It's going to be a different kind of season for the Baltimore Ravens.
For the first time in their 18-year existence, middle linebacker Ray Lewis won't be on the roster. And for only the second time, the Ravens will reign as defending Super Bowl champions.
Much has happened to the franchise since Lewis hoisted the Lombardi Trophy following Baltimore's 34-31 win over the San Francisco 49ers last February. The metamorphosis began with Lewis and center Matt Birk heading into retirement, and soon after that general manager Ozzie Newsome began tearing apart the team in an effort to create some room under the salary cap and retool a defense in desperate need of some younger talent.
Starters Lewis, Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Paul Kruger and Cary Williams are out. Elvis Dumervil, Chris Canty, Marcus Spears, Daryl Smith and Michael Huff are in.
"There's no place but to go up from last year," tackle Arthur Jones said of a defense that last year ranked 17th in yardage allowed.
Joe Flacco, with a new six-year, $120.6 contract in hand, is back to direct the offense. But he's missing two of his favorite targets — wide receiver Anquan Boldin was traded after refusing to take a pay cut, and tight end Dennis Pitta is feared lost for the year with a dislocated and fractured hip.
Regardless, the Ravens remain highly confident that they're good enough, and plenty hungry enough, to make a run at another championship.
"There are a lot of reasons you have to make moves, but every one of them has been made to be the best that we can be," coach John Harbaugh said. "I think we can be a very good football team, but we have to prove it."
Five things to know about the Ravens:
FLACCO IN THE FOLD: One of the first things Newsome did during the offseason was to sign Flacco, the Super Bowl MVP, to a new contract. The amount of money he received was influenced greatly by his performance in the playoffs: 11 TD passes, no interceptions. At the time of the deal, Flacco became the highest-paid player in NFL history. Flacco has never missed a start and never missed the postseason. "It's very important. It's a big advantage," Harbaugh said of Flacco's reliability. "Every team in the league is chasing that (if it) doesn't have it. We feel we're very fortunate to have our quarterback in place."
MAN IN THE MIDDLE: No one is going to replace the leadership Lewis provided, but someone's got to at least take over in the middle of the defense. That man is Daryl Smith, who signed as a free agent during the offseason and has been playing well this summer. Smith doesn't want to be known as the next Ray Lewis. "You can never replace a guy like Ray Lewis," he said. "The only thing I can do is focus on what I do." What he does is what Lewis did — hit the man with the ball. Smith is the leading tackler in Jacksonville Jaguars history, which makes him a solid replacement for the leading tackler in Ravens history.
HERE'S THE CATCH: The Ravens' success on offense this season will depend heavily on how well they adjust to the loss of Boldin. Torrey Smith will probably be Flacco's main target, and Ray Rice will continue to be a threat to grab a short pass out of the backfield. But Jacoby Jones is going to have to contribute more on offense, and the loss of Pitta means Ed Dickson and newcomer Dallas Clark will have carry the load at tight end. Brandon Stokley could be the key, if at 37 years old he can still shine as a possession receiver.
LAST LINE OF DEFENSE: The defense is strong up front and the linebackers are solid. The big question is, how will the Ravens do without Reed on the back end? Michael Huff, signed as a free agent who played 16 games with Oakland last year, has been asked to replace the irreplaceable Reed. "Ed Reed is a special player. The playmaking ability that he brings to the table, you can't really replace that," Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "But Michael Huff is a great player. He's been doing it for a while, so hopefully he can step in and make some big-time plays."
FOLLOW THE LEADER: With Lewis and Reed gone, linebacker Terrell Suggs appears to be the next leader of the esteemed Ravens defense. Suggs was introduced last in the final home preseason game, an honor that used to be bestowed upon Lewis. "Once Ray and Ed Reed left, Terrell Suggs has been here the longest," lineman Haloti Ngata said. "It's just kind of fallen on him and Joe, since he's our quarterback."
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