After coming up just short in the AFC Championship Game, the Ravens are going to come back strong in 2012 to show they are one of the top teams in the AFC.
Several key pieces are returning, including Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, who will be back for another season to anchor the defense. Along with the veterans, young players including Dennis Pitta, Jimmy Smith and Torrey Smith will continue to improve.
As long as Ray Lewis is still the middle linebacker of the Baltimore Ravens, then they are going to be a tough team to beat.
Lewis may not be the same player he was when he was in his prime, but he is still one of the top linebackers in the NFL. Every year people around the league say he is getting too old and he’s lost a step. Year after year, though, Ray Ray continues to prove them wrong.
He is still laying people out and continues to keep the Ravens defense one of the best in the league. He was named to his 13th Pro Bowl this past season.
He is the heart of the Ravens team. He is their ferocious leader and prepares them for battle every week. With his pregame speeches and his famous pregame dance, Lewis is going to continue to get his teammates to give 100 percent every week in 2012.
Lardarius Webb had a breakout year this past season and has become one of the top young corners in the NFL. Webb was rewarded for his great play this offseason as the Ravens signed him to a six-year contract worth $50 million.
Jimmy Smith, the Ravens' 2011 first-round draft pick, is coming off a rookie year that had a lot of ups and downs. After missing five games due to injury, Smith got a limited amount of playing time.
Phillip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers exposed Smith on Sunday Night Football, where he was constantly getting beat by the Chargers receivers. Despite dealing with some of the rookie growing pains, Smith got better as the season went on. His playing time increased and he became a contributor to the Ravens defense in the playoffs when he picked off Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game.
With Webb and Smith continuing to improve, the Ravens are going to be a hard team to throw on. Webb proved last year he could be a shutdown corner, intercepting a total of eight passes in the regular season and the playoffs. Smith has the size, at 6'2”, and the speed to become an elite cornerback in the league
And by the way, ballhawk Ed Reed lurks around in the secondary too.
After the Ravens preseason this past year, many fans thought Torrey Smith was going to be a bust. Smith proved everyone wrong when he caught his first three passes in the regular season, all for touchdowns.
Smith had a great rookie season, catching 50 passes for 841 receiving yards along with seven touchdowns. He came up with several big catches this past season, including the game-winning touchdown against the Steelers.
Smith gave the Ravens offense a new element that it had never had before with his speed. He is the first legit vertical threat the Ravens have had in a while. Joe Flacco and Smith built so much chemistry this past season that at times it seemed like Smith became the No.1 wide receiver over Anquan Boldin.
Entering his second season, look for Smith to be a huge factor in the Ravens offense, and one of the better vertical threats in the league.
This past season, tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta showed a lot of promise. The two of them combined for 104 receptions, 1,040 receiving yards and nine touchdowns throughout the regular season and playoffs.
Dickson was in his first season as a starter, while Pitta was seeing his first significant amount of playing time. Dickson is one of the more athletic tight ends in the league, while Pitta proved to be a very reliable target for Joe Flacco.
As Terrell Suggs put it, “The white tight end, baby! He’s always there when you need him.”
As the Ravens got deeper into the season, Pitta became one of Flacco’s favorite targets. He went from being a situational player to one of the top offensive playmakers, coming up with plenty of big third-down catches.
If Dickson works on his hands and does not drop as many balls, then the Ravens are going to have a two-headed tight end monster similar to the Patriots'.
With the arrival of new quarterback coach Jim Caldwell, Joe Flacco is going to take his game to the next level.
Flacco was inconsistent last season.
At times he looked horrible, like against the New York Jets, where Flacco only completed 32.3 percent of his passes. Other times, though, he looked like an elite quarterback, including when he led a game-winning drive against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now I know you are thinking, why is this year any different from the other years where we expected Flacco to step up?
Last season, Flacco did not have a quarterback coach. This year, he will have Caldwell coaching him. Caldwell has received a lot of praise around the NFL for his ability to work with quarterbacks. He comes in with a lot of experience working with quarterbacks, most notably working with Peyton Manning for 10 years.
Flacco is entering his fifth season in the NFL. He has proven he is a winner, having the most wins by any quarterback in NFL history in their first four seasons. With the Ravens in the process of giving him a new contract and the addition of Caldwell, Flacco is going to take his game to the next level to prove that he is worth every penny.