The preseason is nearly halfway done meaning that it's the time of year to make NFL predictions. Only a month remains until the season and every team can dream about having a successful year.
The Ravens are one team where those dreams are reality. They have now made three consecutive postseasons and are favored to return for a fourth one. With an easy schedule and a team full of talented players, the Ravens are Super Bowl contenders this year.
Despite all of the Raven's successes, they have to yet to get past the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC North title. Can they finally get it done this year and embark on a playoff run that ends with a Super Bowl ring?
Here are my 11 bold predictions for the Ravens in 2011.
In some ways, this almost isn't a bold prediction. Ed Reed has been as good as any other player at intercepting the ball with a staggering 54 career interceptions and 1438 return yards. Last year he led the league in interceptions after getting 8 in 10 games.
This year Reed is healthier than last year where he sat out the first six games. Even at 32, he is dangerous whenever he has the ball having scored 10 career touchdowns. This year he will add to that number with 8 interceptions again and 1 touchdown.
Unfortunately, this is both a good and bad prediction. As brilliant as Reed is, any Ravens fan shudders when he has the ball because of his inexplicable desire to lateral it. Many times these laterals lead to fumbles that would have been avoided if he had just went down with the ball. Therefore, I think Reed will have two fumbles this year, one of which will result in a turnover.
Cam Cameron has to be the most hated coaching figure on the Ravens staff right now. After the offensive meltdown in the second half of the playoff loss to the Steelers, fans were calling for Cameron's head. Inexplicably Cameron retained his job for 2011 and acquired more control of the offense.
Cameron faced criticism for playing not to lose the game, rather than trying to win. He is also notorious for holding back Joe Flacco and not letting him call audibles. Cameron is also stubborn for refusing to change his game plan.
Once the 2011 season begins, Cameron will again be criticized especially after the offense goes into its shell and barely escapes the St. Louis Rams with a win.This criticism will reach fever pitch after a crippling loss at Pittsburgh in week 9. Finally, Ravens management will have enough and Cameron will be on the street again, while the Ravens give John Harbaugh a chance to run the offense for the rest of the season.
I am not a fan of the NFL's new rules regarding kickoffs. Moving the kickoff back from the 30 to the 35 will dramatically affect kick returns. This is disappointing since the kick return is one of the most exciting plays in the NFL.
This rule actually could play to the Raven's strengths. It's been years since the team has had a dynamic kick returner so it's unlikely there would be many touchdown returns anyway. Also kicker Billy Cundiff is one of the best at creating touchbacks and preventing returners from having the chance to score.
Last year Cundiff tied the record of touchbacks in a season with 40. After a pro bowl season in which he converted 26-of-29 field goals, Cundiff has become the Raven's best kicker since Matt Stover. This year he will convert 30-of-34 field goals and set a record with 46 touchbacks.
Ray Rice has had a great offseason so far. He has lost competition from fellow running backs Willis McGahee and Leron McClain who are on different teams now. Rice has also gotten one of the best gifts a running back could hope for with the Ravens acquisition of fullback Vonta Leach
Leach is arguably the best fullback in the NFL today. His blocking was vital to the success of last year's rushing champion Arian Foster. Leach will do the dirty work and create holes for Rice to run through.
Although Ricky Williams will vulture some carries, Rice will do most of the running for the Ravens. He will reward both the Ravens and fantasy owners with 1400 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. Rice will remain a vital part of the receiving game finishing second in catches with 72 receptions and 2 receiving touchdowns.
It's surprising that the Ravens have done little to address their offensive line. Now they have trouble at both the center position and right tackle.
At center, the Ravens are staying with the aging Matt Birk who is entering his 14th NFL season. Not only is he getting old but also he is injured after undergoing surgery on his left knee. There are no viable starting centers on the roster if or when Birk goes down.
Right tackle is currently a battle between Jah Reid and Oniel Cousins. Reid has tremendous upside but is only a rookie and may not be ready to start in the NFL. Cousins is known for frequent penalties and being overwhelmed by defensive linemen.
This weakness will come back to haunt the Ravens. Flacco will again be running for his life as he tries not to get sacked 40 times for the second year in a row. Still Flacco will likely be sacked around 35 times, which should force the Ravens to upgrade the offensive line in 2012.
Going into the NFL Draft, Ozzie Newsome knew which player he wanted. Despite dropping down the board due to questions of maturity, Jimmy Smith was the Ravens 1st round pick. He's now ready to help fix the Ravens woeful 2010 secondary.
Although the Ravens list Chris Carr and Dominique Foxworth as starters now, Smith should get there by week 1. Being a rookie, he will struggle a bit with adjusting to the NFL. Still his talent should overshadow his mistakes and he will become better at shutting down the opposing team's best receiver.
Smith will turn in a solid season finishing with 60 tackles, two interceptions and no times being burnt by a receiver. These numbers should improve as Smith has the opportunity to become the team's best cornerback since Chris McAlister.
It is no surprise to say the Steelers will give the Ravens fits in 2011. This team is comparable to an older brother who is better at everything. With Ben Roethlisberger starting the Steelers have owned the Ravens, beating them 9 out of 11 games.
I really wish I could say the Steelers were going away this year and they would suffer from their typical Super Bowl hangover. Unfortunately, there is too much talent for that to happen and the Steelers will be in the thick of things in 2011. Ultimately, I think a minor Super Bowl hangover will result in one or two costly losses that give the division to the Ravens.
The other team that the Ravens need to look out for is the Cleveland Browns. It's weird to say that since the Browns have been a joke for so long and are consistently a cellar dweller in the AFC North. But this team has rebuilt and is on its way up. It may be too early for them to challenge for the division title, their games against the Ravens and the Steelers could determine the AFC North's champion.
In 2010, the Ravens didn't have a first round pick. They also never saw their first pick Sergio Kindle play at all. Kindle was lost for the year after a freak accident where he fell down several flights of stairs.
The accident was serious to the point where many wondered if Kindle would ever play football again. Thankfully, he's healed to the point where he can play again. Although he won't start this year at outside linebacker, there's reason to expect good things from him.
Kindle should help bolster the Raven's weak pass rush. He should bring in 2 sacks as well for his first season playing in the NFL. Hopefully the future will be bright for Kindle and he'll be able to compete for a starting job somewhere down the line.
Anquan Boldin was acquired from the Arizona Cardinals in 2010 with the hope that he could become Flacco's best receiver. That didn't really happen though as Boldin's statistics were comparable to Derrick Mason's. Boldin had a down year in 2010 with 837 yards and 7 touchdowns.
That should change in 2011. Both Mason and Todd Heap are gone leaving Boldin as one of the only experienced receivers on the team. He can help to mentor the younger players while still playing good in his own right.
Boldin should top 1000 receiving yards again in 2011. He should also lead the Ravens in receptions with 84 of them. And for the second straight year Boldin will again play every game shaking his label of being injury prone.
I don't understand why it is Flacco has taken so much heat this offseason. From Lamar Woodley to Dhani Jones, many people seem down on him this year. This is baffling for a quarterback has made the playoffs each of his first three seasons and won at least one game each year.
A lot of this criticism comes with Flacco's surprising early success. Making the AFC Championship during his rookie year showed that he could be capable of great things. Now a Super Bowl win is likely the only way to shut up his critics.
Flacco should be plenty motivated coming into the season. This year he will move closer to becoming an elite quarterback as he throws 32 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Also getting a division title and finally a home playoff game should help to shut up the haters.
Though the pieces are in place for a super bowl run, the Ravens will not be be hoisting the Lombardi trophy this year. Come January weaknesses on the offensive line and pass rush will end their season prematurely.
Thanks to an off year by the Steelers, the Ravens should win the division at 10-6. This will be enough to give them the third seed and a home playoff game. Unfortunately, the Ravens are a great road playoff team and have not done well at home in the postseason (1-2 record.)
This will lead to a first-round loss to the NY Jets. The Jets have a defense that could give the Ravens offense fits as well as frightening offensive players like Santonio Holmes and Shone Green. Ex-Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and his gang of Ravens retreads will celebrate in typical classless fashion as they win another road playoff game.
Though it will be a sad ending, the Ravens should use the 2012 offseason to address their weaknesses. Then they should have a great shot to be Super Bowl champions in 2012.