The day after

A day after a 23-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game, the Ravens gathered for their final meeting, at which coach John Harbaugh applauded his players for coming together as a team and owner Steve Bisciotti thanked them for overcoming injuries.

Now comes the hard part - the encore.


With a rookie head coach and quarterback, the Ravens surpassed expectations - even some of their own, center Jason Brown said - and put together one of the most surprising seasons in team history.

As the players cleaned out their lockers yesterday, they understood the challenges that await them when they return.


How will this team deal with the heightened expectations? How will the defense perform without coordinator Rex Ryan (who accepted the New York Jets' head coaching job)? And how will the Ravens build a stronger supporting cast for quarterback Joe Flacco?

"That's going to be the bottom line for next year: We have to build off of this and we have to improve," tight end Todd Heap said. "We've got to beat able to beat Pittsburgh. That's a team that has been building for a while and we're in that mold. But we had a lot of guys step up this year so we got a great starting point."

The Ravens will have some pressing issues to address. They have five starters who are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents (linebackers Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott; center Jason Brown; and safety Jim Leonhard).

But Brown said "the heart of the team" would remain intact.

Here are 10 biggest questions facing the Ravens:

1. Who will be the next defensive coordinator?

To keep continuity with the No. 2 defense, the Ravens are looking to promote from within. The top candidates are special assistant Vic Fangio, linebackers coach Greg Mattison, a strong candidate because of his ties with Harbaugh and Harbaugh's father, and secondary coach Chuck Pagano.

Some players hinted that it could be Fangio, who has been a defensive coordinator for three NFL teams.


2. What do the Ravens do with their free-agent linebackers?

The Ravens have decent salary cap room, but it's going to be difficult to keep Lewis, Suggs and Scott - all of whom are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in March.

The best bet is the team retaining Lewis and Suggs, signing one to a multiyear contract and using the franchise tag on the other. But tagging Lewis would be risky because the 10-time Pro Bowl linebacker has his sights on becoming a free agent for the first time in his career.

Scott appears to be the odd man out at this point. The Ravens, though, were able to re-sign Jamie Sharper in 2001 and Adalius Thomas in 2004 when it was considered a long shot to do so.

3. How do the Ravens improve their receivers for Flacco?

The free-agent class looks grim. T.J. Houshmandzadeh is the best available, but he isn't the big deep threat that the Ravens are coveting. There's a major dropoff from there with the likes of Bobby Engram, Devery Henderson and Shaun McDonald.


If there are no surprising cap cuts, the only way the Ravens can add an experienced and productive receiver is through a trade. Arizona's Anquan Boldin has not hidden his displeasure, arguing with offensive coordinator Todd Haley in the fourth quarter of Sunday's NFC championship game. Boldin, who is signed through 2010, wants a new contract.

And drafting No. 27 in the first round, it's unlikely the Ravens will come way with a rookie receiver who will make an immediate impact.

4. Who's under contract but won't be here next season?

There's only one starter who is expected to get cut - cornerback Chris McAlister. After his benching (and subsequent move to injured reserve), McAlister has not been seen in the locker room or at games. It's a divorce that would be welcomed by both sides.

Releasing McAlister would free up $8 million in cap space. The Ravens could save more by cutting others - cornerback Samari Rolle (would create $4.1 million in cap room), offensive lineman Willie Anderson ($2.9 million) or Heap ($1 million) - but all of them currently figure into the team's plans in 2009.

5. Who will start at strong safety: Jim Leonhard or Dawan Landry?


If the Ravens can re-sign Leonhard (he is a free agent), he has to remain the starter. While Landry is more of a hard hitter, Leonhard has proven to be more of a playmaker.

6. Is Willis McGahee in the team's plans for next season?

The Ravens showed they have not given up on McGahee when they handed him the ball 20 times in the AFC championship game. McGahee didn't endear himself to the new coaching staff with his work ethic, but the team is financially committed to him. If the Ravens released him, McGahee would still count $11 million against the cap. That means McGahee will be in the Ravens' backfield in 2009.

7. What's the next step for Flacco?

He has to put the team on his back when the running game isn't producing. The Ravens went 2-4 when they were held under 115 yards rushing as a team. In those games, Flacco struggled as well, throwing four touchdowns and eight interceptions.

8. Who are the biggest injury concerns?


Landry, who suffered a spinal cord concussion in September, has yet to be cleared for contact. Right guard Marshal Yanda has made solid progress since undergoing major knee surgery but he probably won't be ready to practice until training camp. Nose tackle Kelly Gregg had micro-fracture surgery on his left knee and likely won't be cleared to return until offseason workouts in May or June.

9. Who is the Ravens' kicker next season?

Matt Stover has been the only field-goal kicker in the Ravens' 13-year existence, but it's not a sure thing that he returns. He said that he had a positive conversation with the coaching staff and it appears that the Ravens want him back. Still, Harbaugh, a long-time special teams coach, might want to place his own stamp at that position.

10. If George Kokinis is hired as the Cleveland Browns' general manager, who becomes the Ravens' director of pro personnel?

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome trusts James "Shack" Harris, the former director of pro personnel for the Ravens who recently resigned from the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Ravens, though, have history of promoting from within. That's why assistant director Vince Newsome (no relation to Ozzie) is the favorite to move into Kokinis' spot.

Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.