The countdown to the beginning of another kind of Birdland has begun. After last year’s devastating end just short of sweet victory in the AFC Championship Game, the Orioles have been adequately occupying fans. However, with the preseason approaching, the excitement about the commencement of football season is brewing. With only 40 days until the Ravens first preseason game and 72 days until Monday Night Football at home versus the Bengals, people are starting to once again get football fever.
The Ravens have historically taken on their fair share of criticism. Regardless of whether or not of how well the Ravens play, they are rarely featured on national news. Last year, it was nearly the sixth season before more the quip was shown on SportsCenter. Despite this adversity, seven members of the Ravens were listed in the “Top 100 Players of 2012.” In contrast, only the Eagles had seven players selected. In the AFC North, the Steelers had six players, the Browns had two and the Bengals only had one. Below is a breakdown of each Ravens player that made the cut.
No. 9 Haloti Ngata
With his monster frame, opponents are surely intimidated by arguably one of the greatest nose tackles in the game. Ngata can also be considered a “difference maker.” He makes plays with such intensity that it seems the very existence of the world depends on the play at hand. Plagued with a thigh injury in the latter part of the season, Ngata still posted impressive numbers. Playing through the injury, he started in all 16 games last year and recorded 64 tackles with five sacks. He also forced two fumbles and had three fumble return runs for 28 yards. At times, it was clear the injury was plaguing him near the end of the season with slower than usual push-offs. Regardless, Ngata is a dominant force. At 28 years old and with seven years of experience, Ngata offers a veteran appeal with many viable playing years in the future. With Suggs out for the beginning part of the season, Ngata will need to continue to perform exceptionally to counteract the loss.
No. 11 Terrell Suggs
T-Sizzle as he refers to himself put a target on his back with his “Ball So Hard University” quip that Ravens fans embraced but which made the rest of the league red in the face with irritation. (If people were simply honest with themselves, surely they are simply envious that one of their players did not think of such a catchy introduction.) Regardless of whether or not you like Terrell Suggs, one thing is simply undeniable – The man is a machine. Playing in all 16 games, Suggs recorded 70 tackles, seven forced fumbles, two interceptions for 9 yards and a whopping 14 sacks! With surgical precision, Suggs has the ability to scope out the field in nanoseconds and make crucial plays. Because of an ACL injury during the off-season, he is not expected to return to the field until November, perhaps even later. The Ravens are hoping that Kruger and Upshaw can step into the position and at least hold down the fort until Suggs makes his glorious return to beast mode.
No. 16 Ed Reed
I like Ed Reed. I really do but I think his ranking was a little high based solely on his performance last year. One of the leaders of the team, his mere presence is likely the reason why he scored so highly on the list. Young players look to him as a mentor and he has helped shaped the future leaders of the squad. Reed was not present at the recent mini-camp and spoke of retirement earlier this year. Does anyone actually think Ed Reed will retire? No. He’s just being Ed Reed and Ravens fans know that. Reed saw his numbers drop last year compared to the 2010 season. In 2010, he played only 10 of the 16 games and had 37 tackles and eight interceptions. It was during this time fan groups proclaimed, “The earth is 2/3 covered by water. The rest is covered by Ed Reed.” Quarterbacks knew that if they were throwing it anywhere near Reed, that ball better be thrown perfectly unless the wanted to give the ball over and have some Gatorade. Last year, in 16 games, Reed had 52 tackles, 1 sack and 3 interceptions. Though the numbers statistically dropped, Ed Reed brings so much more than just statistics and numbers to the Ravens. Reed brings heart, maturity and leadership to a team that knows they are playing with one of the greatest safeties in recent history.
No. 20 Ray Lewis
Ray Lewis personifies the Ravens. He is the only player from the 1996 inaugural season and is undoubtedly, the heart and soul of the team. Any Ravens fan that has ever listened to his mic or his pre-game pep talks has experienced goose bumps associated with greatness. He has a fiery that cannot be tamed. At 37, this may be Ray Lewis’s last year in a football uniform. In the 2011 season, he completed 95 tackles and 2 sacks. The previous year, he completely 139 tackles also with two sacks. Perhaps this decline in statistics is the reason why he fell from ranked 3 to 20. Perhaps statistically, he should have been ranked 20 this year but from an overall standpoint, I’d imagine most of the Ravens would rank him as number 1. Ray Lewis is the Baltimore Ravens. He lives and breathes Baltimore football. Though retirement may be looming, the intensity that Ravens fans have grown accustomed to will shine this year. Lewis knows what is at stake and it is a guarantee that he wants one more chance at a Super Bowl ring.
No. 22 Ray Rice
With 1,364 rushing yards in the 2011 season, second behind Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice proved to be a vital part of the offense last year. Whether he was getting low to the ground and running brilliant paths or catching a screen pass from Joe Flacco, Rice had an historic year. With only two fumbles on the entire year, Rice was responsible for 12 touchdowns. Fans and players alike watched in awe as he completed a 70-yard TD and adored Rice for the consistency that he offered. Over the off-season, the Ravens put a franchise tag on Rice as his Rookie contract is up at end of the season. One would have to hope that Rice will have an exceptional 2012 season as he tries to prove his worth and secure a long-term position in Baltimore.
No. 45 Vonta Leach
Vonta Leach is the highest paid fullback in the NFL and he is worth every single penny. Standing at 6’0” and 260 pounds, Leach is capable of picking up the blitz and quickly assessing the situation. With his brute force, Leach is able to force a stalemate and not allow defenders to penetrate. His blocking abilities are unparalleled and it is evident that he was a missing piece to the puzzle that we did not even realize was missing (To be fair, Le’Ron McClain wasn’t awful). Aside from making a powerful duo with Ray Rice, the Ravens were able to give the ball to Leach on third and shorts to get the first down. He obtained 9 first downs and carried the ball for 35 yards in 12 attempts. After a full season of playing together, Rice and Leach know each other’s mechanics and hopefully can become an unstoppable force for the upcoming season.
No. 74 Joe Flacco
Joe Flacco has taken his fair share of criticism throughout the years and his teammates have feverishly voiced their support for him. Though perhaps not an “elite” quarterback among the ranks of Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, Flacco has performed more than admirably. In his first four years as the Ravens quarterback, he has won 44 regular season games which is an NFL record. So why does Skip Bayless hate our quarterback? Why do sportscasters refuse to give him the recognition he deserves? During the mid-2000s, the Ravens were stuck with Kyle Boller. When Joe Flacco came around, it was a breath of fresh air. Despite his completion percentage dropping last year from 62.6 in 2010 to 57.6 in 2011, Flacco took more calculated risks. He threw the ball downfield more aggressively and went for big plays. Despite the drop in his completion percentage, Flacco still threw for 3,610 yards. There were a lot of big drops by Ravens receivers last year as well, that also should be taken into account. Over the last four years, Joe Flacco has eased into a leadership role and thrives in the shotgun formation. To continue his development and the quest for a number one seed this year, Cam Cameron has to continue to trust Flacco, his ability to read the defense and his ability to call plays.
Looking ahead, this Ravens season is going to be historic. It may likely be the last time fans see Ray Lewis come out of the tunnel or the last time fans see Ed Reed magically pluck a ball from mid-air. I truly believe that even with the Suggs injury, the team has a solid roster and can go all the way to the Super Bowl. The team is hungry for a win after falling a hair short last year. This Ravens team is going to bring the fire and there’s going to be no extinguishing it.