The Baltimore Ravens enter the 2011 season as a team in fairly serious transition.
The Ravens have 20 (twenty!) new players, including three rookie wide receivers, a revamped offensive line, a rebuilt secondary, a new fullback, new starters at wide receiver, tight end and defensive tackle, and a raw rookie, Tyrod Taylor, as their No. 2 quarterback.
For all that, the Ravens return stalwarts Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs on defense. Their offense will be led by running back Ray Rice, wide receiver Anquan Boldin and quarterback Joe Flacco, who throws perhaps the best deep pass in the NFL but is 0-6 against the Steelers when QB Ben Roethlisberger plays.
The Offensive Line: Question Marks Abound
The biggest question for the Ravens has to be their starting offensive line, which did not take a single snap together in the preseason. Tackle Michael Oher shifts to the right side (over his objections), as the team plugs at left tackle a reportedly fat (370-400 pounds) and out-of-shape Bryant McKinnie, whom the Minnesota Vikings jettisoned this summer after nine years punctuated by controversy. The soon-to-be 32-year-old McKinnie signed with Ravens only on August 24, and reportedly has struggled with his conditioning. If it's hot in Baltimore on Sunday, McKinnie may struggle as the game goes into the fourth quarter.
Four New Wide Receivers(!?)
One of the Ravens’ glaring weaknesses last season was lack of speed at wide receiver. In the off-season, Baltimore said goodbye to veterans Derrick Mason, T.J. Hoshmandzadeh and Donte Stallworth. Baltimore signed free agent Lee Evans, formerly of the Buffalo Bills, who always had top-flight straight-end speed –- but not now. Until Monday at least, Evans was nursing an injured ankle and in a walking boot.
As reported in the Carroll County Times, the Ravens will be without wide receiver David Reed, who was suspended for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy. Three rookie receivers are on the roster: Tandon Doss, LaQuan Williams, and rookie speedster Torrey Smith, the second-rounder from the University of Maryland, who will return kickoffs and punt. The loss of Reed is not to be discounted, as he led the NFL with an average of 29.3 yards per kickoff return, including a 103-yarder vs. Houston. Plus, as Carroll County Times reporter Aaron Wilson reported, Torrey Smith “struggled with his hands during the preseason and finished with only four receptions for 20 yards.” Ugh. Might we see some dropped passes or, for that matter, a fumbled kick or punt return?
This much transition at wide receiver is not a good sign for the Ravens, who may use third-year tight end Dennis Pitta (from BYU) as a slot wide receiver -– not necessarily a bad thing for Baltimore, but not necessarily a sign of confidence in their young receivers. It’s the first time Pitta’s done it in an NFL game, and it may limit what the Ravens can do with their tight-end alignments. The new starting tight end will be Ed Dickson, who replaces longtime Steeler nemesis Todd Heap, whom we will not miss. Goodbye and good riddance to Mr. Heap, a onetime great player.
"Run, Ray, Run"
With so many question marks on the offensive line and at receiver, Joey Porter's Pit Bulls expect the Ravens to run, run, run Ray Rice a lot on Sunday. Newly signed fullback Vonta Leach, a Pro Bowler with the Houston Texans last year, will be Rice's lead blocker. Leach replaces big man LeRon McClean, who fancied himself more a running back than blocking back. Leach has no such delusions. He's a cement-head, and a good one. In fact, after signing a three-year, $11 million contract with Baltimore, Leach is the NFL's highest-paid fullback.
We'll take a look at Baltimore's defense in the next couple days.
And we plan to offer our own worthless preview of the NFL season (hint: the San Diego Chargers and Houston Texans will make big noise this year in the AFC -- along with our very own Pittsburgh Steelers, of course).
Oh, and by the way, the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints -- the past two Super Bowl champions -- should put on a terrific show tonight at Lambeau Field. Should be fun, and we're even looking forward to the pre-game show featuring Lady Antebellum, Kid Rock and Maroon Five. Well, two of three (Lady Antebellum and Maroon Five) should be good, anyway, and who knows what kind of antics we'll see from Kid Rock.