2010-11 NFL Preview: Baltimore Ravens

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Between now and the September 9th season kick-off, Hank Koebler, IV will be previewing all the NFL teams with new teams being released daily.

2009 Season Breakdown

2009 final record (overall, division): 9-7, 3-3
Division finish: 2nd AFC North
Offensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 9th, 13th, 18th, 5th
Defensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 3rd, 3rd, 8th, 5th

2009 Individual Statistical Leaders

Rushing: Ray Rice, 1,339 yards, 7 TD; Willis McGahee, 544 yards, 12 TD; Le'Ron McClain, 180
Passing: Joe Flacco, 3,613 yards, 21 TD, 12 INT
Receiving: Derrick Mason, 1,028 yards, 7 TD; Ray Rice, 702 yards, 1 TD; Todd Heap, 593 yards, 6 TD; Mark Clayton 480 yards, 2 TD; Kelley Washington, 431 yards, 2 TD
Tackles: Ray Lewis, 95 total tackles; Dawan Landry, 70 total tackles
Sacks: Trevor Pryce, 6.5 sacks; Jarret Johnson, 6 sacks
Interceptions: Dawan Landry, 4 INT, 1 TD; Domonique Foxworth, 4 INT, 0 TD; Ed Reed, 3 TD, 1 TD

2010 Season Outlook

(* denotes division game)

Key Matchups

September 13 at New York Jets: On offense, this game will be about two teams with young, promising quarterbacks surrounded by phenomenal supporting casts. On defense, you have two blitz-happy 3-4 defenses. The edge here goes to the Jets, as they have a much better defensive backfield.

October 17 at New England: This rematch of the Ravens' wild-card victory might go the other way, as Wes Welker and Tom Brady will be healthy, meaning the Patriots won't have to rely as heavily on their ground game as they tried to do in the playoffs. With Brady's broken finger healed, his passes will have their usual clean, tight spiral, and he will spread the ball among Welker, Randy Moss, and up-and-coming receiver Julian Edelman. Bill Belichick will have his Patriots extremely ready to avenge their early-round exit from the playoffs in January.

December 19 vs. New Orleans: The type of team that the Saints struggled the most against last year were teams like themselves that could both pound the ball for yardage as well as tear you apart in the passing game on offense, with blitz-happy defenses that routinely forced turnovers. With the addition of receivers Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth, as well as the return of Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton, the Ravens finally have a full complement of receivers for Joe Flacco to throw to. While the Ravens' defense has shown some age at corner, they still have the pieces at safety and in the front seven to wreak havoc on the Saints' passing offense and shut down their running game.

Key Losses

Dwan Edwards, DE; Samari Rolle, CB; Kelley Washington, WR

Key Returning Players

Josh Cribbs, KR/WR; Mohamed Massaquoi, WR; Jerome Harrison, RB; D'Qwell Jackson, ILB; Joe Thomas, OT; Shaun Rogers, NT

Key Draft Picks

Sergio Kindle, DE/OLB; Terrence Cody, DT; Ed Dickson, TE

Key Free Agent Signings

Cory Redding, DE; Ken Hamlin, FS; Shayne Graham, K

Key Acquisitions via Trade

Anquan Boldin, WR

Offensive Overview

Tackles Jared Gaither and Michael Oher are extremely athletic and strong, and the Ravens are set at tackle for years to come. Twenty-six-year-old left guard Ben Grubbs is extremely athletic and capable of pulling all the way to the right, and he is another Baltimore lineman who is an unquestioned starter for the foreseeable future. Center Matt Birk is the oldest player on the line at 33, and he did a great job keeping defenders off of Flacco and opening up holes for the Ravens' running back trio. At right guard, Chris Chester played well last year, but Marshal Yanda is expected to be the starter at that spot this year. Regardless of which of the two of them wins the job in training camp, right guard will definitely not be a weakness for the Ravens.

Given the strength of the offensive line the Ravens' running game will be a key strength as it usually is. Le'Ron McClain was converted to fullback for his blocking skills, but runs over the defense when running up the middle in short-yardage situations. While some Ravens fans want to see more production out of Willis McGahee because of the amount of money the team is paying him, he picked up 544 yards and 12 touchdowns last year spelling Ray Rice, whose 2,041 yards from scrimmage had him second only to NFL record-setter Chris Johnson. The Ravens truly have a three-headed beast at running back, and both of the full-time running backs averaged 5 or more yards per carry in 2009.

Last year, the Ravens' passing game became their weak link on offense. Though quarterback Joe Flacco played steadily in the regular season, throwing for 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, his performance in the playoffs negatively highlighted his tendency to look almost exclusively to Derrick Mason and Ray Rice when scanning the defense for a target. Against the Patriots and the Colts, Flacco posted a 53.3 completion percentage, threw no touchdowns, and tossed 3 interceptions. The Colts eventually beat the Ravens 20-3 despite a mediocre game by Peyton Manning, mainly because their defense was able to focus on the Ravens' running game without Flacco hurting them through the air. This showed that while Flacco was a good starter in the regular season, he wasn't able to carry the passing game on his back, and he needed help if he was going to develop into a top-tier passer. The Ravens' front office saw this and entered the offseason intent on finding Flacco the help he needed, and the result is one of the most potent offenses the Ravens have ever fielded.

At receiver, the Ravens are deeper than they've been in years, and could arguably be considered the deepest receiving corps in the league if the new additions live up to expectations. Donte' Stallworth, who was signed this offseason after being suspended the entire 2009 season, is a deceptively quick runner who specializes in picking up yards after the catch, and former Arizona Cardinal Anquan Boldin is a tough, physical receiver who is unafraid to fight for the ball in the middle of traffic. These two players should round out an already-decent stable of receivers, giving Flacco a ton of targets to throw to.

Derrick Mason, though only 5'10”, is excellent at beating defensive backs by positioning himself to time his jump for the ball so that he is above the defensive back when the ball gets to him. Though his age causes fans and media to wonder if his health is a concern, it should be noted that he hasn't missed a game since 2002, has only missed a game in three of his 14 seasons in the league, and has never missed more than three games in a season. He will be fine this year, and could possibly end up playing until he turns 40. Mark Clayton only had 34 receptions last year, but his low reception totals can partially be attributed to Flacco's over-reliance on Mason and Rice when passing the ball. At best, Clayton might beat out Stallworth as the primary slot receiver, and at worst, Clayton will be one of the best number-four options in the league whenever the Ravens decide to go four-wide.

Tight end is another area of strength in Baltimore. Todd Heap is one of the best in the AFC, and the Ravens drafted Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta to provide quality depth behind Heap. While Pitta will need a lot of work to become ready to play in the NFL, Dickson could contribute immediately in two-TE sets, which would be a huge boost for the offense. When you have tight ends who can both run-block and snag passes, it makes two tight ends an ideal formation for the offense, as it can be both a pass-heavy formation or a run-heavy formation depending on the play called. Because of all their offensive firepower, there are all kinds of possibilities for Baltimore's offense this year.

Defensive Overview

After defensive end Dwan Edwards signed with Buffalo in free agency, the Ravens signed Seahawks defensive end Cory Redding to replace him. The 292-pound Redding played some defensive tackle in Detroit, and his size and pass rush moves make him a good fit as a 3-4 defensive end in Baltimore's scheme. At nose tackle, Kelly Gregg provides a major push up the middle and consistently occupy double-teams. Haloti Ngata, the other end, helps collapse the offensive line from the outside. Additionally, Ngata can slide inside on passing downs.

It sounds and feels wrong to say there are holes in inside linebacker Ray Lewis' game considering he has been one of the best defensive players of the past decade, but his window of opportunity to be an effective starter is closing. Lewis is still an incredibly hard hitter, but has lost some speed and can't really run with tight ends and running backs in coverage any more. His drop-off in speed hurts his ability to blitz as well: because he doesn't have as much momentum as a faster linebacker would, he usually ends up bouncing off of offensive linemen instead of pushing them back. The only way he can be effective is if the defense's plays are designed to force the running back into Lewis' area so he can wrap them up, but this would place severe limitations on the defense's play-calling capacities.

The other inside linebacker spot was secured by Dannell Ellerbe, who obtained the starting job for the final three games of the 2009 season, his rookie year. Strongside linebacker Jarret Johnson is probably the best 'backer of the bunch in Baltimore, racking up six sacks and two interceptions in 2009. On the other side, Terrell Suggs has flashed a ton of potential, but had a disappointing 2009 season after coming into training camp out of shape. Also, a brutal chop block to Suggs's legs resulted in an MCL injury that caused him to miss three games, putting even more of a damper on his season as he didn't play as well coming back from the injury. He will look to rebound this season, but it's possible the 27-year-old's best days are sadly already behind him.

In the defensive backfield, free safety Ed Reed is a center fielder who is an expert at embarrassing quarterbacks with his ballhawking ability, and concerns that he may retire are overblown. However, he may miss time at the beginning of the season as he recovers from a hip surgery, so Tom Zbikowski and former Cowboy Ken Hamlin could end up competing to fill in for him. Strong safety Dawan Landry is good against the run, but this strength may not be highlighted because he'll be too busy providing help to the team's corners, the Ravens' only glaring weakness coming into 2010. Lardarius Webb brings speed to the cornerback position, and he came on strong towards the end of last season, when he earned the starting cornerback spot and started 4 games before an unfortunate ACL injury against Chicago. Webb is expected to start the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list, but when he returns, the Ravens' one major weakness will be less dire. Until Webb gets back, Fabian Washington and Dominique Foxworth were expected to be the team's starting two corners, but Foxworth recently suffered a season-ending injury, which means nickel back Chris Carr might be expected to fill in as the number two corner while Washington starts. If this is the case, then the Ravens might be shaky in nickel and dime packages, though they should be a little bit better-off once Webb returns. Due to corner becoming even more of a concern than it already was, it is likely we will see a lot more blitzes from the Ravens in order to get to the passer before his receiver has time to get open.

The only major obstacle I could see popping up for this defense is if the Ravens end up facing the Tennessee Titans in the playoffs. The Ravens' linebacking corps let Chris Johnson run wild on them the last time these two teams met, as he accumulated 100 all-purpose yards and a touchdown on only 12 plays before an injury from a dirty hit sidelined him for the rest of the game. Two years later, age and injuries haven't been kind to Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Ed Reed, and Johnson has become a more well-rounded back, so he will be even more difficult for Baltimore to contain. They Ravens seem as if they'll be invincible when Lardarius Webb returns, but Vince Young and Chris Johnson running their surprisingly successful option plays to the outside have the best chance of being the Ravens' Kryptonite. However, this is merely a hypothetical situation, and it is possible that the Ravens could end up never facing the Titans at all in the playoffs, rendering this hypothesizing useless.

Special Teams Overview

The Ravens' kickoff coverage was phenomenal last year, allowing the 4th-lowest average yards per kickoff return despite ranking 23rd in average kickoff distance. They played similarly stiff punt coverage as well, allowing an average of only 7.7 yards per punt return, the league's 10th-lowest average, though they did allow one punt to be returned for a touchdown.

At kick returner, the Ravens can't wait until Lardarius Webb gets back from injury, as he averaged 26.2 yards per return and brought one back for a touchdown against the Broncos in 2009. While they're waiting for him, they'll do just fine with Chris Carr, who averaged 24.2 yards per return, or backup running back Jalen Parmele, who averaged 31.4 yards per return on 9 returns. Carr also has punt returning duties taken care of, as he averaged 8.2 yards per punt return last season.

At placekicker, former Bengals kicker Shayne Graham will be competing with incumbent Billy Cundiff, who made 12 of his 17 field goal attempts last year. Graham made a higher percentage of his field goal attempts, successfully converting 23 of his 28 attempts.

Head Coach: John Harbaugh

One would be hard-pressed to find anything negative to say about Harbaugh's coaching abilities. In his two seasons as a head coach, he has a 20-12 record in the regular season, and a 3-2 record in the playoffs. He's turned around a team that went 5-11 the year before his hiring, and the Ravens have become Super Bowl contenders under his watch. There's really nothing to say about Harbaugh; he just wins.

Top 2011 Free Agents

Haloti Ngata, DE; Chris Carr, CB/KR/PR

Season Prediction

1st AFC North

The Ravens' defense is slowly declining, but they're good enough to keep the Ravens from losing and they will be fine in the future, as rookies Terrence Cody and Sergio Kindle were absolute steals in the draft and will anchor the defense for many years. On offense, the Ravens have surrounded Joe Flacco with a ridiculous amount of weapons, and anything less than a Super Bowl win from this team will be considered a disappointment. - Hank Koebler, IV

Hank is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism.

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