Baltimore is blessed with a bunch of talented sports bloggers who bring their unique perspective to the conversation. I often link up to these local writers in my morning Coffee Companion posts, but instead of just exchanging anti-social links with them, I have decided to be slightly less anti-social by exchanging emails with them in a somewhat regular feature called Blogger on Blogger.
With the NFL regular season less than three weeks away, it's time to check in with one of our local Ravens bloggers, Chris Stoner, who writes the Baltimore Sports and Life blog. The blog isn't limited to the Ravens, though. Stoner also writes about the Orioles, the Terps and more. His writing has gotten him appearances on local radio stations, and he won multiple awards in our annual Mobbies blog competition last year. He hopes to parlay his success on the blog into a position covering sports for a local media outlet. Hopefully he doesn't take my job.
MV: We're a few weeks removed from the release of four popular veterans and Ozzie Newsome has had time to make moves. Are the Ravens better off from a personnel standpoint than they were in 2010?
CS: I'm excited by the prospects of the Ravens being a more athletic team in 2011, and I do think the Ravens can be better overall. I thought Kelly Gregg had little push last year, and I'm looking forward to Terrence Cody replacing him on the line. Todd Heap had the highest yards-per-reception average of his career last year, but I'm comfortable with Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta replacing him.
A lot of Ravens fans are seemingly down on Derrick Mason for the comments he made as a member of the Jets, but I have nothing against him. Like Heap and Gregg, Mason had a great career in a Baltimore uniform. Mason was obviously Joe Flacco's safety blanket on the outside, and he put up numbers across the board nearly identical to Anquan Boldin last year. That said, I'd prefer to have Lee Evans vs. Mason.
I'm pleased with the addition of All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach, but it should be noted he is replacing two-time Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain. Overall, I think that is close to a wash. Leach might be the better pure blocker, but McClain is probably the better runner, and might be the superior pass receiver out of the backfield. Willis McGahee to Ricky Williams is another wash.
I think Bernard Pollard over Dawan Landry is another upgrade.
MV: Which one addition will have the biggest impact in 2011?
CS: Sergio Kindle. I don't expect the Ravens to use Kindle much on first or second down, but I do expect Kindle to be sent on regular seek-and-destroy-quarterback missions opposite of Terrell Suggs on third down. If the Ravens get some pass rush going opposite of Suggs, that will only increase the odds of Suggs being able to maintain the level of play he had after the bye week last year.
MV: The Ravens overhauled their offense (again) to try the most out of Joe Flacco. The fourth-year quarterback took a lot of flack in the offseason from players and media. What's your take on him, and what must he do for this to be considered a successful season for him?
CS: The three primary reasons of criticism for Flacco's play are his limitations over the middle of the field, his propensity for checking down, and that he does not get rid of the ball quick enough. Each of those critiques might be fair, and I myself have regularly spoken about the need for Flacco to improve against Cover 2. That said, I think there is often not enough focus on all of the positives Flacco brings to the table. … I don't think he is in the ultra elite group of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger; but I think he compares with anyone at the top of that next tier. … If he maintains the level of play he has already shown, that would be a successful season. Of course, you want to see further maturation in his game, and I do think he has yet to reach his ceiling.
MV: Through two preseason games, have you liked what you have seen from the defense, particularly young pass rushers such as Paul Kruger, Sergio Kindle and Pernell McPhee?
CS: The national media is still running with the story that the Baltimore defense is aging and slow. When that media gets a hold of some game tape, they are going to be surprised by what they see. The Ravens spent an awful lot of time playing a "bend but not break" philosophy under Greg Mattison last year. Simply going to a more aggressive scheme under Chuck Pagano will make the Ravens appear quicker. We've talked about Terrence Cody, Jimmy Smith, and Kindle adding fresh legs to the defense. Kruger obviously looks more comfortable in his role. You have to be pleased with the ability McPhee has shown off the edge during these two exhibitions.
MV: Two of the most interesting preseason battles are in the secondary. Five players, including first-round pick Jimmy Smith, are competing for two spots in the starting lineup. There's a three-way battle for the strong safety spot next to Ed Reed. Who will be in the starting secondary, and who should be?
CS: To me the question of who is going to start in the secondary is not particularly interesting. They are all going to play significant time. While two cornerbacks are listed as starters, you really have to count at least one more when you factor in all the three-receiver sets teams run. … I tend to think Smith will start early, and I'm sure he will go through his share of growing pains. Regarding the safeties, I don't see much of a battle at all. I think Pollard is the starting strong safety. … But I'm happy to have all three.
MV: What are your expectations for Ray Lewis in his 16th season?
CS: Ray Lewis will be what he always is: one of the best linebackers in football. Everyone loves to talk about the emotional and inspirational impact of Lewis for the Ravens. There is not enough focus on his dedication to being a student of the game. With Cody helping Haloti Ngata upfront, expect another superior year from Lewis as a run-stopper. He has shown some slowing down in pass coverage, though. Ideally, you would like to be in position to have a bye in the playoffs and give him some additional rest.
MV: After failing to host a home playoff game in three straight trips to the postseason, the belief is that the Ravens will have to win the AFC North to earn at least one home playoff game. That means they have to overtake the Steelers. They get their first crack at them in Week 1. What's your early prediction?
CS: [Like any other season opener] you have 15 additional regular season games to go. … Pittsburgh showed last year that one of these teams could overcome an early loss on their own field to the other. If Baltimore loses the opener, I won't launch into hyperbole mode and announce the season as over.
That said, I don't think there is much sense in down-playing how important this game is for Baltimore. You nailed it: The Ravens have to have home games in the playoffs this year. ... I expect the message boards and talk shows to be filled with conjecture that it is on Flacco's shoulders to match Roethlisberger. I won't disagree with that analysis, but I will say it is also important that coach John Harbaugh and his coordinators are not out-coached by Mike Tomlin and the Steelers. At home, I expect a Ravens win.
[Editor's note: If there's a blog you want to see featured in Blogger on Blogger, email Matt.Vensel@baltsun.com]