Reaching 2013 Super Bowl a realistic goal for the Ravens

January 28, 2012|Peter Schmuck

Here's a little advice as we enter what – for some – will be a difficult week of Super Bowl hype and unrequited Purple Passion.

Buy a couple of squares in your office grid pool so you have a rooting interest in the big game and, as the song goes, don't stop thinking about tomorrow.

The hardest thing to deal with after such a dramatic and disappointing finish is the knowledge that an opportunity that promising doesn't come along every day, but it really won't require all that much heavy lifting for the Ravens to position themselves for another strong run at the Lombardi Trophy next year.

There is always change and uncertainty from one NFL season to another, so nobody ever knows quite what to expect, but the Ravens already went through their off season of dramatic change and still came within a stripped pass of playing the New York Giants for the NFL title.

John Harbaugh alluded to that during his news conference on Friday. The Ravens already have broken in a new group of young receivers and turned the page on several core veterans. They will come back next year with just about all of their skill players on offense and most of their key veterans on defense.

This isn't college football, of course, so there isn't the automatic presumption of improvement when most of the lettermen are returning, but there is a lot of untapped upside in young wideout Torrey Smith and tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, and there still is some room for Joe Flacco to grow into a truly elite quarterback.

The defense will retain a mix of elite veterans and maturing young players who already have made significant contributions to the franchise's great defensive tradition, but the pressure to win it all for Ray Lewis and Ed Reed (if he returns) will intensify along with the necessity of finding suitable replacements for them.

The areas where the Ravens need to improve for next season are not so obvious, but they are critical to the team's chances of spending the first weekend of February in New Orleans. Next year's schedule is going to be much tougher than the one from which the Ravens extracted 12 victories and a fourth consecutive playoff berth, including regular-season showdowns with both of this year's Super Bowl teams and tough road trips to Philadelphia, Houston and San Diego.

To improve on this year's 4-4 regular-season record on the road – and get in position for some more home cooking in the postseason -- they're going to have be a much more consistent offensive team that can impose its will on the league's good defensive units in short-yardage situations. That was a noticeable weakness in Cam Cameron's offensive scheme this past season and one that will not be easy to correct.

The offensive line was expected to be an area of concern when the Ravens arrived for training camp last summer, but general manager Ozzie Newsome managed to piece together adequate depth and the Ravens got as far as they got in spite of the short yardage and protection issues that cropped up over the course of the season.

Newsome made some brilliant moves during the abbreviated free agent period that followed last year's NFL lockout, proving again that he's one of the most savvy personnel guys in the league. He'll be back on a normal schedule during this offseason, with plenty of time to evaluate the Ravens' draft and free agent priorities, but shoring up the offensive line could be even more difficult this year with Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs likely to be a popular free agent and center Matt Birk again considering retirement.

The popular saying around The Castle is "In Ozzie we trust," and there is no reason to doubt that he will move decisively to strengthen the O-line and continue to add talent to a defense that led the AFC in sacks and led the NFL in forced fumbles.

Harbaugh bristles at the suggestion that the window might be closing for his team after four straight playoff years, and he has every right. The Ravens do stand to lose Lewis and Reed in the not-so-distant future, but the Ravens are fairly young at the offensive skill positions and are developing some terrific talent in the defensive backfield. They're going to be good for a long time.

That doesn't mean they are going to the 2013 Super Bowl, but it's certainly not out of the question.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" on Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.

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