2008 was a very successful year for the Ravens, who bounced back from a disappointing 5-11 season the year before, and as the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs came just one game away from Super Bowl XLIII.
The question is, which Ravens team will we see this upcoming season? Will it be the same Ravens squad we saw in ’08 with an improved offense and stellar defense? Or will the departure of former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to New York and a few bad bounces cause the Ravens players to watch the playoffs from home?
Recent history would suggest a down year for the Ravens. Since 2004, the team has alternated between winning and losing seasons. However, this should not stop the team and fans alike from having Super Bowl aspirations in 2009.
Last year was a fresh start for a franchise when new coach John Harbaugh was named head coach and the team drafted Joe Flacco, a quarterback from Delaware taken in the middle of the first round, which at the time many critics panned.
They also selected Ray Rice of Rutgers in the second round to solidify their depth at running back. For the first time in what seemed like the team’s history, Baltimore had a very competitive balanced offense which complimented its typical strong veteran defense.
Much of that roster returns this year. Flacco, who many proclaimed him the 2008 rookie of the year will have had another off season to work with the playbook and now has a years worth of valuable professional experience under his belt. There is no reason to believe he will not be vastly improved this year.
Also returning is the three headed running attack of Willis McGahee, Rice and Le’Ron McClain, a player who can line up at running back or full back.
Receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton along with tight end Todd Heap will continue to lead the Ravens receiving corps with L.J. Smith and newly signed receiver Kelley Washington filling in as solid depth players.
The offensive line was re-tooled this year with the retirement of Willie Anderson and drafting of Michael Oher, a tremendous find for the Ravens who got him with the 23rd pick in the draft. Oher, who many considered a top ten prospect will immediately contribute to the Ravens front line.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens will continue to employ their vicious 3-4 attack under new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Trevor Pryce and Haloti Ngata are just some of the defensive lineman on the Ravens who help open up holes for the team’s strength at line backer.
Ray Lewis is back as well as Terrell Suggs, but gone is Bart Scott who followed Rex Ryan to the Jets. This was the team’s biggest offseason loss and will seek someone like Jarrett Johnson to fill in for him.
The Ravens backfield looks as dominant as ever with the great Ed Reed sure to return more interceptions for touchdowns at free safety while Dawan Landry most likely takes over at strong safety after Jim Leonhard also went to the Jets.
Long time Raven Chris McAllister was cut but the team still has Chris Carr, Samari Rolle, Fabian Washington and others to fill his void.
The team currently has Graham Gano to kick and Sam Koch to punt.
Despite the subtractions of Scott and Leonhard, this team is poised to make another deep run this year. Only six teams in their schedule had a winning record last year, with eight games against teams who had a top ten draft pick in this years draft.
The major concern for this team will be the departure of Rex Ryan, the third defensive coordinator of the Ravens (Mike Nolan, Marvin Lewis) to land a head coaching job in just this decade.
His aggressive coaching style, as well as bringing Scott and Leonhard will surely be missed, and if the Ravens do struggle this year, many critics will look at this as why.
However, the Ravens should be even better this year with their offense, which was brand new last year, will have had another year to work together. Having just come one game shy last year, the Ravens do not need to improve much to see themselves playing in Miami in February in Super Bowl XLIV.
*Photo courtesy of NFL.com*