This feature appears each Tuesday on the Baltimore Sports Blitz. It’s just like “What They’re Saying About the Ravens,” but it includes blogger Matt Vensel saying something about what those people are saying. Got it?
--- Fox analyst and former Ravens coach Brian Billick thinks the pass rush is a major concern as the Ravens look to repeat in the AFC North.
“The Ravens find themselves in a situation similar to other recent seasons: poised to make another run for the playoffs and contend for a Super Bowl,” Billick wrote. “But this season’s blueprint will look a little different. In recent years, the Ravens' defense has employed arguably the best player at his position at all levels of the defense, but that may not be true this season. With the loss of Terrell Suggs to injury, and the aging (but still imposing) Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata may be the only player to maintain the title of best in the league at his position (defensive tackle). The loss of Suggs, coupled with the void left by Jarret Johnson in free agency, leave the Ravens extremely vulnerable at the pass rushing positions. Second-round pick Courtney Upshaw was brought in to strengthen that unit, but now he is that unit.”
Matt’s take: I don’t think the Ravens defense is as vulnerable is everyone is making it out to be, but the lack of a pass rush is a legit concern. Replacing Suggs’ 14 sacks is asking too much of a rookie. I’ve said before that it’s going to take a group effort for the Ravens to come close to matching their 48 sacks from a year ago.
--- Grantland’s Bill Barnwell writes that Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb is one of the NFL’s best values.
“Webb doesn't exactly have the first name of a speedy cornerback, you know? It fits him like the name Trackstar Barnwell would fit me. He's a phenomenal player, though, who was starting for Baltimore as a rookie before tearing his ACL,” he wrote. “After being targeted by opponents during the 2010 season, Webb healed up and turned into a shutdown corner last year. The Ravens gave him a six-year deal worth $52.74 million that only guarantees him $20 million, which is chump change for a guy who hasn't even hit his peak yet.”
Matt’s take: Webb cashed in his standout 2011 season for a five-year, $50 million contract. Now in his fourth year, he doesn’t have a lengthy track record, especially since a torn ACL ended his rookie season early and the effects lingered into 2010. But if he is still ascending, he will be a relative bargain at a premium position.
--- Don Banks of Sports Illustrated thinks linebacker Paul Kruger is the Ravens player who needs to step up most in 2012.
“Only Philadelphia and Minnesota (with 50) had more sacks than Baltimore's 48 last season, but losing [Terrell] Suggs to an offseason Achilles tear is a setback that removes a team-leading 14 of those from the defensive lineup,” he wrote. “At least in theory. Kruger contributed a career-high 5.5 sacks last season in situational duty, and the Ravens are hopeful that he's ready for the spotlight role of creating as much havoc as possible from the weakside rush-linebacker slot. It's a lot to ask of a guy who has just one start in the first three seasons of his pro career, so Baltimore's noted "Next man up'' mantra will be fully on trial as the 2012 season unfolds.”
Matt’s take: I hate to sound like a broken record, but I totally agree with Banks, too. Kruger looks to be the biggest X-factor for the Ravens. It’s unclear if he will settle in at strong-side linebacker or rush linebacker, but they have lost rocks at both positions. If Kruger can fill the void at one spot, that will go a very long way.
--- Nine Ravens players made the "All-AFC North team" put together by Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com, including Ray Lewis.
“[Ray Rice] is the class runner of this division, a do-it-all back who is just now entering his prime,” he wrote. “Watch [fullback Vonta Leach] sledgehammer linebackers and you will know why he's on this team. … [Guard Marshall Yanda] is a tough, physical guard who is finally getting the due he deserves. … [Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata] was bothered by a leg issue and didn't play as well in 2011, but he should be back to his brutish ways. … [Linebacker Ray Lewis] isn't the player he once was, but he's still worthy of this spot. He dropped some weight to help improve his pass coverage, which he needed. [Cornerback Lardarius Webb] didn't give up a touchdown pass last season, earning this spot. [Nickelback Jimmy Smith] might start, but if he doesn't he's the division's best nickel corner. … The aging version of Ed Reed isn't what he once was, but he's still smart and can make it rough for opposing quarterbacks. … [Sam Koch] averaged 46.5 per punt last season.”
Matt’s take: The Ravens had more representatives than any other team (the Pittsburgh Steelers were second with seven). And really, it’s hard to argue that any Ravens got snubbed here. Maybe Michael Oher, who I feel is better than Cincinnati’s Andre Smith. But the Steelers have a quality right tackle, too, in Marcus Gilbert.
--- Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk says this season will be an opportunity for Ravens QB Joe Flacco to make some money.
“A more aggressive offense is going to put more of the responsibility for success on Flacco’s shoulders,” he wrote. “The defense has some aging stars, but it is going to be missing Terrell Suggs for at least the majority of the season and that puts more pressure on the offense than in past Ravens seasons. That will fall on Flacco as well, which means there shouldn’t be too many questions left unanswered about the quarterback by the time all is said and done.”
Matt’s take: If Flacco is feeling any pressure about his contract, he isn’t showing it. He is coming off his best training camp to date and looks very comfortable when the Ravens go up-tempo. There is still a chance he will get his new contract during the season, but I have a feeling that Flacco will be even more valuable at season’s end than he is now.