OWINGS MILLS - The Baltimore Ravens' season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals is less than a week away.
Here are five key questions facing the Ravens heading into that game:
How much of a concern is the defense?
There's definitely reason for some concern. The defensive game-plans during the preseason were as basic as can be, so don't put too much into the numbers that Atlanta and Detroit's first-team offenses put up during the first two preseason games, but anytime you lose a player the caliber of Terrell Suggs it's going to hurt. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees is creative and will come up with different ways to try and generate a consistent pass rush, but it's going to be tough without Suggs. If the pass rush falters, it will put more pressure on a young secondary that has talent but is coming off a disappointing preseason.
Where's the pass rush going to come from?
It's going to have to be a collective effort. Without Suggs, Baltimore doesn't have anyone on its defense that has ever recorded more than six sacks in a season, that player being second-year defensive Pernell McPhee. McPhee should post similar production this season, and it would be fair to expect both McPhee and outside linebacker Paul Kruger to put up somewhere in the range of 6-8 sacks. Aside from that, look for middle linebacker Jameel McClain to get more chances as a pass rusher than he has in the years past. Look for cornerback Lardarius Webb to get a decent amount of opportunities as a blitzer as well. It will also be interesting to see how much of a factor outside linebacker Sergio Kindle will be. Kindle had a tremendous start to training camp, albeit against mostly second- and third-team players, but was very quiet following that.
How good is the offense going to be?
There's no reason not to expect this group to take a step forward this year. Quarterback Joe Flacco was very impressive during both training camp and the preseason, looking calm, confident and very much in rhythm with his wide receivers and tight ends.
This is also the deepest and most talented group of pass-catchers the Ravens have ever had. Second-year speedster Torrey Smith is a more complete player than he was as a rookie and could be in store for a big season, free agent acquisition Jacoby Jones gives Baltimore another player that can both stretch the field as well as make some plays after the catch and veteran Anquan Boldin is still a physical, sure-handed player that should continue to provide a reliable short-to-intermediate target.
Also keep an eye on tight end Dennis Pitta, who looked poised for a breakout season prior to breaking his hand early in training camp.
Pitta and fellow tight end Ed Dickson are both big, athletic players that create mismatches for opposing defenses, especially when on the field at the same time.
Oh, and there's still Ray Rice, too.
What's the biggest concern offensively?
The offensive line. It's less of a concern now than it was early in training camp, but it still represents the most glaring question mark on the offensive side of the ball. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie, left guard Bobbie Williams and center Matt Birk are all at the tail end of their careers and are all fairly average players at this point.
Will rookie kicker Justin Tucker's success during training camp and the preseason carry over to the regular season?
That's the million-dollar question, but there's no reason to expect it not to. Obviously there's going to be concern, especially considering how things went the last the time the Ravens went with a young kicker - Steve Hauschka in 2009 - but Tucker is a composed, strong-legged and accurate young kicker that has been nothing but impressive since first arriving in Baltimore.