Eight months ago, Ravens faithful witnessed yet another crushing defeat at the hands of dem Stillers. The Steelers have beaten us every #@& time it has really mattered. I don’t know about you, but I am sick of it. This offseason, the goal has been to build a team that can unseat Pittsburgh as the undisputed power of the AFC East. Let’s look at each facet of the team and see how Ozzie has done:
Offensive Line – Big Upgrade
Two weeks ago, I would have been very nervous with the O-line as it was. Oher is not built for left tackle. Birk was over the hill. Chester and Cousins were not the answer. But now, with late additions of Pro bowl left tackle Bryant McKinney, Pro Bowl Center Andre Gurode, and the move of Michael Oher from left to right tackle, meaning we don’t have to start rookie Jah Reid, I see the line as a strength on the team. Only time will tell, but our line is bigger and stronger than just one week ago. They will face their biggest test in less than three days.
Wide Receivers – Upgrade
Last year, opposing defenses could crowd the line knowing we did not have a deep threat. Boldin and departing Derek Mason and TJ Houshmanzadah were all the same type of receiver. They all occupied the same area on the field. Now with Lee Evans, whom Ozzie stole from Buffalo for a 4th round pick, Joe Flacco finally has someone who can stretch the field. Torrey Smith adds another deep threat at the slot. Because of Evans, Boldin’s production should go up from a subpar 64 catches for 837. Look for 75 for 1,000 yards.
Running Game – Upgrade
How do the Ravens do it? They pick up All Pro fullback Vonta Leach for a song. La’Ron McClean was very good, but Leach is a better blocker, which makes Ray Rice better. After a slight dip in his production in 2010, Rice is poised to vie for the Pro Bowl again. Also Ricky Williams is a nice complement to Rice, so the Ravens should not miss Willis McGahee much at all.
Defensive Line – Upgrade
It will be different not seeing Kelly Gregg, aka Buddy Lee, pulling his pants up after every play. But Terrence Cody should fill that hole just, fine. The big question – Can the Ravens generate a pass rush? On passing downs, I see Pagano calling rookie Purnell McPhee’s number. His strength and quickness and relentless motor has had many Ravens fans saying, “Who is that guy?!” I also think the change at defensive coordinator will help the pass rush. Greg Mattison seemed way too cautious at crucial times last year, which put way too much pressure on the secondary. The players seem excited to play for Chuck Pagano, which one could interpret as they will be flying all over the field and taking no prisoners.
Linebackers – slight upgrade
Everyone is back except Tavares Gooden. We thought perhaps Jared Johnson would be a salary cap casualty, but good for us he is still wearing purple. Paul Kruger looks as though he is ready to take it to the next level. If he does, that could mean a 10+ sack season for T-Sizzle. Sergio Kindle was a second round pick and All American at Texas. He has the pedigree and the Ravens were very excited to draft him last year. But then he falls down the stairs and cracks his head and misses the whole season. He is healthy now and I would submit hungry to prove himself. Then of course there is that freak of nature, No. 52. He is driven to get back to the promised land before he hangs it up, and his leadership will lift everyone’s game.
Cornerback – Upgrade
Chris Carr and Lardarius Webb played pretty well last year. I would say they were underrated. But they were simply overmatched many times. Dominique Foxworth missed almost all of last year. He was our number one corner going into last year, and is back healthy for 2011. But by year’s end, he may be eclipsed by a new number one CB – Jimmy Smith. The Ravens’ first round pick was rated among the top 10 of the draft by many teams. He has the size (6’2”, 205 lbs.), speed and strength of the best Ravens CB ever, Chris McAllister. In college, teams simply never threw over to Smith’s side of the field. If Smith gets up to speed quickly, this unit becomes way above average.
Safety – Even
Bernard Pollard has played well in the preseason, as a free agent pickup. He has plenty of size and has been a solid pro. He should be a good complement to Mr. Ball Hawk Ed Reed. The big question – can Ed stay healthy? If he is feeling well, he brings that X factor, the ability to turn an errand pass into 6 Ravens points. Zbikowski is a decent backup.
Kicking Game – Even
The Ravens are lucky to have two of the best at their respective positions. Billy Cundiff was All Pro last year. Sam Koch should have been. Unfortunately moving the kickoff spot to the 35 negates Cundiff’s strong leg, as now many more kickers will have lots more touchbacks this year. What a stupid move that was by the NFL?! In effect, it does away with one of the most exciting plays in football.
Quarterback – Upgrade
Joe Flacco has had an amazing first 3 years, without the best weapons around him. Now with another year of experience, an improved offensive line, and a deep threat in Lee Evans, Flacco has the setup to take this team to Super Bowl for the first time in 11 years. He will miss Todd Heap, no doubt. But in their second year, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson will be relied on the make the blocks and be that big target for Flacco. Both were drafted pretty high, and have speed and good hands. Expect them to step up, just as Heap did in replacing Shannon Sharpe.
Joe has now started in over 50 games. He has been playing in Cam Cameron’s system the whole time. He should have the offense down pat, and be able to make those progressions faster than ever. I expect big things from him this year – say 4,000 yards, 30 TDs and 65% completion. If Flacco does have those kinds of numbers, we should have home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Yes I see the team through purple colored glasses, I admit it. But when I take those off, I still see a Ravens team that improved itself in many facets of the game. We will know a whole lot about this 2011 team around 4 pm Sunday. Has Ozzie Newsome built a team to get the ugly obnoxious yellow and black monkey off our back FINALLLY? God, I sure hope so!! The Steelers basically kept the status quo, while the Ravens got bigger, stronger and faster. It should translate into the best Ravens team since John Harbaugh took over. Hold on tight – it’s going to be one heck of a ride!!