Who would have thought two years after winning the Super Bowl, the Baltimore Ravens would go into the 2014 season as underdogs.
Because that’s what it’s shaping out to be.
Fresh off their 2013 AFC North title, the Cincinnati Bengals are ready to defend their reign; the Pittsburgh Steelers are completely refurbished, and attempting to rekindle that dominating aura they had a few seasons back; and the Browns, well, have Johnny Manziel, and a bunch of new faces helpful enough to make a push.
Yet, nobody is talking about the Ravens. Really? How quickly we all forget.
This was a team that, before last year’s misery, landed in the playoffs five consecutive seasons and made it into the second-round of the postseason in five-straight seasons. A couple years removed from their championship campaign and people can’t even discuss Baltimore as a contender anymore?
Its either got to be Manziel’s overhype that’s distracting the audience from Baltimore’s potential resurgence, or the whole controversy surrounding Ray Rice this offseason, because the Ravens are a legitimate threat to the other AFC North clubs, and in general, the conference. They still have Joe Flacco at the helm, John Harbaugh as the ringmaster, and now, new additions that have improved their squad twofold.
Let’s take a look at Flacco’s wide receiving corps.
First, you got Torrey Smith, who is one of the more underrated wideouts in the league, and ranked 17th overall among NFL receivers last season in yards (1,128). The guy has freakishly good hands, and although he’s only 6-foot, Smith plays bigger than his size, and is a go-to receiver on third-downs for Flacco. When you need someone to make a big play, Smith delivers.
Then at the other end, you got the other Smith – Steve Smith.
Signed on in the offseason, Smith joins his first team other than Carolina, who he’s only known for his career. But the one factor Smith brings is intensity, no doubt. Like Torrey Smith, Steve Smith performs with a lot of heart, and so his 5-foot-9, 195-pound frame never played a role in his effectiveness. With a fresh start, Smith could be a pivotal, veteran player for the Ravens this season, much like Anquan Boldin was for the 49ers last year.
Forget those two, what about Marlon Brown and Jacoby Jones as their third and fourth receivers? Brown only had seven touchdowns to lead all Ravens’ wideouts – and running backs – last season, in just his rookie campaign. And let’s not overlook Jones, who, during their Super Bowl run, had multiple key receptions in big situations; one specifically being the 70-yard touchdown catch he had against the Broncos in the late seconds of the fourth quarter. Now healthy, Jones will be a fine player as their fourth wideout.
Moving over to assessing the tight end situation.
Missing nearly the entire 2013 campaign with a dislocated and fractured right hip, Dennis Pitta is back, and healthy for the long haul. In ’12, Pitta finished second on the team for touchdowns among receivers (7), and third in yardage (669). His presence alone is enough to solidify the tight end position, but then Baltimore goes and brings in Owen Daniels, whose been one of the better tight ends in the league over the years. Daniels is a big target, and given both Pitta and his efficiency, they each should allow one another to see more open field.
The amount of depth for Flacco to throw to is disgusting, but the passing game will only be productive if Rice can shake the demons.
Suspended two games for his part in physically abusing his then fiancé, Rice is coming into the ’14 season with much to prove. Five seasons prior, Rice rushed for over 1,100 yards in every one except for his rookie campaign, and last year, he couldn’t even break 700, as he compiled just 660 yards. He gained less yards than guys like Chris Ivory, Rashad Jennings, Lamar Miller, and Bilal Powell. So, Rice not only has to redeem his reputation, but must manufacture some sort of production for Baltimore to open up the passing game.
Shifting our attention to the defense, I can tell you right now, it’ll be better than last year.
Yes, of course, the loss of Ray Lewis probably provided us of an example of where the Ravens were headed, and it was obvious his absence was felt on defense. However, Baltimore still has Terrell Suggs, who, in my opinion, is just as big a vocal leader as Lewis was. And Baltimore just drafted C.J. Mosley, who comes from the best collegiate program, Alabama, to fill the void at inside linebacker. Factor in a comeback with Elvis Dumervil, and I’d say Baltimore has themselves a formidable front in the middle of the field on defense.
Drafting big Timmy Jernigan out of Florida State to plug with Haloti Ngata on their defensive line, and it’s going to formulate a similar tandem to Detroit’s with Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh. On the outsides at end they’ll call upon Chris Canty and second-year pro Brandon Williams, who both should also be diligent pass rushers, and stabilize the protection on the ends. I’ll be extremely surprised if anybody is able to maneuver their way by the Ravens’ first two groups, but should they, Baltimore’s secondary is icing on the cake.
Jimmy Smith, who was a first-round selection in 2011, and Lardarius Webb are arguably one of the best cornerback duos in the league. Not only are they tremendous pass protectors, but they’re exceptional tacklers as well, and they solidify the secondary due to the youngsters at safety – Terrence Brooks and Matt Elam. Elam is a first-rounder and in his second-year, so he should be in line for drastic maturation, but Brooks is just a rookie. Provided he can due his part, the rest of the defense should take care of itself.
Point blank, on both sides of the ball, the Ravens are anything but underdogs. I’ve thought long and hard about Pittsburgh being the favorites to win the AFC North, but Baltimore is now my pick to come out of that division on top.
The Ravens have just too much experience, leadership, and quality depth for them to endure a season like they had in ’13 again. So, while others are glueing their eyes to what Manziel’s going to do, or betting on either Cincinnati or Pittsburgh to claim the crown, they’re seriously sleeping on Baltimore.
Overall, the north division should be one of the best in the AFC, next to the west. It should be a dogfight till the end, but Baltimore’s got the charisma to be the one left standing when it’s all over.
Don’t you dare bypass these Ravens, because they’re comin’ in hot.