After the Ravens lost to the Steelers in the AFC Divisional Round in January, the front office and coaching staff have taken every opportunity to let Baltimore know that they have the Steel City in their crosshairs.
It has been more than just words. In April, the Ravens drafted two unique players they hope will be difference-makers from the get-go -- physical cornerback Jimmy Smith and fleet-footed wide receiver Torrey Smith -- and they will attempt to fortify their roster in free agency if and when the NFL lockout ends.
Matt Williamson of ESPN's Scouts Inc. told me Wednesday that he expects the Ravens to again be one of the league's best teams in 2011, though they are still a "smidge" behind the Steelers in the AFC North because of one distinct advantage: their boorish starting quarterback.
"[The Ravens] are one of the strongest organizations in the league and I think they're very, very strong from a coaching, front office perspective, the draft, free agency moves. I think they're right there among the top five or so in the league, which is high praise," Williamson said in a phone interview. "I also think they're stuck in a division with someone who is a little better at it than they are. ... They are very similarly built, but the Steelers have a better quarterback, and in this league, it goes an awful long way."
Williamson, who as an assistant at the University of Pittsburgh recruited Flacco out of high school, said he is "a big fan of Joe" and that Flacco is "a very good quarterback." But right now, he said that Flacco, who is entering his fourth season, is at the bottom of the second tier of NFL signal-callers. That shouldn't be taken as a slight, though, because Williamson believes that Flacco can eventually become elite.
"You can't forget that this is a third-year quarterback out of Delaware," Williamson said. "I mean just because he came out and blew everyone's doors off as a rookie, I think everyone assumes he should be further along than he is. Frankly, I think that's unfair. He's making steps, even if they aren't giant steps."
He believes Flacco's career is on course through three years -- "it's just not the fast track" -- and that he can continue his ascension if he improves his pocket presence and accuracy and if he gets better at reading defenses and coverages.
"Can Joe win a Super Bowl? Yeah, the Ravens won the Super Bowl with an inferior quarterback than Flacco," Williamson said, referencing Trent Dilfer. "That's a tough question to answer because I think any team can win a Super Bowl if everything aligns right. But with a 'B' quarterback, it makes it much harder."
The Ravens have taken steps to improve the supporting cast around Flacco. Two years ago, they traded for veteran wideout Anquan Boldin and drafted a pair of rookie tight ends in Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. And in the second round of April's draft, they selected Smith, a junior from down the road at Maryland.
Williamson, formerly an NFL and college scout for the Browns before joining ESPN, likes the addition of Smith. "That was a big problem that they didn't have one last year because Flacco is a big-armed guy, and you have to have that verticality to open up [Derrick] Mason, [Anquan] Boldin, the tight ends, Ray Rice out of the backfield." He believes Smith's speed will make cornerbacks fearful, causing them to line up further from the line of scrimmage and opening things up for the team's other offensive players.
He thinks Flacco will have a great offensive line to play behind if the Ravens retain potential free agents Jared Gaither and Marshal Yanda -- a player whom Williamson "loves" -- and move Michael Oher back to right tackle. But Gaither's return seems unlikely after last season, and Yanda will be a hot commodity.
"I'm not saying [Oher is] a bust by any stretch," Williamson said. "But he was successful as a right tackle and I thought he was very mediocre as a left tackle ... If I were to list every left tackle in the league from one to 32, Oher would probably be 16th, right in the middle of the pack. If a top-15 guy would happen to fall into your lap and you move Oher to the right side, then a good offensive line becomes a great offensive line.
"I actually think the Ravens have that guy in Gaither, but whatever his issues are, they aren't known to me. But that was an ideal set of bookends for many years to come."
But like I said, Williamson believes the Ravens are nipping at the Steelers' heels. He said that if Flacco continues to progress and the offense reverts to its run-first identity -- "they got away from Rice and the running game more than they should have" -- the Ravens will compete for a championship again in 2011.
"Nothing about the team is far off. They're just a smidge behind the Steelers," Williamson said. "Overall, it's hard to be pretty critical of this team. I think they're really, really strong. They're posed for another playoff run."
(Blogger's note: Williamson and I chatted about the Ravens' defense, too, and I will blog about that part of our conversation sometime on Friday. Here's a spoiler alert: He thinks the defense is slightly overrated.)