[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="265" caption="Without T-Sizzle, Ravens have to worry"][/caption]

The Baltimore Ravens begin their quest for an NFL best fifth straight post-season appearance next Monday night when the upstart Cincinnati Bengals visit M & T Bank Stadium. For the fourth time in franchise history, the Ravens completed the preseason with a 2-2 record. The Ravens were 2-2 in 2002, 2005, and 2006. All three times under Brian Billick, Baltimore followed up those mediocre preseason marks with a 7-9, 6-10, and 13-3 record respectively.

From ESPN, to Pro-Football Weekly to various local rags around the country, The Ravens have been predicted by most to finish no worse than second in the AFC North this season. I have yet to see any less than nine wins forecasted for head coach John Harbaugh’s team in 2012. Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic of ESPN Radio’s, Mike & Mike in the Morning, featured the Ravens on their preseason two-a-day segment this past Friday, and both projected an 11-5 finish with a second consecutive AFC North crown for the purple and black. The hype continued through the weekend despite an average preseason performance and following a dismal 31-17 loss to the St. Louis Rams in their final preseason tilt last Thursday night.

The game was void of anything that resembled Ravens football and was void of more than a few starters. Franchise quarterback Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, and future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis were just some of the starters that sat out the game to avoid being injured. Many fans and the so-called sports talk experts dismissed much of this game for the reasons stated above, but even with many starters not playing, many starters did play and several continued to look unimpressive. Make no mistake, the Ravens are an elite team in the diverse but no longer three team dominated AFC.

However, like the rest of the so-called elites in the American Football Conference, the Ravens have a few concerns as they enter the 2012 season and like those other teams; some of those concerns are more serious than others.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="377" caption="Jimmy Smith beaten regularly during preseason"][/caption]

The secondary is growing into a major concern. Thought to be strength of the team entering training camp, several players who excelled last season are struggling this preseason. Cornerback Carey Williams may be sorry he turned down a $15 million contract extension two weeks ago if his play does not improve. Williams has looked slow and has been beaten on deep passes in every preseason game this summer. Coming off minor hip surgery, Williams has looked as stiff as his play at times. General Manger Ozzie Newsome, who is known for selecting can’t miss draft picks, has a few top prospects from the past three drafts that haven’t quite exploded on the scene as others have before them.


LB Sergio Kindle (43, 2010), CB Jimmy Smith (27, 2011), and DE/LB Courtney Upshaw (35, 2012) are not producing and are playing more like mid to later round selections than the slots they were chosen. Only Smith offers hope that there could be a quick turnaround in the immediate future. Kindle got off to a fast start this summer but considering his health issues since his arrival, his sluggish play in limited preseason action, I have a hard time believing he would have made the final 53-man cut on Friday if last year’s Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs were healthy.

Toss in Kindles game on Thursday and the fact he made the roster on Friday represents a minor miracle. Kindle’s roughing the passer penalty on Rams QB Sam Bradford was delivered as St. Louis faced a third and 17. The hit was delivered so late, flight attendants were getting set to serve the drinks on the Ravens flight home. Upshaw, whom the Ravens selected in this past April’s draft and was the BCS National Championship Game defensive MVP, has looked and played like anything but a most valuable player. He reinjured a nagging shoulder again on Thursday and seems to be having trouble adjusting to the speed off the ball in the NFL. Upshaw did show promise in the Jaguars game delivering a sack but his overall performance has to be a concern for defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

Cornerback Jimmy Smith, who played well to close out the 2011 season, making critical plays, including an interception during the playoffs, has “stumbled” early and often this summer. He has been beaten like a drum on many occasions but in his defense, he has faced some of the very best the NFL has to offer in Calvin Johnson and Roddy White.

Defensive end Paul Kruger is simply not performing in the absence of Suggs. Kruger is not generating any pass rush and seems to be struggling with setting the edge against the run. He is not alone. The Ravens defense finished the preseason ranked 26th against the pass, 25th against the run and 28th overall. I hope that not a sign of things to come. Yes, the Ravens faced some good offenses, but that is a sign of what is to come this season. The Ravens will face 11 Pro Bowl quarterbacks on the 2012 schedule. Names like Brady, Manning, Romo, Vick, Schaub and Rivers will all need to be game planned for if all are healthy when facing the Ravens this season.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="360" caption="Kindle and Upshaw must help fill the void left by Suggs"][/caption]


The Ravens will need to duplicate their pass rushing success from last season when they finished tied for second in the NFL with 48-quarterback take downs.  It is important to note that the Ravens recorded 58 percent of the sacks in just five games. They will need to have a pass rush which is more sustained this season. With just five sacks, it did not exist during the preseason. The  Ravens are just two years removed from a franchise low 27 sacks, so it will be interesting to see how coordinator Dean Pees finds a happy medium. But make no mistake, he needs to find one.


The good news is if history is any indication, the preseason does not matter to the Ravens in terms of defensive rankings. Not counting this year, Baltimore finished each of the last four preseasons ranked 22, 20, 19 and 18. During that span, Ray Lewis, T-Sizzle and company finished no worse than tenth during the regular season. That came in 2010 when the Ravens began the season with Ed Reed on the physically unable to perform list for the first six games of the season. The unit would be a top three defense in each of the remaining three seasons during that stretch.

Even in the NFL scheme of things, preseason defensive rankings do not really offer an indication of how teams will fare during the season. In 2010, only three of the teams that ranked in the top ten during the preseason did so during the regular season. In 2011, the Bears, Lions and Falcons finished the preseason ranked first, second and third respectively, and finished the regular season ranked 17, 23 and 12 defensively.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="307" caption="Nine sacks vs. the 49ers last Turkey Day night"][/caption]

It is not all gloom and doom for the Baltimore defense. The Ravens still boast what is arguably the most talented defensive tackle in the game in Haloti Ngata. For arguments sake, NFL Films ranked him the best this season when they did their top 100 players for 2012. Ngata was No.9 overall and rated the best defensive tackle in the game. In fact, on the lists of all lists, Baltimore tied with Philadelphia and San Francisco for most in the Top 100 with seven players selected. Of the seven players that current NFL players voted tops in the league, four of them came from defense. Aside from Ngata, Ray Lewis was the lowest rated defensive player on the list at No.20. Ed Reed was No.16 and Sizzle was No.11. The Ravens have a ton of experience and are still led by No.52, future Hall of Fame middle linebacker, Ray Lewis. The 37-year old Lewis While Lewis may have lost a step, but his defense still has the talent to be a top 10 or 12 unit this season. Entering his 17th season, the 13-time Pro Bowler can still be an impact player. He is an impact leader who will simply not allow them to fail for any length of time. Lewis will forge together a defense that is likely to slip in 2012, but not break completely. Lewis, Ed Reed, Ngata and others will ensure the Ravens 2012 defense will succeed when it matters most. Lewis said at the start of training camp that the NFL is changing. Lewis admitted the league has become a passers dream. "It's a passing game," he said. "It's a quick game. Offenses want to score 30, 40 points and it's by creating mismatches."

Lewis is correct and most defenses are geared towards keeping high-powered offenses between the 20’s and making crucial stops when needed. The Ravens played that way last season when they ranked No. 1 in red zone TD scoring percentage (38.1). Baltimore permitted just 16 TDs in the red zone, ranking as the NFL’s second fewest (SF - 14).

Further proof this defense can adapt and change to the high powered offenses they will face this season is that Lewis knows that while running the ball is no longer a major ingredient to win, stopping it can make any team one dimensional and that plays right into the hands of a defense like the Ravens. Even without T-Sizzle, Baltimore is simply too talented for any one-dimensional offense to succeed with consistency. "The game is changing," Lewis said. "The game ain't no more 250, 260-pound fullback and you don't have offenses running the ball 25, 30, 40-plus times. That was my thought process was coming into this year. Playing lighter is much smarter for me." The NFL is no longer a league where “Defense wins championships and offense sells tickets”.

Running successfully on the Ravens can be fatal to the outcome of a contest for Lewis and company. Running backs do not need 100 plus yard games to help their team to victory in today’s NFL. During last year's AFC Championship game, the Patriots offense was sparked not by Tom Brady, but by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who gashed the Ravens for 68 very important yards and one TD. Ellis opened up the middle of the field for Brady after the Ravens had completely taken it away from the three times Super Bowl Champion.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="356" caption="BenJarvus Green-Ellis runs the ball in for a touchdown in AFC Title game"]BenJarvus Green-Ellis  runs the ball in for a touchdown in AFC Title game[/caption]

Last year’s Super Bowl Champion, the New York Giants became the first team in NFL history to win a championship that allowed more points (400) than it scored (397) during the regular season. The Giants finished 27th in the NFL defense — the worst ranking ever for a Super Bowl champion. They also finished 32nd in rushing — again, the worst ranking ever by a champion. The Giants lost two of their three top cornerbacks with season-ending injuries in training camp and finished the year with six defensive backs on injured reserve. Cornerback Prince Amukamara, the team’s No. 1 draft pick, also missed the first nine games with an injury. Their opponent in last year’s big game, the New England Patriots finished ranked 31st in the NFL in team defense and was one of only two teams last season (Green Bay Packers) to allow more than 4,700 passing yards, averaging just fewer than 300 yards allowed per game. No team had ever surrendered more than 4,600 passing yards in any season before.

Two ingredients that are not measured in the stat column and are key components to the success of the Ravens defense, is heart and pride. Lewis preaches both constantly and both must be taken into consideration when evaluating the Baltimore defense. Lewis, Reed and every purple wearing Ravens fan know that for the ninth-consecutive year, the vaunted Baltimore defense finished the regular season ranking in the Top 10. Baltimore concluded 2011 season as the NFL’s No. 3 defensive unit, allowing just 288.9 yards per game (92.6 rushing and 196.3 passing). If those numbers should elevate this season, Ravens fans no longer have to worry that guys like Case, Mitchell, Banks, Blake, Wright and Redman throwing the ball are leading the offense. This season, fifth year signal caller Joe Flacco looks poised to have the breakout season everyone has been predicting.


If the Ravens do fall out of the top 10 in defensive rankings for the first time since 2002, then it is likely that the for the first time since 1997, the offense is capable of picking up the slack and finishing as a top 10 unit. The Ravens offense finished the preseason ranked first overall in the NFL, and unlike defensive stats, preseason offensive rankings can provide some insight into what may come during the regular season. In 2010, the top four preseason offensive teams all ranked in the top 10 during the regular  season and last season the Lions, Saints, and Patriots, all top five offenses during the regular season, finished in the top six during preseason.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="336" caption="Flacco and Manning possible AFC title game this year?"][/caption]

Although the Flacco led offense struggled to finish drives to start to the preseason, the Ravens first team offense looked sharp in camp and during their dress rehearsal in preseason game three vs. the Jaguars. Joe Cool was as efficient as he has ever been during the tune-up games. He finished the preseason 43-for-60, passing for 433 yards and three touchdowns. His completion percentage of 71.7 percent was almost 14 percent better than he finished last season. His 101.6 QB Rating suggests that he is firmly in control of the offense. Along with Ray Lewis, No.5 may also have emerged as the leader of the team.

As promising as Flacco and the Ravens offense looked, there are concerns. Ray Rice was used sparingly to avoid injury and the Ravens have yet to firmly establish the back-up running back situation. According to the depth chart, this April’s third round pick Bernard Pierce will start the season behind Rice, with the electrifying undrafted Western Kentucky product Bobby Rainey listed third.

Rainey is considered a similar back to Rice and showed all-purpose capabilities during the preseason, but overall, the back-up situation is not promising if Rice goes down with injury. The group cannot seem to stay north and south, which is how the majority of the yards are gained at any level of football. Just as many young backs like to do, Rainey, Pierce and Allen simply want to break off the run to get outside. The blocking was less than stellar for this group during the preseason, but the fact that backup QB Tyrod Taylor was the leading rusher for Baltimore in four preseason games is a concern. The group behind Rice rushed for just 217 yards on 74 carries, averaging less than three yards per carry. Last preseason, the Ravens rushed for 376 yards on 82 carries, averaging 4.59 yards per carry.

Do not be surprised if at some point General Manager Ozzie Newsome seeks out a veteran as the team had in Ricky Williams last season to take over the role. The Ravens took a risk entering training camp with so much youth and inexperience behind Rice. While it was just the preseason, it was for Pierce and Rainey, their first taste of the NFL. The game only gets faster starting next Monday night, and I cannot imagine that there is too much we have not seen from either, considering the battle waged for the spot on the roster.

There is only mild concern on my part about how Ray Rice will get his touches in the new hurry up, sugar huddle offense. If the Ravens lose a game or two with the Ravens playing this style of offense, and Rice sees limited action coming out of the backfield, we will be reminded about how Cam Cameron is a fool and the Ravens are 21-1 when No.27 touches the ball 20 or more times in a game.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="364" caption="Tyrod must settle happy feet for success in NFL"][/caption]

The last offensive concern is at the back-up quarterback position. Tyrod Taylor may be good enough to finish a game should Flacco be injured, but he is not capable of carrying the team for a two to four game stretch. As the Ravens leading rusher, Taylor was good with his feet in the preseason but his feet also got him into trouble when passing the ball. He still has problems setting them and locating open receivers. When he does find an open receiver, his unsettled feet cause him to overthrow wide-open receivers, sometimes just five to seven yards down the field.


When Joe Flacco takes the field next Monday night, including the playoffs, it will be his 74th consecutive start. That is the most by a quarterback to start a career in the history of the NFL. Flacco and the Ravens have been very fortunate with his durability, and the consecutive games check, which Flacco has written each week since the start of the 2008 season, will eventually have to be cashed. Let us hope it is not this season and let us hope that Flacco can have a run like Peyton Manning. The Broncos QB, who played the first 227 games of his illustrious career with the Indianapolis Colts, played in just three playoff games during his first four seasons. Flacco has appeared in nine playoff games in four seasons and thus, holds the record.

The offensive line was average at best during the preseason but they will get better. However, the price a franchise QB can pay until that happens can be catastrophic. The back of Flacco’s jersey hit the turf hard a few times during this preseason. I can think of a big hit he took in Atlanta and another at home, against the Jags. It only takes one good shot or one instance on the sidelines when Flacco sees three fingers, instead of two, for the offense to be turned over to Tyrod Taylor. This is also another reason to snag a veteran back-up running back. None of the guys backing up Rice looked good in pass protection during the preseason. RB Anthony Allen, who was signed to the practice squad, missed a block on the hard hit Flacco took in Atlanta, and Bernard Pierce was the culprit at home vs. the Jags.


The Ravens are not alone with their troubles, every team has them and even the teams expected to contend with the Ravens for the AFC crown this season have concerns as well. The Patriots have offensive line concerns, and will be starting a ton of youth on the defensive side of the ball. We all know Tom Brady does not like to be hit and isn’t nearly as effective when doing so.

If you look at the top 20 players on the Patriots defense now, the average age is a tad over 25. There are 13 players that are 25 or under, and according to the depth chart, 65 percent of the 20 should be the core of the defense. Only two players are aged 30 or more, Vince Wilfork (30) and Will Allen (34).

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="328" caption="DeCastro down and out"][/caption]

Pittsburgh has very real injury concerns on their offensive line, their running back situation isn’t what head coach Mike Tomlin would like it to be, and like the Ravens, there are some variables on the defense that could see last year’s top ranked unit, take a  slide in 2012. The Steelers selected two very good offensive linemen with their first two picks in April’s draft. Unfortunately, for Steelers fans, the one they chose first and a player Tomlin expected to start week one, could be out for the season. The only reason David DeCastro is not is the new injured reserve rule that allows a team to bring a player back to play during the season. DeCastro, along with another promising rookie, linebacker Sean Spence, were placed on the IR after injuring their knees during back-to-back preseason games. Injuries are also mounting where the Steelers have always been strong in talent and numbers, the linebacking corps.

Aside from Spence, starting outside backer James Harrison has been on and off the field after a sore knee resulted in surgery and his backup, Jason Worilds, was sidelined after wrist surgery. Inside linebacker, Stevenson Sylvester tore his MCL, which means he'll be out to start the season. This is adding to the fact that QB Ben Roethlisberger may still be sporting a sore ankle from last season and he admitted that he was playing with a partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder at the start of training camp.

A quarterback who is returning from missing last season and has had not one, not two or three, but four surgical procedures on his neck, lead the favorites in the AFC West. If you throw in a knee surgery, Peyton Manning is starting to resemble an actual 35-year old quarterback entering his 14th season. Yes, Manning is legendary and the Broncos have defensive rookie of the year Von Miller, but they have many questions in between the two.

As they seem to be every year, the Houston Texans have emerged as the sexy Super Bowl pick in the AFC for the 2012 season. Houston could be this year’s 49ers in terms of winning a weak division by Thanksgiving but the Texans have concerns and health is always a big one in Houston. The injury bug found itself a home in Houston last season and has spent some time there during training camp. Last season, they lost two star offensive players in Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson and star defensive player Mario Williams for the majority of the season. In addition, Arian Foster, Danieal Manning, Mike Brisiel and Darryl Sharpton all missed significant time throughout the year. So far this summer, J.J. Watt, Andre Johnson, Brian Cushing, Shaun Cody and Kareem Jackson have all sustained injuries that have kept them out of training camp for a prolonged period. Darryl Sharpton has been placed on the PUP list, making him ineligible until the sixth week of the NFL season. However, the Texans expect to be fully healthy when they kick off the regular season against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 9, according to Nick Scurfield of

Aside from health, the Texans have issues with the right side of their offensive line and if their defense is bothered by injuries, they may have trouble stopping the run this season. I would also throw in that the defense is revamped when you consider that they lost all world defensive end Mario Williams to the Buffalo Bills in free agency. Some could argue that is a useless point. The Texans still managed to finish the 2011 season as the second ranked defense in the NFL with Williams sidelined for the final 11 games of the season. This is nothing more than merely knit picking in Houston as the Texans appear to be the Ravens most viable threat this season.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="262" caption="Matt Schaub looking for a Texas sized ring this year"][/caption]

In short, the Texans, Steelers and Broncos need to get healthy, or stay healthy, while the Patriots must hope that youth prevails on defense. The Ravens concerns entering the 2012 season are manageable and teams have won championships with far bigger issues. Head coach John Harbaugh has to hope that he is the best of the best when it comes to translating his concerns to victories. When you break down the AFC this season, only Cleveland and any team not named Houston in the south, (that includes Miami) could emerge as a contender.


"I really, really like this football team," Harbaugh said after final cuts on Friday night. "We have a group of guys that really know how to work, a group of guys that are really very united. There is a strong bond in that locker room."

Ravens fans hope that Harbaugh is right on with his prognosis. In a wide-open conference that possesses some very good teams with legitimate concerns, let us hope the 2012 Ravens bond is stronger than Lee Evans forearm was last season in the AFC Championship game. Harbaugh likes to use the word “battle” during his press conferences when referring to how his team played. Let us hope that Harbaugh and his team battle through the concerns of the preseason to end up where they should have been last post season, playing the New York Giants in a rematch of Super Bowl XXXV.


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