gunner Haruki Nakamura leaving to sign with the Panthers. Kickoff returner David Reed had a solid average of 29.7 yards a return, but he fumbles too much. Punt returner Lardarius Webb is the strongest link in the Ravens’ special teams, but he’s just OK, not great.
Losing Terrell Suggs for at least part of the season is a big change for the worse, although if top draft pick Courtney Upshaw turns out to be another great draft pick from Ozzie Newsome, that will go a long way toward getting the Ravens past the Suggs injury.
The departure of starting guard Ben Grubbs and the arrival of Bobbie Williams to replace him has to be considered a change for the worse. Grubbs was a solid starter in Baltimore, and he’ll be missed.
The Ravens lacked a decent No. 3 receiver last year, and if Jacoby Jones, signed as a free agent from Houston, can fill that role, that would be great news in Baltimore. Jones, however, has long struggled to hold onto the ball. The best bet for improvement in the receiving corps may be the continued growth of Torrey Smith, last year’s second-round draft pick who didn’t get a single ball in the first two games of the season but then burst onto the scene with a 152-yard, three-touchdown game in Week Three and was a solid starter the rest of the year.
Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano left Baltimore for Indianapolis and brought starting defensive end Cory Redding with him, and there will be a competition in training camp to replace Redding. That competition will feature second-year defensive end Pernell McPhee, who was second on the team with six sacks as a rookie, pitted against Arthur Jones, who’s the better run stuffer of the two.
As a team that was this close (hold your thumb and forefinger a millimeter apart, because that’s how close Lee Evans was to holding onto a game-winning touchdown pass in the AFC Championship) to the Super Bowl, the Ravens have to be feeling pretty confident heading into training camp. The nucleus of key players from last year’s roster is back — minus Terrell Suggs, of course.
If the Suggs injury, plus the aging of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, turns out to be too much for the defense to handle, then the Ravens will take a step backward this season. But with another stellar season from the Ravens’ defense, and an offense that gets the ball into Ray Rice’s hands 20-plus times a game, the Ravens should be every bit as good this year as they were last year.