2011 Baltimore Ravens preseason preview

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Flacco's got the arm. But will have the protection, or a decent receiving corps? (Getty Images)  
Flacco's got the arm. But will have the protection, or a decent receiving corps? (Getty Images)  

2010 RECORD: 12-4 (2nd, AFC North)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2010, lost to Pittsburgh, 31-24, AFC Divisional Round

COACH (RECORD): John Harbaugh (32-16 in three seasons with Ravens)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Cam Cameron

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Chuck Pagano

2011 preseason
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OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 14th rushing, 20th passing, 16th scoring

DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 5th rushing, 21st passing, 3rd scoring

KEY ADDITIONS: FB Vonta Leach (free agent), RB Ricky Williams (free agent), S Bernard Pollard (free agent), WR James Hardy (free agent), CB Jimmy Smith (1st round, Colorado), WR Torrey Smith (2nd round, Maryland), OT Jah Reid (3rd round, Central Florida), WR Tandon Doss (4th round, Maryland).

KEY DEPARTURES: WR Derrick Mason (released), TE Todd Heap (released), NT Kelly Gregg (released), RB Willis McGahee (released), CB Josh Wilson (to Redskins), S Dawan Landry (to Jaguars), RB Le'Ron McClain (to Chiefs), OG Chris Chester (to Redskins), WR Donte' Stallworth (to Redskins), OT Jared Gaither (not signed), WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh (not signed), CB Fabian Washington (to New Orleans).

CHANGING OF THE WIDEOUT: In 2010, the Ravens made history by being the first team to employ three receivers with 600 career receptions each in Anquan Boldin (64 receptions, 7 TD), Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. So much for experience. Mason was released and is now a member of the Jets while the Ravens are not interested in bringing back Houshmandzadeh, who wasn't on the same page with the coaching staff. Unless the Ravens snatch up a veteran receiver in the coming days, it will open with one of the youngest receiving units in the league. Rookie Torrey Smith (Maryland) has impressed during training camp and is the front-runner for the No. 2 receiver spot. Smith has impressed the coaching staff and spent the offseason building a rapport with quarterback Joe Flacco (3,622 yards, 25 TD). Behind Smith is journeyman Brandon Jones, often-injured Justin Harper and fellow rookie Tandon Doss (Indiana). The wild card of this group is James Hardy, a 2008 second round draft choice who last played for Buffalo in 2009. Hardy, who spent what he called the "worst two years of his life" injured with the Bills, sustained a minor hamstring tweak in training camp. Hardy has ideal size at 6-5, 220 pounds but caught yet another bad break with this latest setback.

SECONDARY STEPS UP: The front seven, which ranked fifth in rushing defense by allowing only 93.9 yards per game in 2010, should be solid yet again. However, the secondary has a couple of question marks with cornerback Josh Wilson and strong safety Dawan Landy opting to play elsewhere. It's a three-way race at strong safety between Tom Zbikowski (17 tackles), Haruki Nakamura (24 tackles) and recent free agent signing Bernard Pollard (111 tackles, 2.5 sacks with the Texans). Zbikowski and Nakamura are cross-trained to play both free and strong safety in Baltimore's defensive scheme while Pollard is a hulking run-stopper at 6-1, 224 pounds. Zbikowski leads early in the competition, starting most 11-on-11 drills with the first team. At corner, Domonique Foxworth, who missed 2010 with an ACL tear, is back in the starting lineup with seven-year veteran Chris Carr. However, Foxworth's knee has bothered him in camp which is limiting his practice time. This has placed Lardarius Webb in the mix as well as first round draft choice Jimmy Smith. Smith has run with the first team nickel defense in camp but has missed practice time with a minor groin tweak. Smith said he's picked up the schematics of the defense quick, stating cornerback is "physically the hardest but mentally the easiest."

POWER FOOTBALL: There appears to be a new offensive direction Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron are taking with the Ravens. After spending a season with more wideouts than they needed, the Ravens signed running back Ricky Williams and fullback Vonta Leach to help boost the rushing attack. After rushing for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns with the Dolphins in 2009, Williams only managed 673 and two touchdowns a year ago. Williams will be used much like McGahee was used, as a third down back and in possession situations. The coaching staff is hoping Williams' addition will take some pressure away from Rice. Over the last two seasons Leach has become one of the best blocking fullbacks in the league. He helped pave the way for Texans running back Arian Foster to run for 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2010. Rice was ecstatic when he heard the news that Leach would lead the way for him this season. Rice is hoping Leach can help get his yards per carry average back up, after it dropped from 5.3 to 4.0 from 2009 to 2010.

PROTECT THE QUARTERBACK: The Ravens gave up 40 sacks a year ago, which ranked 23rd in the NFL. The line has dealt with injuries during training camp, most notably to center Matt Birk who had a bursa sac procedure which will sideline him until the regular season. Marshal Yanda, who played right tackle for the injured Jared Gaither in 2010, will move back to his natural position of right guard. Ben Grubbs will man the left guard spot while Michael Oher will solely work at left tackle. This leaves right tackle up for grabs between veteran Oneil Cousins and rookie third round draft pick Jah Reid (Central Florida). Reid has impressed the coaching staff with his stamina, taking every rep from the moment he signed on July 28 until the league year began on Aug. 4. Coach John Harbaugh said Cousins holds the lead based on experience. But Reid has done well enough to gain a high level of consideration for the spot. At the end of the day, the Ravens' offensive line has to improve its sack numbers, especially if it's forced to open the season with a rookie starting at wide receiver.

FINAL WORD: With the aforementioned four former Ravens elsewhere, Flacco and Rice are assuming larger leadership roles. Flacco, who relied on Mason the past three seasons, is now developing chemistry with a receiving unit who, outside of Boldin, has an average age of 24. Defensively, the Ravens need to discover who's the best fit for their aggressive secondary scheme. At the end of the day, the strength of the Ray Lewis-led front seven should put the Ravens in contention for the AFC North title. However, one thing stands in their way beginning in Week 1: The Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of seven of the last 10 meetings against Baltimore.

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