Print and Go Back ESPN.com: AFC North [Print without images]

Thursday, August 19, 2010
Camp Confidential: Baltimore Ravens

By James Walker
ESPN.com

ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 5

WESTMINSTER, Md. -- Pro Bowl talent? Check.

Plenty of depth? Check.

A budding quarterback and tremendous coaching staff? Check and check.

There are plenty of reasons to buy into the Super Bowl hype surrounding the Baltimore Ravens this year. Most of the key ingredients are in place for Baltimore to make a deep postseason run.

On paper, this is perhaps the best collection of talent in Baltimore since the team's inception in 1996. It's certainly the most balanced, as last season's third-ranked defense joins quarterback Joe Flacco, Pro Bowl tailback Ray Rice and new receiver Anquan Boldin to give Baltimore a potentially high-scoring offense.

But expectations do not always equal results. Can the Ravens live up to the hype? First they must address these key issues.

THREE HOT ISSUES

Joe Flacco
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has plenty of weapons to be successful on offense.
1. Is Flacco ready to take the next step? There are plenty of weapons on offense, but it's up to the quarterback to make sure everything runs efficiently.

Flacco has improved every year in the NFL. He is entering his third season, and the Ravens expect him to take the next step to become a legitimate franchise quarterback.

There is no reason to believe Flacco will not make the jump this year from a good to great quarterback. He has the best receiving corps of his career, a top-notch running game and a quality offensive line. Perhaps the biggest challenge for Flacco is keeping everyone happy, as every starting skill player with the exception of the quarterback has been to the Pro Bowl.

2. Will the cornerbacks hold up? Baltimore's secondary issues are well-documented.

Top corner Domonique Foxworth (knee) is out for the season and starters Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb are both coming off major knee surgeries. Washington will make his 2010 debut Saturday against the Washington Redskins, while Webb is waiting to be cleared for practice. There's also no guarantee both players will instantly get back to their old form once they return.

Players like Cary Williams, Travis Fisher and Chris Carr have been filling in for the time being. But starting roles are simply too big for this group, and that won't cut it in the regular season. In this pass-heavy NFL, you need quality depth at cornerback, and it turns out this is Baltimore's one glaring weakness on an otherwise stacked roster.

3. Can Baltimore survive the AFC North? Here is a fact Ravens fans often ignore: At least two division rivals currently have Baltimore's number.

The Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers have given Baltimore fits in recent years. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is 8-3 against the Ravens in 11 career starts, which includes last year's 2-0 sweep. Pittsburgh also is 4-1 (including playoffs) in its last five meetings against the Ravens. The only Baltimore win in that span came against the Dennis Dixon-led Steelers in overtime last November.

A deep postseason run would be a lot easier for Baltimore if it won the AFC North division. With that comes a home playoff game(s) and possibly a bye in the first round. But the Ravens will have to play more consistently against their division rivals this season.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Tom Zbikowski
Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski is having an outstanding training camp.
The Ravens are not panicking over safety Ed Reed's offseason hip surgery, because Tom Zbikowski is having the best training camp of his career. The third-year safety is leaner and quicker this year, as Zbikowski continues to earn the confidence of the coaching staff.

Zbikowski has some natural instincts that the Ravens want to take advantage of. He's versatile enough to play in the box, and has very good timing and angles on blitzes. It's unknown if Reed will be ready for Week 1 of the regular season. The Ravens probably can't win a Super Bowl without Reed, but they can win in the short term with an improved Zbikowski.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Jared Gaither's offseason has been a disaster. The offensive tackle got off on the wrong foot by making contract demands, and things have gone downhill from there.

Right now Gaither has a back injury that's kept him out of camp. He also surprised the Ravens by reporting to the team much lighter than his usual playing weight.

Baltimore has already moved forward by making Michael Oher its left tackle, which is the most important position on the offensive line. But if Gaither doesn't straighten things out, the Ravens also may have to figure out what to do next at right tackle. We will explain their options below.

OBSERVATION DECK