The Ravens are facing an opponent much more daunting than any team they’ll play this season: history.
It’s an opponent the Ravens know all too well, as the past has shown they stumble mightily when entering a season with Super Bowl-sized expectations.
Want proof? The team hasn’t made consecutive playoff appearances since the turn of the century and hasn’t posted back-to-back winning seasons in five years. The Ravens followed their 13-3 season in 2006 with a disastrous, 5-11 campaign in 2007 before rebounding to go 11-5 last season.
The Ravens likely will field a squad this fall that’s nearly identical to the one that came within a win of making the Super Bowl, as 20 of 22 starters are expected to return to a team that won seven of its final nine games last season.
"When you do have a team like what we had this past year, and you bring them together the way [coach John Harbaugh] did, everything wasn’t always pretty, but it turned out the way it was supposed to be," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "We trusted each other as men."
It appears Baltimore has many of the requirements needed to rekindle the magic of 2001, when the Ravens forever captured the city’s heart by winning Super Bowl XXXV.
A good coach? Check. Harbaugh made the city forget Brian Billick—the winningest coach in Baltimore football history—in less than a year.
A good quarterback? Check. Joe Flacco, who threw for 2,971 yards, ended his first season by throwing for 13 touchdowns against five interceptions in his last 11 regular season games before becoming the first rookie quarterback to win two road playoff games.
A great running attack? Check. The Ravens were fourth in rushing offense (148.5 yards per game) and first in time of possession (33:22) last year. They also were the only team to boast a 900-yard rusher (Le'Ron McClain), a 600-yard rusher (Willis McGahee), and a 450-yard rusher (Ray Rice).
A great defense? Check. The Ravens were second in total defense last year (261 yards per game) and have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 35 straight games.
Safety Ed Reed led the league with nine interceptions, and Lewis posted 117 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and three interceptions en route to his 10th Pro Bowl last season.
"We didn’t know what we were going to get out of Joe Flacco and our offense, and I quite honestly thought if we went 5-11 that Ray might take less money to go somewhere else where he can win a championship," said Steve Bisciotti, the team’s owner, regarding the $44.5 million contract Lewis signed during the offseason.
"So to me, I’m happy for both things. I’m happy Ray is here, but I’m happy that we produced a team that gave him the confidence that he could win a championship here."
The only changes in personnel will be Tavares Gooden or Jameel McClain replacing Bart Scott, who signed with the Jets, at right inside linebacker and Domonique Foxworth likely replacing Frank Walker at right cornerback.
But the Ravens’ two weaknesses could prove their downfall and send them to their third losing season in the past five years.
The first is the most glaring: The Ravens' offensive line, which shifted between adequate and porous throughout the season, is a major area of concern.
The Ravens’ depth at quarterback—Troy Smith and John Beck—is terrible, so it's imperative the unit protects Flacco.
There were times when tackle Jared Gaither and guard Ben Grubbs dominated the line of scrimmage, enabling McClain and McGahee to grind out victories and take pressure off Flacco. But there were other times—namely in losses to the Giants, Steelers, and Colts—when the unit was shredded.
It became apparent that the team’s lack of depth, which was caused by a season-ending injury to guard Marshal Yanda and the struggles of linemen Chris Chester and Oniel Cousins, enabled the Ravens to be exploited at the point of attack.
The Ravens addressed this problem by drafting Michael Oher, a 6'9", 305-lb. tackle from Ole Miss, in the first round. He should push to start at right tackle and eventually could be moved to left tackle to become the next Jonathan Ogden, a certain Hall of Famer who retired before last season.
"I used to watch Walter Jones a lot and Orlando Pace and Jonathan Ogden, too," Oher said. "I always tried to do what those guys did. It seemed like they were getting it done pretty good, so I tried to do it the same."
And then there’s the kicking game. There’s been one constant since the Ravens arrived from Cleveland in 1996: Matt Stover.
The 18-year veteran has made 462 of 555 of his field goal attempts, making him the third-most accurate kicker in league history. He went 27-of-33 on field goals and hasn’t missed an extra point since 1996—an NFL-record 389 straight.
He ranks fifth all-time in scoring, and his 1,944 points are the most any player has scored for a single franchise in league history.
But here’s Stover’s problem; his leg is weakening. He hasn’t made a 50-yard field goal since 2006, and his longest last year was 47. He did, however, make what turned out to be a game-winning 43-yard field goal against the Titans in the playoffs last year.
The Ravens believe Stover’s stay in Baltimore is over. They didn’t offer him a contract, choosing to go with second-year player Steve Hauschka, last year’s kickoff specialist who caught the team’s attention by making a 54-yarder against Houston.
He’ll be opposed by Graham Gano, an undrafted rookie from Florida State who was college football’s best kicker last year. Gano made 24-of-26 field goal attempts and led the nation in field goals per game (2.18); he also had five successful attempts from at least 50 yards.
"[Graham] had something like 18 in a row out there, and we won ball games," said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. "He gave us field position all year and during the Champs Bowl, that was a great example of field position."