Baltimore Ravens: 6 Big Questions for the 2011 NFL Season

Philip TaftContributor IIJuly 30, 2011

Baltimore Ravens: 6 Big Questions for the 2011 NFL Season

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    The NFL lockout has ended and the teams are approaching the 2011 season. The Baltimore Ravens have been in the playoffs for three years running and are expected to be contenders again.

    After a solid draft, Baltimore looks to finally overcome their "one-and-done" performances and go to the Super Bowl. There are many questions to be answered as they make their way into the newest NFL season.

    Here are six of the biggest.

How Big a Factor Will Injuries Play?

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    BALTIMORE - SEPTEMBER 27:  Ray Lewis #52 of the Baltimore Ravens lies on the field after an injury during the game against the Cleveland Browns at M&T Bank Stadium on September 27, 2009 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Ravens defeated the Browns 34-3. Lewis re
    Larry French/Getty Images

    Because of the lockout, NFL medical staff are predicting much higher rates of injury, especially regarding strains and tears.

    Even though John Harbaugh and the rest of the Baltimore coaching staff are pleased with the players' conditioning, injuries are definitely a concern. On the first day of Ravens training camp 11 players sustained minor injuries, with two players (Eric Vanden Heuvel and Jason Phillips) being carted off the field.

    Increased risk of injury is a problem especially for the veteran players. Ray Lewis is entering his 16th season and despite a rigorous offseason regimen there are always more questions about how long his body will hold up.

    For the veterans, a season-ending hit could also be the hit to end their careers, and the coaches will have to figure out how to manage without them.

Will the Releases Drastically Hurt the Team?

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 21:  Todd Heap #86 of the Baltimore Ravens against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on November 21, 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    The announcement of the impending Willis McGahee release was not unexpected. The three players who would accompany him out the door certainly were.

    Kelly Gregg, Derrick Mason and Todd Heap were veterans that played an integral part in Baltimore, and all were fan favorites. They were released because of salary cap issues and were simply casualties of the numbers game.

    However, the intangibles of losing veteran leadership could definitely affect the Ravens. Mason and Heap were some of Flacco's most often looked-to targets in the red zone and in pressure situations. Kelly Gregg was a lumbering defensive linchpin.

    Will young guns Ed Dickson, Torrey Smith and Terrence Cody display the talent and drive to replace their former teammates?

Can Rookies Make a Significant Impact?

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    Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox / July 27, 2011
    Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox / July 27, 2011

    The Ravens drafted players in the 2011 draft who have the potential to play significant roles in 2011, particularly in the first four rounds. Jimmy Smith, Torrey Smith, Jah Reid and Tandon Doss will undergo immense scrutiny as the season progresses.

    Cornerback Jimmy Smith was evaluated as a top 10 talent who fell due to character issues. He has said that he wants to start in Week 1.

    Torrey Smith, speedster out of Maryland, could be the deep-threat, vertical receiver that Baltimore has been lacking.

    Jah Reid is a young stud who displays good size and talent at right tackle.

    And Tandon Doss is a sure-handed possession receiver who could develop into the next clutch "security blanket" for Joe Flacco.

    The lockout, however, shortened the rookie development process drastically, which makes it much tougher for the rookies to become comfortable with the team.

    Despite this, the incredible veteran leadership on the Ravens gives the rookies a shot at truly becoming a part of this football team and making a splash in 2011.

Will Joe Flacco Take an Outspoken Leadership Role?

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    Through the offseason the fans have been able to see some of the fiery side of "Joe Cool."

    It began when Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley claimed that the Ravens would never be able to win a Super Bowl in Woodley's lifetime. Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones also chimed in that Flacco seemed to falter under pressure.

    Flacco shrugged off the criticism and responded that Woodley "doesn't know what he's talking about." The quarterback also claimed that he would be able to take control of the offense, that he "wants the ball put in his hands" and wants the Ravens staff to "trust in me."

    Whether Flacco assumes an outspoken commanding role remains to be seen, but if he is going to come into his own as a leader, he has certainly set the stage well.

Can the Offense Close out Games?

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    The Ravens lost nine fourth quarter leads last season.

    The reason for this abysmal statistic is that the Baltimore offense seemed to sputter in the third and fourth quarters, taking their foot off the gas and losing momentum at precisely the moment when they needed to accelerate most.

    Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron needs to improve his play-calling, but the players themselves also need to step up. The running game in particular has to churn out consistent yardage in order to run out the clock and rest the defense.

    If the Ravens can finish off teams in the final minutes, they can go a long way.

Will the Ravens Beat Pittsburgh?

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    One of the undisputed most intense rivalries in the NFL is the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, and this been said many times before.

    But intensity and bitterness aside, Baltimore has to be able to earn some wins against Pittsburgh in order to win a Super Bowl. Every time since Flacco became the starting quarterback, the Ravens have lost to the Steelers when Ben Roethlisberger is healthy.

    The most recent loss is when Pittsburgh knocked out Baltimore, 31-24, in the divisional playoffs after the Ravens blew a 21-7 halftime lead.

    In order for Baltimore to beat the 2010 Super Bowl contenders, everything needs to click both offensively and defensively, and they need to be able to follow through on their momentum and take control of the game's rhythm.

    Out of all the obstacles in the way of a Super Bowl, Pittsburgh is the biggest and nastiest. If the Ravens can beat them, they have a legitimate shot.