NFL At A Glance: Baltimore Ravens Preview

As the summer winds to its finish, gridiron die-hards are undoubtedly licking their lips at the prospect of a new NFL season. Now in August, training camps for all 32 NFL teams are underway, and on the heels of another fantastic season, this upcoming year of football already has many questions surrounding it. Can the New Orleans Saints become the fourth team in the last two decades to repeat as Superbowl champions? Which rookies will have impacts for their teams? Who is primed for a breakout season? Will Brett Favre be donning purple one more time?

In an attempt to ready fans for Kickoff Weekend (which begins with a rematch of the dramatic Saints-Vikings NFC Championship on Thursday September 9), I will be posting a team-by-team breakdown, armed with predictions, as well as players and rookies to look out for. ‘NFL At A Glance’ begins today in the AFC North with the Baltimore Ravens.

Offence: The Baltimore Ravens begin this season with something they have lacked in recent years: a potent passing game. Even when the Ravens won it all in 2000, the starting offence featured a lacklustre pass-attack, featuring the likes of Trent Dilfer, Brandon Stokley and Shannon Sharpe.

This year, the Ravens are thirsty for more after a Divisional Round loss to the eventual AFC Champion Indianapolis Colts. The passing game, with third-year quarterback Joe Flacco at the helm, gets two much needed boosts with the acquisitions of Anquan Boldin (the other Cardinals receiver), and Donte Stallworth, to go along with roster regulars Todd Heap and Derrick Mason. The ground game is just as lethal as last season with do-it-all back Ray Rice, Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain. Rice accumulated  1337 yards and 7 scores on the ground, as well as 702 yards with a lone touchdown receiving in only his second season, so it’s not unreasonable to think that another big season is coming, even with all that backfield depth.

The Ravens acquired former Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin (81) to aid their aerial attack.

Defence: On the other side of the ball, not much has changed. Perennial Pro-Bowlers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are returning for another season, with Kelly Gregg, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs as the supporting cast. Run-oriented teams will again have to think twice about their strategies when facing Baltimore, and the acquisitions of Alabama run-stuffing defensive tackle Terrance Cody and Texas end Sergio Kindle will help strengthen the Ravens’ defence for years to come.

The Ravens are, however, quite thin in the secondary. Outside of Reed and Dawan Landry, the Ravens will look to Fabian Washington, Chris Carr and Lardarius Webb in coverage, an adequate group at best. Teams will undoubtedly look to abuse the corners when facing Baltimore.

Got Your Back, Flacc: The Ravens roster features an outstanding defensive line, anchored on each side by a good, young tackle and a dominant veteran presence up the middle. Second year tackle Michael Oher will shift over to the left in order to protect Joe Flacco’s blind side, and 6 foot 9, 340 pound Jared Gaither will protect Flacco’s right. 13 year veteran and 6 time Pro-Bowler Matt Birk will once again occupy the centre of the line. The 36 sacks surrendered last year by this offensive line should improve with the addition of guard Marshal Yanda, as well as another year of Flacco’s development.

The Kids are Alright: The Ravens didn’t stray from their strengths at the 2010 NFL Draft, acquiring athletic Texas defensive end Sergio Kindle and a big defensive tackle in Alabama’s Terrance Cody. Both are expected to make little impact this season (barring injuries), and Kindle is currently recovering from a fractured skull. The defensive line is in good hands for now with Trevor Pryce, Ngata and Gregg, which will allow Baltimore to ease Cody into a role.

Impact Forecast: With the exception of the Cincinnati Bengals, the AFC North cornerback situation is murky, which gives reason to expect the Anquan Boldin can have a big year. No longer the second-fiddle in town, Boldin is a lock for 90 catches (he had 84 and 89 in his last two seasons), at least 1000 yards and, because Derrick Mason isn’t much of a red-zone threat, has double-digit touchdown potential (he had 20 touchdowns between 2007-2008 in only 24 games).

Boldin’s success also leads to Joe Flacco’s, who now has the potential to reach or eclipse 4000 yards and 25 touchdowns. Flacco managed to keep his interception numbers last year rather modest at 12 (versus 21 touchdowns), but with another year of maturity and confidence in his receivers, Flacco is poised to put together a nice season.

Rice will continue to carry the load in the rushing game and will likely produce numbers that rival or better his last season’s totals of 2000 all purpose yards and 8 totals touchdowns. Ed Reed and Ray Lewis seem to be getting better with age, a frightening thought for the coaches and sack/interception prone quarterbacks of the AFC North.

Schedule Outlook: The Ravens begin on the first Monday night game of the season against Rex Ryan’s highly touted New York Jets. Of course, they’ll play six games against divisional foes, the 2009 AFC North Champion Cincinnati Bengals, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns. Baltimore has an eighth week bye, and face the New England Patriots, Houston Texans, Buffalo Bills, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints, Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers to fill out the remainder of their schedule. Their 2010 opponents had a 130-126-0 cumulative record, or 50.78 win percentage, landing Baltimore the 12th hardest schedule in the league.

Make no mistake, these are still Ray's boys.

Prediction: The new look offence and same look defence lead Baltimore to the AFC North Divisional crown and a first round playoff bye. Baltimore finishes with a 12-4 record. Joe Flacco throws for 3900 yards and 26 touchdowns. Anquan Boldin catches 94 passes, gains 1100 yards and scores 10 touchdowns. Ray Rice rushes for 1400 yards, scores 10 touchdowns on the ground, goes for 500 more receiving yards and another score. Ray Lewis totals 140 tackles and 4 sacks and gets invited to his 12th Pro-Bowl. This could be a Superbowl bound team.

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