Baltimore Ravens 2012 NFL Team Preview

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<p> Baltimore Ravens 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>

Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Baltimore Ravens check in at No. 7.

Convinced that the Ravens are on the verge of reaching the Super Bowl, owner Steve Bisciotti issued a quick reply when asked what the AFC North champions needed to do to make it to the big game: “Hold on to a ball.” Bisciotti was referring to Lee Evans dropping a potential game-winning touchdown in a bitter AFC title game loss also remembered for kicker Billy Cundiff misfiring on a short field goal.

Although middle linebacker Ray Lewis and free safety Ed Reed are a year older, the Ravens are still contenders on the heels of a 12–4 campaign in which they went undefeated at home and swept the division.

“Teams like the Patriots and Steelers are older than we are,” Bisciotti says. “I don’t see age being a window-closer.”

Getting back to within one game of the Super Bowl will be an arduous challenge. The Ravens face the fourth-most difficult schedule in the NFL. They face 11 quarterbacks who’ve been named to the Pro Bowl — including consecutive games against Peyton Manning and Eli Manning — and eight games against playoff teams from a year ago. “It’s a tough schedule, but it’s a schedule for the Baltimore Ravens,” cornerback Lardarius Webb says. “It makes us work a little harder.”

Offense

Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice remains the centerpiece of an offense built around a punishing running game. One of the most productive all-purpose threats in the game, Rice piled up a league-high 2,068 yards from scrimmage last season and scored a franchise-record 15 touchdowns. Rice’s trademark elusiveness and versatility spearhead the offense. And the franchise player has the advantage of bruising fullback Vonta Leach creating holes.

Rookie Bernard Pierce and Anthony Allen are vying to be the primary backup to Rice after Ricky Williams’ abrupt retirement. Pierce is regarded as the favorite to win the job.

Quarterback Joe Flacco is known for his stoic personality, his strong right arm, and his durability. The franchise’s all-time leading passer with 13,816 yards and 80 touchdowns has made it to four consecutive playoff appearances and two AFC title games, going 44–20 under center and never missing a start. The Ravens are interested in a long-term contract extension with Flacco, who’s entering the final year of his rookie deal.

Flacco’s top avenues downfield are veteran Anquan Boldin and speedster Torrey Smith. Boldin lacks deep speed but uses muscle, savvy and sure hands to get the job done. Smith overcame a rough start to set a franchise rookie record with eight receiving scores (including one in the AFC title game). With better consistency, he could emerge as a 1,000-yard receiver.

The Ravens signed former Texans receiver Jacoby Jones to a $7 million contract hoping that he’s the answer for a third wide receiver.

Their other candidates include Tandon Doss, David Reed, LaQuan Williams and rookie Tommy Streeter. At 6'5", 220 pounds, Streeter is adept at the fade route.

Tight end Todd Heap wasn’t missed — Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta combined for 94 catches, 933 yards and eight touchdowns.

The offensive line is in flux at left guard after the departure of Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs. Jah Reid and Kelechi Osemele are fighting to replace him in what shapes up as the key camp battle. Gritty Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda is one tough farm boy, utilizing leverage and strength to muscle defenders. Six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk is up in years but is still a viable blocker whose strong suits are intelligence and experience. The Ravens are banking on left tackle Bryant McKinnie following through on his promise to report in better shape. Michael Oher provides a solid blocking presence at right tackle.

Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s biggest challenges are getting better play from his tackles and improving in the red zone.

Defense

Promoted to defensive coordinator after Chuck Pagano went to the Colts, Dean Pees already faces a crisis. The third-ranked defense in the NFL suffered a damaging blow when NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs partially tore his Achilles tendon in April. Suggs (14 sacks, seven forced fumbles) could miss much of the season, if not all of it. Rookie Courtney Upshaw is the frontrunner to be plugged in at Suggs’ rush linebacker spot. Paul Kruger is slated to take over at strong-side outside linebacker with Jarret Johnson gone. Pernell McPhee, a fifth-round steal with six sacks as a rookie, and Sergio Kindle will need to contribute more as pass-rushers.

The Ravens will rely heavily upon Lewis, the emotional leader of a tradition-rich defense. His range and coverage skills have declined, but he’s still one of the best middle linebackers. Inside linebacker Jameel McClain is so highly regarded he was retained with a $10.5 million contract.

Webb has become a true shutdown corner and was rewarded with a $50 million contract. Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith make corner one of the top positions on the team. Reed is an instinctive, capable centerfielder but has durability and tackling issues caused by neck and shoulder injuries. Strong safety Bernard Pollard is an intimidating hitter.

The defensive line is anchored by disruptive tackle Haloti Ngata. Terrence Cody is a beefy nose guard who commands double-teams inside. McPhee and Arthur Jones are competing for Cory Redding’s vacated left end spot.

Specialists

Flubbing a rushed field goal try against the Patriots carries consequences for Cundiff, a 2010 Pro Bowl kicker. The Ravens are expected to acquire a veteran to challenge him in camp, and they’ve already signed undrafted former Texas kicker Justin Tucker.

While punter Sam Koch averaged a career-high 46.5 yards last season, kick coverage was shoddy. The Ravens surrendered a total of three touchdowns on returns, ranking 31st in kickoff return average and 24th in punt returns. To (hopefully) fix the problem, the Ravens signed Pro Bowl special teams ace Corey Graham and brought back Brendon Ayanbadejo.

By signing Jones, an accomplished punt returner, the Ravens are optimistic that they’ve upgraded their return game. Webb is indispensable on defense, so adding Jones was a necessity.

Final Analysis: 2nd in the AFC North

Super Bowl prospects dimmed a bit due to Suggs’ injury, but the Ravens are still capable of making a serious run. The offense will need another huge year from Rice and clutch performances from Flacco to generate more points. The defense might need to blitz more, and Lewis and Reed need to stay healthy. The special teams have nowhere to go but up.

At the worst, the Ravens have the talent, leadership and coaching to get back to the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.

Related: 2012 Baltimore Ravens Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Sticking With It
Although cornerback Lardarius Webb is extremely valuable to the defense after signing a $50 million contract, he still wants to remain the big-play threat at punt returner. Last year, Webb returned one punt for a touchdown and averaged 10 yards per return. He wants to stay involved even if he’s not the primary punt returner since the Ravens signed Jacoby Jones. “Yes, I would love to be a returner,” Webb says. “That’s what made Deion Sanders so great, because he was returning kicks and returning punts and returning interceptions to the house. That’s what made him Deion Sanders. So, that might make me Lardarius Webb.”

Promoting From Within
Led by general manager Ozzie Newsome, director of player personnel Eric DeCosta, director of pro personnel Vince Newsome and director of college scouting Joe Hortiz, the Ravens’ scouting department is regarded as one of the best in the NFL. The Ravens groom personnel employees from a young age through a so-called 20-20 club, referring to hiring 20-year-olds for a $20,000 salary. Added Newsome: “The guys actually started when they were a little older than 20 and for more than $20,000, but that’s what we call them.”

Proving Himself
Jah Reid knows he’ll have to earn the left guard job vacated when Pro Bowl blocker Ben Grubbs signed a $36 million contract with the Saints. The 6'7", 335-pounder currently ranks first on the depth chart, but faces competition from rookie Kelechi Osemele. “I certainly have to go in and expect to play,” Reid says. “I want this position, and it’s mine to lose.”

Reunited
Curtis Painter had an edge of familiarity when he auditioned for the team this spring, beating out Kyle Boller and Dennis Dixon at a tryout. Painter played for Ravens quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell with the Colts before Caldwell was fired last season. He’s expected to be the third quarterback.

Home-field Advantage
The Ravens went undefeated at home and were one of only three teams to accomplish that feat last season (along with the Packers and Saints). Under John Harbaugh, the Ravens have won 18 of their last 19 regular-season games at home and are 27–5 in Baltimore overall since he took over four years ago.

Hold That Line
The Ravens are stout on defense. They ranked first in red zone defense last season, allowing only 16 touchdowns for a 38.1 TD percentage.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: New York Jets
No. 18: Buffalo Bills
No. 17: Tennessee Titans
No. 16: San Diego Chargers
No. 15: Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14: Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13: New Orleans Saints
No. 12: Dallas Cowboys
No. 11: Denver Broncos
No. 10: Detroit Lions
No. 9: Chicago Bears
No. 8: Atlanta Falcons
No. 7: Baltimore Ravens
No. 6: Fri., August 24

Order your 2012 Baltimore Ravens Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 Baltimore Ravens Schedule Analysis

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