Defense has been the big brother on the Baltimore Ravens for more than the past decade. It's been the one responsible for hard-fought wins, playoff victories and even a Super Bowl title.
Now, linebacker Ray Lewis is 37. Safety Ed Reed "isn't committed" to football this year. And linebacker Terrell Suggs, the best defensive player in the game last season, is out for an extended period with an Achilles injury.
The Ravens can't lean on their defense any longer. It's unfair to ask these defenders to hold teams to 16.6 points per game like last season. If the Ravens want to reach the playoffs for a fifth straight season, the offense has to take charge.
Being an average offense isn't going to cut it. The pressure is on for the Ravens to produce more points and yards than they've done the past 14 years, and quarterback Joe Flacco says he wouldn't want it any other way.
"I hope it does put more pressure on us," Flacco said. "I feel like we need that pressure. I feel like I want that pressure on us. I feel like we need to become a better offense and we need to become somebody that goes out there and puts points on the board week in and week out and is really responsible for winning a lot of games. If it does put pressure on us, I’m all for it."
You have to wonder if Flacco relishes the pressure. He certainly seems to invite it. Flacco is heading into the final year of his contract and is coming off an offseason in which he declared himself the best quarterback in the league.
To his credit, Flacco has played his best when faced with pressure situations. He's won in Pittsburgh the past two years with touchdown passes in the final 32 seconds of the game. He would've thrown the winning pass in the AFC Championship Game if Lee Evans had held onto the ball.
No one can accuse Flacco for lacking confidence. He's played with a chip on his shoulder since coming to the NFL from the University of Delaware, which Flacco himself called the "minor leagues of college football." Then, in early April, Flacco was asked if he was a top-five quarterback. His response: "I don’t think I’m the top five, I think I’m the best."
Flacco has since said the comments have been blown out of proportion. But he has never backed down from them. Maybe this is Flacco's way of putting more pressure on himself.
"I believe I'm the best at what I do," Flacco said this week. "I’m not comparing myself to anybody, but I do believe in myself. Just like anybody else that has any pride or feels like they want to be the best would say. What do you want me to say? I’m mediocre. I’d rather take criticism for believing that I’m the best than saying, ‘I’m probably somewhere in the middle of the pack.’ That’s kind of crazy to me."
The reality is Baltimore has been a middle-of-the-pack offense despite its talent. The Ravens have the league leader in total yards in running back Ray Rice. They have one of the most prolific wide receivers in NFL history in Anquan Boldin (the fastest player ever to 400, 500 and 600 catches in a career) and an emerging deep threat in Torrey Smith (five of his seven touchdowns covered at least 25 yards). Their fullback is a Pro Bowl player (Vonta Leach), their two offensive tackles are former first-round picks (Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher) and their right guard (Marshal Yanda) is perhaps the best at his position.
"We just continue to keep getting better every year, and we flashed some really good things last year," Yanda said. "We just need to be more consistent. I think we’ve flashed tools to be the No. 1 offense."
The problem is their potential hasn't led to production. Baltimore has never had an offense ranked higher than 13th since Vinny Testaverde left in 1998. In four seasons with Flacco and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, the offense has ranked 18th, 13th, 22nd and 15th.
"Those are some names that should make this offense more than just a par-for-average offense," said Marcellus Wiley, a former NFL defensive lineman and current ESPN analyst. "This is an offense that is 15th-ranked and should be better than that."
Some might say the Ravens have underachieved because they haven't been put in a position where they've needed to be aggressive. With one of the best defenses every year, Baltimore knows a win is virtually assured when it scores more than two touchdowns. In fact, the Ravens have won 82 percent of their games (46-10 record) since 2008 when they score more than 14 points.
That mindset has to change with Suggs out of the lineup and an imposing schedule that features seven quarterbacks who have totaled 22 Pro Bowls and six Super Bowl titles: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton.
The Ravens have to think touchdowns instead of field goals. They have to attack downfield instead of worrying about a turnover. The Ravens' playoff hopes rest on the offense getting out of the passenger seat and living up to the expectations of being a top-10 one in the league.
"You definitely want to be that," Flacco said. "I think we have the ability to be that. It's just a matter of making our mind up and having the confidence to do that."