Burning Questions for the Baltimore Ravens' 2013 Season
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Writers, analysts, experts and fans have all been doing the same thing over the offseason: trying to come up with the answers to the questions that surround their favorite football teams.
With the regular season just around the corner, we can finally sit back and watch it all play out. Soon enough, we will have the answers that we desire.
Will the offense be able to recover without Dennis Pitta or Anquan Boldin? Can the Ravens defense even exist without Ray Lewis roaming the middle? Is this the year that Joe Flacco takes his game to the elite level?
All of those questions and plenty more will be answered as the Baltimore Ravens take the field over the next four and a half months.
Here are the 15 most pressing questions that the Baltimore Ravens will answer over the course of the 2013 season.
Who Will Step Up to Fill the Receiving Void?
Let's start off with the one that everybody's talking about.
While it was a tough call, the Ravens traded Anquan Boldin for financial purposes. They did so expecting Dennis Pitta to continue his upward trend and take over as Flacco's go-to target.
What they did not count on, however, was the hip injury that ended Dennis Pitta's 2013 season before it even began. Now they are faced with the uncomfortable situation of trying to replace 162 receptions (or 40 percent of Flacco's completions) from last year.
An open competition over training camp and the preseason has only served to provoke more questions. The two initial front-runners for the job have done nothing to ease concerns, and new candidates have popped up to complicate matters.
Tandon Doss has been invisible with the starters this preseason, and does not seem to have earned Joe Flacco's confidence. Deonte Thompson has missed every practice since the first preseason game with a foot injury and his return date is still unclear.
In their stead, a number of newcomers have impressed. A couple of rookie receivers have been fantastic in the preseason. Aaron Mellette and Marlon Brown will cause some incredibly difficult roster decisions at the wide receiver position.
The two newly acquired veterans also figure to be a big part of the rotation. Dallas Clark eventually beat out his competitor at the tight end position, Visanthe Shiancoe, and Brandon Stokley looks like a lock to be the main slot receiver this year which could make Doss expendable.
The final question mark of the receivers is Jacoby Jones. As a returner extraordinaire, the Ravens would like to keep his offensive snap count where it was last year. Unless somebody else steps up as a receiver, he may need to be more involved in the offense.
Unfortunately, we are barely any closer to knowing the answer to the title question than we were at the start of training camp. It seems like Torrey Smith, Jones and Stokley will get the bulk of the work early, but the younger players will get their chances to separate themselves in the regular season.
Exactly which young receivers end up making the final roster is another question.
How Much Do Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark Have Left in the Tank?
Stokley and Clark have worked with offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell before and they bring their experience and sure hands to Baltimore.
Their impressive careers speak for themselves, but has age caught up to them? Stokley has played 14 NFL seasons, and this will be Clark's 11th year.
Based on last season, they can still be major contributors to a football team, and the Ravens will be counting on them to play a large role in moving the chains.
If their age starts to show, the offense might be in some trouble (unless some of the younger players exceed expectations).
How Does Dennis Pitta's Recovery Progress?
Despite the initial reports of Pitta's injury being season-ending, there is a tiny sliver of hope that he may be able to return late in the year.
Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun reports that there was no damage to the ligaments or the cartilage surrounding the hip socket, and the Ravens are waiting until the last possible moment to place Pitta on Injured Reserve.
Pitta made major strides last season, recording career-highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He became one of Flacco's favorite targets and established himself as one of the best receiving tight ends in the NFL.
If he were to return early, it would give the offense a huge boost but it's important that he does no further damage during the rehabilitation process. Pitta is a large part of the Ravens' future, and it is imperative that he comes back fully healthy and ready to play next year.
In the meantime, everybody in Baltimore will be quietly keeping an eye on his rehab to see whether there is a chance he returns in 2013.
Will Joe Flacco Finally Silence His Critics?
Money isn't going to change Joe Flacco. After signing his then-record contract, his first purchase was at McDonald's. He didn't take his family to a vacation in some exotic and distant land—he went to Jersey. He didn't drive a fancy car or get a limousine to take him to the airport—he took the free shuttle.
Money isn't going to change Joe Flacco. But money is going to change the expectations surrounding his play. Those expectations aren't going to just be from external critics but from the Baltimore faithful as well.
Nobody should be expecting him to continue his scintillating playoff form (especially with the decimated receiving corps), but I want to see some changes in the way he plays.
Primarily, there needs to be more consistency. He can't continue to have those games where he disappears and he needs to get better on the road.
He needs to show leadership and take control of this offense like I believe Jim Caldwell will allow him to do.
The quality that I love most about Flacco is that he truly doesn't care at all about what the media say about him. But with a gargantuan contract comes great responsibility.
He has an opportunity to put himself in the group of the elite quarterbacks in the game if he can stack good games on top of each other.
Can he make the leap?
What Changes Does Jim Caldwell Make to the Offense?
Can we just take a second to think about how phenomenal Jim Caldwell was last season? He had never been a coordinator before and he had never called plays in the NFL. He was thrust into the role of offensive coordinator after a Week 14 loss to the Washington Redskins.
Despite offensive struggles, Baltimore was still 9-4 at that point and held a two-game lead in the AFC North. Caldwell was put in a very difficult situation with a ton of pressure on his shoulders.
All he did in those circumstances was transform the Ravens into an offensive juggernaut that averaged 410 yards of offense and 31 points per game in the playoffs on their way to a Super Bowl victory.
His play-calling made Joe Flacco a Super Bowl MVP and simultaneously made the running game more effective than it had been under his predecessor.
At the time, Caldwell was insistent that there would be no drastic changes to the offense. After all, with three weeks left in the regular season, how could there be any significant changes?
This season, on the other hand, will be a different story. With a full offseason to prepare and practice (and numerous personnel changes to deal with), what changes will Caldwell make to the offense?
The overall game plan should be the same: to focus on running the ball effectively which will set up Flacco for the deep bombs that he is so excellent at deploying.
The depleted receiving corps means that Caldwell has to get Torrey Smith involved in different ways and be creative with his formations and personnel groupings.
Will we see Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce on the field at the same time? Will Rice see time working out of the slot as a receiver on some plays? What receivers does he use? How frequently are "12" or "22" (two-tight end sets) packages used? How much will Kyle Juszczyk be used as a receiver?
Questions abound regarding the offensive plans, and we won't know the answer until the season starts since the play-calling has been predictably "vanilla" during the preseason.
How Big Is Bernard Pierce's Workload?
You could look at Joe Flacco's breakout performance coinciding with the change in offensive coordinator and conclude that Jim Caldwell focused on passing the ball.
You would be wrong.
Caldwell ran the ball 10 more times per game than Cam Cameron did. He emphasized the ground game, unlike Cameron who would inexplicably forget about Ray Rice.
It wasn't just Rice though. Bernard Pierce's carries doubled after Caldwell took over, and that's not including the Week 17 game where all the starters were rested. With so many more carries to go around, there should be plenty of work for both running backs.
Pierce's role is going to be bigger this year than it was last year, but will he stay at around the 10 carries per game he received under Caldwell or will his workload increase?
Given his punishing running style, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Pierce get a large portion of the early-down work to spell Ray Rice. Rice is just too good and versatile to keep off the field for too long.
It will be interesting to see how Caldwell uses the two backs and when he decides to give the defense a change of pace.
Can the Offensive Line Pick Up Where It Left Off?
Joe Flacco and Jim Caldwell get the bulk of the credit for the Super Bowl run, but the offensive linemen were the undersung heroes for Baltimore. The return of Bryant McKinnie shook up the entire line and all the parts fell into place.
McKinnie was excellent during the playoffs, consistently handling dominant pass-rushers like Dwight Freeney, Von Miller and Aldon Smith all by himself. ProFootballFocus rated him the best offensive Raven of the preseason (membership required), and he looks primed to have a great year protecting Joe Flacco.
The lone change in the line will be at center, where Gino Gradkowski will likely be the starter ahead of A.Q. Shipley.
Gradkowski has been on top of the blocking scheme and making the correct line calls so far. Will he be able to keep getting the calls in quickly with the uptempo no-huddle offense?
How Quickly Do the Rookies Develop?
The Ravens draft class is, as usual, a great bunch of players. The team underwent a youth movement of sorts this offseason, and all of the rookies have the potential and the opportunity to contribute as early as this year.
The speed of their adjustment to the professional game could have a large impact on the season.
Both Matt Elam and Arthur Brown are currently behind James Ihedigbo and Josh Bynes respectively on the depth chart. They both seem destined to take over the starting role at some point in 2013.
Bynes and Ihedigbo are solid starters, but the rookies are extremely athletic and talented and can add a lot to the defense. The sooner they develop and grab the starting roles, the better the defense will be.
Another pair of rookies has the chance to make their mark in the receiver battle. Aaron Mellette and Marlon Brown bring size to the receiver position unlike any of the other players. If they can continue their preseason form, they could add another dimension to the passing game and be valuable receivers this season.
The rapid development of these rookies could be huge for Baltimore.
When Will Jameel McClain Return to Action?
One of the reasons that Arthur Brown's development is so important is because of McClain's uncertain health status.
The initial prognosis was good as he didn't need surgery to fix the spinal cord contusion. He's been working out with no restrictions but hasn't been cleared to resume contact drills due to the swelling around the contusion.
BaltimoreRavens.com notes that Coach Harbaugh was very upbeat about his recovery and that, despite being moved to the Potentially Unable to Perform list, McClain will be back at some point this year.
Daryl Smith has stepped up and taken control of one of the starting inside linebacker spots, but McClain's return would take some pressure off Josh Bynes and Arthur Brown.
McClain has led the defense before in the absence of Ray Lewis and he was the man Baltimore was hoping would lead them this year.
It seems as though he will, but it's just a matter of when.
How Do the Recovered Ravens Perform?
Three defensive stars were affected by injury in 2012. Haloti Ngata only missed one game, but he was hampered by various injuries throughout the year and had to leave the Super Bowl because of an MCL sprain.
Terrell Suggs completed an unbelievable recovery from a torn Achilles only to miss more time with a torn biceps. He played through the injury and was an emotional leader for the team, but he was never fully healthy.
Lardarius Webb was having a great season before it ended prematurely in Week 6 with his second torn ACL.
All three of them are brilliant players and leaders of their respective position groups, and having them all healthy can make the defense an elite unit.
Suggs and Ngata have been participating in most of training camp and preseason, while Webb has been taking it slow and made his preseason debut in the third game against the Carolina Panthers.
All of them are Pro Bowl-caliber players and are poised for bounce-back years. They could be the stars of a dominant defense as long as they stay healthy.
How Scary Is the Pairing of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil?
Terrell Suggs has made glowing remarks about the addition of Elvis Dumervil as his pass-rushing partner. When talking to Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com, Suggs called Dumervil a "phenomenal talent" unlike any other pass rusher he's played with.
No disrespect to Paul Kruger, but the man is right.
Dumervil has 63.5 career sacks, more than half of which have come in the last three seasons. He is a proven commodity, and offensive coordinators will have nightmares trying to game-plan against both of them.
The defensive line is significantly improved also, but the bulk of the pass rush will fall on the shoulders of these two men. They wouldn't have it any other way.
Suggs is looking lean and explosive coming off an injury-plagued 2012 year. Dumervil is reunited with linebackers coach Don Martindale and the 3-4 defensive scheme—two things he had when he led the league with 17 sacks in 2009.
Both of them are among the top 20 active players in sacks, something that no other team has. This pairing has the potential to be historic and break the Ravens' record for sacks by two players (24 by Trevor Pryce and Adalius Thomas in 2006).
How Much Better Is the Defense?
Despite the loss of two first-ballot Hall of Famers, the defense should be better on the field this year.
There's no replacing the instincts, experience and leadership of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, but they were on the downside of their careers.
If you look at every positional change, there is no doubt that the Ravens have gotten better on defense. The question is, how much better?
They have a much bigger and deeper defensive line, the terrifying pass-rushing duo of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil and more speed and pass coverage abilities in the secondary.
If all the new pieces jell and pick up the playbook quickly, they have the potential to be one of the best defenses in the league.
How Important Is the Loss of Leadership?
As I mentioned in the last slide, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were on the downswing of their careers. They were starting to be exposed on the field, and Lewis especially was getting targeted in pass coverage.
That said, what they brought to the table in terms of leadership was invaluable.
Ray Lewis was the vocal and spiritual leader of the team. Ed Reed was a leader of the defense and the top dog in the secondary, quarterbacking the defense from the back end. Anquan Boldin was the confident veteran leader of the offense. Matt Birk was the wily veteran that commanded the offensive line.
They're all gone. That's a lot of leaders.
There are, however, guys that are capable of stepping up as leaders on this team. Joe Flacco may not be a vocal or outspoken person, but he leads by example and never gets rattled. Terrell Suggs has already taken over as the speech-maker and chief motivator of the defense.
Torrey Smith's work ethic is something the coaches never fail to mention when talking about him, and he's ready to become a leader on offense. That's not even mentioning the man who is the unquestioned leader of the team—John Harbaugh.
Finding new leaders isn't something the Ravens are worried about. But taking all of that experience off the roster is sure to create bumps somewhere down the road.
Is this currently a team that will deal well with adversity? With all the new pieces, is there enough chemistry yet to bond together and completely trust in the team?
There are definitely leaders in place, but it might take everyone a while to adjust to the change in the status quo that has existed for as long as the organization.
How Do the Impending Free Agents Perform, and Who Will the Ravens Re-Sign?
Baltimore lost a number of key players because they were snapped up by other teams in free agency. Other teams were willing to pay Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, Ed Reed and Cary Williams more than the Ravens were.
With more players coming off the books after the season, the Ravens will assess each and every one of them and determine how badly they want to bring them back.
Michael Oher, Dennis Pitta, Ed Dickson, Arthur Jones, Corey Graham and Jacoby Jones have all been valuable members of the team, but all are free agents next summer.
Daryl Smith has been outstanding so far, and he too will be a free agent after finishing his one-year contract. Terrence Cody took a step back last year, but he's coming on strong this preseason and might establish himself as a vital part of the defensive front.
The chances are that the Ravens won't keep all of these players, but which ones will leave Baltimore?
Will the Baltimore Ravens Make the Playoffs?
This is the biggest question that the Ravens care about this year. All you can ask for is to make the playoffs. The single-game elimination format means that anything can happen in the playoffs, as Baltimore demonstrated last year by shocking the world.
They aren't even the favorites to win their own division, but the playoffs are definitely within reach for the Ravens.
There isn't much competition in the AFC. The New England Patriots, Houston Texans and Denver Broncos should all win their divisions comfortably. Even if the Bengals do win the AFC North, the Ravens should be able to snag a wild-card spot.