NFL Team Previews: Baltimore Ravens

Since John Harbaugh took the reins of the Baltimore Ravens four years ago, his teams have won 43 regular season games and picked up five playoff wins. They captured their first AFC North title a year ago. But the one thing they don’t have is a Super Bowl trip. The last two years have seen playoff losses in Pittsburgh and New England that took ripping the hearts out of a fan base and raised it to an art form. The debate now is whether the Ravens’ window of opportunity has closed. TheSportsNotebook takes a closer look as we begin the final countdown to the regular season opener…

OFFENSE: Age is a factor at a lot of spots on this team and we have to begin with the offensive line. Matt Birk was a quality center last year, but he’s 36. Bobbie Williams at left guard is 35 and Bryant McKinnie at left tackle is the spring chicken of that side of the line at 32. More important, neither Williams nor McKinnie is a standout player, though both have been functionable. On the other side Marshall Yanda is a standout at right guard. Tackle Michael Oher—shifted away from the blind side in spite of his being the focal point of the movie by that same name—ha s talent and run-blocking sills, but scouts criticize his lack of ability to recover in pass protection if he loses the initial hit.

Joe Flacco might have answered all the questions that linger about his big-game capacity if only Lee Evans had hung on to a game-winning pass in the end zone at the end of last year’s AFC Championship Game. Instead, Evans dropped the ball, Billy Cundiff shanked the ensuing field goal and while Flacco got praise for outplaying Tom Brady, don’t expect anyone to remember if the Ravens’ quarterback can’t get to a Super Bowl soon.

The offense is built around Ray Rice, who racked up over 1,300 yards in rushing and is an excellent receiver out of the backfield. And while the receiving corps is not great, the combo of possession receiver Anquan Boldin and downfield threat Torrey Smith have given Flacco two good targets. The team could use someone to step up as a third receiver, but no obvious candidate exists, nor has Baltimore been able to adequately replace Todd Heap at tight end.

DEFENSE: The Baltimore defense won’t be what it used to be this season. The linebackers are at the heart of the 3-4 scheme and the Ravens are very weak on the outside and one of the inside spots. The one strength is, of course, Ray Lewis—who happens to be 37 years old. Then you go to the defensive backfield and while free safety Ed Reed is still 33 years old and as good as there is when healthy, his health is far from a given. The best player on the defense these days is Haloti Ngata, the defensive end. But the system played doesn’t really free Ngata up and he only had five sacks last year. So where will the big plays come from?

Baltimore’s going to hope Lardarius Webb, their emerging corner can take care of top receivers one-on-one. This is going to be necessary, because Cary Williams is a weak link on the other corner and Reed will need to shade that side of the field to help. Bernard Pollard is a rock solid at strong safety—not a great player, but very good and no real weaknesses in his game.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 10— I think the Ravens have hit the end of the line and have no hesitation on going Under,even if they’ve won at least 11 games in three of Harbaugh’s four years.