LOOK OF A CHAMP
The chatter about the Ravens this season will be centered on the offense. It's a relevant topic considering that Gary Kubiak revived this unit in his one season as Baltimore's OC, then left to become coach of the Broncos this year. In his place, John Harbaugh hired pass-happy former Bears coach Marc Trestman to up the vertical game.
It's the Ravens' defense, however, that will be the biggest factor in SI's anointing of Baltimore as its Super Bowl pick. Last season the Ravens had the best D, in both points and yards, in the AFC North, even with several injuries in the secondary, including top cornerback Jimmy Smith, who went down with a left Lisfranc tear in Week 8. So underwhelming was their set of safeties heading into the season—Matt Elam and Darian Stewart—that problem child Will Hill had to be signed off the street last July, despite his having a six-game suspension (for a failed drug test) coming. He proved a dramatic upgrade.
Smith, who received a four-year, $48 million contract extension in the off-season, is now healthy. When he and Lardarius Webb (who dealt with a hamstring issue through the preseason) are on the field, they are among the better cornerbacks in the league. They are physical and nasty, and they match up with any receiver. "We can lock down the outside," Webb says. "That means the defense can do a lot of different things." Adding depth to Baltimore's secondary is Kyle Arrington, who was mysteriously released by the Patriots in May with two years left on his contract. Arrington was benched against Seattle in the Super Bowl, but over his six-year career he's proved to be a solid and versatile defensive back and a key special teams player.
September 7, 2015
At safety, Elam is expected to miss the season with a torn biceps, but the Ravens might be better off without him. Stewart left for Denver but has been replaced by former Texans safety Kendrick Lewis, whom the coaches have raved about for being the kind of smart, tough and instinctive leader the group has lacked since Ed Reed departed. Lewis complements the athletic play of Hill, a strong safety who can both hit and cover.
Up front the Ravens will have to overcome the loss of stalwart tackle Haloti Ngata, who was traded to the Lions when Baltimore couldn't navigate his $16 million cap figure. In the short term the Ravens will be worse off without Ngata, but they have been preparing for this. Third-year tackle Brandon Williams is a bull, 2014 second-round pick Timmy Jernigan has the makings of a star at end, and opposite him veteran Chris Canty is still tough to move. It hurt to lose promising end Brent Urban to a training camp injury, but Baltimore has good depth with third-year end Kapron Lewis-Moore and defensive tackle Carl Davis, a third-round pick from Iowa whose physicality matches his 6'5", 320-pound size. In college his work ethic was questioned, but the Ravens are privately ecstatic about what they've seen in camp.
The starting outside linebackers remain a position of strength. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil are both over 30, but last year they combined for 29 sacks, which made them the most prolific duo in the league. There's little doubt that Pernell McPhee, who had been the unit's Swiss Army knife, will be missed after signing with Chicago, and it's up to fourth-year player Courtney Upshaw to pick up McPhee's role in the base defense. Upshaw hasn't stood out against the run or the pass and remains a work in progress.
At inside linebacker, C.J. Mosley received most of the press last year, finishing second to the Rams' Aaron Donald in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, but 33-year-old Daryl Smith held the unit together with his communication, play recognition against the run and his underrated coverage abilities.
The Steelers are loaded on offense, and if Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton ever gets it, Cincinnati will be tough to stop. Throughout the rest of the conference, Denver remains a formidable test, but the Colts (not enough line talent) and the Patriots (who lost corners Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner) might not have enough to match up with Baltimore. Yes, the Ravens' offense has issues to work out, starting with the integration of Trestman's scheme, but the defense, if healthy, could take this team to its second Super Bowl in four years.
SI'S PREDICTION: 11--5
ANDY BENOIT ON THE UNDERAPPRECIATED JOE FLACCO
How is it that so few recognize Joe Flacco as a superstar? Not only does he have the size and the arm to thread balls against tight man coverage, but he's also intelligent, as evidenced by the way he dissects zones. Flacco (above) even checks off the ridiculously overemphasized "he's a winner" box, with a career postseason record of 10--5 that includes an NFL-record seven road victories and a Super Bowl MVP.
This season the 30-year-old will be playing for his fourth offensive coordinator in as many years. That's not ideal, given that last season under Gary Kubiak (now Denver's coach) the Ravens set franchise records for points and yards. But new coordinator (and former Bears coach) Marc Trestman, while one of the game's most innovative minds, will keep intact the zone-running concepts that Kubiak employed and that running back Justin Forsett and his outstanding O-line executed so expertly in 2014. Many of last season's play-action packages will also stay. (They're built off the zone stretch runs.) The only change might be through the air, with a slight increase in vertical route combinations—Trestman's specialty. With a bona fide superstar at QB, there's nothing the Ravens can't try.