NFL Training Camp Snapshot 2013: Baltimore Ravens
With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
You surely know the story. Baltimore scratched and clawed its way to a 10-6 record and AFC North title last season, then embarked on a magical playoff run that featured Ray Lewis’ last hurrah, a reshuffled offensive line and the sudden emergence of Joe Flacco as an unstoppable quarterback.
Every little thing fell into place en route to the Vince Lombardi trophy, from that Flacco-to-Jacoby Jones bomb that saved Baltimore against Denver to a last-minute, post-blackout stand versus San Francisco.
Producing an encore will be a tall order for the Ravens, with Lewis and Ed Reed out the door, leading to an overhaul on defense. Baltimore also suffered a substantial injury early in camp, with TE Dennis Pitta going down with a season-ending hip injury.
A target will be on the Ravens’ backs throughout the 2013 season. Is this team capable of rising to the challenge and delivering a repeat championship?
• Biggest Storyline: Who’s catching passes?
‘Tis baffling, really, that the Ravens could turn over as many as seven or eight starting spots on defense, including those belonging to longtime heart-and-soul guys Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, and still have the focus fall on its offense.
That offense continues to take hits, though. First, Baltimore opted to save some money and move clutch playoff performer (and Joe Flacco safety net) Anquan Boldin to San Francisco. The Ravens then lost TE Dennis Pitta for the season to a hip injury. His replacement, Ed Dickson, has a hamstring issue of his own, though the hope is he’ll be ready for Week 1.
Those developments leave $120 million man Joe Flacco in a bit of a bind. Flacco does have luxury of a Ray Rice/Bernard Pierce backfield, with Torrey Smith still entrenched at wide receiver. The issue for the Ravens is what happens beyond that group.
Flacco quieted a lot of his critics with a sensational postseason. He could shut up the rest by delivering stats and wins despite a depleted receiving corps.
• Most intriguing positional battle: Strong safety.
To avoid spending our entire time on the Ravens’ receivers, let’s turn the spotlight onto that remade defense.
Rookie Matt Elam, the final pick in Round 1 of this year’s draft, should win this job eventually. Whether or not he’s in the starting lineup for Week 1 could depend on his ability to outperform veteran James Ihedigbo this preseason.
The 29-year-old Ihedigbo started three games at safety for the Ravens last season and pitched in on special teams. Had the Ravens felt fully confident in his abilities to replace Ed Reed in the secondary, they likely would not have spent their first-round pick on someone who played the same position. But Ihedigbo opened camp as a starter, next to fellow safety Michael Huff (another new face), and the Ravens may keep him there until Elam wrestles the job away from him.
• New face, new place: Daryl Smith, LB.
Daryl Smith is the Jaguars’ all-time leading tackler. And he cost Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome barely more than $1 million for the 2013 season.
Moves to get Elvis Dumervil or even Chris Canty drew more attention for Newsome during this busy offseason, but this could wind up being his shrewdest move. Smith suited up for just two games in 2012, because of a lingering groin injury. He’s played less than 15 regular-season games only one other time in his nine-year career — 2008, when he missed two Sundays.
Smith will take over one of the two vacated inside linebacker spots in Baltimore’s 3-4 defense, which lost Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe this offseason. Rookie Arthur Brown could end up with the other job, further highlighting the need for a steady vet such as Smith. He may not be the rabid personality that Lewis was for so many years in Baltimore. What he does bring, though, when healthy, is an understanding of how to play the position and a proven track record.
• Impact rookie: Arthur Brown, LB.
Part 2 of Baltimore’s probable post-Lewis ILB corps. Brown tumbled all the way to No. 56 in the draft, where the Ravens traded up to claim him. That still was lower than many experts had the versatile ex-Kansas State star pegged.
Brown’s game — physical, with the ability to cover and get to the football — should play nicely next to Smith, with Dumervil and Terrell Suggs rushing from the outside. In two seasons as a starter at Kansas State, Brown chalked up 100 and 101 tackles, respectively, while anchoring the Wildcats’ defense.
Surgery for a sports hernia slowed Brown in the weeks following the draft, though he was a full-go for the start of camp and should see plenty of action in the preseason. Adjusting to the NFL game will take some time, but there is potential for greatness here.
• Looking at the schedule: Considering the Ravens are coming off a division title and Super Bowl win, it could be a lot worse. Sure, the opener at Denver will be a really tough one, even with Von Miller possibly on the shelf serving a four-game suspension.
But the AFC North drew the AFC East and NFC North in its divisional crossovers this year, and those matchups mostly fell to the Ravens’ benefit. They do have a tricky back-to-back in Buffalo and Miami (Week 4 and 5), plus games at Chicago (Week 11) and a Monday nighter in Detroit (Week 15). The Patriots, Texans, Packers and Vikings all come to the Charm City, though. The Ravens also have a friendly three-game homestand in late November/early December (the Jets, vs. Pittsburgh on Thursday, Minnesota) and close with five of seven in Baltimore.
Of course, that means a road-heavy start to the slate — four of seven before Baltimore’s bye are away from home. If the offense struggles to find its footing or the defense fails to gel early, those could be rough waters. Otherwise, expect the Ravens to be right in this thing for the duration.