The Ravens went 4-0 in the preseason with a 14-13 win over the New Orleans Saints. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
The Ravens were unbeaten in the preseason but there is still so much uncertainty surrounding them headed into the 2017 regular season.
One thing is certain: The Ravens miss the quiet leadership of quarterback Joe Flacco.
Flacco has been criticized in the past for not being a rah-rah kind of player, but he is the savior for the Ravens. The defense will have to carry them again in 2017, but will this unit wear down in the final quarter of the season like it did a year ago?
The success of this team all hinges on Flacco, who has yet to practice in the preseason because of a back injury. No one wants to put all the pressure on the 10th year player, but he is the difference-maker.
The current problem isn't just a lack of talent, but also a lack of energy and confidence. As backup quarterback Ryan Mallett threw his first couple of passes into the turf Thursday night against New Orleans, it was as if a sponge was absorbing any remaining life left in the offense.
In the previous game against Buffalo, there were times when first-team receivers didn't come back hard to catch passes or only ran three-quarter speed through some pass patterns. Those were "business decisions" because receivers weren't willing to get hurt in the preseason stretching out for inaccurate passes.
Flacco's return should put some hope and purpose back in the offense. The offseason rust will show in the season opener next Sunday against the Bengals in Cincinnati.
But the Ravens play Cleveland and Jacksonville the following two weeks, which should give Flacco time to be ready against Pittsburgh on Oct. 1 and Oakland a week later.
Hopefully by then the offensive line will be in sync as well because if Flacco hasn't recovered or gets hurt again it will be a long season.
Urban, Jensen worked for it: Defensive end Brent Urban and center Ryan Jensen are self-made players who have worked hard to become starters.
He played in all 16 games last season and finished with 10 tackles. During the offseason, coach John Harbaugh challenged him to become a starter and he has been one of the team's most dominant players in the preseason.
Jensen, in his fourth year, is one of those bump-and-grind players out of Colorado State. It was hard ever imagining him as a starter but he has shown a strong work ethic. He is like former Ravens starting center Mike Flynn, who was an undrafted free agent out of Maine in 1997 and later became a starter for the Ravens for nearly 10 years.
Skill set: The Bengals are trying to build an efficient offensive line for this season, but they have some outstanding skilled players with great speed.
They already had good depth at running back, but then added rookie Joe Mixon from Oklahoma. This kid looks like he has elastic in his legs when he makes cuts. Cincinnati also added rookie receiver John Ross of Washington to complement No. 1 A.J. Green. To be in the game the Ravens will have to dominate up front which is very possible but they can't let anyone behind them in the secondary.
Haden overrated: Pittsburgh recently signed cornerback Joe Haden, which will strengthen its defense, but the Ravens aren't trembling over at The Castle. The Ravens and Flacco went after Haden when he was with the Browns and will do so again when they face the Steelers twice.
Haden has a great reputation but is overrated, much like former Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor, who is still has nightmares about former Ravens receiver Torrey Smith. Pittsburgh will find out that Haden isn't what he used to be.
Worth a shot: The Ravens are on to something by moving defensive lineman Patrick Ricard to fullback or tight end in short-yardage situations, but he is probably a year removed from making significant impact.
If the Ravens use him in those situations during regular-season games, Ricard will be running into strong and tested starters with thick bodies and good technique. He didn't see that in the preseason.
It will be like former Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk. As a rookie and fourth round pick out of Harvard in 2013, Juszczyk couldn't move any defensive player off the ball until after he spent a year in the weight room and improved his technique.
Most improved: Two Ravens who improved the most from a year ago are defensive tackle Michael Pierce and outside linebacker Matthew Judon.
Pierce already had a super strong lower body that made it tough for offensive linemen to move him off the line of scrimmage, but he has improved as a pass rusher. That presents the opposition with a problem because now it has to choose whether to double team Pierce or fellow tackle Brandon Williams in passing situations.
Judon, who is a second-year player like Pierce, has become more of a complete player. He has slimmed down and is now playing the strong side where he has more responsibility.
Last year he was just a rusher in passing situations like rookie Tim Williams this season. Williams, a third-round pick, has potential and is developing slowly. He might get playing time near the end of the season if the Ravens decide to use a fresh pair of legs.
Stanley returns: Left offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley returned to practice this week after missing substantial time with an undisclosed injury. Stanley looked a little heavy and hopefully it won't take him several weeks to rebound like last year when he missed four games with a foot injury.
If he struggles so will the offensive line because he is the second best of the bunch after right guard Marshal Yanda.
Signs of life: It was exciting to watch first-round pick and former Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey on the field against New Orleans. The kid has no fear at challenging receivers at the line of scrimmage and has good hips where he can turn and run with most of them.
He was also aggressive in run support. Maybe the Ravens finally drafted a good cornerback for the first time since taking Duane Starks and Chris McAlister during their early years in Baltimore.