Here we are. Ravens football is finally back, and they return with as good a football team as they’ve had the past few years. 5-11 is in the past, and so are nearly all of the injuries and bad juju that went with it. We’ve turned the page. The Baltimore Ravens are too good an organization to stay down for a long, even with the toughest division in football. They have a balanced offense with a lot of weapons, a good blend of youth and experience on defense, and excellent special teams and coaching. That’s a formula for a good, borderline great football team.
I won’t go as far as to say they’ll be dominant by any means, but they can certainly put together a strong campaign, find themselves in the playoffs, and see where the chips fall. You don’t have to be perfect to win a Super Bowl. Just look at 2012. That was probably the 4th or 5th best team the Ravens have ever had, but they got hot at the right time and the rest was history. There’s no reason why this team can’t do the same. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This team is hardly different from the team that obliterated the Steelers and had the Super Bowl champs on the ropes just 20 months ago. The core is still there. And they’ve still got Joe. So here are the 5 questions that are going to make or break the Ravens this season:
1. Can Eric Weddle rejuvenate an abysmal secondary?
The secondary has been a black eye on the Ravens ever since Ed Reed retired. Numerous names have shuffled in and out since. Many have been injured, and the ones that were lucky enough to stay healthy have played like pure trash. And not just any trash. I’m talking about frathouse stale beer trash bags that sit out in the sun all weekend kinda trash. But I digress.
Eric Weddle has been brought in to bring some leadership and experience to the secondary. The biggest thing they’ve missed since Ed left was a guy who could sit in the back and direct traffic and keep guys in front of him. A guy like Jimmy Smith can play a lot more freely in press coverage when he knows he’s got a guy who won’t be out of position should he get beat deep. It won’t hurt that Smith’s foot will be healed up and 100% for the first time since a standout 2014 season. Lardarius Webb will be an interesting experiment at the other safety position, and I think it will prove to be a successful. His physical skillset fits the position so well. It all comes back to Weddle though. He’ll be the glue that keeps that unit together.
2. Can Joe Flacco return to form from a torn ACL and MCL behind a young offensive line?
This is an obvious question, but one that I’m not terribly worried about. Joe has shown throughout the years that he’s a guy who doesn’t flinch in the face of adversity. He’s been beaten and bruised before and although this may be his tallest task, he’s answered the call in every step of his rehab. He’s just a tough cookie. He’s got stability at offensive coordinator for the first time since he won a Super Bowl MVP (nbd), and he has an embarrassment of riches to throw to.
The main question mark is how well the left side of the line, otherwise known as his blindside, can protect him. Most teams would be terrified to start a rookie at left tackle, especially when the QB is coming off a major knee injury, but Ronnie Stanley has flourished so far. PFF had him as the best left tackle in football for the majority of the preseason. The bigger red flag is at left guard, as John Urschel has been injured through most of preseason and is questionable for Week 1. Rookie Alex Lewis has played extremely well in his place during preseason against 1st-teamers, enough to warrant questions whether he’d won the job away from Urschel. So yes, two rookies protecting Flacco’s blindside is something to keep an eye on and if they falter, this machine won’t run. But I have faith that those guys wouldn’t see the field this early if they couldn’t get the job done.
3. Can Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil stay healthy enough to maintain a formidable pass rush?
I have no doubt in my mind that these two still have plenty left in the tank. There will be a day when they can’t produce at a high level anymore and that day is sooner rather than later… but that day is not today. They just gotta stay healthy, especially Sizzle. It became clear how valuable he is to that defense when he went down late in week 1 last year. The pass rush became nearly nonexistent, which exposed that aforementioned trash secondary. Dumervil is coming off foot surgery and won’t be playing Week 1, but when both these guys are out there, this defense really fires on all cylinders.
I am interested to see what kind of progression Z’ardarius Smith can make, along with rookies Kamalei Correa and Matt Judon. All had their moments in preseason, and Smith was drafted in 2015 with the hope that he’d develop into a Pernell McPhee type. He showed flashes last year and this would be the time for him to make that big leap. Dumervil is going to have to ease himself in and he’s not really a 3-down guy anyway, so this is a golden opportunity for him to prove his worth. Either way, Ravens football is all about stuffing the run and getting to the QB, and it starts and ends with having Suggs and Dumervil out there.
4. Can Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman restore a vertical element to the pass game?
Since Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones left, Joe Flacco has been missing a guy who can really make the most of the big ol cannon. Perriman was supposed to be that guy last year, but we all know that story. So what did Ozzie do? He went out and got one of the quickest guys out there in Mike Wallace. A little insurance for Perriman if you will. Back in 2012 when Joe proved just how elite he is, he had the ideal set up. Torrey and Jacoby going deep, and Boldin and Pitta working the middle of the field and the sidelines with their physical frames. Bad news for the AFC is that he’s got that type of talent around him again.
Kamar Aiken proved he can be a dependable guy in the middle of the field last year, and I haven’t even mentioned the meanest guy in town yet. Steve Smith is back with that chip on his shoulder, and he’s going to get these guys going. Pitta is back too (for now fingers crossed) and Crockett Gillmore and Maxx Williams are both on the verge of becoming star tight ends. One of those two will pan out, no doubt. With the ability to run the football behind Marshal Yanda (don’t ask me if it’s gonna be Forsett or West for your fantasy team, it might even be somebody else), this offense will be balanced and it will put points on the board. It all starts with defenses being forced to respect Joe’s arm.
5. Can the Ravens please just get some bounces to get their way?
Injuries and turnovers. That’s why 5-11 happened. It seems whiny but it’s the truth. It’d be ignorant not to believe that these things are due to fall the Ravens way sooner rather than later. Year after year, teams that have poor turnover differentials and poor records in close games tend to bounce back the following year. The Ravens were the 2nd-worst team in the NFL with a -14 turnover differential, and played the first TWELVE GAMES last season to a one possession game. Their record in those games? 4-8. You could point to just about any one of those losses and give an example of where a fluke bounce or a poor call (Jacksonville comes to mind especially) that was the difference in the game. I’m not happy about it, but I understand that that’s football. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Just know that some of that luck is due to go the Ravens’ way this season.
So in summation, it’s gonna be a good year. I expect the Ravens to answer the call on every one of these questions. Yes the Bengals and Steelers are great football teams. Most “experts” are counting the Ravens aren’t, and it’s hard to blame them after 5-11. But let me assure you, the Ravens will be in the mix. This is too good an organization to keep down for long. Can’t wait to see where it leads.
Bills preview Sunday morning.