Baltimore Ravens Predictions: 5 Keys to the 2011 Season

Alexander DiegelCorrespondent IIIAugust 31, 2011

Baltimore Ravens Predictions: 5 Keys to the 2011 Season

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    Ray Lewis is in his 16th NFL season now and with every passing season his passion for a second Super Bowl title grows, and every season, the Baltimore Ravens have come up short. The last three attempts have seen two playoff losses to the hated Pittsburgh Steelers sandwich a blowout loss to the Colts.  

    In the last off seasons, the team has completely redone its backfield, as well as its receiving corps. Now, they have brought in massive left tackle Bryant "Mt." McKinnie, and Michael Oher will switch back to right tackle. 

    Will all of these moves finally result in Lewis' elusive second title? Here are the five keys to the Ravens' 2011 season that will help answer that question. 

Replace the Veterans

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    The Baltimore Ravens released long-time producers and fan favorites in Derrick Mason and Todd Heap. Neither one was producing like their former pro bowl selves.

    Still, the team does not exactly have a clear and established plan to replace their former star receiver and tight end. Outside of Anquan Boldin and offseason acquisition Lee Evans, the team’s remaining receivers have a combined ten NFL catches, and those are all from former Buffalo Bills’ bust James Hardy, who probably will not make the final roster.

    Not seeing the 37-year-old Mason as a starter any longer is understandable, but bringing him back as an inexpensive third option seemed reasonable. After all, the New York Jets did just that.

    At tight end, the team is very high on second-year player Ed Dickson. Dickson has great size (6’4,” 255 lbs.) and has had an impressive preseason with four catches for 61 yards in the last two weeks.

    Still, there is a long list of physically impressive players with impressive camps that have not made the transition when the games count. The Ravens have to hope Dickson can, as they do not have a backup plan if he fails. 

Pressure the Quarterback

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    The Baltimore Ravens finished with 27 sacks last season, which tied them for 27th in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals. That paltry number was by far the lowest of all 16 playoff teams, an embarrassing statistic for a team that prides itself on defense and intimidation.

    The problem is not with their stars, as Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata combined for 16.5 sacks. The team needs to bring pressure from all over the field, not just rely on their quarterback-rushing specialists.

    New defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano seems to have realized that, as he is looking for more creative ways to pressure the quarterbacks.

    Cornerback Lardarius Webb has one-and-a-half sacks the last two weeks, and against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Ravens saw six players combine for five sacks. Even better, none of them were from Ngata or Suggs.

    Much more important than statistics, pressuring the quarterback is the best way to…

Improve the Secondary

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    The easiest way for the Baltimore Ravens to improve their 21st-ranked secondary would be to improve that pass rush. Still, the defensive backfield needs to improve its own performance as well.

    A full season of Ed Reed will build up the overall statistics, as he had an incredible eight interceptions in just ten games last season. Still, with or without Reed, the bottom line is the cornerbacks have to play better.

    The team is expecting big things from Jimmy Smith, the team’s first-round pick. Smith has great size for the position (6’2,” 205 lbs.) and if he can play up to his draft status, will go a long way in shoring up the defense’s top weakness.

    Maybe freeing up the corners to blitz every now and then is exactly what they need to get their confidence going. Against the Washington Redskins, Lardarious Webb had a game that even the great Reed would be proud to call his own: four tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, an interception and another pass batted down. 

Sweep the Steelers

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    The only thing Baltimore Ravens fans would love to see more than a season sweep is a victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs.

    More than bragging rights and the glee of seeing their rivals defeated twice in a season, it would give the team a huge leg up in sweeping the division and earning one of the top two seeds in the playoffs.

    Baltimore has entered the playoffs as a wild card in each of the last three seasons. This means they have not played more than one home playoff game, and have not received a first-round bye.

    For a team that has been oh-so-close to a Super Bowl, a bye and home-field advantage could go a long way in getting them over the edge. 

Hope Joe Flacco Makes the Next Step

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    Even if everything else goes right for the Ravens; they pick up their pressure on the quarterback, the secondary improves, youngsters step in for departed veterans, they sweep the Pittsburgh Steelers, take the division and a top seed, they will again fall in the playoffs if Joe Flacco does not pick up his game. 

    Across the board, Flacco had a career year in 2010: He set career bests in touchdowns, interceptions, and quarterback rating. None of that helped the third-year pro when the moment came in the playoffs against the Steelers. Flacco had his second-worst (his four interception debacle against the Bengals in Week 2) game of the season as his team blew a 21-7 lead to lose 31-24.

    If Flacco does not make the next step in his progression, he will be mired in the athlete purgatory that is every fan’s nightmare: good enough to get you there (and good enough not to get replaced), but not good enough to win the big one. 

    Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a comment thanking me for my work, or calling me an idiot for my thoughts. You can follow Alexander on twitter @thesportsdude7, or become a fan on his bleacher report profile.