The Ravens amazed many last year, reaching the AFC championship game following a 5-11 season in 2007.
This year, however, they won’t be taking anybody by surprise.
Despite some major changes during the offseason, the Ravens still enter the 2009-2010 season as one of the league’s favorites to put the Lombardi Trophy on their mantle.
But, of course, it won’t come easily.
Yet again, the Ravens will be synonymous with defense and much of the year’s success will hinge on whether it can remain at or near the top of the league despite changes.
Ray Lewis was signed back to remain the emotional and on field leader of the group, giving it the same fiery flavor it has had for the past decade. Play-making safety Ed Reed returns as one of the game’s best players.
But the team loses its general, defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, whose “organized chaos” defensive schemes gave the Ravens defense yet another advantage over its opponents.
Ryan, now the head coach of the New York Jets, led the Ravens defense to the No. 2 ranking in yards allowed per game last season.
Linebackers coach and long time University of Florida defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, replaces Ryan but says he will bring the same aggressive style.
The Ravens will need the defense to gel early under a new defensive coordinator and plug holes left behind by the departure of linebacker Bart Scott and Pro Bowl corner back Chris McAlister.
The maturation of the offense will also largely determine just how far the Ravens go this season. Second-year quarterback Joe Flacco showed he has a big arm and poise in his rookie season and will take a larger role in his sophomore campaign.
He still lacks a big-time receiver to throw to, but Flacco must find a way to improve on the Ravens’ aerial attack if they are going to reach the Super Bowl. That means a No. 3 receiver will likely need to step up.
The Ravens’ rushing attack was a bright spot last year. The team averaged 148.5 yards per game, fourth highest in the league. The Ravens used a three-headed attack of Le’Ron McClain, Willis McGahee, and Ray Rice last year, led by McClain with 902 yards and 10 touchdowns.
But the Ravens will go back to a two-prong attack with McGahee and Rice this season with McClain returning to his natural position of fullback.
McGahee’s health, which is always a question for the former Miami running back, will be key to how the Ravens rushing attack holds up and whether McClain can remain in the fullback position. Rice is in just his second year and could emerge as a main threat.
The Ravens drafted right tackle Michael Oher in the first round of this year’s draft, which should help shore up an already strong offensive line. That should help the Ravens in two critical areas of pass protection and run blocking.
Overall, the Ravens will need the defense to remain at the same high level despite a new coordinator and some key losses. They will need the offense to continue to improve behind Flacco and the team will need to win tough divisional games, especially against Pittsburgh.
The AFC’s challenges are daunting, but the Ravens are poised to make another run at reaching the Super Bowl.