Baltimore Ravens

New-look Ravens offense may need time to unlock potential

When Joe Flacco breaks the huddle Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, only two players — guards Marshal Yanda and Ben Grubbs — will have more tenure in the Ravens' offense than the fourth-year quarterback.

Sweeping changes have taken place with the NFL's 22nd-ranked offense, their lowest standing since Brian Billick's final season in 2007. In total, 13 of the Ravens' 23 offensive players on the roster are different this year, a 56 percent turnover.

The trade for wide receiver Lee Evans has made the Ravens faster. The signing of All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach has made them tougher. And the late addition of left tackle Bryant McKinnie has made them bigger.

But is the Ravens offense better? Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron undoubtedly thinks so.

"This offense has the potential and the character and the unselfishness to, at some point in time, be the best offense we've had," he said. "Is that in two weeks or four weeks? No. We're not going to know until midway through this season just how good we can really be. If we stay healthy, I'm convinced that this offense can really be special."

Others aren't as sure as Cameron. The Ravens took the biggest losses of any returning playoff team excluding the uncertainty of Peyton Manning's future with the Indianapolis Colts.

A salary-cap predicament forced the Ravens to cut the two leading receivers in franchise history, wide receiver Derrick Mason and tight end Todd Heap.

The Ravens decided to replace Heap, who signed with the Arizona Cardinals, with young and athletic Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. So, Flacco will be throwing the ball to two tight ends who have combined for one NFL touchdown instead of the franchise's all-time leader in receiving touchdowns (41).

But three-time All-Pro safety Rodney Harrison, who is now an analyst for NBC Sports, has a bigger problem with the Ravens' wide receiver situation. After Mason went to the New York Jets, the Ravens traded a fourth-round pick to the Buffalo Bills for Evans.

Harrison described Evans as "stiff" and criticized his route-running and hands.

"To give up Derrick Mason, they went back in terms of talent in that acquisition," Harrison said.

Evans has made an immediate impact in the preseason, totaling a team bests in receiving yards (128) and yards per catch (21.3).

"If Lee Evans can give them a play every other game down the field, he could have a tremendous impact on this offense," said Cris Collinsworth, an analyst for NBC Sports.

Harrison contends that the Ravens made the wrong move at wide receiver.

"I think that's where Baltimore went wrong," he said. "One play every other game is not enough to give up Derrick Mason for that guy. Derrick Mason was a fiery leader who was tough as nails who would block safeties on run plays. Even though he was a little older, he was catching balls down the field. I think they lost a huge chunk of their offense giving up Derrick Mason for Lee Evans."

The other area of concern regarding the Ravens is their offensive line. The projected starting group — McKinnie, Grubbs, Yanda, center Matt Birk and right tackle Michael Oher — didn't take a snap together in the preseason.

Birk missed the entire preseason after having knee surgery on Aug. 3. Yanda was sidelined for the last three preseason games because of back spasms. And McKinnie was signed by the Ravens on Aug. 24, which moved Oher from left to right tackle.

"My gut feeling, being around the Ravens last week, this was a major, major area of concern," said Ron Jaworski, an ESPN analyst. "They needed to address that. We all know Flacco has the big arm. Lee Evans will certainly give them that deep threat that they've never had before. But I think, if you look at that corps on the offensive line, they have to come together if the team is going to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers."

There's no argument that the Ravens have a different look with these new additions.

Evans is faster than Mason. Leach is a more punishing blocker than Le'Ron McClain. And McKinnie is more established and durable than Jared Gaither.

Because they bring different aspects to the Ravens, does it make the offense more versatile?

"We'll have to go out and see. I hope so," Flacco said. "I think we lose some aspects of what we had and we gained some. Hopefully, it's for the better and we go out there and continue to improve. I think it's really starting to show that we're going to be pretty good and we know we can be."

The Ravens' offense peaked last season at the end of November, when it ranked No. 12 in the NFL. The steady decline of 10 spots in the final month of the season led to the Ravens bottoming out in a 31-24 playoff loss at Pittsburgh.

The Ravens turned the ball over three times in the third quarter, dropped two critical passes in the fourth quarter and managed 126 total yards — the fewest in the Ravens' 15-game postseason history and the third-lowest in the team's existence.

Cameron expects the Ravens to reverse that trend this season because all of the major additions on offense came during training camp.

Evans will learn more about the Ravens' passing game. Leach will build a rapport with Ray Rice. And McKinnie will develop a chemistry with the other offensive linemen.

"With Joe's growth — combine that with a tremendous fullback, another speed receiver — it can't help but make you better," Cameron said. "Offensively, we've been kind of hanging on at the end of the season for the last few years. This seems like a group that will continue to grow."

Cameron added, "I don't think we'll struggle early, but we should continue to get better and expect ourselves to get better each and every week."