Before we officially embrace the 2011 season today, let’s take one last look at how last season ended.

In a 31-24 divisional playoff loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh, the Ravens blew a big first-half lead, gave up an inexplicable deep ball on defense late in the game, and struggled once again to protect Joe Flacco.

The good news was the Ravens dominated the first half.

The bad news was the Steelers dominated the second, when the Ravens dropped passes, lost fumbles and gave up sacks.

The team the Ravens take on the field today – at least the offense and the secondary – is an acknowledgment of the mistakes that led to the debacle that unfolded last January:

  • Flacco should have better pass protection, assuming Bryant McKinnie can move into left tackle without a preseason snap and handle James Harrison, and that Michael Oher can slide to right tackle and impede LaMarr Woodley. At least we’re done with the Oniel Cousins experiments.
  • Ray Rice should find ample running room on the trap play now that Marshal Yanda can reclaim his status as one of the NFL’s best pulling guards. Send fullback Vonta Leach up into that hole first and you’ve got a big play waiting to happen.
  • Wide-out Lee Evans will open up intermediate routes for Anquan Boldin and Ed Dickson with his speed. Finally, Flacco has a genuine deep threat who will force the defense to pay attention. As valuable as Derrick Mason and Todd Heap were, neither stretched the defense. And T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who dropped a critical pass in Pittsburgh, is long gone.
  • Rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith (6-2) and third-year corner Cary Williams (6-1) give the Ravens size, speed and physicality on the edge of the defense. Although it’s possible Domonique Foxworth will start at left corner against the Steelers, Smith will get enough snaps to make an impact. Lardarius Webb, the nickel back whose mistake in coverage set up the Steelers’ winning touchdown last January, is the fifth corner on the depth chart, ahead only of Chykie Brown, who probably will be inactive.

Still, these changes may not render a different result today. The offensive line has had scant time working together, and Flacco’s third receiver in Week 1 will be a rookie. An early injury at receiver could be devastating. Clearly, the offense needs time to grow.

The Ravens are younger and faster where it matters most this season. Even if it doesn’t pay off today, they’ll have two more chances to get it right this season.