OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- How close are the Baltimore Ravens?
Consider this: For three consecutive years, they were eliminated in the postseason by the eventual AFC champions.
That is why the Ravens' mindset is all about getting over the hump in 2011. Since 2008, Baltimore has fallen a step or two short of making a Super Bowl run. A pair of playoff losses to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers and one to the Indianapolis Colts have overshadowed an otherwise stellar three-year period.
This season, the Ravens have another good team with high expectations. Baltimore should be in the playoff mix again, barring significant injuries. But it probably will come down to whether the Ravens can beat other title contenders -- like Pittsburgh -- in big games.
"The Steelers are one of the best teams in the league, and we're right there behind them," Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said this week in a conference call with season-ticket holders. "Our goal is to get there. We understand that. It's a high bar having them in our division like the Orioles have had the Yankees and the Red Sox in their division for 30 years. We'd rather have it no other way. It's just the way it is."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Will Joe Flacco take the next step? If this week was any indication, Flacco is easily the most discussed athlete in Baltimore this summer. Nearly every time I turned on the radio, Flacco was being analyzed or compared with other quarterbacks.
Flacco has responded by showing a newfound edge. The fourth-year quarterback has also become a more vocal leader.
Although his stats have steadily improved, Flacco's postseason performances have not. That's where he needs to take the next step. Flacco is 4-3 in the playoffs, but played well in only one of those games -- a wild-card victory over the Kansas City Chiefs last January.
2. What to do on the offensive line? There are no easy answers for Baltimore's offensive line. The tackle spots are the biggest problems.
Oniel Cousins has not proved to be the answer at right tackle. Now, the Ravens are experimenting with rookie third-round draft pick Jah Reid to see if he's ready. Reid is expected to get his first NFL start Friday night against the Chiefs.
Former first-round pick Michael Oher was a stellar right tackle as a rookie. But the Ravens moved Oher to left tackle out of necessity in 2010, with mixed results. Baltimore hopes Oher improves in 2011.
Starting guard Marshal Yanda has been dealing with back spasms but could return as early as next week. He's a candidate for right tackle if things don't go well for Reid. Veteran center Matt Birk is out following knee surgery but is expected to be ready for the regular-season opener against Pittsburgh.
Baltimore’s offensive line is a hodgepodge group. But the Ravens’ goal is to have clarity by their regular-season opener on Sept. 11.
"We're going to try to work out the best five in some combination," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said this week. "It may not be ideal, but it's probably our best alternative."
3. Is the defense improved? Baltimore’s defense was ranked No. 10 in the NFL last season. A top-10 ranking is nothing to sneeze at. But the bar for the Ravens' defense is higher.
A leaky secondary and a struggling pass rush were Baltimore's two issues in 2010. Both hurt the Ravens' ability to close out games in the fourth quarter.
Baltimore invested a first-round pick in former Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith. He's big, fast and physical. The Ravens haven't had a corner with all of those attributes since former Pro Bowler Chris McAlister.
Also keep an eye on Cary Williams, another big corner who had a good training camp. Williams began working with the first team this week.
"When they prance out there, it's very comforting," Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said of Smith and Williams. "You've got two 6-1, 6-2 guys out there with long arms and guys that can run. It makes it really difficult. When you play tight coverage, it forces the quarterback to put it in tight windows and makes it really hard for the receivers to get off the line."
Pass rush is the biggest lingering issue. The Ravens recorded just 27 sacks in 16 games last season. They didn't add any significant help getting to the quarterback in the draft or free agency.
Pro Bowl linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs (11 sacks in 2010) will do his part. The situation gets murky after that.
Second-year linebacker Sergio Kindle may be an option. He was Baltimore’s top draft pick in 2010 but suffered a fractured skull and missed his entire rookie season.
Rookie receiver Tandon Doss consistently made plays in practice this week. By all accounts, he did the same throughout camp.
Doss has really good hands. He made tough and routine catches over defenders. Speed was an issue, according to college scouting reports. But Doss was quicker and a little faster than I expected.
The Ravens had high hopes for Cousins. Baltimore anticipated the fourth-year lineman could solidify the right tackle spot this season. But after a full training camp and one preseason game, Cousins failed to step up to the task.
Cousins allowed two sacks in Baltimore’s preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. The coaching staff moved Cousins to right guard this week and hopes he can provide depth there.
Keep an eye on the developing chemistry between Flacco and new receiver Lee Evans. Baltimore recently acquired Evans in a trade with the Buffalo Bills. The timing was off in their first full week together. Flacco is still getting used to Evans’ speed and missed him on several throws in practice. Evans told the AFC North blog this week he’s confident they will get on the same page. Evans makes his Ravens debut Friday night against Kansas City.
My early impression on Reid is that he looks the part at right tackle, but he's still very raw. At times, Reid still seemed like his head was spinning in practice, working with the starters. Strength and size are Reid's biggest assets. But he still needs to play faster and improve his footwork. You also have to consider that Reid didn't get any offseason work or minicamps because of the NFL lockout. Now the Ravens are hoping the third-round pick can earn a job with the starters two weeks into the preseason.
Cameron says new Ravens fullback Vonta Leach reminds him a lot of former fullback Lorenzo Neal. We agree with the comparison. Leach is well-built and very physical. He will provide a good thump at the line of scrimmage that the Ravens were lacking last season. Leach, who went to the Pro Bowl last season, will also help with pass protection.
I’ve been impressed with rookie quarterback Tyrod Taylor. He consistently made plays in practice this week and showed promise in Baltimore’s first preseason game. The Ravens are high on the sixth-round pick. Taylor will make the team. But is Baltimore comfortable enough to go into the season with a rookie as the No. 2 quarterback?
Another player to look out for is Bernard Pollard. He is a big safety who is very physical. Pollard fits well with Baltimore’s defense. Free safety Ed Reed covers a lot of ground in the secondary. That allows Pollard to fly around and hit people, which is what he does best.
The Ravens should be improved in press coverage this year. Smith and Williams are similar in size and showed good jams at the line of scrimmage this week. Previously, Baltimore gave up a lot of size to receivers. But that won’t be the case when Smith and Williams are on the field.
Baltimore is suddenly very deep at corner. In addition to Smith and Williams, the Ravens have Lardarius Webb, Chris Carr and Domonique Foxworth, who is coming off ACL surgery. The latter three have starting NFL experience but could begin the year as backups.