The NFL, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Crystal Ball. My five predictions for the 2006 Baltimore Ravens will take you to strange new worlds. We will seek out new boundaries and accomplishments and boldly go where no prognosticator has gone before.
Fasten your seat belt…
1.) The Ravens will win two road games or more: To date, it has been one year, seven months and seven days since Baltimore won a road game. The road woes of this team are well documented. After going winless away from M&T Bank Stadium in the 2005 season, the Ravens will rebound and will win at least two road games. The team has to play in some hostile environments including Kansas City, Denver and Tampa Bay to start the season. Then there are always hot spot match-ups against their division rivals, although the Ravens have faired well in those games over the last two seasons.
2.) Baltimore will lead the league in run defense: While a number of observers criticized the Baltimore run defense, it was a solid unit, ranking ninth overall, seventh in yards per carry and third in touchdowns allowed (8). The year before, the team was that much better, tied for second in least amount of yards allowed per carry, and eight overall. Still, the Ravens have yet to crack the top five as a rushing defense since the 2001 season. Many believe that the Ravens have lost their edge up front. Some of the issues have stemmed from poor tackling once backs clear through the first-layer of defense. In addition, backs have been able to get outside and cause damage off the edges. With the return of a healthy Lewis, and the addition of Haloti Ngata up front, the Ravens may have the formula in place to control the box. Not only does Ngata bring a new dimension to the line, but his presence should help reserves Justin Bannan and Dwan Edwards play up to their maximum potential. The Ravens will have the depth along the defensive end and tackle spots to use a heavy rotation in 2006, which means fresher legs and better stamina to stuff a charging running game in the fourth quarter.
3) The Bengals will bring out the brooms: For a second year in a row, look for the Bengals to give Baltimore all they can handle. The Bengals have the Ravens’ number. Cincinnati has bested the Ravens in three straight meetings. Specifically, since Baltimore blew a 20-3 lead in the fourth quarter against the Bengals in 2004, Cincinnati has outscored the Ravens 63-38. Last season, it didn’t matter which defensive scheme the Ravens used to slow down Cincinnati, because the strategy didn’t work. In two games, Carson Palmer threw for 5 TDs and close to 600 yards combined. Rudi Johnson gained over 200 yards on the ground, while Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh had their way against any defensive back they lined up against. Will the Ravens be any better equipped to slow down Cincinnati’s spread attack? Perhaps. The Ravens may be able to get a rush on Palmer without blitzing as much as they did a year ago. However, when it comes down to the match-ups, the Bengals’ receivers have the edge, especially when the Ravens are in nickel and dime packages against the Bengals’ third and fourth receivers. Whatever the case may be, unless the Ravens’ defense can find a way to stop the juggernaut offense of Cincinnati, it will continue to lose shootouts against Marvin Lewis’ crew.
4) Steve McNair will lead a comeback victory: Not a hard call to make given McNair’s history. Out of all of his attributes, perhaps his ability to rally an offense and make clutch plays in critical situations will be the most important element that he brings to the Ravens. McNair doesn’t get rattled, whether he is facing an all out blitz or a quick front four in the waning seconds of a game. He will put his team in a position to win the game no matter what the odds. A few years back, when the Ravens and Titans were jostling for a victory in Adelphi Coliseum, many remember how Trent Dilfer led the Ravens down the field on a touchdown drive to secure a 24-23 lead. But McNair did his part as well, scrambling and completing a couple of passes to put Al Del Greco in position to covert the game-winning field goal, only to see Del Greco miss the 45-yard attempt. Still, McNair made plays even when it seemed impossible given the circumstances. There is a very good chance that McNair will be in position to lead the Ravens in a come from behind situation this season, and he will deliver.
5) Special Special Teams: Led by fiery Frank Gansz Jr., the special teams unit will be a strength of the team. In the last couple of seasons, special teams have been spotty and inconsistent. While the kicking game has been strong, the coverage on punts and kicks has left a lot to be desired. In addition, while B.J. Sams has performed as top-notch punt returner, the same can’t be said about the kick return game. In fact, the Ravens led the league in punt return average last season but ranked towards the bottom of the league in kick returns. That statistic must improve. The Ravens will look at a couple of rookie prospects like Cory Ross and Demetrius Williams to fill the void. As for the coverage units, look for that area of the special teams unit to improve dramatically. Baltimore added special teams standouts like Gary Stills, Corey Ivy and Gerome Sapp in the offseason. All three are excellent when it comes to staying in their lanes, busting through blocks and tracking down the ball-carrier. The position that needs to be resolved is at punter. Rookie Sam Koch appears to have the tools to be a good one. He averaged an impressive 46.51 yards per punt at Nebraska. However, if Koch earns a spot on the Ravens, he will need to do a better job of pinning teams back as opposed to booming the ball down the field. If Koch can kick with accuracy, look for the Ravens to win the field position battle on most Sundays.