By any definition, a 13-6 record and a trip to the AFC Championship game was a successful season for the Baltimore Ravens.
It was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
In fact, owner Steve Bisciotti indicated at the end-of-season press conference he originally would’ve been happy if the team found its franchise quarterback in rookie Joe Flacco, and rookie head coach John Harbaugh was able to build team chemistry heading into 2009.
Joe Flacco wasn’t even supposed to start. But when Kyle Boller injured his shoulder and Troy Smith went down with a rare case of tonsillitis during preseason, Flacco was the only quarterback left.
The result – Flacco had arguably the most successful rookie campaign of any quarterback in the NFL.
Franchise quarterback? Check.
After the Cowboys’ Jason Garrett spurned Bisciotti’s offer for the head coaching position, Bisciotti turned to Harbaugh – a special teams coordinator in Philadelphia. Harbaugh turned a 5-11 team into one of the NFL’s elite.
Team chemistry? Check.
The easiest way for the Ravens to return to the playoffs is to win the division. And while Cincinnati is expecting the return of a healthy Carson Palmer and the Browns are counting on new head coach Eric Mangini, the real power struggle from the AFC North lies between the Steelers and Ravens.
Definitive success for the Ravens' season will be contingent on one thing: beating Pittsburgh.
There are three areas the Ravens must attain success against the Steelers in order to win in 2009:
2008: Willie Anderson, Marshal Yanda, and Adam Terry each spent time at right tackle last season. The patchwork right side struggled, forcing the Ravens to place TE Todd Heap and often times an additional running back in to block – which really handicapped the offense. With Heap blocking and the lack of a true deep threat, the Steelers were able to easily maintain coverage on Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason while blitzing Joe Flacco. While Flacco was very adept at not being sacked, he rarely had the necessary time to make throws downfield.
2009: The Ravens drafted OT Michael Oher, who the team is hoping will solidify the right side of the line. Oher (6-foot-4, 309 pounds) was rated as a top 15 draft pick by several teams, but the Ravens traded up to nab him with the 23rd pick overall. If Oher is able anchor the right side, not only will Flacco receive the time he needs, but the Ravens will be able to use Todd Heap and free agent acquisition L.J. Smith in the passing game.
Key Matchup: Michael Oher vs. James Harrison
2008: The team struggled against deep-threat receivers. Injuries depleted the secondary with Chris McAlister, Dawan Landry, David Pittman, and Derrick Martin all placed on injured reserve. Corey Ivy, Evan Oglesby, Samari Rolle, and Frank Walker don’t have the speed to keep up with elite speedsters, and Pittsburgh’s quicker receivers often had the advantage.
2009: The Ravens signed free agents Dominique Foxworth (Falcons) and Chris Carr (Titans), and re-signed Samari Rolle and Dawan Landry. Foxworth and Fabian Washington are one of the fastest tandems in the league, and the Ravens hope they can eliminate big plays downfield, which will free up safety Ed Reed to make big plays. By taking away the deep threat, the Ravens will be able to focus on what they do best: stopping the run and getting after the quarterback.
Key Matchup: Dominique Foxworth vs. Santonio Holmes
2008: The Ravens placed Demetrius Williams on injured reserve last season. Without Williams, the Ravens lacked a receiver with the ability to stretch the field. With Todd Heap eliminated from the passing game for blocking purposes, one of the team's best red zone threats wasn't available.
2009: The addition of L.J. Smith via free agency gives the Ravens another weapon in the red zone. The team also signed 6-foot-3 receiver Kelley Washington to give Flacco another large target. With Michael Oher at right tackle, Todd Heap should be able to enter the passing game.
The main issue the Ravens still face is the lack of a true deep threat. Yamon Figurs has the necessary speed, but lacks consistent hands. Mark Clayton is inconsistent and tends to disappear for stretches, and Derrick Mason, the team's best receiver, has lost a step.
The key for the Ravens will be the health of Demetrius Williams. He offers the size and speed the team needs to stretch the field - if he can stay healthy.
Key Matchup: Demetrius Williams vs. Steelers secondary