For the Ravens to win the Super Bowl again this year, they first have to defend the title they won in February. Here's how they can do it.
The Baltimore Ravens head into the upcoming season as reigning Super Bowl champions, but that doesn't make them the favorite to return to the big game come next February. With so many factors at play, the path to a Super Bowl win is often unpredictable, but to walk that path two seasons in a row is nearly impossible.
The last time a team won back-to-back Super Bowls was the New England Patriots in 2004 and 2005; before that, it was the Denver Broncos in 1998 and 1999. History has shown it can be done. However, with all the changes the Ravens roster has undergone since winning their franchise's second Lombardi trophy in February, right now, the focus needs to be on defending the crown and approaching the season one week at a time.
Here's a blueprint for how the Ravens can be the toughest, most intimidating team possible in their quest to defend their Super Bowl championship and, perhaps, to make it back to the NFL's biggest stage for the second consecutive season.
The Ravens' ability to build chemistry between the veterans and new faces starts with head coach John Harbaugh.
When the Baltimore Ravens chose to retool their roster after the Super Bowl win, losing linebacker Ray Lewis and center Matt Birk to retirement, allowing free safety Ed Reed and strong safety Bernard Pollard to leave in free agency, along with linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger, and trading wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers, they were left with voids they needed to fill.
Unsurprisingly, general manager Ozzie Newsome and assistant Eric DeCosta managed to find players—veterans and rookies alike—to plug up the roster holes left by these departing players.
First-round draft pick Matt Elam will be the strong safety, free-agent signing Michael Huff will take over Reed's free safety job, draft pick Arthur Brown will join a hopefully healthy Jameel McClain at inside linebacker, Gino Gradkowski will be the team's new center and veteran acquisition Elvis Dumervil will take Kruger's spot. Only Boldin's No. 2 receiver job is still vacant as training camp begins.
Finding the players was only the first challenge facing the Ravens, however. Now, the team needs all of these new faces to mesh with the Ravens veterans who remain. With so many of these moves happening on the defensive side of the ball and involving starters, the sense of urgency to build chemistry is that much greater. How effectively and how quickly they do this will have a major impact on how well the Ravens perform once the regular season begins.
Not only did the Ravens lose starting veterans, they also lost longtime faces of the franchise, the players who provided leadership and direction in both the locker room and on the field. It's not as though the Ravens players will do their jobs with less enthusiasm now that Lewis isn't giving his fiery, trademark pregame speeches, but building chemistry and trust takes time, especially when the de facto player leadership is gone.
On the defensive side of the ball, the leadership role falls to linebacker Terrell Suggs; on offense, it's quarterback Joe Flacco's show. But overall, the true leadership of this year's Ravens team is wrapped up in one man: head coach John Harbaugh.
One of the pitfalls of having strong personalities in the locker room is that those voices can often drown out the coach, and the result was a near-mutiny in Baltimore last year, per Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports. Now, the team is younger and more receptive to the coach rather than beholden to established veteran players like Lewis and Pollard.
This also means the onus is on Harbaugh and the rest of his coaching staff to get the players on the same page, working together and understanding the nuances of each others' playing styles as quickly as possible. With just 16 games in a season, starting slowly could be the bane of the Ravens' year. Filling leadership voids and building chemistry is just as important to the Ravens this summer as filling the empty roster spots was in the spring.
Would you tell Terrell Suggs he's less scary after all of the roster changes in Baltimore or that opponents should be less afraid?
Are the Ravens better this year than the last, now that so many veteran players are gone? This is going to be the most talked-about storyline for the team between now and Week 1, and the less the current Ravens players focus on it, the better.
Will they be better? Let's take a look at what this question means. Some say yes, that the veterans that left have been replaced by younger, more talented players. Some disagree, noting that lateral moves at talent on paper aren't the same thing on the field.
So many new faces must lead to trouble. What kind of trouble? Losses, less intimidated opponents and conflicts between teammates are all possibilities.
The Ravens cannot afford to think about these possibilities, however, because the creeping sense of doubt that it can create results in the Ravens becoming their own worst enemies, fearful of what they may face in the regular season and fearful of failing to make this little experiment work. They need to be fearless in the face of critics and opponents alike and simply continue to do their job with an eye toward winning games as convincingly as possible.
The mental preparation aspect of the Ravens attempting to defend their championship and return to the Super Bowl this season cannot be understated. The questions of can or will they be a better overall team, will they have a better defense and will Joe Flacco live up to his big offseason contract cannot cross these players' minds. They cannot be afraid of the changes that the team has undergone; they have to just deal with them and play football regardless.
The Ravens are, after all, defending Super Bowl champions. The only thing they need to do is keep that in mind rather than doubt the decisions that have been made by the organization since winning the game. Things may have changed, but the Lombardi trophy remains. Let everyone else worry.
To defend their Super Bowl title, the Ravens have to do one deceptively simple thing: win.
How can the Ravens successfully defend their Super Bowl championship this season? It's easy: win games.
Yes, but those two simple words require many complex things coming together correctly. Saying "win games" is a lot more difficult than the act.
The Ravens lost just two games of their first 11 last season, with many of their wins coming in close games. Their ability to stand their ground on defense, or, conversely, come up with big plays on offense in the fourth quarter, led to a string of wins that laid the groundwork for their playoff berth later on.
Despite the Ravens defense giving up an uncharacteristic number of yards to opposing offenses, particularly against the run, they still managed wins over teams like the New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers.
With the Ravens in a time of transition, it's smart that they keep last year in mind. They weren't perfect—the defense struggled and quarterback Joe Flacco was again inconsistent on a weekly basis, with passing yardage totals varying wildly (337 in Week 4, 165 in Week 5, 230 in Week 6, 121 in Week 7, for example)—but yet, they didn't have to be. And they don't need to play flawless football this year in order to add up wins.
Flawless football is a goal for the Ravens and for every team, but none truly reach it. There are too many moving parts—a team's own players, its opponents, coaching decisions, injuries, the clock, the officials, the weather—for a team to get any and everything right every time. It's simply about making the better decisions and executing better than the opponent, in the moment, and having more of those moments than the other team.
The Ravens know how to do this; we saw it in their highly flawed and highly successful 2012-2013 season.
After all, the Ravens roster may be different, but their overall philosophy is unchanged. With a younger defense, their troubles stopping the run from last year should be improved. Their many changes in the secondary are a concern, but if they can be more effective bringing pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the cornerbacks and safeties will have a little less to worry about.
Ray Rice will continue to run the ball well, and the Ravens' overall run game should be even more interesting and dangerous now that his No. 2, Bernard Pierce, has shown quite a bit of talent in his own right. The Ravens have weathered Flacco's ups and downs for the entirety of his career and haven't missed the postseason once, despite near-constant questions regarding his receiving corps.
Receiver Jacoby Jones is a true weapon when used as a kick and punt returner and almost single-handedly lifted the Ravens out of the special teams basement last year. Tight end Dennis Pitta could be the one to fill the void left by the trade of wide receiver Anquan Boldin to such success that it won't completely matter who the No. 2 receiver is on the depth chart.
While the focus has been so heavily on the players the Ravens lost and the ones they gained in return, the things that haven't changed will help them win games too. Winning is how the Ravens can best defend their Super Bowl title—it won't be easy, but it's never been. However, they've spent the previous five seasons doing more winning than losing, and there's no reason to think they cannot do the same this year.
The Ravens had a three-game losing streak last year, including Week 14's loss against the Washington Redskins, but they didn't let it disrupt their plans.
Just as winning games is an important part of a successful Super Bowl championship bid, so is losing them. Though perfect, zero-loss seasons have happened, they're fewer and farther between than a team winning the Super Bowl two seasons in a row.
Going 16-0 or 20-0 might be a fantastical thought in the minds of every Ravens player and coach, but it's not realistic. It's more realistic to accept that there will be lost games this season and to make the proper preparations and adjustments to keep them from derailing the whole year.
Yes, the Ravens lost only two games of their first 11 last year. However, they followed that up by a disappointing string of losses—three in a row from Weeks 13 through 15—that nearly saw them out of the postseason.
In fact, if it weren't for running back Ray Rice converting a ridiculous 4th-and-29 against a faked-out, confused, overselling-the-deep-coverage San Diego Chargers defense, which led to a tie game and, later, an overtime win, we wouldn't be talking about the Super Bowl champion Ravens at all. They wouldn't have made the playoffs.
However, the Ravens didn't resign themselves to the possibility that 2012 would be the first time in the Joe Flacco-John Harbaugh era that they didn't reach the postseason.
Instead, they regrouped. They fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in a move that somehow came both too late and right on time, identified why exactly they failed to get the job done in three consecutive weeks (including a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers who didn't have starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on the field), pulled out the seemingly impossible victory over the Chargers and began the playoffs with a renewed desire to win.
The key to being a Super Bowl-caliber team isn't simply to say "don't lose," sit back and watch the wins roll in. It doesn't work that way. Far, far more often than not, teams lose games. It's how they handle the losses that separate the league's best teams from ones that get mired in the times they have come up short.
It's unrealistic to expect the Ravens to win every game this year, and it's unrealistic for the Ravens themselves to expect it as well. The Ravens showed last season that they can bounce back from losses, even a three-game streak of them, and still be a force so dominant that it ultimately resulted in a Super Bowl victory. They can lose games this year and still successfully defend their Super Bowl crown, just as long as they don't lose too many of them. They know how to walk that line.
Wins the AFC North will give the Ravens the best shot at returning to the playoffs.
The Baltimore Ravens don't have the most forgiving schedule this season, with games against the NFC North, the New England Patriots, the Denver Broncos and the Houston Texans among their most difficult. No matter how formidable these teams are and no matter how important it is for the Ravens to defeat them—both for the intimidation factor and for playoff positioning—nothing matters more than stacking up wins within their own, AFC North division.
While overall win-loss record has much to do with whether or not a team makes it to the postseason, it isn't the end-all-be-all. What matters just as much, if not more, is the divisional record. If the Ravens can beat out their AFC North rivals this year, they'll lead the division and roll right into the playoffs, regardless of how their record stacks up with other teams in the conference.
The six games they play this year against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns need to remain as high a priority as ever for Baltimore. Especially crucial is the three-game in-division stretch the Ravens have in the middle of the season, starting in Week 7 at the Steelers and finishing up after their Week 8 bye with a road game against the Browns and a home contest against the Bengals.
If the Ravens can sweep these three wins, they set the tone of the division well before the important end-of-season stretch.
The impression that the AFC North is one of the most difficult divisions to consistently win in is not off-base.
The Ravens are the Super Bowl champions; they've been jockeying for position at the top of the North with the always-troublesome Pittsburgh Steelers; the Cincinnati Bengals have quietly turned into one of the most dynamic, well-balanced rosters in the entire league; and the Cleveland Browns may just be righting their ship, finally. To dominate these three teams is no small feat and is the perfect way for the Ravens to prove they haven't lost a step after their offseason of transition.
The Ravens and Patriots could very well meet twice in 2013-2014 as they did last season.
Though divisional wins will do much for the Ravens' chances to return to the postseason this year and truly defend their Super Bowl championship, they'll have many an opportunity to make a statement against their non-divisional opponents as well.
Five of those games will be played against 2012 playoff teams: the Denver Broncos in Week 1, the Houston Texans in Week 3, the Green Bay Packers in Week 6, the Minnesota Vikings in Week 14 and the New England Patriots in Week 16.
They also have three other contests against teams that cannot be ruled out of the hypothetical playoff hunt just yet: the Miami Dolphins in Week 5, the Chicago Bears in Week 11 and the Detroit Lions in Week 15.
This is quite the gauntlet for the Ravens this season, but if they can dispatch most, if not all, of these formidable opponents, they'll easily cement their status as one of the NFL's premier squads.
Winning games against the Oakland Raiders of the world is certainly sweet—a win is a win, after all—but victories over heavy Super Bowl favorites, teams with "playoff lock" written all over them, carry more meaning.
Not only will wins over these teams help the Ravens in the win-loss column, they'll also give the Ravens a useful boost of confidence. And big wins over high-profile teams present another layer of intimidation to the teams they have to face in the following weeks.
The Ravens looked to all the world like an unstoppable force in the playoffs last year. If they can take on their peers from the 2012 postseason and roll over the majority of them in the same manner, it will not only add wins to their record, thus helping their playoff hopes, it will also send a message that they aren't to be taken lightly in the hunt for a Super Bowl victory.
Injuries in the NFL are inevitable; how the Ravens handle them, however, will do much to determine their overall success.
One of the most difficult things an NFL team can do is manage to stay mostly healthy throughout the course of the season. Injuries in football aren't completely preventable, from the quick helmet-to-helmet hits resulting from a player or two adjusting their height at the exactly wrong time to the freak knee ligament tears that come from a foot being planted in the turf in just the wrong way.
Proper conditioning and training, along with a dedication to football fundamentals, can cut down on the number of injuries, but no team heads into the final games of the season with all of its Week 1—or Week 8—starters anywhere near 100 percent healthy.
With this knowledge, the key becomes depth. A team with enough youth and depth, especially at key positions or ones that are prone to injury (such as running back), will be able to survive the eventual injury attrition that strikes every year.
Right now, the Ravens have significant questions regarding the quality of their depth, especially at linebacker, nose tackle and wide receiver. This picture should become more clear as training camp progresses, and moves will be made to better bolster these areas if need be.
Ideally, the Ravens would like to find themselves in the situation where they don't have too many positions that would suffer if the starter has to miss any time, just like every team. But much of this is based on things they cannot control. In a sense, the Ravens have to keep their fingers crossed and hope they aren't one of the rosters that inevitably becomes more snake-bitten by injuries than the average.
The truth is that the more Ravens starters that are still standing in the season's final weeks, the better their chances to make the playoffs and put together convincing wins once they get there. Barring that, they had better hope their second- and even third-string players are capable of picking up as much of the starters' workloads if called upon.
While preventing injuries isn't entirely in the Ravens' control, developing depth behind them is—and it's something they must work on during training camp this summer.
Baltimore has managed to overcome injuries to star players in the past. Last year, Terrell Suggs missed the start of the season while recovering from an Achilles' tendon tear and then another game with a torn right biceps. Ray Lewis missed significant time with a triceps tear. Cornerback Lardarius Webb tore his ACL in Week 6 against the Dallas Cowboys and is still recovering. Linebacker Jameel McClain, too, is still recovering; his injury was a spinal cord contusion suffered against the Washington Redskins last December.
Despite these injuries to key starters, the Ravens found ways to work around them, possessing enough talent in their depth chart that it didn't harm their playoff bid. This year, their depth is a bit more depleted, but that doesn't mean they won't be resourceful should any starter have to miss any length of time.
Having contingency plans in place for the injuries they'll eventually face will help the Ravens be a force all the way through the season and into the playoffs.