Baltimore Ravens: 11 Bold Predictions for the 2012 Season
The Baltimore Ravens approach the 2012 regular season with huge expectations for what this year will bring. This is arguably the golden age of the franchise's brief existence with four consecutive playoff berths, each of which saw the Ravens make it to the divisional round or further. Now, they can qualify for a fifth consecutive playoff berth and repeat as division champions for the first time in franchise history.
Though not quite playing to the lofty standards of the 2000 and 2006 units, the defense continued to impress last season. With Ray Lewis discovering the fountain of youth and Ed Reed developing a nose for the ball, they continue to be mainstays as a top-10 defensive unit. Yet this year could mark their most serious challenge, as they will have to play at least a few weeks without reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs.
Even the Ravens offense has been impressive over the past four years, which is impressive considering their past struggles. Ray Rice is in the prime of a potential Hall-of-Fame career, and the receivers are as good as any that the Ravens have ever suited up. Joe Flacco has given the team a franchise quarterback and has led the team to victories while clinching nearly every franchise passing record.
So what will come in 2012? Despite playing in the AFC Championship last year, the Ravens face a good deal of adversity this season. Older players, the Suggs injury, uncertainty on the offensive line and changes on defense are all things that they have to deal with.
There could be many good things that happen to the Ravens in 2012. At the same time, though, pessimists have areas to point to if they want to claim the Ravens will drop off this season.
No one knows what will happen yet, but that doesn't mean we can't guess or that we can't dream big and think up bold predictions for the coming season. So take a look at these bold predictions and feel free to sound off in the comments section if you agree/disagree or if you have something else to add.
1. Without Suggs, the Pass-Rush Will Drop off Dramatically
It's not really bold to say that Terrell Suggs is an irreplaceable player on the Ravens defense. His 2011 season was arguably his best, as he racked up 70 tackles, seven forced fumbles and 14 sacks.
With his offseason Achilles injury, Suggs will likely start the season on the PUP list. The soonest he could possibly be expected to return would have to be early November, and even then, Suggs will likely not be ready to play at his 2011 level. With the injury still giving him difficulties, the Ravens may want to consider putting him on injured reserve so they can have another free roster spot.
The big question then is, who will provide the sack input that Suggs usually brings to the Ravens? The answer was supposed to be Courtney Upshaw, who was drafted with the expectation that he would help with the pass-rush. However, he's been dealing with his own injuries, and considering that he's a rookie who slipped in the draft, it's not fair to expect a Pro Bowl season from him.
Paul Krueger has played well at the other outside linebacker position, and he should have a solid season as a starter. He could tally between six or seven sacks, which wouldn't be bad for his first year starting. For now, I think he is the best pass-rusher among the Ravens linebackers, although Sergio Kindle could also be someone to watch if he stays healthy.
The main answer for the Ravens' sack problem will instead come from the defensive end position. Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee are currently competing for the starting job, and it seems like it's a close competition. Both players will likely see the field a lot as the Ravens rotate fresh bodies in their three-man defensive front.
In limited duty last season, McPhee got six sacks, which was second only to Suggs. McPhee will do his best to become the next Suggs, and it will show as he puts together a double-digit sack season with 10 sacks. Jones will contribute too, though he won't have as much sacks.
Ultimately, sack input will take a drop in 2012, and it will be one of the Ravens' most troubling problems all year long. After 48 sacks in 2011, the Ravens drop to 27 sacks, which will drop them towards the bottom of the league in that category.
2. Age Will Show, but Not Where Everyone Expects It
When people discuss age on the Ravens team, nearly everyone points to Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and the "aging defense."
It's a misconception that the defense is old, with five of the 11 projected starters 26 years old or younger. That's not even bringing up the talented backups who are still in their early 20's.
Of course, Lewis and Reed are still over 30 years old, so it's fair to say that they are in the twilight of their careers. Both should put respectable numbers as Lewis racks up over 100 tackles for the sixth time in the last seven years. Also expect a big hit or two that can be added to his career highlight reel when he finally does retire.
Reed has been oft-criticised this offseason thanks to his bizarre comments about holding out. I don't expect that to have any effect on Reed as he prepares for this important contract year. He won't lead the league in interceptions or anything, but he'll be respectable with four picks and one trip to the end zone.
While Lewis and Reed try to prove that old men still know how to play, the Ravens' other old players will be less noticed. That is, until they screw up, which is, unfortunately, the only way most members of their position are ever noticed.
I'm talking of course about the offensive line, which has surprisingly increased in age this season. Instead of Ben Grubbs at left guard, the Ravens could potentially be starting 12-year veteran Bobbie Williams. He's a very good offensive lineman in his own right with many solid seasons under his belt as a Cincinnati Bengal, but at 35 years old, there's no way that Williams can be a long-term answer on the offensive line.
Matt Birk is also back despite contemplating retirement over the offseason. Both he and fellow former Minnesota Viking Bryant McKinnie, are in their 30's and likely the latter stages of their NFL careers. Add Williams to the starting lineup, and you've got three offensive linemen all over 30 years old, which would make them one of the oldest offensive lines in the league.
Although an older line means experience, it can also mean other things like slower reaction time and more injuries. The offensive line will need to make some adjustments in the earlier part of the season as Joe Flacco takes some nasty hits.
Though they will get their act together, Flacco's going to have to work on a quick release and hope that next season, young linemen like Kelechi Osemele and Gino Gradkowski will be ready to start from the beginning of the year.
3. Both Smiths Will Improve in Their Second Season
Both of the Ravens' top two draft picks in 2011 were viewed as slight risks. First-rounder Jimmy Smith had character issues in college, and he was also coming off a season with zero interceptions. Second-rounder Torrey Smith had concerns too, as he struggled with speed off the line and he would go on to have a rough training camp for his first season.
Things changed with the completion of their rookie seasons. Jimmy Smith lost out on a starting job and didn't get much playing time thanks to an ankle injury. Torrey Smith, however, had a breakout season and notched a franchise-rookie record with seven receiving touchdowns.
Expectations are going to again be high for both players in 2012, as they are both expected to be key contributors. Jimmy Smith is currently trying to get past Cary Williams and ensure his position as the team's No. 2 cornerback. Though injuries have derailed him a bit through training camp, he still looks to be in a favorable position to win the job.
Smith won't quite play at the caliber of Lardarius Webb, who will continue to play at a near-Pro Bowl level. Still, he should put together a good first season as a starter and take another step forward into becoming the next great Ravens cornerback. Look for him to finish with around 70 tackles and three interceptions.
Even greater things should be in store for the Smith on the offensive side of the ball. As crazy as it may sound, I think he has what it takes to overtake Anquan Boldin and become Joe Flacco's go-to receiver. With Boldin over 30 years old, Smith is taller, faster and a better deep threat.
What Smith will really need to improve on is consistency, as he had both huge games and games where he made no impact at all. Difficulties should arise as more defenses key in on Smith and put their top cornerbacks on him. Still, Smith has the physical and mental intangibles to rise above and lead all Ravens players in receiving yards and receptions this season.
4. The Defense Will Take a Step Back and the Offense Will Improve
For so long, the Ravens have been one of those teams that have been defined by their defense. Barring an odd 1996 season where Vinny Testaverde made the Pro Bowl, the defense has been the spark that makes the team go.
The offense, meanwhile, has put together ugly season after ugly season, usually only redeemed by the occasional star running back.
This is set to change in 2012. Though the defense will still be playing at a high level, there have been too many losses for them to overcompensate for. The Terrell Suggs injury and the loss of key starters like Jarrett Johnson and Cory Redding via free agency indicates that it will be very difficult to avoid a dropoff.
Now, hear me correctly. I'm not saying that the Ravens will go 2011 New England Patriots and be torched by every quarterback they go against. They can still be a top-10 unit, though likely closer to the nine or 10 spot then the usual two or three spot. With a lessened pass-rush and four new defensive starters, the Ravens are going to have games where the defense lets them down, particularly against offensive juggernauts that they might have stopped in the past.
This will put the pressure on the offense and mostly on the shoulders of Joe Flacco. Already, this year's crucial for him as he looks to prove that he's a franchise quarterback who deserves a rich, multi-year contract. Every single year, it seems experts talk about Flacco having a breakout year and taking the reins of the offense.
This year really should be that year. This year's receivers are the most talented ones that Flacco has ever had to throw to. Though both players are injured now, the tandem of Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta has the potential to become very productive this season.
Then there's Ray Rice, who contributes mightily in both the passing game and the running game. He'll be the catalyst for the offense as I make the un-bold prediction that Rice will again be playing at an All-Pro level.
Thanks to all the supporting talent around him, Flacco will post career-high numbers in 2012. He should finally top 4,000 receiving yards in a season with 24 passing touchdowns. With more passing attempts, though, more interceptions will occur, with Flacco going up to 14 picks this season.
It won't be perfect, but this offense will be one that Ravens fans will enjoy watching every week. And though not quite a top-10 overall unit, the offense will make it possible for there to one day be a Ravens team that is offensive first and defensive second.
5. The Ravens Will Lose at Least One Game to an Inferior Team
From 2008-2010, the Ravens were basically money against inferior teams. They made their playoff runs in both 2008 and 2009 by taking care of business against every team with a losing record. In fact, every team that beat them during those two seasons also made the playoffs.
This changed in 2010, where one of the Ravens' four regular season losses came to the Cincinnati Bengals. A 15-10 stinker, the loss was disappointing; however, the Bengals had won the division the year before, and they were generally expected to be a playoff contender.
One 10-game losing streak later, though, and the Bengals had clinched a top-five draft pick, while the Ravens had to accept that they had lost a game to a team with a losing record for the first time since 2007.
Then came 2011, where all four of the Ravens' regular season losses came to non-playoff teams, with three of these teams finishing with a record of 8-8 or worse. All of these games were extremely ugly particularly on offense, where the Ravens played to the level of their competition. As a result, they ended up losing to such bottom feeders as the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Seattle Seahawks.
Although I want to believe the Ravens have fixed the problem of overlooking the lesser competition, I don't think that's the case. And even with the 2012 schedule being a very difficult schedule with lots of scary-looking opponents, I think the Ravens will be favored in most of their games.
Though that could be a good thing, I think that the Ravens will have at least one stinker, and it's going to come to a team that will have a losing record in 2012.
With an 8-0 record at home last season, the Ravens have one of the best home-field advantages in the league, and I expect that to continue in 2012. They will not go undefeated again, though I think that a home record of 6-2 or 7-1 is very feasible.
My pick for an upset loss will instead come from a road game, as the Ravens were a mediocre 4-5 on the road last season, counting playoff games. Just looking at the schedule, one game that sticks out for me is the Week 14 clash at the Washington Redskins.
The rivalry between these teams should be intense, as their respective cities are only 32 miles apart. That's not the case, though, since they only play each other once every four years, and the Ravens have been dominant against them so far, having won three of the four regular season games against the Redskins.
However, with the Ravens coming off a hard-fought game against the Pittsburgh Steelers the week before and Robert Griffin III energizing the Skins offense, I could see them getting the upset over the Ravens this season.
6. Jameel McClain, Not Ray Lewis, Will Lead the Team in Tackles
For years now, the Ravens have been trying to find the eventual successor to Ray Lewis. It's honestly a pretty thankless task, as, any way you slice it, it's hard to replace a future Hall of Famer. There's virtually no way that his successor will have the same kind of career, and it's almost a certainty that the defense will drop off post-Lewis.
Understanding this, I think some of the current linebackers on the roster could help the team with the transition that'll come with Lewis' retirement. One of these linebackers that can help out is fellow middle linebacker Jameel McClain.
An undrafted player, McClain has fought through adversity just to survive in the NFL. He first got people's attention with a franchise-record two safeties during his rookie season in 2008. McClain first started in 2010, and since then, he has been a regular starter next to Lewis at the middle linebacker position.
Last season's 84 tackles marked McClain's best season in the NFL. With another season firmly entrenched as a starter, I could see McClain eclipsing 100 tackles and leading the team.
It'll likely be close between him and Lewis, but I think for once, Lewis will lose one of these competitions, and instead, it'll be McClain who will close out with 110 tackles.
7. Deonte Thompson Will Finally Give the Ravens an Explosive Returner
Despite John Harbaugh's former job as a special teams coordinator, the Ravens special teams have not been special since he took over as head coach in 2008.
During this time span, the Ravens kick returners have, for the most part, been unimpressive, and even a little mediocre. This doesn't even include the Ravens kicker problems since Matt Stover's retirement and the sloppy special teams play that allowed three return touchdowns last season.
Going back to the returner problems, though, it's now been quite a few years since the Ravens have had a real home-run hitter at the kick or punt returner position. Under Harbaugh, there have only been three return touchdowns total in four years.
Lardarius Webb has showed some promise in the area with both a punt return and a kick-return touchdown, while the third touchdown was a kick return courtesy of the otherwise disappointing David Reed.
This year, Webb will be entrenched in starting cornerback duties, while Reed may very well get cut. This means that we can expect a new return specialist, and whoever this person is, he won't have much pressure given the disappointment of the last couple returners.
Among the Ravens roster, Asa Jackson, Jacoby Jones and Deonte Thompson all have return experience. Both Jackson and Thompson nearly found the end zone during last week's preseason game against the Detroit Lions, only to have miscues prevent them from scoring. For Jackson, it was a holding penalty, while Thompson barely slipped out of bounds before reaching the end zone.
Still, it's encouraging to see returners come close to reaching the end zone again. It can only be a good thing if, for the first time in his career, Joe Flacco had a dependable kick returner constantly putting him in good field position
Really, any of these three specialists could win the job. I don't think it'll be Jones, though, since he will likely be getting lots of reps as the Ravens No. 3 receiver. Either Jackson or Thompson could take the job and run with it, but I think Thompson's speed and his experience running track will get him the job, and at some point this year, he's going to take a kickoff to the house.
8. Is K.O. the Next J.O.?
It may sound blasphemous to compare a second-round pick with Jonathan Ogden, who is only the greatest offensive lineman in franchise history and a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
I understand that he has a long way to go in his NFL career, but so far, Kelechi Osemele, or as the team calls him, "K. O.," has been impressive.
Osemele started out strong in minicamps, even prompting John Harbaugh to say he could start at right tackle. Winning this starting job before Week 1 is still a possibility; however, that's going to be tricky, as it seems Michael Oher and Bryant McKinnie are entrenched as the starting tackles.
Throughout college, tackle had been Osemele's primary position; however, he does have some experience playing as a guard.
Marshal Yanda should start at right guard, which leaves Osemele's best chance of starting at left guard. Currently, Bobbie Williams looks like he could be the starter there; however, the 12-year veteran missed seven games last season due to injury.
Though I predict that Williams wins the starting job out of camp, I think his grip on it is pretty tenuous. Osemele will start the season on the sideline and step up to play left guard when Williams gets injured. Hopefully, then, this will inject some youth into the Ravens' old offensive line and begin Osemele's ascent so that someday, he can be compared to Ogden.
9. Billy Cundiff Retains Kicking Job, Survives the Whole Season
Despite Justin Tucker's impressive showing in the Ravens' kicking competition, I don't think he'll get the job. He should make another NFL team, though, and I would not be surprised at all to see him make some great kicks for that team. Just as long as it's not someone facing the Ravens in 2012.
With Tucker gone, that would mean the Ravens kicker will be Billy Cundiff for the fourth year in a row. That's a pretty long time to commit to a kicker, particularly a mostly mediocre one like Cundiff.
What Cundiff will do with the kicking job is hard to tell. Yes, he's had mediocre seasons such as last year. However, he did make the Pro Bowl in 2010, and the Ravens front office may be convinced that he could have another comeback season in him.
It's really hard to get over missed field goals in the playoffs, particularly ones of the magnitude of the miss in the AFC Championship.
Just look at former Pro Bowler Shayne Graham, who had seven great seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. Then came the 2009 wild-card playoffs, where the Bengals lost the game thanks in part to two missed field goals by Graham, and now, he's spent three seasons shuffling between seven teams.
For whatever reason, though, the Ravens have confidence in Cundiff. Maybe it's misplaced, but he's now survived one kicker competition in 2010, and he even came out of it with his best season ever.
By bringing in an undrafted rookie as competition, the Ravens showed they wanted Cundiff to come back and recapture that 2010 magic.
I don't think he will, though. Cundiff will put up decent numbers, fully knowing that any missed field goal will result in loud boos and public questioning of his confidence.
With middle-of-the-pack numbers, Cundiff won't cost the Ravens any regular season games, but don't think for a second they won't at least consider going for it on fourth down and short from 50 yards out.
10. Haloti Ngata Will Be the Defense's Best Player
As Ray Lewis and Ed Reed get closer to retirement, the title of best player on the Ravens defense is up for grabs. Last year, it had to be Terrell Suggs, but he likely won't defend it this year with his Achilles injury taking him out for most, if not all, of the regular season.
I think the new best player on the Ravens defense and perhaps the emotional leader after Lewis leaves is Haloti Ngata. Last season saw him put up career numbers with 64 tackles, five sacks and two forced fumbles.
Despite being a huge player at roughly 345 pounds, Ngata is still pretty versatile. He can be relied on for steady tackles and for almost swallowing up the opposing running back. Now that he's a little bigger than last season, hopefully he can be stronger and have more endurance this year.
I'm expecting more than 60 tackles this season from Ngata, as he will again set a new career high in that category. I also expect a similar amount of forced fumbles and even an interception from the big man.
Add in two sacks and a fumble recovery, and you'll have the best player on the Ravens defense in 2012.
11. The Ravens Will Not Win the Division
With the AFC North providing three playoff teams last season, it's fair to say this is an extremely competitive division. So that makes it extremely difficult to predict which of these three teams should be the frontrunner.
Having gone 6-0 against the division last year, the Ravens were clearly the best team last year. I'm not convinced they've improved, though, with the Terrell Suggs injury and losses of other dependable starters like Jarrett Johnson and Ben Grubbs in free agency.
Also, the Ravens' first division title since 2006 came largely because of two ridiculously hard things to achieve, sweeping the division and going undefeated at home.
The Ravens will accomplish neither trend in 2012. They should still have a winning record at home; however, division-wise, I think they will be 3-3 or 4-2. The Pittsburgh Steelers weren't too far behind the Ravens last season, and the Cincinnati Bengals have got talented young players who could keep them as a factor for several more years.
The Ravens are also at a disadvantage because of their first-place schedule. This gives them games against fellow division winners like the New England Patriots and the Houston Texans. Compare that to the Bengals' third-place games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Miami Dolphins, and that looks like a significant advantage for the Bengals.
Despite being in the running for the division title all year long, the Ravens will fall just short of it. Can they still rally and be a wild-card team for the fourth time in the last five seasons? It's certainly possible, although I would question if the team's luck will hold as tiebreakers can be a fickle business, and the Ravens have been on the right side of them three times in the last four years.
There's no doubt that this team can contend for a playoff berth. A Super Bowl title is even a possibility as well, though I think a lot would have to go right for this team to accomplish that.
With strong leaders on the field and the sideline, the Ravens should be in position for another year with a winning record and a strong push for a playoff berth. As the New York Giants showed last season, what happens in the playoffs can be impossible to predict.
Hopefully, the Ravens can put themselves in a position for success by getting a division title and a bye, but even if they're a wild-card team, a surprise Super Bowl run could still happen.