|Will Joe Flacco finally get the chance to reach elite QB stature? (Getty Images)|
BALTIMORE -- He did it again. As he has done over and over. For 17 brutal years. For 13 Pro Bowls. All while redefining the position. Again, and again, and again.
In one swift moment this preseason, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis chased down a runner. Who the runner was escapes me because Lewis did it so quickly all the eyes could focus on was Lewis. Lewis chased him down and forced the runner out of bounds.
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Seeing Lewis do that 10 years ago would seem normal. Five years ago. Even three. But a slimmed-down Lewis is still using speed and ferocity to wreck offenses. At 37 years old.
It would be foolish to say Lewis is the same as he was a decade ago, but it would be equally silly not to be impressed with what he's doing. The ability to play his position at such a high level all these years later after having long reached his status as the best middle linebacker of all time remains a remarkable feat.
Lewis, and that Ravens defense overall, will be tested perhaps unlike any other season in his career. Lewis and Ed Reed are approaching the end of their Hall of Fame careers. Terrell Suggs is still recovering from his Achilles exploding, and a timetable for his return is still mostly uncertain. That defense also lost some key starters to free agency.
This is a defense that has ranked in the top 10 for almost a decade straight. Could that change because of age and injuries?
Maybe, or maybe this defense will continue to be dominant because its still quick leader continues to beat down running backs. And time.
Let the offense lead the way. For practically their entire existence the Ravens have been a defensive team. The franchise has at times almost neglected the offense, or at the very least subverted itself to little brother status too easily. This is the year that should change. Quarterback Joe Flacco has said repeatedly he believes this offense could be top five this season, and he's right. One NFC scout told me he thinks this offense is on the verge of becoming a juggernaut.
One thing that's been interesting to watch. The Ravens in preseason have been using a fast-paced and highly effective no-huddle scheme. Flacco has been working it quite skillfully, another sign that this Baltimore offense is looking to create its own identity. Put it this way: against Jacksonville the Jaguars totaled 571 yards of offense, had five drives of 80 yards or more, and the 48 points they scored was the most ever by a Ravens team in preseason.
Let Flacco loose. Similar to the above point, but this needs to be reiterated since it's the most vital aspect of the Ravens' coming season. The view around the league from a number of coaches and team executives is different from that of some fans and media. To many in the sport, Flacco is an elite player held back by a conservative, and at times predictable, offense, and if the cuffs were removed, he'd prove that elite-ness. At least, that's the theory, and it's a sound one.
Beat the Steelers. The Ravens were 2-0 in the regular season against Pittsburgh last year. Good start. But in this heated, beautiful and extremely violent rivalry, the Ravens have yet to beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs (Steelers are 3-0). If the Ravens are to make it back to the Super Bowl this year -- and I think they will -- there is a good chance they will have to beat the Steelers in the postseason to do so.
No question the most fascinating battle with the Ravens, and one of the more intense in camps this year, was officially won Sunday. Veteran Billy Cundiff was cut by the Ravens, and in his place is rookie Justin Tucker.
If you don't think this is a highly risky move, then you don't know the sport. Yes, Cundiff did miss a 32-yard field goal that would have sent the 2011 AFC title game between the Ravens and New England into overtime. Overall, however, he was a highly talented kicker, and replacing him with a rookie is one of the great coaching risks of this year. That's because the Ravens, at least recently, play an awful lot of big games and an awful lot of those big games are close.
So now those big games will be entrusted to a rookie kicker. A good rookie kicker, but still a rookie.
Somebody to Watch
Ray Rice. Ridiculously talented, durable, team player, and good guy. Oh, and over the past three seasons, Rice has averaged almost 2,000 yards from scrimmage along with 10 scores and 72 catches. He's the most versatile back today. The challenge for Rice and the Ravens is to maintain that elite standard and those insane numbers while also trying to increase Flacco's presence in the offense.
Safety Emanuel Cook broke his lower leg against Jacksonville this preseason and is likely lost for the year. Safety Sean Considine suffered a concussion in that game, his second. He might miss significant time. The Ravens overall, minus one Achilles, are incredibly healthy.
The Last Word
There is a good chance this is the year Flacco explodes into a truly elite player. We've heard (and said) this before, but everything is set up for him to do it. In fact, I think Flacco will have almost an Aaron Rodgers type of breakout season and that will lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl.