FIVE THINGS THAT HAVE TO GO RIGHT
Establish and stick to a run game: Ravens officials have talked for months about the importance of regaining more balance on offense and establishing a downhill running attack. They went out and hired Greg Roman, who has been successful everywhere he's been at directing running games, as a senior offensive assistant and tight ends coach, and Joe D'Alessandris as the new offensive line coach. Under Roman, they've mostly scrapped the blocking and running schemes that they've used in recent seasons in favor of a more diverse and downhill ground attack. They spent more time in training camp practices working on running plays than they have in years. In three of the past four seasons, they've ranked 26th in the NFL or worse in net rushing yards. They've set franchise records for fewest rushing attempts in back-to-back seasons. A more successful and sustained rushing attack will take pressure off Joe Flacco to have to carry the offense and keep an impressive-looking defense fresh.
Flacco must reverse downward trends: Since he had perhaps his best NFL regular season under offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak in 2014, quarterback Joe Flacco's play has declined sharply. Sure, the lack of a running game and the instability along the offensive line and with his targets have been factors. However, some of the offense's primary problems lie with Flacco's accuracy and decision-making. Once considered one of the best deep-ball throwers in the league, Flacco seemed all too content to dump the ball off to his fullback and tight ends last year. While he set personal records for passing yards and completion percentage in 2016, he also averaged just 6.42 per attempt, the second lowest of his career, and threw 15 interceptions, his second most ever. Flacco's season is not off to a good start, as he missed the entire preseason with a back concern. If the Ravens are going anywhere this year, Flacco needs to morph back into a guy who hits big plays downfield and makes better decisions in crunch time.
The defense has to be great, not good: Ravens defensive players have not been shy this summer in voicing their belief that this defense has the potential to be one of the franchise's best. Not lost in all that talk is that it might have to be. The myriad injuries and struggles on the offensive side of the ball put added pressure on the defense to keep the team in games and make game-altering plays. For all the criticism last year's defensive unit got, it still was the top-ranked unit in the league in late November. But this year's group needs to do more than limit the opposition's output in terms of yards. The Ravens need to have a defense that harasses quarterbacks, punishes receivers and running backs, creates turnovers and is able to finish games. All the great Ravens defenses have exhibited those characteristics. With an infusion of youth at linebacker and an improved secondary, the Ravens clearly have the defensive pieces in place. The pressure will be on Dean Pees' group to produce.
Be at their best when it matters: There is a reason a popular refrain all summer from coach John Harbaugh and his staff has been to "finish." Last year's team went 8-8 and fell short of the playoffs because it repeatedly faltered late in halves or games. Remember when the Ravens allowed the Oakland Raiders to drive down the field and score the winning touchdown late in Week 4? Or how about a week later, when Flacco's late go-ahead touchdown to Breshad Perriman was nullified because Perriman didn't get two feet in bounds? The Ravens lost second-half leads in back-to-back weeks at MetLife Stadium against the New York Giants and New York Jets, and they couldn't stop the Pittsburgh Steelers with an AFC North title on the line in the final seconds of the Christmas Day matchup. They outscored their opponents in every quarter except the fourth, which is the primary reason they missed the playoffs. The offense needs to finish drives late, and the defense needs to make leads hold up.
Young players have to step up: It appears the Ravens will have as many as four first-year full-time starters on offense and the same number on defense. That's a lot of change for a team that still has a veteran nucleus. The rash of injuries, retirements, trades and suspensions this offseason and summer has significantly weakened the depth in certain areas and forced players who might not have been initially counted on to step into bigger roles. On offense, Terrance West, Nick Boyle, Ryan Jensen and Perriman are all guys the Ravens need to be steady performers. On defense, Brent Urban, Michael Pierce, Kamalei Correa and Matthew Judon head the list of young players getting major opportunities. A slew of players will be getting the chance to sink or swim this season and the Ravens need them to respond.
FIVE THINGS THAT COULD GO WRONG
Offensive line doesn't hold up: When training camp started, the most popular projection of the offensive line included (from left to right) Ronnie Stanley, Alex Lewis, John Urschel, Marshal Yanda and James Hurst. However, Urschel has since retired and Lewis suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. The Ravens also lost rookie fourth-round guard Nico Siragusa to a season-ending knee injury. Yanda was a limited participant for much of training camp after offseason shoulder surgery, and Stanley dealt with some physical ailments that temporarily sidelined him. Poor Hurst, who went from right tackle to left guard to left tackle and back to left guard all in the span of a week. The Ravens added veteran Austin Howard to play right tackle, and they seem content with Ryan Jensen manning one of the interior spots, but they are extremely thin on depth and experience up front. With all the focus on protecting Flacco and running the football, the line is the team's biggest concern by far, and the lack of practice time with the starting group all together this summer is especially worrisome.
Marty Mornhinweg can't adapt: It was viewed as somewhat of a surprise when Harbaugh announced a couple of days after last season ended that Mornhinweg would remain the offensive coordinator. Mornhinweg, a longtime football man with extensive offensive coordinator experience, hardly distinguished himself as the play caller after he was promoted from quarterbacks coach when Marc Trestman was fired in early October. The Ravens remained just as pass-happy and unbalanced as they were under Trestman, and never could mount offensive consistency or finish drives. The addition of Roman, another former offensive coordinator, is a step toward making sure the running game isn't completely forgotten as it was at times last year. Mornhinweg has to stick with it and find the right balance in his play-calling between being aggressive and playing smart.
Defense doesn't jell as quickly as hoped: The good news for Pees is that the Ravens stocked up on defense this offseason. That also means Pees faces the challenge of acclimating everyone and making sure the unit is on the same page. Starting defensive backs Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr are in their first year with the team. Urban and Pierce are expected to be full-time starters along the defensive line for the first time. Judon is starting at strong-side linebacker, a position he's never played. Correa is a first-year starter at weak-side linebacker. With Terrell Suggs, Brandon Williams, C.J. Mosley and Eric Weddle, the Ravens have great leadership on the defensive side of the ball. Still, it would be a little ignorant to assume it won't take any time for all the new faces to get used to playing together.
Injury problems continue: There is certainly a positive way to look at all the injuries the Ravens suffered over the past two months : They are getting them all out of the way early. That's not usually how it works. The Ravens have been one of the most injury-hit teams in the league over the past two years, and that trend continued this summer. In the span of two months, the Ravens watched one of their top running backs (Kenneth Dixon), an exciting young wide receiver (Tim White), two of their top tight ends (Dennis Pitta and Crockett Gillmore), two offensive linemen (Lewis and Siragusa) and their top two slot cornerbacks (Tavon Young and Maurice Canady) go down with potentially season-ending injuries. Compounding matters was Flacco and Perriman missing most of training camp. The Ravens' roster has already been stretched, and that's before the inevitable injuries begin in the regular season. Every team confronts injuries, but there are only so many a team can get through before they start sinking a season.
Tough start forecasts long year: The Ravens open the season in Cincinnati, where they've lost five straight games. After a very winnable home opener against the Cleveland Browns, they have to fly to London, where the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have extensive experience playing overseas, await. The 7,000-plus-mile round trip precedes a home game against the divisional rival Steelers in Week 4, and then another long road trip to face the Oakland Raiders, one of the AFC's most talented teams. It's a rigorous stretch for the Ravens, and it comes after a preseason in which stability and good health and fortune were elusive. The injury situation and difficult season-opening schedule calls to mind the start of the 2015 season. Forced to play on the road and out west for four of the first five weeks, the Ravens began the season 1-6, suffered many injuries and never recovered. A difficult start would conjure up bad memories of that season.