As training camp fast approaches, I’ve decided to break down the current state of the rest of the AFC North heading into the 2015 NFL preseason. A comprehensive Pittsburgh Steelers breakdown will follow my analysis of their three divisional opponents early next week.
We’ll being by taking an in-depth look at the Baltimore Ravens, who finished last season with a 10-6 mark that was good enough to slide into the playoffs as the final seed in the AFC. After dispatching of Pittsburgh in the Wild Card round, the Ravens gave the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots an exceptional test, but ultimately fell, 35-31.
The Cleveland Browns may be improving, and the Cincinnati Bengals may boast one of the NFL’s most talented rosters, but ask just about any Steelers fan, and they’ll tell you Baltimore is the main obstacle between Pittsburgh and a second straight divisional title. The Ravens are strong in all the important spots, have a battle-tested, veteran locker room, and are well-coached by John Harbaugh.
Divisional Standing: 3-3 in 2014
The majority of the Ravens’ struggles came within their own division, where the team accumulated three of their six losses in 2014. Baltimore managed to sweep the Browns, but had the favor returned to them by Cincinnati, while splitting the season series with the Steelers.
Joe Flacco’s occasional struggles in the regular season are real, but the quarterback has become a steady performer in clutch situations. Not many teams in the NFL can say they have stability at the game’s most important position, but the Ravens definitely can.
One of the team’s biggest issues in the past has been a lack of suitable weapons around their franchise quarterback, a problem the front office sought to rectify this spring. Drafting wide receiver Breshad Perriman and tight end Maxx Williams in the 1st and 2nd rounds acquired some of the draft’s top-tier receiving talent to trot out with the aging Steve Smith. It is a young group outside of Smith, but Williams could step in right away as a starter if Dennis Pitta’s health continues to wane.
If the rookies can play a big role, the Ravens offense will be tough to stop. Justin Forsett is coming off a career year running behind one of the best offensive lines in football, and few offensive coordinators are more savvy than the newly-acquired Marc Trestman. The depth is there for big things to happen with this unit even if injuries befall them.
There aren’t many, but the wide receiver position is still the biggest concern on the offensive side of the ball. Perriman replaces the underwhelming Torrey Smith, but struggled with drops in college and will need to refine his route-running. Steve Smith isn’t getting any younger at 36 years old, and Pitta has appeared in just seven games over the past two seasons as he battles hip injuries. Marlon Brown is coming off a down sophomore campaign after an exciting rookie season, and Kamar Aiken and Michael Campanaro are largely untested. It will be interesting to see what this group can put together, as there is plenty of talent but very little experience outside of Steve Smith.
The Ravens finished second in the NFL last year with 49 sacks, and the two key catalysts for that production are back again in the form of Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs, who combined to drop quarterbacks 29 times last year. Pernell McPhee will be missed, but his replacement has already been brought on via the draft in Z’Darius Smith. The complete linebacking corps of Dumervil, Suggs, Daryl Smith, and C.J. Mosley is one of the best in the NFL, if not the best.
In front of them Haloti Ngata will be tough to replace, but second-year defensive end Timmy Jernigan posted some strong performances as a rookie last season. At nose tackle Brandon Williams is one of the NFL’s most underrated players, and Chris Canty is a reliable presence at the other defensive end spot. It is a front seven that should be among the NFL’s best, especially when it comes to pressuring the quarterback.
Outside of cornerback Jimmy Smith, the secondary is still the weakest aspect of the team by far. The unit ranked 23rd in the NFL last season, thanks in large part to Smith’s Lisfranc foot injury that required surgery and cost him the final eight games of the year.
Lardarius Webb will bookend Smith again this season, but hasn’t been the same player since his torn ACL in 2012. The team didn’t add much help via the draft, as fourth round pick Tray Walker is a developmental piece that is still a-ways away from contributing. Adding ex-Patriot Kyle Arrington to play the slot was a nice move, but both he and Webb are little more than average at best.
At safety, Matt Elam has been a complete disaster, while second-year player Terrence Brooks waits for a chance to make his mark. Free agent signee Kendrick Lewis is an upgrade over Elam, but still more of a band-aid-for-a-bullet-hole approach. Will Hill should be a solidifying presence at one safety spot, but free safety should be an open competition in training camp.
The Ravens roster is very good and fairly deep at most positions, but ultimately their season may come down to how dominant their young players on offense can be in their initial NFL campaigns. Question marks exist, but the Ravens have stable leadership from the top down to Harbaugh, which bodes well for a potentially deep playoff run.
The biggest issue for the team may end up being the biggest issue for all AFC North teams: who makes it out of perhaps the toughest division in football? That question will undoubtedly be examined all season long, in what should be one of the more competitive division title races in the league.