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Ravens rising up

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Editor's Note: Don't miss out on Bruce Marshall's NFL selections on VegasInsider.com this season. Click to win!

Teams to Watch: N.Y. Giants · Philadelphia

It has started to dawn upon Baltimore Ravens (2013 SUR 8-8; PSR 7-8-1; O/U 8-8) backers that 2012 was maybe the culmination of a great five-season run for HC John Harbaugh...not the beginning of an extended dynasty. The Ravens' slip to 8-8 last fall suggested more than a Super Bowl hangover, as many key pieces from the title run had either departed or were noticeably on the decline. Whether or not that might include QB Joe Flacco, entering his 7th season this fall, remains to be seen. Flacco's 2013 numbers dropped precipitously (a career-worst 22 picks) after signing the big offseason contract worth $120 million, which also contributed to some salary juggling required elsewhere on the roster by GM Ozzie Newsome...all factors in a disappointing 8-8 finish.

Flacco's struggles were not the only issues with the offense. The running game simply didn't work last season, either, with an NFL-worst 3.1 ypg and a mere 83 ypg (which ranked a poor 30th). Moreover, the "O" surrendered a hefty 48 sacks and conceded a total of 91 quarterback hits, much too high of a number.

Downgrades were not limited to the offense; in Baltimore, the defenses are held to a much higher standard than last year's 12th overall ranking. While still formidable, the "D" had definitely lost some of its swagger from the playoff years, especially with the Ray Lewis and Ed Reed influences having departed after the Super Bowl year.

A quick Ravens recovery back to playoff status this fall, however, would not be a complete surprise. Early reports suggest a possible offensive renaissance under new O.C. Gary Kubiak, in recent years the HC at Houston but a longtime play-caller who had previously coordinated Mike Shanahan's offenses while in Denver. Many AFC North onlookers expect a much sharper-edge from this season's strike force after the attack floundered a year ago under former O.C. Jim Caldwell, whose offseason hire by the Lions to be their head coach caused more than a few quizzical looks around the league.

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Caldwell's main contributions to the offense, upon his replacement of Cam Cameron as O.C. late in the 2012 Super Bowl season, were merely to get out of the way of Flacco, who famously clashed with Cameron regarding the latter's resistance to Flacco audibilizing at the line of scrimmage. When the friction between O.C. and QB became intolerable, Harbaugh hit the eject button on Cameron just when the 2012 playoff berth seemed to be slipping away from the Ravens. Caldwell simply allowed Flacco the freedom to run the offense thereafter, with the reward being the eventual Super Bowl win. But when Caldwell became more involved with design and implementation of the offense last season, the attack suffered. The switch to Kubiak has already proven palpable to AFC observers, who believe Flacco will benefit from sharper play-calling as well as the flexibility to change plays if needed.

Of course, issues remain, specifically regarding RB Ray Rice, who showed signs of real wear-and-tear last season when gaining only 3.1 ypc. And that was before his now infamous off-field troubles in the offseason that have prompted an early 2-game suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell. If and when Rice returns, he should find a bit more room to rumble thanks to Kubiak's heavy reliance on zone blocking, which has been a plus for his running games with both the Texans and Broncos. Adjustments began in the offseason, when adding C Jeremy Zutah from Tampa Bay to replace Gino Gradkowski, who struggled in his first year as the starter. Left tackle Eugene Monroe, acquired in midseason from the Jags a year ago, figures to be the new anchor in the forward wall.

Meanwhile, Bernard Pierce, who has become more involved with ball-toting duties, was likely to share carries with Rice anyway, and will probably be the featured back at the outset, although Coastal Carolina rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro has been a revelation in training camp and whose one-cut running style appears an ideal fit for Kubiak's new zone-blocking scheme that helped carve out a whopping 237 rush yards in the preseason opener vs. the 49ers. Rice could eventually rediscover some of his pre-2013 form as well, although the extent of his eventual contributions are a bit hard to gauge in August.

Flacco's downfield passing game also seemed to suffer last season when Baltimore never really compensated for key target Anquan Boldin's offseason departure to San Francisco, and was further hampered by TE Dennis Pitta's injuries. Help, however, seems to have arrived with ex-Panther WR Steve Smith and ex-Texans TE Owen Daniels, both added in the offseason. If either has any gas left in their tanks, and alongside a now-healthy Pitta (who, along with Daniels, should benefit from Kubiak, a proponent of TEs), Flacco figures to benefit, as would WR Torrey Smith, who might not draw as much attention from opposing defenses after emerging as the preferred target last season with 74 receptions.

As mentioned, defense is expected to be good in Baltimore, whose fans have been treated to top-notch stop units for most of the millennium. And most expect the Ravens to be representative again on the stop end, though D.C. Dean Pees is dealing with advancing age in his platoon, with five major contributors in the team's front seven now 30 years of age or older. Pees also lost a couple of key cogs in free agency, as DE Arthur Jones moved to the Colts and S James Ihedigbo left for the Lions. Nickel back Corey Graham also departed to the Bills, perhaps hampering depth and flexibility in the secondary.

Still, playmakers abound, and OLBs Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs remain plenty disruptive on the edges, while ILB Daryl Smith tackled almost everyone in reach last season. The nucleus of the defensive backfield, CBs Ladarius Webb and Jimmy Smith, stood tall in 2013, and there are indications that the top two draft picks, Alabama ILB C.J. Mosley & Florida State DT Timmy Jerningan, are going to be able to make positive contributions off the bat, and perhaps offset some of the creeping age concerns for the platoon.

By past Ravens standards, the "D" might have much to prove, but in context with the rest of the league, the Baltimore stop unit hardly appears to be past its sell-by date.

The Ravens get a chance to make a statement within the North in their first three games, all vs. division foes, beginning opening day at M&T Bank Stadium vs. the Bengals. It would not shock us to see Baltimore reassume command that it relinquished in the division last season.

  
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