Camp preview: 3 reasons Ravens are on track, 3 issues that could derail them

Pressure is on Ravens to win and win big

July 24, 2010|By Jamison Hensley, The Baltimore Sun

Thousands of Ravens fans will descend upon McDaniel College this week for the start of training camp.

But they won't be alone. The rest of the NFL will be keeping a close eye on ultra-popular Ravens.

Along with the New York Jets and Green Bay Packers, the Ravens are generating the most Super Bowl buzz this summer.

Two publications — Lindy's and Athlon — have picked them to win it all.

Half of six USA Today reporters had the Ravens in the Super Bowl. Two of them had the Ravens hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

Expectations have never been higher for coach John Harbaugh's team because the Ravens have never had such a complete one. Shrewd offseason moves have addressed pressing needs, upgrading the passing attack, pass rush and kicking game.

Here are the three ways the Ravens improved their status to Super Bowl contender:

*More big plays in the passing game. The Ravens' wide receivers made two catches over 20 yards in the final four games last season, including none in the postseason. That's why Anquan Boldin and Donte' Stallworth were both on the roster by the end of the first day of free agency. Boldin has the muscle to break tackles over the middle for big gains, and Stallworth has the speed to go deep. Dumping the ball off to Ray Rice over the middle doesn't have to be a signature play anymore.

*More pressure on the quarterback. The Ravens sacked the quarterback 32 times last season, which is tied for the second-fewest in team history. Sergio Kindle, a second-round pick with first-round talent, adds speed off the edge. Cory Redding, who has 14 sacks in his past four seasons, will provide a push on the interior. Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan should feel less secure in the pocket.

*Fewer missed field goals. Four of the Ravens' seven losses last season were by three points or less. In the first season without Matt Stover, their kickers missed a total of nine field goals. If front-runner Shayne Graham doesn't secure the job this preseason, then Billy Cundiff must have won it from him. Either way, the Ravens are in better shape than last year, when they were deciding between Steve Hauschka and Graham Gano.

Here are three issues that could derail the Ravens:

*The unknown timetable for Ed Reed. The six-time Pro Bowl safety is currently in injury limbo after having hip surgery three months ago. He could be ready for the season opener but he could also miss a significant portion of the season. No one knows, including the enigmatic Reed. The Ravens, who signed Ken Hamlin as his backup, were 2-2 last season without their top playmaker on defense.

*The availability of Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb. Both cornerbacks are coming off season-ending knee injuries. There is a chance that both will be ready for the season opener. But the general rule is players don't return to their old form until a full year after the surgery. So, Washington and Webb could be back, but they might not be truly back until 2011. The Ravens have veteran backups in Chris Carr, Walt Harris and Travis Fisher.

*The dependability of Jared Gaither. On the day the Ravens moved Gaither from left to right tackle, he went down for essentially the entire offseason with a foot injury. One reason the Ravens moved Gaither is because they couldn't count on him being in the lineup last season. This offensive line has the makings of being among the top 5 in the NFL if Gaither plays up to his potential. He is the biggest question mark on the offense.

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