Sports columnist Mike Preston talked with former Ravens WR Qadry Ismail about this season's Ravens wide receiver group. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
Coach John Harbaugh is downplaying the Ravens’ 2018 regular-season opener Sunday against the visiting Buffalo Bills because he has little choice. No coach wants to put so much emphasis on a single game, especially the first one.
What if the Ravens lose? The fallout could be overwhelming.
But the Ravens really need to win Sunday. It wouldn’t be Armageddon if they lost, but this franchise needs a shot in the arm.
The Ravens have momentum going into the game because they are the talk of the town. They’ve got a new defensive coordinator, a healthy quarterback, four new receivers and the big disappointment of 2017 as motivation.
“I always try to say that it’s tough to determine [or] compare that stuff year to year,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “It’s super exciting to get back to football. It really is. I hope the fans feel the same way, to be honest with you. I really do hope that they’re excited to get out there and watch us go this year.
“I think we’ll put an exciting product on the field, and we love it when people are out there rooting us on in the stadium, at home and on TV. We’re really looking forward to it. To compare it to last year or years before is tough, but we’re definitely really excited.”
Every team wants to win the first game because it’s a culmination of hard work. Front-office personnel and coaches pore over game film, evaluate prospects and develop schemes in anticipation of the first big one.
Players spend countless hours in the weight room and on the field training in preparation for the three hours of opening day. Then it’s over. It’s great if they win, and so disappointing if they lose.
There is more at stake than normal for the Ravens. It starts with the nightmare at the end of the 2017 season when they gave up a last-minute touchdown in the final game of the season to lose to the Cincinnati Bengals and get knocked out of the playoff race.
That loss created gloom in Baltimore, a city that was already struggling with attendance problems after fan dissatisfaction with players kneeling in a blowout loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in London on Sept. 24.
The Ravens need to win three or four times in the first five games to keep the excitement going. It’s has to start Sunday with the Bills in what might be one of the team’s biggest home openers since the debut of M&T Bank Stadium in 1998.
The Ravens lost that one, 20-13, to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game that set the tone for the rest of a 6-10 season.
The Ravens don’t need a repeat performance. Then-coach Ted Marchibroda was fired at the end of the season and Harbaugh is in a similar situation now. His departure would create a partial house cleaning at the top with general manager Ozzie Newsome already stepping down at the end of the 2018 season.
Fans are waiting to see some magic in the offense. After two years of battling knee and back injuries, Flacco looks fit and agile.
During the offseason Newsome signed three new free-agent receivers in Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead IV and John Brown. In the first round of April’s draft, the team selected South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst.
“We’ve had some practices where we’ve been really, really good — tremendous even — and we’ve had other practices where we haven’t been as good,” Harbaugh said. “But mostly, I’m very happy with it. I’m looking forward to seeing how we play in games. I don’t think the first game is the end of the season; it’s the beginning, not the end. But it’s always good to see how you fare against NFL competition when it counts.”
Harbaugh knows the defense has to step up, too. The Ravens were ranked No. 12 at the end of last season, but this group failed several times in last-minute situations.
The Ravens have a new defensive coordinator in Don “Wink” Martindale, who replaces Dean Pees, a target of major criticism from Ravens fans. Pees’ schemes were supposedly too vanilla, and he didn’t blitz a lot.
Martindale is the opposite. He has 11 starters back from last year’s team and loves to pressure the quarterback. Last season the Ravens produced NFL bests in interceptions (22), takeaways (34) and shutouts (three).
But the schedule — featuring quarterbacks such as the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees, Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton, Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan, Oakland Raiders’ Derek Carr and Los Angeles Chargers’ Philip Rivers — is more demanding.
“He’s going to put his stamp on our defense,” safety Eric Weddle said of Martindale. “Listen, this defense has been great here since they moved to Baltimore. We were pretty dang good last year — turnovers, scoring on ‘D’ — and we had a lot of good games. We didn’t finish in some aspects, and it hurt us in the long run, but [it’s] something to be proud of. We expect to be great on defense and play situational football to a ‘T’ and win a lot of games.”
It all starts Sunday. This city is begging for a winner. The Orioles are terrible and gutting the team in a rebuilding effort. Few of the city’s sports fans are even paying attention to them anymore.
In fact, are they still playing?
If the Ravens were playing the Saints, New England Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers, there would be more concern about their ability to win Sunday because those are serious contenders. Most of the so-called NFL experts predict the Bills will be as bad as the Cleveland Browns this season.