Ravens should be better this season

There are still question marks, but Newsome has made significant improvements to roster since last year

September 05, 2011|Mike Preston

As the regular season approaches, it appears — on paper, at least — that the Ravens have improved from 2010, but we won't know for sure until November or December.

Until then, it's important for the Ravens to stay competitive and pull out some early-season wins until the offensive line jells and some key young players gain experience.

The Ravens didn't make the wholesale changes like the Philadelphia Eagles did in the offseason, but they didn't remain status quo like the Pittsburgh Steelers either, who lost to the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl last season.

The Ravens have added some new veterans and young players to their starting lineups, so this season is going to be about patience and maturity.

"I think we are younger, more athletic and faster than we've been the last two years. I think this team will be a better team in October and November than they will be in September," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "Then you may go, 'What are you saying?' I'm saying we've got some young guys that are going to get better. Ed Dickson, Dennis Pitta, Pernell McPhee, Sergio Kindle.

"I can just go ahead and name the receivers that we have and also the young corners that we have. When you watch these players in September and then you watch these guys in October or November, they are going to be different players."

Agreed.

But it's not just the young players, but the offensive line as well. The Ravens can only blame themselves for the disaster of an offensive line which played in the preseason. They waited for young talent to develop, and it didn't happen. Newsome, though, made a comeback by adding offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, center Andre Gurode and guard-tackle Mark LeVoir.

There isn't any certainty that McKinnie or Gurode have a lot left, but they are still an upgrade from last year's line and what we saw in the preseason. The starting group has yet to take a snap together in a game situation, so it's safe to assume it will be at least three to four weeks before it gets in sync.

You have to be ecstatic with the other additions the Ravens have made on offense. They signed the NFL's best fullback in Vonta Leach, and a proven, speedy receiver on the outside in Lee Evans.

"He was a guy that we spent a lot of time with in the draft when he came out because he had that instant speed and he was a super person to be around," Newsome said of Evans. "In actuality, Buffalo called us back in early March and started talking about trading Lee Evans. That's something that happened like three or four months ago, so we had him on our radar, but … nothing could be done up until the lockout ended.

"He's a guy that has had a lot of success. If you look at the three games he's played against us, I think he's had something like five or six touchdowns and maybe 400 or 500 passing yards. He has a good resume against us and when you can have a good resume against our defense, it lends us to like to have you on our team."

If fourth-year quarterback Joe Flacco can improve his game, and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron can get more production out of the offense, then the Ravens might be pretty good.

There are a lot of "ifs" …

Actually, there are two more …

If Dickson and Pitta can play as well in the regular season as they have in the preseason, and if one of these young receivers like David Reed, Torrey Smith or Tandon Doss can nail down the No. 3 receiver position …

It will take time, maybe around November or December.

The Ravens are also looking ahead on the calendar for the development of young cornerbacks Jimmy Smith, the team's top draft pick, and third-year player Cary Williams. They are both faster and more physical than the starting cornerbacks of a year ago, and should allow the Ravens to blitz more.

The Ravens still need to find another pass-rushing threat opposite Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, but that could eventually come with the development of McPhee, a rookie defensive end, or Kindle, a second-year outside linebacker.

As far as overall defense, the Ravens should have one of the better ones in the NFL, and they'll quickly find out that first-year defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano is just as good as his predecessor, Greg Mattison. The addition of Bernard Pollard at strong safety will help the Ravens because they haven't had a true thumper in the secondary in years. The rest of the gang is basically the same with Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Jarret Johnson.

If as a fan, you're starting to feel good about the Ravens, you should. This isn't to say the Ravens don't have problems. Besides the ones that were mentioned earlier, there is still concern about a No. 2 quarterback, the age of some veterans and the subpar play from the inside linebackers. Starting defensive tackle Terrence Cody stays on the ground too much and the final verdict is still out on Flacco.

There is also concern about coach John Harbaugh being able to control a team that has several players with troubled pasts and several players with huge egos.

But the concerns are much less than they were at the end of July when the Ravens waived tight end Todd Heap, receiver Derrick Mason, defensive tackle Kelly Gregg and running back Willis McGahee. After last season, including the playoff loss to Pittsburgh, I thought the Ravens had the best team in the NFL. The Steelers didn't beat them; the Ravens beat themselves.

This season, they are a better team, at least on paper. If they can hold their own at the beginning of the season, they'll prove it at the end.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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