- James Walker, ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
WESTMINSTER, Md. -- If the Baltimore Ravens want to take the next step and build off a stellar 2008 season, there is only one place left for this team to go: Super Bowl XLIV in Miami.
The Ravens are coming off a competitive AFC Championship Game loss to the reigning champion Pittsburgh Steelers, so optimism abounds in Baltimore.
The Ravens feel they finally found their franchise quarterback in Joe Flacco. They have an energetic coach in John Harbaugh who quickly brought the team back to prominence, and the defense was rated second in the NFL last season behind Pittsburgh.
Based on the record-setting turnout in Westminster this summer for training camp, Ravens fans are clearly buying into Baltimore's rosy outlook as a title contender. But for the Ravens to position themselves to make a run, they must first address several key issues.
1. Can Baltimore overtake Pittsburgh?
If Baltimore were able to topple Pittsburgh last season, who knows where the Ravens would be right now? Perhaps the Ravens, and not the Steelers, would be entering the season as the defending champs.
But Baltimore was unable to climb "Mount Pittsburgh" in 2008, losing close games in all three attempts. The end result was falling one game shy of the AFC North division title and one touchdown drive short of Baltimore advancing to play the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
Although the Ravens probably wouldn't admit this publicly, much of what they're doing this season is geared toward closing the gap with the Steelers. Baltimore drafted rookie tackle Michael Oher to help nullify Pittsburgh's edge rushers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. The Ravens improved the depth in their secondary, which broke down with injuries during the playoffs, by adding cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr in free agency.
The difference between Baltimore and Pittsburgh wasn't sizable to start. But the Ravens are hoping this is the year the balance of power shifts in their favor.
2. Will Joe Flacco avoid the sophomore slump?
Much of Baltimore's success will hinge on Flacco proving to be the real deal. So far there is no reason to believe that won't be the case.
The Ravens by no means will become a pass-happy offense this season, but Flacco is being given more responsibility in his second year working with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. In addition to a strong running game, overall balance will make Baltimore harder to defend if Flacco is up to the task.
Flacco had a good preseason debut, completing 9 of 15 passes for 103 yards in a 23-0 victory last week over the Washington Redskins. What stood out most is Flacco connected with six different receivers in limited playing time, which is an important next step in his maturation process.
As a rookie Flacco had the tendency to lock in on his two receivers -- Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton -- on the outside. The pair accounted for nearly half (47 percent) of Flacco's completions. All spring and summer the coaches have been working with Flacco to attack more areas of the field, particularly over the middle, to make the passing game less predictable.
3. Can the defense stay elite?
Since their inception the Ravens have been built on defense. It is also where they allot most of their salary-cap space.
Baltimore has dealt with defections before but rarely has the unit been hit this much in one offseason. Four of the 11 starters will be new this year and the team is replacing longtime defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.
Free-agent pickup Foxworth and linebacker Tavares Gooden will join defensive tackle Kelly Gregg and safety Dawan Landry as starters who weren't contributors for Baltimore's No. 2-rated defense last season. Gregg (knee) and Landry (neck) were starters for the Ravens in the past but are returning from season-ending injuries.
The primary challenge for new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is to add his own wrinkles without changing
too much of Baltimore's identity. When you have players like Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata, the transition certainly becomes a lot easier.
Many in Baltimore are asking: How much is left in the tank of Willis McGahee?
Once one of the top running backs in the AFC, McGahee has been slowed by injuries the past two years in Baltimore. Now in his seventh season, he is at a crossroads to prove he can get back to his previous form.
McGahee, 27, has opened the door for second-year running back Ray Rice to become the starter this season. But the two have been pushing each other recently in training camp in a scenario that is working out for both players.
Rice appears solid in his quest to keep the starting job, while McGahee also is running harder. McGahee is averaging 6.5 yards per carry in the preseason, after averaging less than four yards per carry in three of the past four seasons.
With last year's leading rusher Le'Ron McClain playing more fullback this season, expect McGahee and Rice to have more opportunities to prove themselves in the running game this year.
Newcomer to watch
The Ravens have had a penchant for finding talented young linebackers and they hope Gooden is next in line.
Gooden, a 2008 third-round pick, missed 12 games last season with a hip injury. But with the departure of linebacker Bart Scott to free agency, Gooden is expected to start next to Lewis in Baltimore's linebacking corps.
Lewis is taking Gooden under his wing the same way he's tutored others such as Scott and Adalius Thomas before him. Teammates jokingly have nicknamed Gooden "Baby Ray."
The Ravens traded up to get first-round pick Michael Oher, and the rookie right tackle is immediately fitting in. With the retirement of veteran Willie Anderson, Oher took all the first-team reps during the spring and summer, which is helping his learning curve. With Oher and left tackle Jared Gaither, the Ravens have two quality young tackles who could be building blocks for a long time. ... The receiver position remains a concern as Baltimore made no significant additions in free agency or the NFL draft. The Ravens caught a break with the return of Mason from a brief retirement, but questions of depth remain. Clayton has missed most of camp with a hamstring injury and Marcus Smith is out for the season with a torn ACL. That leaves Demetrius Williams, Justin Harper and Kelley Washington to assist Flacco. ... This season marks the first time in franchise history that Baltimore will not have longtime Raven Matt Stover as its kicker. Stover eventually lost his leg strength for kickoffs so the Ravens are having a two-way battle between Steve Hauschka and Graham Gano for the job. Both kickers had their ups and downs early, but Hauschka seems to have the early advantage with three games remaining in the preseason.
James Lang/US Presswire Coach John Harbaugh, who took the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game in his first season, is looking to take the next step.