Tonight is the final dress rehearsal – the preseason curtain call. In one week the Ravens will officially begin their defense of the title as the reigning Super Bowl Champions.
I’m asked often what I expect from this season’s team. And it’s interesting how the question is presented or phrased. It’s almost as if the questioner winces a bit anticipating a not so pleasant answer.
They then look surprised when I respond…
The Ravens will be better in 2013!
Yes I do realize that they are the champs but being a better team doesn’t necessarily mean that the end result will be as good.
The Ravens will be faster, younger and more explosive.
Defensively, they will return to a dominant, attacking unit. Their speed has improved exponentially. The depth in the front seven rotation is the best that it’s been in years. They are healthier.
And they no longer will they be handicapped by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed!
No, that’s not a misprint.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will no longer be hamstrung by an aging middle linebacker who refuses to come off the field in nickel and dime situations. He will no longer have to worry about the integrity of his zone coverage schemes on the back end due to a freelancing free safety.
Of course those players were great – emphasis on the “were”.
Offensively the Ravens will be more challenged not so much by the loss of Anquan Boldin, but rather the loss of Dennis Pitta.
Pitta was expected to assume some of the tough intermediate routes usually assigned to Boldin. The plan was to distribute the load between Pitta and the next in line amongst a rather unimpressive stable of receivers. Now offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell will be more challenged and they’ll look to the long-in-the-tooth Dallas Clark and Brandon Stokley to pick up the slack.
If Cam Cameron were still at the control switch when the Ravens have the ball, this could be a big issue. Caldwell however, with his ability and willingness to utilize the skill sets of his players in a way that enables their productivity will find a way to spread the field and the ball around.
Don’t be surprised to see Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce on the field at the same time. Caldwell will look to pressure defenses, sending Rice in motion to create mismatches against linebackers while creating space for Pierce to operate out of a single back set. This approach could even help Bobby Rainey make the 53-man squad provided special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg can get comfortable with an adequate replacement for Anthony Allen who possesses plus “teams” skills.
Of course there will be required adjustments and there will be sloppy moments on both sides of the football until the talents mesh together. And when they do, the end result will be a team that is better than the one that took the Lombardi home last season.
The key for any team is to have their ticket punched for the postseason dance. Once they put on those dancing shoes, anything is possible. We’ve seen it. We’ve experienced it.
Take a look around the AFC. Do any teams scare you?
Any pose a major threat to the Ravens?
Denver is led by an aging quarterback who struggles to get it done when the weather takes a turn for the worse and they will be without two players for the first six games of the season that combined for 57% of their sacks in 2012 (Von Miller & Elvis Dumervil).
New England showed signs of weakening last season and they are a team that the Ravens match up well with. Tom Brady will start the season without players that accounted for 75% of his passing targets in 2012.
Houston? Tough to take them seriously in the post season when their quarterback is Matt Schaub who just doesn’t have “it” in the postseason. Yes Houston has a problem.
Cincinnati? The team that hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season? Those guys? Not worried.
Indianapolis? Not that “Luck-y” yet…
The point is, the AFC has no dominant team. There is no team that is the benchmark and that sets up perfectly for a Ravens team that will be far better later in the season than they may be to start the campaign.
Let the prognosticators, pundits and the court jesters like Skip Bayless have their fun at the Ravens expense.
Come February it may be John Harbaugh & Company who get the last laugh.
And then next season, the club’s motto will be, “Here We Are…Again!”