Even as defending Super Bowl Champions, the Baltimore Ravens are not viewed as the title favorites entering 2013. This isn't all that surprising, though, considering the team limped into the playoffs and only won the Super Bowl after pulling off a miraculous playoff run.
As great as 2012 was, every NFL season is full of change, and the Ravens have moved on to embrace that mantra. Change could come in less than a month with free agency just around the corner and several important Ravens waiting to see what management decides to do with them.
Ravens fans shouldn't worry, though. This team is consistently one of the best-run teams in the NFL, thanks to the work of general manager Ozzie Newsome. Trying to repeat a Super Bowl win is a really daunting task but with the way the franchise is run, there's no reason to believe they won't be in the mix again next season.
Here are some of the areas that the Ravens need to change to put themselves in the best position to win a second consecutive Super Bowl.
One of the Ravens' weaknesses in the 2012 regular season was the passing defense. While not awful, the unit finished 17th in the NFL with 228.1 passing yards given up per game.
Those are middle-of-the-pack numbers, but for a Ravens team that prides itself on defense, those numbers look pretty bad. There are excuses, of course, with the glaring one being the season-ending injury of Lardarius Webb, one of the best young players on the Ravens defense.
Webb's return is going to be huge for the defense since, when healthy, he is by far the best corner on their roster. Of course, it's not a given that Webb will be the same player since he's coming off a serious ACL injury.
If he isn't healthy, the Ravens will need improved play from the other starter. Right now that's looking like it could be Corey Graham or Jimmy Smith, with free agent Cary Williams potentially leaving in free agency.
The other huge issue is the future of Ed Reed. He's one of the best players in franchise history, and it's safe to say that every Ravens fan wants him resigned so he can finish his career in Baltimore.
The harsh reality is that Reed is 34 years old and his best days are behind him. A shoulder injury caused him to struggle throughout 2012, and he ended a six-year streak of making the All-Pro team.
Reed's reputation does precede him, though, and it could be strong enough that he uses it to get a big payday from another team. His decision will likely come down to his loyalty to Baltimore or to how much he believes he deserves top money.
As of now, a declining Reed is probably still better than any free safeties on the Baltimore roster. Sean Considine isn't a starting-caliber safety at this point in his career. And Christian Thompson is only in his second season and hasn't yet shown that he's ready to start.
Reed's upcoming decision will set the tone for this secondary. Either he will be back captaining them, or someone like Webb or Bernard Pollard will take that role. Either way, the Ravens secondary are going to need to improve their play from their disappointing 2012 regular season.
One of the underrated changes that helped lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl came with the shuffling of their offensive line. Despite not starting a game in the regular season, Bryant McKinnie was named the starting left tackle for the postseason, and his play proved that he should have started earlier.
McKinnie is now a free agent and on the wrong side of 30, meaning the Ravens could choose to pass on him. This could result in Michael Oher returning to left tackle, a position he had a lot of difficulty at in 2012 as he struggled to protect Joe Flacco's blind side
Uncertainty is again an issue here not only with McKinnie, but also with Matt Birk. Birk has mentioned retirement before (via ProFootballTalk), and it wouldn't be all that surprising to see him go through with it this offseason. If this happens, expect to see Gino Gradkowski step in as the new starting center.
Regardless of what happens, it's crucial the Ravens find a way to protect Flacco. During his inconsistent regular season, Flacco was sacked 35 times, which is about two sacks per game. During his postseason run, he was sacked six times and never more than twice in one game.
This suggests that the current offensive line was definitely doing something right. If the offensive line undergoes change yet again, we could expect to possibly see more shuffling and maybe more frustration about Flacco being sacked too much.
While some bored sports journalists are suggesting other teams could make a run at Joe Flacco, it's naive and foolish to think he won't be back in Baltimore next season.
Even though he hasn't made a Pro Bowl yet, Flacco stands head and shoulders above all other Ravens quarterbacks. He's compiled a 9-4 record in the playoffs, guiding his team there after each of his seasons as a starter. He's also proved to be efficient with his 22 touchdowns to 10 interceptions last season—numbers that accurately reflect his career.
And then there's the postseason run. Only Joe Montana in 1989 arguably had a better postseason run as he compiled 800 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
While Flacco may have had less yards, the touchdown and interception numbers were the same for him. It's also doubtful that this was a fluke given that Jim Caldwell had only just begun his job as offensive coordinator. Getting a full regular season with him and Flacco working together clearly has the potential to result in huge numbers.
Flacco will be a Raven in 2013 and hopefully for many years to come. It's also going to be important for his targets to develop, though, particularly young guys like Tandon Doss and Tommy Streeter, who could be important receivers in future seasons.
While Flacco's Super Bowl win shut up a lot of critics, a dominant regular season would go a long way towards him being considered elite. Caldwell has the tools in place for Flacco to succeed in his system, and there's lots of reasons to be very excited for his future in Baltimore.
Arguably the weakest position for the Ravens this past season was nose tackle. Training camp saw a battle between Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody for the job, yet all the way to the Super Bowl it didn't seem like either of them really wanted it.
Kemoeatu's disappointing year wasn't too surprising considering he was out of football during all of 2011. Cody's down year was severely disappointing, though, especially since he had just had his best season the year before. It's really saying something that he was worse than the far-older Kemoeatu, who still somehow managed to have more sacks and tackles than Cody.
For the most part, both players' struggles came from getting blown off at the line of scrimmage. Neither Kemoeatu nor Cody were able to rush the passer with frequency, nor were either of them consistent run-stoppers.
With Kemoeatu possibly retiring and Cody entering his fourth season, it's likely the Ravens' future starting nose tackle isn't on the roster yet. Patience is running out with Cody, and he's going to have to improve his work ethic to get his starting job back.
2012 was a banner year for special teams as both Justin Tucker and Jacoby Jones put up Pro Bowl-caliber seasons at kicker and kick returner, respectively. It was also a solid season for Sam Koch at the punter position.
The one weakness with special teams came from a coverage unit that seemed to get worse as the season went on. Attention was first drawn to this weakness in the crippling overtime loss to the Washington Redskins, where a long punt return set up the game-winning field goal.
Coverage got even worse in the playoffs. The divisional round game against the Denver Broncos had many great moments for the Ravens but one thing they didn't doing well was cover returns.
Trindon Holliday dominated the Ravens, scoring on both a punt return and a kick return. It's a testament to the Ravens defense that they could hold for the win, since spotting Peyton Manning two touchdowns will almost always result in a losing effort.
Even in the Super Bowl, Ravens fans waited with bated breath during that final play. Ted Ginn Jr. has made some big returns during his career, and he had 63 combined return yards against the Ravens.
Thankfully they stopped him on that play and covered up the weakness for now. To improve, the Ravens need to ensure that faster players and sure tacklers are on the coverage team.
While he's made Pro Bowls as a special teams ace, older guys like Brendon Ayanbadejo probably shouldn't be covering kicks. The Ravens could potentially fix this with draft picks as well, since returns are frequently places where young players can shine.