Offense, first four opponents raise concerns for Ravens

Ray Rice

Ravens running back Ray Rice carries the ball against the Cincinnati Bengals in December. (Andy Lyons, Getty Images / December 29, 2013)

With training camp set to officially open next week, the Ravens are still waiting for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to rule on the status of running back Ray Rice, but they have more pressing concerns going into the first quarter of the season.

Rice faces suspension for an incident in February in which he is accused of knocking out his then-fiancee during an altercation. The prediction here is that Rice will be suspended for two to four games.

The Ravens have capable replacements, but there are deeper concerns. A new coordinator is installing a new offense, and the team has a new wide receiver and tight end. A drop-back quarterback will be running an offense that requires a more mobile signal caller.

There would be less nervousness if the Ravens were opening with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders or Detroit Lions, but three of the first four games are against division rivals. The fourth is against the Carolina Panthers. That's a tough stretch that could leave the Ravens in a deep hole.

The Cincinnati Bengals won the AFC North last season, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, after an 0-4 start, won six of their last eight games. The Cleveland Browns usually play the Ravens tough, and Carolina won the NFC South with a 12-4 record.

So, for the Ravens to make it through the season's first quarter in good shape, their defense has to be outstanding and the offense has to provide enough big plays.

As for Rice, it isn't that big of a deal if he misses the first couple of games. Granted, his absence would have an effect, but he ran for just 660 yards last season, when he suffered leg injuries and struggled with weight.

Backup running back Bernard Pierce, though he has yet to prove he can play consecutive games without getting injured, should be efficient. No. 3 halfback Justin Forsett is small but quick and can be a factor in the passing game out of the backfield. Keep an eye on rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro. He has surprising quickness for a big back.

More patience will be needed with the offense. While new coordinator Gary Kubiak has great credentials, he is trying to build a short-passing offense around a long-ball thrower in Joe Flacco.

Flacco has strengths, but accuracy isn't one of them; he seldom hits a receiver in stride. In this West Coast offense, he will have to be more mobile as he throws more waggles, sprint-outs and bootleg passes built around play-action. It's a major adjustment.

Flacco will have a good stable of weapons. He has speed on the outside in receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, and three possession types in veteran wideout Steve Smith and tight ends Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels.

Steve Smith and Daniels are new to the Ravens. The offensive line is also in transition because both starting guards, Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele, need to prove they are 100 percent healthy after playing with major injuries last season, and the Ravens will have two new starters in center Jeremy Zuttah and either Rick Wagner or Ryan Jensen at right tackle.

The Ravens' divisional opponents have their own problems. Even though the Bengals are the defending AFC North champions, they haven't made it past the first round of the playoffs the past three years, which is why few consider Andy Dalton a big-game quarterback.

The Steelers added two big free agents in safety Mike Mitchell and running back LeGarrette Blount, but parted with quality veterans such as LaMarr Woodley, Brett Keisel, Larry Foote and Ryan Clark. Pittsburgh allowed seven plays of 50-plus yards (most in the league) and four longer than 60 yards.

And then there are the Browns. Well, they play in Cleveland. Enough said.

In the next couple of weeks, the Ravens have a lot of work to do offensively. Kubiak threw a lot at his players in offseason minicamps, but he now has to define what they do well and build on it. As for Rice, few know why the league has yet to announce a decision, but the Ravens should be able to handle it unless there is a major surprise.

mpreston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

Training camp key dates

First full-team practice: Thursday

First public practice: July 28 at M&T Bank Stadium, 7 p.m.

Second public practice: Aug. 4 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.

First preseason game: Aug. 7 vs. San Francisco 49ers, 7:30 p.m.

Third public practice: Aug. 8 with 49ers at M&T Bank Stadium, 1 p.m.

Second preseason game: Aug. 16 at Dallas Cowboys, 7 p.m.

Third preseason game: Aug. 23 vs. Washington Redskins, 7:30 p.m.

Fourth preseason game: Aug. 28 at New Orleans Saints, 8 p.m.

Roster cut to 53: Aug. 30

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