With season opener Sunday vs. the Bengals, Ravens still face a few questions

Team prepares for AFC North test against Cincinnati at M&T Bank Stadium in first game

September 01, 2014|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

About eight months ago, the Ravens trudged off the field at Paul Brown Stadium, a 34-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals bringing an end to their season and their streak of five consecutive playoff appearances.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh and his players have grown tired of hearing about the disappointing 2013 campaign. The 2014 Ravens are a completely different team, they say.

The coaching staff has been overhauled. Some veterans moved on, and rookies and second-year players were elevated into starting roles. Veteran wide receiver Steve Smith was signed to bring production, leadership and toughness to the offense.

The new-look Ravens will make their regular-season debut Sunday, and fittingly, their opponent is the Bengals, the defending AFC North champions.

The Ravens won't have running back Ray Rice as they get back to work Tuesday after two days off, but the rest of their roster should be practicing. After weeks dominated by talks about roster competitions, their starting teams and top reserves are pretty much set.

But there are still questions that hang over the Ravens as they accelerate their preparation for the Bengals.

How healthy are the Ravens?

It was a difficult summer as the Ravens lost young defensive ends Brent Urban and Kapron Lewis-Moore to season-ending injuries and had their top three cornerbacks — Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith and Asa Jackson — miss significant time in the preseason. Webb, who had a lower back injury, was out for about a month and never played a snap in the preseason.

However, the Ravens have gotten progressively healthier and it's possible — if not, likely — that they'll have everyone ready to go Sunday. Running back Bernard Pierce and swing tackle Jah Reid, who both sustained concussions earlier in the preseason, returned to practice late last week.

Webb, Smith (chest contusion) and Jackson (ankle sprain) also were practicing, and Smith said recently that he's "100 percent certain" that all three will be ready to play when the games matter.

It is, however, fair to question how much the Ravens will be able to count on the trio with how much time they've missed, especially when they are going to have to contend with Bengals standout receiver A.J. Green and company.

How will all skill-position players stay involved?

Marlon Brown set a team-record with seven touchdown receptions as a rookie last season, yet he's currently the Ravens' No. 4 wide receiver and caught two balls the entire preseason.

Tight end Owen Daniels, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who suffered through an injury-plagued 2013 season, averaged 55 catches per season for the previous six years. But it's unclear at this point how he'll fit with the offense as he was sidelined for a good part of the preseason.

Tight end Dennis Pitta is healthy after playing just four games last season because of a hip injury. The Ravens have an emerging No. 1 receiver in Torrey Smith and a longtime one in Steve Smith, along with a proven deep threat in Jacoby Jones.

The success of their new-look offense, directed by new coordinator Gary Kubiak, will hinge on quarterback Joe Flacco's ability to spread the ball around, exploit mismatches and take what is given to him.

Flacco and the starting offense were solid in the preseason, though Kubiak didn't show a whole lot. The challenge intensifies significantly starting Sunday, and Kubiak undoubtedly has plenty of wrinkles in store for the Bengals.

Will youth be served in 2014?

The average age of the Ravens' 53-man roster is just over 26 years old, which is a bit younger than last year but ranks in the middle of the pack in the NFL.

The Cleveland Browns and the Bengals both have younger rosters than the Ravens, while the Pittsburgh Steelers currently have the oldest roster in the AFC North by a narrow margin.

The Ravens will have one rookie — first-round pick C.J. Mosley — starting as he'll play weak-side linebacker alongside Daryl Smith. But they'll have several second-year players starting, including fullback Kyle Juszczyk, right tackle Rick Wagner, nose tackle Brandon Williams and strong safety Matt Elam.

A huge key to the season will be the emergence of their second-year players because to this point, the Ravens have gotten very little from their 2013 draft class. Of course, it is still early to be making any judgments.

What becomes of Rice?

Rice and safety Will Hill were officially moved to the reserve-suspended list Saturday.

Rice faces a two-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy after he had a physical altercation with his now-wife in February. Hill is dealing with a six-game ban, stemming from a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy.

Per league rules, neither player is allowed to be at the Ravens' facility during their suspension or take part in any team-related activities. Rice and Hill will be challenged with having to stay sharp and in shape on their own.

Rice, who had only five carries the entire preseason and sat out the final two games, can return to the team and be reinstated to the active roster Sept. 12, a day after the Ravens' face the Steelers in Week 2.

Hill, meanwhile, will be eligible to return in time for the Oct. 19 game against the Atlanta Falcons.

NOTES: The Ravens filled the final spot on their 10-man practice squad, signing tackle Marcel Jones, who had been cut by the New Orleans Saints. Jones (6 feet 7, 320 pounds) was a seventh-round pick by the Saints out of Nebraska in 2012, but he has yet to play in an NFL game, spending the past two years on either injured reserve or the practice squad. … The St. Louis Rams claimed former Houston Texans quarterback Case Keenum on waivers Sunday, ending any possible reunion between Keenum and Kubiak with the Ravens. Keenum started eight games for Kubiak's Texans last season.

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jeffzrebiecsun

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