The 2013 NFL season is going to be a unique one for the Baltimore Ravens regardless of how anyone thinks they will do this year. The Ravens have gone through many well-documented changes during the offseason. Ray Lewis, the face of the franchise retired, and Ed Reed departed in free agency.
The Ravens begin their journey as the defending Super Bowl champions, opening the preseason on the road against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday. The Ravens’ next three opponents after the Buccaneers are the Atlanta Falcons at home, at home against the Carolina Panthers and on the road against the St. Louis Rams. For the Ravens to be Super Bowl champions for a second year in a row, the defense will have to better than last year.
Despite big dogs like Lewis and Reed leaving the vaunted defense, the expectations for the defense remains higher than others outside of Ravens circles would think. The Ravens, so far, have made it a point to be younger and faster. It’s something the Ravens have stressed so far this offseason by improving on the 17th-ranked defense in 2012, which allowed 122.5 rushing yards per game and 21.5 points per game.
The Ravens selected strong safety Matt Elam and inside linebacker Arthur Brown in the 2013 NFL Draft; the biggest asset these players bring is speed. It’s important to note that Elam was brought in to replace strong safety Bernard Pollard, and Michael Huff, who was signed earlier in the offseason, is expected to play free safety, a role the legendary Reed coveted since 2005.
“Speed is important,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh noted at the end of the NFL draft in April via Baltimoreravens.com. “We want a big, fast, physical, tough, smart, disciplined football team. That’s what we want to be.”
With the addition of outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, the Ravens are expected to pair him with Terrell Suggs frequently, especially in obvious passing down situations, which would create a force the Ravens haven’t had since Peter Boulware in the early 2000s. Even Ravens franchise quarterback Joe Flacco likes what he sees with the defense so far in training camp.
“I feel like they’re pretty darn good,” Flacco noted via Balimoreravens.com. “They have a lot of pass rushers, they have a lot of guys in the secondary that can run. … Those guys, they feel pretty good out there, especially with those guys on the defensive line.”
What Flacco is seeing from the defensive line is improvement with a healthy Haloti Ngata, an impressive rookie in nose tackle Brandon Williams, and key free agent additions at defensive end with Chris Canty and Marcus Spears. In 2012, the Ravens defense allowed 4.0 yards per carry, which is the highest in franchise history.
Flacco will enter the preseason in a similar fashion to last year. People need to remember that the Ravens were without tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson for much of the preseason last year, so seeing both guys hurt isn’t a big issue right now. It will be an issue during the regular season, as Pitta is out for the season, and Dickson has hamstring issues.
At wide receiver, the Ravens are seeing a dog fight for the second and third spots at the position, as Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson and Aaron Mellette have had their fair share of flashes in camp, however, Doss and Thompson seem to be playing critical roles in practice. Anquan Boldin, who was traded earlier in the offseason, and Pitta played critical roles over the middle of the field last season, and Flacco thinks Doss and Thompson are the replacements.
“We’ve got a couple of those guys at wide receiver – Tandon [Doss] and Deonte [Thompson],” Flacco noted on Tuesday via baltimoreravens.com.
The Ravens will need them more than ever, and if any of the young receivers on the roster don’t seize this opportunity, they probably never will.
At running back, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce are expected to be featured more this season, especially Pierce. The Ravens see a gem in Pierce and want to preserve Rice for the postseason. The duo is emerging as a top-three backfield in the NFL.