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10 key questions for the Ravens

FootballJoe FlaccoBaltimore RavensRay LewisJustin TuckerTerrell Suggs

As the Ravens prepare to play their season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night at M&T Bank Stadium, here are 10 intriguing questions surrounding the team:

1

After reaching the AFC championship game in January, what can the Ravens do for an encore?

In many circles, the team was either a touchdown catch by Lee Evans away from meeting the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI or a field goal by Billy Cundiff away from sending the contest against the New England Patriots into overtime. Many fans are expecting nothing less than an appearance in Super Bowl XLVII, and with the window getting smaller for seasoned veterans such as inside linebacker Ray Lewis, free safety Ed Reed and center Matt Birk, that anticipation could intensify as the season unfolds.

2

Are the Ravens taking a risk by not agreeing on a long-term deal with quarterback Joe Flacco?

Risk is built into every aspect of business, and this is no exception. Flacco, who is in the final year of his rookie contract, is seeking an extension that rewards him for guiding the team to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons as the starter and for starting all 73 games (regular season and postseason) thus far. The organization has yet to offer something that can be accepted by the quarterback's camp, and if the team enjoys success again this year, Flacco will only become more expensive at season's end.

3

Can the defense be as formidable while reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs, right, heals from a torn Achilles tendon?

Perhaps, but Suggs is one of the few pass rushers in the league every team game-plans for. His presence allowed defensive end Pernell McPhee and outside linebacker Paul Kruger to establish career bests in sacks last season, and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata recorded at least five sacks for the second consecutive year. That production slipped in the preseason, and if that trend continues into the regular season, Suggs — who initially said he intends to return as early as November — might be pressed to accelerate his recovery.

4

How vulnerable is the offensive line?

If age was the primary indicator of an offensive line's effectiveness, the answer is: very. But with the exception of new starting left guard Bobbie Williams, this is essentially the same unit that helped running back Ray Rice amass a career-high 1,364 yards and a franchise-record 15 touchdowns last season and Flacco post his third straight 3,600-yard and 20-touchdown campaign. Williams is no Ben Grubbs at this point in his 13-year career, but if he should falter, rookie Kelechi Osemele appears poised to step in.

5

Will the offense maximize its potential under offensive coordinator Cam Cameron?

Cameron has become the lightning rod for criticism as the offense has failed to mirror the units he molded with the San Diego Chargers, and he has at times run vanilla schemes. But by adding wide receiver Jacoby Jones, the Ravens have legitimate downfield threats in Torrey Smith and Jones. Using tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta should open the intermediate parts of the field for wide receiver Anquan Boldin, and Rice is always a threat coming out of the backfield. Cameron has many options at his disposal, and now would seem to be the best time to use them.

6

Will Dickson and Pitta be rusty from missing most of the preseason because of injuries?

They will. Dickson (sprained right shoulder) hasn't participated in practice or a preseason game since catching a 9-yard touchdown pass from Flacco in the preseason opener against the Atlanta Falcons. Pitta (broken bone in right hand) has been absent since July 31. They lost time to re-establish their chemistry with Flacco, but that doesn't mean that the quarterback won't rely on them. Dickson is a matchup problem for linebackers and safeties, and Pitta might have the best hands on the team. They should get plenty of opportunities from Flacco.

7

How much more mileage can the defense get from Lewis?

Despite age (37) and years of service (17), the 13-time Pro Bowl player looks as fit as he ever has, shedding pounds and playing at the weight that observers haven't seen since he entered the league in 1996. The desire and passion are there, but perhaps now more than ever, the Ravens must be careful not to exhaust Lewis. He sat out four games last season to heal a toe injury, and while Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe and Albert McClellan played well in his absence, Lewis' leadership can't be underestimated.

8

Should Jimmy Smith be the starting cornerback over Cary Williams?

No. Smith is blessed with the kind of size, speed and skills that defensive coordinators salivate over, and in due time, he should enjoy a long career with the team. But he has battled injuries in his short time in the NFL that have cut into his ability to wrestle the starting role away. Williams is not invincible and is coming off surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip. But he has largely avoided injuries in the preseason and isn't shy about being physical at the line of scrimmage or getting after running backs.

9

Who will return kicks and punts?

If the preseason is any indication, Jones will get the first crack at both duties. He is still the No. 3 wide receiver, but he should be the primary returner after ranking second on the team in the preseason in both areas. Don't be surprised if rookie cornerback Asa Jackson helps on punt returns. His 85-yard return against the Detroit Lions in the second preseason game was nullified by a holding penalty, but he has the speed to create separation. The one caveat is whether the coaching staff feels comfortable with having a rookie returning punts.

10

Will rookie kicker Justin Tucker prove that the Ravens made the right decision?

The organization might have taken a calculated risk by parting ways with incumbent Billy Cundiff and giving the job to Tucker. But it was a case of Tucker out-performing Cundiff in the preseason, not Cundiff underwhelming the coaching staff or observers. The key will be how Tucker fares when the team needs a game-winning field goal in crunch time in a significant contest.

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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