- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- No team over the past four years has had more playoff success without reaching the Super Bowl than the Ravens. And no one has to remind the Ravens of that frustrating fact.
The last time the Ravens played a meaningful game was the AFC Championship Game seven months ago, when Lee Evans' failed catch with 22 seconds left cost them a trip to the NFL's biggest stage. Although Evans is gone, the question that lingers over this team is this: Can the Ravens get to the Super Bowl?
“It’s time for us to get over the hump,” running back Ray Rice said. “And we’ve got the pieces to do it.”
For the first time in 15 years, those pieces appear to be more in place on the Ravens' offense than their defense. Rice can make the argument that he's the best running back in the NFL after producing an league-best 2,068 total yards. Flacco proved he can put a team in position to go to the Super Bowl (as long as the receiver makes the catch the next time). And Baltimore has a promising playmaker in wide receiver Torrey Smith.
There has been more uncertainty this offseason about the Ravens' defense, which is traditionally a lock to rank in the top five each season. It began with the Achilles injury to linebacker Terrell Suggs, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, who is out indefinitely. It continued with safety Ed Reed skipping all of the offseason workouts, including the mandatory minicamp. Now, throughout training camp, there have been concerns about defensive tackle Haloti Ngata gaining too much weight and linebacker Ray Lewis losing too much.
The Ravens remain among the favorites to win the division and contend for a Super Bowl. But "getting over the hump" is easier said than done in the NFL. The last team to reach the Super Bowl the season after losing in the conference championship game was the New England Patriots in 2007.
"You want to talk about 22 seconds left in the AFC Championship Game, that’s fine," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We have to get back to 22 seconds left in the AFC Championship Game first, and before that, we have to have a great preseason. But what we’re really interested in is a really great practice tomorrow. That’s what matters. That’s what’s important now. That’s what we need to take care of.”
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Replacing linebacker Terrell Suggs. Paul Kruger, a second-round pick who has one start and 6.5 career sacks, will step into Suggs' rush linebacker position. The reality is no one player will fill Suggs' void. In addition to his AFC-leading 14 sacks, Suggs was a disruptive force who forced an NFL-high seven fumbles and knocked down seven passes. He struck fear in quarterbacks. Some quarterbacks facing Baltimore this season, such as Eli Manning and Tony Romo, probably have never heard of Kruger.
Having Suggs in the lineup meant the Ravens didn't have to blitz. He recorded 20 sacks the past two seasons when the Ravens sent four or fewer rushers. Until Suggs returns, which might not happen until December, new defensive coordinator Dean Pees could be forced to blitz more often to generate a consistent pass rush. The loss of Suggs comes in a season when the Ravens play 13 games against Pro Bowl quarterbacks.
"To say we're not going to miss Suggs, who's going to believe that?" Pees said. "The truth of it is other guys have to step up. It's not the first time in the NFL that a good player has gone down. I was in New England when we lost [Tom] Brady and went 11-5 with [Matt] Cassel. We lost [Tedy] Bruschi to a stroke, and we went 12-4. Do you want it to happen? No. I would love to have Terrell Suggs. I don't want to make light of that. At the same time, life goes on."
2. Deciding on a kicker. There has been tremendous pressure and scrutiny on Billy Cundiff since he hooked a last-minute, 32-yard field goal that would've tied the AFC Championship Game in New England. It was assumed that Cundiff was safe after the Ravens didn't cut him following the miss, and the team didn't sign a veteran kicker as competition. But the kicking battle between Cundiff and undrafted rookie Justin Tucker has been closer than expected.
Tucker has outkicked Cundiff in training camp, making 87 of 92 field goal attempts (94.6 percent) in practice. Cundiff has converted 78 of 95 tries (82.1 percent), causing many to wonder whether he's starting to lose his grip on the job. The Ravens are taking a risk with either kicker. Baltimore will go with Cundiff, who has the biggest field goal miss in franchise history looming over him, or Tucker, who has yet to kick in a regular-season game.
The Ravens' coaching staff indicated there would be no apprehension in going with a rookie kicker. "The best player plays," special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. "That’s just the way it is."
3. Flacco's future. He's entering the final year of his contract despite the sides talking for six months. The trouble is bridging the gap between two tiers of quarterbacks. Flacco is better than the Cardinals' Kevin Kolb (six years, $65 million with $21.5 million guaranteed) and the Bills' Ryan Fitzpatrick (six years, $59 million with $24 million guaranteed). But Flacco isn't on the same level as the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger (eight years, $102 million) and the Giants' Eli Manning (seven years, $106.9 million).
Asked how this issue ranks as a distraction from 1 to 10, Flacco said, "A one. You might say I'm lying there, and it might not be quite a one. I may be exaggerating a little bit. But there really is no concern. I feel like I'm going to be the quarterback here for a while. It's just a matter of when it happens, it happens."
Flacco is right about not having to worry. The Ravens will either sign him to a long-term deal or put the franchise tag on him, which means Flacco will get paid like a top-five quarterback. The tag for quarterbacks is expected to exceed $15 million in 2013.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
This is the year when Baltimore's grind-it-out offense can take advantage of Flacco's arm, which ESPN's Ron Jaworski calls the strongest in the NFL. General manager Ozzie Newsome believes that this is the fastest group of receivers he has put together.
The Ravens first addressed speed last season when they used a second-round pick on Smith, who is more confident in his second season and is displaying more reliable hands in camp. Baltimore then added Jacoby Jones in May after he was cut by Houston. He showed off his speed in the preseason opener, when he sprinted past the entire Falcons secondary.
"I think any time you get guys who are good athletes and get more comfortable and more experience, the better you're going to be on offense," said Flacco, whose 44 completions of more than 20 yards last season ranked 16th in the league. "To add Jacoby and a couple of these young guys, we have a lot of potential."
For the Ravens to throw more downfield, Flacco will need more time to throw. Baltimore's offensive line, which is among the oldest in the league, has to step up its protection.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
The Ravens own the NFL's longest active streak -- six seasons -- for ranking in the top five in run defense. But this area of strength is a major question mark this season.
There are three new starters in Baltimore's front seven: Kruger, rookie outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw and defensive end Arthur Jones. Upshaw has the challenge of setting the edge against the run, a thankless job handled by Jarret Johnson for the past five seasons.
Suggs' absence hurts the Ravens' run defense just as much as their pass rush. The Ravens allowed 3.4 yards per rush when Suggs was on the field last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Baltimore allowed 5.9 yards per rush without Suggs.
Ngata expects teams to test the Ravens' run defense this season. "I think we still have some work to do, but we have a lot of young guys that are trying to learn," Ngata said of the run defense. "So, it’s just getting those guys together and setting those fronts and getting some camaraderie together out there on the field. I don’t think we've really played together well yet, just because it’s so new and young."
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron continues to put more trust in Flacco. During one practice, he let Flacco call the entire series, which ended with a touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin. Flacco's influence on the offense is growing.
For all of his talking during the offseason, safety Ed Reed has been extremely quiet and focused this camp. Many predict a big bounce-back year for Reed, whose three interceptions last season were his fewest for a 16-game season.
The Ravens are probably going to stick with Bobbie Williams at left guard to start the season because of his experience. But rookie lineman Kelechi Osemele is better than what the Ravens thought when they used a second-round pick on him in April. His footwork is impressive for a lineman his size, and his wingspan is an asset in pass protection. Osemele could be the starter by the end of the season.
Baltimore still sees Jimmy Smith, a first-round pick from a year ago, as a starting cornerback. He just needs to stay on the field. Smith missed practice time recently because his back tightened up, which was a problem for him in college.
The way Upshaw practices can often get misinterpreted as being lazy. Upshaw is not self-motivated, but he is a hard worker. The team's top pick in this year's draft does whatever the coaching staff asks of him.
The team doesn't know what to make of quarterback Curtis Painter, who is battling Tyrod Taylor to be the top backup. He has looked awful in training camp. At times, he was completing more passes to the defense than his wide receivers. Then, in the first preseason game, Painter threw three touchdown passes.
The Ravens are going to be in trouble if rookie third-round pick Bernard Pierce struggles as the primary backup running back to Rice. The other backs -- Bobby Rainey and Anthony Allen -- aren't ready for that role. Baltimore has high expectations for Pierce, whose one-cut running style reminds the team of Arian Foster.
The dark-horse pick to make the roster is defensive tackle Bryan Hall, who was on the practice squad last season. Known for being a character in the locker room, Hall has impressed the coaches by playing hard and smart. Hall's chances of making the team increased when Ryan McBean needed ankle surgery.