We had some burning questions about the Baltimore Ravens, so we turned to the excellent Jason Butt at Baltimore Beatdown. Here's what he had to say about last year's Super Bowl champs.
Dave Choate: You guys have been hit hard by injuries and a few high-profile, if perhaps overblown, defections and trades. Looking at this team today, what are your expectations for the 2013 season?
Jason Butt: On defense, the Ravens will be better in 2013. The problem, a season ago, was that the defensive line continued to get pushed back off the line of scrimmage. It prompted defensive coordinator Dean Pees to get extremely creative, instituting substitution packages that had outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw at nose tackle even. The Ravens won't have to do that this year now that Chris Canty can allow Haloti Ngata play his more natural position of nose tackle, and with Marcus Spears and third-round draft pick Brandon Williams providing depth. Arthur Jones also came on strong at the end of last season and could very well wind up being a bigger playmaker in 2013 with all of the additional moving parts to the line.
On offense, Flacco might not look like the exceptional quarterback he was in the 2013 playoffs unless some of the young receivers step up and prove they can contribute. Anquan Boldin was more than a safety net for Flacco a year ago -- Flacco could wing it and toss him the ball in the vicinity and allow Boldin to snatch it from defensive backs. Dennis Pitta's loss hurts as well, as those two were best friends on and off the field. Pitta was going to see an increased role.
I'm not sure how Brandon Stokley (37) and Dallas Clark (34) will fit into the equation just yet. They have familiarity with what Jim Caldwell likes to do so that's certainly a plus for Ravens fans. They're also old and past their prime.
DC: Joe Flacco had one of the great playoff runs of all time in 2012, but his regular season did not see him take a significant step forward. Where do you think Flacco belongs in the conversation about the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and how do you think he'll fare this year?
JB: I get a little bugged out about the quarterback conversation because history has proven that capable quarterbacks -- not necessarily elite -- can lead teams to the Super Bowl. Are Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning in that "elite" category only because they were on recent teams that won Super Bowls? Rob Johnson, Kurt Warner and Mark Rypien have won Super Bowls dating back to the early 90s. Sure, the elite ones have greater odds to lead their teams that far. But those kind of quarterbacks are rare don't come around often.
Championships aside, it's hard to compare Flacco to the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees due to years in the league and supporting casts on offense. Up until the end of 2012, Flacco hadn't played in a similar offensive scheme to these players. The most natural comparison for Flacco would be Atlanta's Matt Ryan, who has begun to blow Flacco out of the water statistically in the past two seasons. But football statistics don't account for various offensive schemes, styles and philosophies. Baltimore's been a run-first, defensive minded team for years. As long as Flacco's limited mistakes, the Ravens have been OK. More important than his 11 touchdowns in the 2012 postseason were the zero interceptions.
Flacco is among the NFL's better quarterbacks, but I'm more inclined to list a lot more names into that particular discussion than to place numerous tiers with only a few peers in each. I think you have a clear top four and then a vast group of capable guys that can win when given opportunities. Flacco is certainly near the top of that discussion.
DC:The defense has long been a strength for this Ravens team. You've lost two living legends in Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. Who replaces them, and will they actually be improvements over the aging Reed and Lewis?
JB: As crazy as this may sound, losing Lewis is addition by subtraction from a pure football standpoint. Could it hurt with all the other emotional, rah-rah stuff that encompasses football? Sure. He was a major motivational leader in the locker room and could rally guys like no one else. But his game was nowhere close to being where a starting inside linebacker's needed to be. Taking Lewis' spot is Daryl Smith, who signed with Baltimore from Jacksonville this offseason. Coming off a groin injury, I think a lot of people forgot how important he's been to the Jaguars' defense. He had an exceptional preseason opener against Tampa Bay and has solidified Lewis' Mike linebacker spot. As for the Will linebacker position, it's Jameel McClain's unless he's unable to get clearance due to a spinal cord contusion suffered last year. Candidates to replace fill in are Josh Bynes, Albert McClellan and rookie Arthur Brown.
Ed Reed, however, will be tough to replace due to his football IQ on the field. He got guys in position and could change plays on a whim is an offense lined up in an unexpected formation. His tackling was an issue due to shoulder injuries and a nerve impingement in his neck. Reed also had the entire secondary's undivided attention. That role will transition to cornerback Lardarius Webb, but can he have the same kind of effect Reed had? And will safeties Michael Huff, Matt Elam and James Ihedigbo be able to make up for the football knowledge that's left the position group? That's a bigger question than the Lewis replacement.
DC: What makes this offense truly hum? Are the Ravens best when Flacco is passing frequently, when Ray Rice is toting the rock or as a more balanced unit? I know there were some concerns around the team's identity earlier in the year, before the playoff run made everything moot.
JB: Statistics would indicate it begins with Flacco, since the Ravens won all six contests that saw him throw for 299 yards or more in 2012. But I believe it begins with Rice. If he's able to get going then it opens up the offense for Flacco and everyone else. The thing about Rice is that he can hurt you in both facets of the game, whether it's running or receiving.
With the Ravens trading Boldin and losing Pitta, the Ravens may have to rely on Rice this year, as well as backup running back Bernard Pierce. Only a couple of teams in recent history have been able to succeed without a running game. Baltimore isn't one of them. The Ravens need a running game to help Flacco set up shots down the field.
DC: Predictions for the game ahead, and players we should keep an eye on?
JB: I do think the Ravens' first-team offense looks a little better than it opened against Tampa Bay. Receivers Jacoby Jones, Tandon Doss and Deonte Thompson combined for one reception for five yards last Thursday. Though Thompson (ankle) is unavailable, I bet Jones and Doss see some more targets and get on the stat sheet.
Safety Omar Brown did not play last Thursday but should be good to go this week. He's been a standout two preseasons in a row but has had too many players in front of him on the depth chart. On offense, receiver LaQuan Williams will be looking to build on a solid preseason outing that saw him catch a touchdown, recover a blocked punt for a touchdown and recover another muffed punt. He's made the 53-man roster the last two years and is once again battling for a spot.