Baltimore Ravens 2013 Season Preview
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Baltimore Ravens spent their first moments after a victory in Super Bowl XLVII passing around the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Despite their status as defending champs, the Ravens enter 2013 with a changing of the guard following the loss of numerous key veterans that previously had made up the team's identity.
No, the Ravens won't be discounted as contenders again this season, not with Joe Flacco still under center and Ray Rice in the backfield on one side of the ball, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs set to dominate again for the defense.
But if Baltimore does find itself in position to win its third ever championship, it will do so without the likes of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Matt Birk and other key contributors.
Lewis, the recent face of the franchise and Super Bowl MVP when the Ravens won their first title to cap the 2000 campaign, hung up his cleats after the season and was joined in retirement by Birk, a former Pro Bowl center who had anchored the club's offensive line since '08.
Further cementing a new era, Lewis' partner in crime, Reed, signed as a free agent with Houston. He wasn't the only one to move on, with Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, Cary Williams and Bernard Pollard all switching teams over the offseason. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin was also traded to San Francisco.
The most obvious choice to replace Lewis as the leader of John Harbaugh's squad is Flacco, and not just because he signed a massive six-year, $120.6 million deal after taking home his own Super Bowl MVP trophy.
What makes Flacco the new face of the Purple and Black is the shift to a more powerful offense. The Ravens set a single-season franchise record by scoring 398 points a season ago and had the third-most plays in the NFL of 20-or-more yards at 72.
"I think Joe's maturity is showing just as his career has grown. He's shown that he's always going to be 'Cool Joe.' Now he's comfortable in his own skin that he can bark at the defensive guys," said Suggs of Flacco's leadership. "He came to a team that was primarily known for the defense, but now, we've got ourselves a big gun over there that can not only get it done, but he can win championships."
The 2012 season also marked the first time since 2002 that Baltimore did not finish the season as a top 10 defense, so with Flacco locked up general manager Ozzie Newsome turned his attention to retooling the defense, signing Elvis Dumervil to team with Suggs at the outside linebacker spot. He also added Chris Canty and Marcus Spears to the defensive line, inked veteran inside linebacker Daryl Smith and secured the services of safety Michael Huff.
Those bodies will be counted on to strengthen a defense that finished the 2012 season strong, but also lost its leading sacker (Kruger) and pass defenders in Reed and Williams.
But having a host of new players could also help the Ravens avoid a "Super Bowl hangover" that can also plague teams.
"It's good to have been there. It's good to have experienced it. When you've been down a road before, it certainly doesn't hurt. You kind of know that you know the way," Harbaugh said of the advantages of having won a title.
"By the same token, we've got a number of guys that haven't been there. We've got a lot of guys that are hungry because they haven't been there before, so we'll just see how that mix plays out."
2012 RECORD: 10-6 (1st, AFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2012, defeated San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII
HEAD COACH (RECORD): John Harbaugh (54-26 in five seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jim Caldwell (second season with Ravens)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dean Pees (second season with Ravens)
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Caleb Hanie (from Broncos), WR Brandon Stokley (from Broncos), TE Dallas Clark (from Buccaneers), TE Visanthe Shiancoe (from Patriots), C A.Q. Shipley (from Colts), DT Brandon Williams (3rd round, Missouri Southern State), DE Chris Canty (from Giants), DE Marcus Spears (from Cowboys), LB Elvis Dumervil (from Broncos), LB Daryl Smith (from Jaguars), LB Arthur Brown (2nd round, Kansas State), S Michael Huff (from Raiders), S Matt Elam (1st round, Florida)
KEY DEPARTURES: WR Anquan Boldin (to 49ers), C Matt Birk (retired), G Bobbie Williams (released), NT Ma'ake Keomeatu (free agent), DE Ryan McBean (free agent), LB Ray Lewis (retired), LB Dannell Ellerbe (to Dolphins), LB Paul Kruger (to Browns), LB Brendon Ayanbadejo (released), LB Ricky Brown (free agent), CB Cary Williams (to Eagles), S Ed Reed (to Texans), S Bernard Pollard (to Titans), S Sean Considine (free agent), S Emmanuel Cook (released)
QB: There isn't much drama under center for the Ravens.
Flacco is coming off an excellent season in which he threw for a career-high 3,817 yards. His 22 touchdown passes were the second most in a season for his career and he matched a personal low with just 10 interceptions.
That doesn't seem to leave Flacco much room for improvement, but he sees an offense that really started to hit its stride late last season and took off after Jim Caldwell was promoted to offensive coordinator in mid-December.
"I think we've just got to build on that and be consistent and do it throughout the 16-game season and into the playoffs again," said Flacco, who threw 11 touchdown passes without an interception in the postseason. "I think we have the guys to do it; it's just a matter of staying healthy, working hard and getting on the same page and then having that hunger to go do it again."
With Flacco having not missed a game since getting selected 18th overall in the 2008 draft by the Ravens, backup Tyrod Taylor is still without an NFL start entering his third season. The Ravens could opt to again not carry a third quarterback, which would leave Caleb Hanie out of the mix.
RB: The Ravens think they have two playmakers in their backfield in the speedy Ray Rice and the hard-nosed Bernard Pierce.
Rice recorded at least 1,600 yards from scrimmage for a fourth straight season and found the end zone a total of 10 times. In addition to carrying the ball 257 times for 1,143 yards, he was tied for the second most catches on the team with 61.
Pierce was a solid as a rookie, notching 532 yards on 108 carries as his workload increased down the stretch. He is a change of pace to Rice and the two could see a closer split to carries this season, which Harbaugh doesn't think will bother Rice.
"His biggest concern is, No. 1, winning, and he wants the offense to put up a lot of points," said Harbaugh. "He always wants touches, and he wants catches, and he wants yards like any good player would. But, the thing about Ray is that he's so versatile. He can do everything. He can run the football inside or outside. He's excellent in the passing game, and he's a really good pass protection guy. You couldn't ask any more from a running back."
Anthony Allen should hold down the third spot on the depth chart as he is a valuable contributor on special teams.
Fullback Vonta Leach has made the Pro Bowl in both of his seasons with the Ravens, though briefly spent time as a free agent after he could not agree on a contract restructure with the Ravens. However, he opted to return to Baltimore despite a decreased role towards the end of the campaign and the club selecting Kyle Juszczyk in the fourth round of the 2013 draft.
WR: The trade of Boldin boosts speedy wideout Torrey Smith to the top of the depth chart. The 24-year-old has found the end zone 15 times over his first two NFL seasons and managed 855 yards on 49 catches last year, ranking fourth in the NFL with a 17.4 yards-per-catch average.
Who steps in as the No. 2 wide receiver is still up for debate. The likely choice is Jacoby Jones, but he is also the club's best returner.
That should leave plenty of snaps for the likes of Deonte Thompson, Tandon Doss and David Reed. However, that trio combined to make just 17 catches a season ago.
The 6-foot-2 Doss, a fourth-round pick in 2011, seems the most likely to pick up the catches left behind by Boldin, with Thompson serving as a speed compliment to the group. An x-factor is veteran Brandon Stokley, signed in mid-August.
TE: With uncertainty at wide receiver, tight end Dennis Pitta figured to be in line for a big season, but instead he will likely be unable to suit up in 2013 because of a dislocated hip sustained in late July. He was coming off an excellent season that saw him rank second in the club with seven touchdown receptions -- matching a Ravens single-season record for a tight end -- while also making 61 catches for 669 yards.
Ed Dickson (21 receptions) will be tasked with trying to duplicate the chemistry displayed between Pitta and Flacco, though his production decreased last year after he caught 54 balls and five touchdown passes in 2011.
"You hate to get an opportunity in this fashion, but you have to relish the opportunity, because it doesn't come by that often. The team needs me to step up. They need other guys to step up and make those plays," said Dickson.
Dickson, though, suffered a slight hamstring tear in early August that was expected to sideline him for about two weeks. The Ravens added depth at the position with the late signings of Visanthe Shiancoe and Dallas Clark, a pair of veterans who have seen better days.
OL: The re-signing of Bryant McKinnie should have the Ravens' offensive line in order.
McKinnie took over the starting job at left tackle for the playoffs and the line was solid during the run to the championship despite the late-season shuffle.
Assuming McKinnie holds on to the starting gig, 2012 second-round draft pick Kelechi Osemele will line up next to McKinnie at left guard after making 16 starts as a rookie last year at right tackle. Marshal Yanda locks down the right guard spot following his second straight Pro Bowl selection and Michael Oher should continue his growth at right tackle, where he flipped to for the playoffs last season after starting on the left side during the regular season.
Of course, there will be a big change in the middle with the loss of Birk. Sophomore Gino Gradkowski is in line to replace him, having the inside track over A.Q. Shipley, who the Ravens traded for in May.
The line does have experience on the bench. Jah Reid was the starting left guard after missing the first seven weeks due to a calf injury, but a toe injury held him out of the playoffs and caused the line shuffle.
Tackle Ramon Harewood opened up last season as a starter before moving to the bench and the club is impressed with rookie Rick Wagner as well.
DL: The Ravens look to have a solid rotation on the defensive line, centered around nose tackle Haloti Ngata.
Ngata was slowed by knee and shoulder ailments a season ago, but still managed 51 tackles and five sacks. He should stay exclusively in the middle this season after Baltimore added depth at tackle and end by signing Canty, Spears and drafting Brandon Williams.
Spears and the 6-foot-7 Canty both add size and should help improve a run defense that allowed 125.0 yards per game a season ago. Arthur Jones (47 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Williams, a third-round pick, also figure into the rotation as does a motivated Terrence Cody, an upcoming free agent who is coming back from hip surgery and will look for time behind Ngata.
Defensive line coach Clarence Brooks is excited about having depth, especially on the experienced side of things.
"It's been a little while. We have been a little on the young side before," noted Brooks. "The guys have developed well and played hard. This group is a different kind of group, as every year the group is. These guys have been developing well."
LB: Thanks to the presence of Lewis, the Ravens have always been defined by their linebackers. Even with the retirement of the former Super Bowl MVP, that remains in the case in 2013 after Baltimore signed Dumervil to team on the outside with Suggs.
Suggs owns 84 1/2 sacks over his career and is a five-time Pro Bowl selection. He is also now the face of the Ravens defense and was strong down the stretch after missing the first six games of the season due to an Achilles injury.
Dumervil, a three-time Pro Bowler, fell into Baltimore's lap after botched paper work for an agreed pay cut led to Denver having to cut the 29-year-old. The Ravens jumped and signed the pass-rusher to a five-year deal after he recorded 11 sacks and six forced fumbles a year ago.
While Pernell McPhee and Courtney Upshaw return for depth on the outside, Baltimore will have a vastly different look inside with the loss of Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe (92 tackles, 4.5 sacks) to free agency and Jameel McClain, who is still not recovered from a spinal cord injury suffered late last season and has his 2013 campaign in doubt.
One spot will be occupied by Daryl Smith, a steady veteran who spent his first nine NFL seasons with Jacksonville. He owns 124 career starts and will be coming back from sports hernia surgery that held him out of the first 14 games in 2012.
Josh Bynes appears ready to step in for McClain after playing in 10 games a season ago with three starts. He spent much of his rookie campaign on the practice squad before seeing time with the Ravens last year.
The versatile Albert McClellan and second-round pick Arthur Brown back up, with Brown bringing speed and solid coverage to the mix.
"I'm excited. I think we have a lot of good players on this defense," said Dumervil. "I think, primarily, you have got guys inside. That's important, especially having that rotation. Obviously, with what Terrell Suggs brings on the other side, it can be a trifecta, so it should be special."
DB: The Ravens lost their leading tackler from a season ago in strong safety Bernard Pollard (98 tackles) as well as Reed.
Baltimore's safety group instead transitions into a more versatile unit, with Huff, rookie Matt Elam and veteran James Ihedigbo all able to play both spots. That leaves defensive coordinator Dean Pees plenty of in-game options.
That's important given that reserves Christian Thompson and Omar Brown are both entering just their second season in the league.
Huff steps in as a sever-year vet, having nabbed 11 interceptions over a career that began in Oakland. Ihedigbo appeared in all 16 games last year with three starts and Elam, the 32nd pick of the recent draft, was an All-American at Florida University who can be eased into the rotation.
Things are less bright at the corner spot, where Lardarius Webb is attempting to comeback from a torn ACL suffered in Week 6 of last year. The good news is he could be ready for the season opener, leaving Corey Graham (60 tackles, 2 INT) and former first-round pick Jimmy Smith to battle for the second spot with Cary Williams having signed with the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason.
Smith got the first shot at replacing Webb last year, but it was Graham who took over the starting job by after two weeks, moving from special teams standout to key contributor. The clock could be running out on Smith, who has not lived up to potential.
Chykie Brown becomes a key reserve after Asa Jackson was suspended for the first eight games for a second violation of the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Ravens solved a big problem last year with the emergence of rookie kicker Justin Tucker, who hit on all but three of his field-goal attempts, with his 90.9 percent success rate the second highest in team single-season history. It was also the second-best mark by a rookie in league history.
Punter Sam Koch, meanwhile, set franchise records in punting gross (41.7) and net (40.8) averages in his seventh season with the club.
The return game does have some questions if the Ravens decided to lighten the load for Jacoby Jones, who returned a pair of kickoffs and a punt for a touchdown last year. He led the NFL in kickoff return average at 30.7 yards.
An option to give Jones a breather in the punt game is Doss, while David Reed and Deonte Thompson could pick up the slack on kick returns.
Safe bet is that Jones still gets his chances to break one off in close games.
Morgan Cox enters his fourth season as the club's long snapper.
COACHING: Harbaugh finally added a Super Bowl title to his young resume and under his guide Baltimore is the only team in the NFL to have made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons with at least one victory in each postseason.
Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are tied with New England for the most victories, including playoffs, over the last five seasons with 63 and his nine playoff wins are the most for a head coach in his first five seasons since the merger.
Harbaugh definitely has a knack for getting the most from his players and made a bold move late last year in firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in early December. He promoted Caldwell from quarterbacks coach to the position and the offense averaged 400.6 yards and 27.3 points per game after the move.
THE SKINNY: It won't be easy for the defending back-to-back AFC North champions, who lost a lot of leadership and added a number of new faces to the roster. But the core is still there in Flacco, Rice, Suggs and Webb, meaning the new-look locker room won't be short on new voices.
"I'm more (in) the belief that an organization or team is not about one guy," said Harbaugh. "I think Ray (Lewis) would tell you that, and I know Ed (Reed) would tell you that, and all those guys would tell you that. The distribution redistributes. It will redistribute to the guys on this team."
The encore is shaping up to be a successful one for the Ravens.
"I think we were a good team, I think we've been a good team, and I think our expectations for ourselves are to be a very good team again. But I don't think we think about last year at all," said Flacco. "Our team is different, just like it is every year. We've got a lot of guys that are hungry to get to where we were last year."
08/22 09:38:05 ET
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