The way the 2011 season came to a close was hard to swallow for the Baltimore Ravens. The months that have followed that heartbreaking finish have been tough to take as well.
The defending AFC North champions' offseason received a vicious jolt with the news that havoc-wreaking pass rusher Terrell Suggs suffered a torn Achilles tendon while working out in early May. Though the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year has vowed to be back playing at some point during the upcoming season, a return for the start of the stretch run in late November seems to be about his best-case scenario.
Baltimore was already in the process of recovering from a painful outcome in January's AFC Championship Game, when the team squandered a pair of scoring opportunities in the waning moments of its matchup at New England. Wide receiver Lee Evans had a would-be go-ahead touchdown catch stripped from his hands in the final seconds of regulation, right before kicker Billy Cundiff hastily misfired on a 32-yard field goal attempt that would have forced overtime in the eventual 23-20 setback.
Cundiff is still around, but Evans was sent packing and joins several players who made significant contributions to last year's Super Bowl near-miss that are no longer on the payroll. A defense bracing for Suggs' extended absence must also replace two highly valued veterans that exited as free agents, outside linebacker Jarret Johnson and end Cory Redding, with the latter following departed coordinator and new Colts head coach Chuck Pagano to Indianapolis. A rock-solid offensive line lost one of its key building blocks when Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs signed a lucrative contract with New Orleans in March.
Those defections and Suggs' unavailability will challenge the resolve of a battle-tested Baltimore squad that's displayed plenty of mental toughness in reaching the playoffs four consecutive years under head coach John Harbaugh and winning five postseason contests over that stretch.
Longtime inside linebacker and renowned team inspirational leader Ray Lewis is one who's embracing the adversity that lies ahead.
"Before any great blessing, you're going to go through a storm," said Lewis in reference to Suggs' injury. That's just life. Every team is going to go through it, whether you go through it sooner or later. You look at the Super Bowl champs last year, the [New York] Giants. All the damages came at the beginning of the year, but everybody got healthy at the end of the year.
And that's why I think it's kind of a blessing in disguise, because now we get a lot of young guys [who'll] get a lot of work in."
The Ravens' kiddie corps will indeed be counted on heavily in 2012, with rookie Courtney Upshaw now Johnson's heir apparent at strongside linebacker, sophomore Pernell McPhee and third-year pro Arthur Jones set to rotate snaps at Redding's old spot and running back Bernard Pierce -- a third-round selection in April's draft -- the favorite to supplant the retired Ricky Williams as the backup to sensational running back Ray Rice.
Paul Kruger, a career reserve who registered 5 1/2 sacks as a situational rusher last season, will get the first crack at filling Suggs' shoes until the dominating end/linebacker hybrid returns.
With promising young talent ready to step in and a strong locker-room foundation in place, the Ravens do appear to have the ingredients necessary to put the nightmarish events of the past few months well behind.
"I think the true test of a good team is how you get back up and get back after it," said quarterback Joe Flacco. "So far, since I have been here, we have been able to do that, and we are going to treat it the same. We have to come out here and we have to become ready to play so that we can get right back there and have the same opportunity [this] season."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Baltimore Ravens, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 12-4 (1st, AFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011, lost to New England in AFC Championship
COACH (RECORD): John Harbaugh (44-20 in four seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Cam Cameron (fifth season with Ravens)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dean Pees (third season with Ravens, first as DC)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Ray Rice, RB (1364 rushing yards, 76 receptions, 15 total TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Terrell Suggs, OLB (70 tackles, 14 sacks, 2 INT)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 15th overall (10th rushing, 19th passing), tied 12th scoring (23.6 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 3rd overall (2nd rushing, 4th passing), 3rd scoring (16.6 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: LG Bobbie Williams (from Bengals), OLB Courtney Upshaw (2nd Round, Alabama), QB Curtis Painter (from Colts), RB Bernard Pierce (3rd Round, Temple), WR Jacoby Jones (from Texans), TE Billy Bajema (from Rams), OG Tony Wragge (from 49ers), NT Ma'ake Kemoeatu (free agent), ILB Darryl Blackstock (from Raiders), CB Corey Graham (from Bears), S Sean Considine (from Cardinals)
KEY DEPARTURES: LG Ben Grubbs (to Saints), DE Cory Redding (to Colts), OLB Jarret Johnson (to Chargers), RB Ricky Williams (retired), WR Lee Evans (to Jaguars), TE Kris Wilson (free agent), C Andre Gurode (free agent), NT Brandon McKinney (to Colts), OLB Edgar Jones (to Chiefs), CB Domonique Foxworth (released), CB Chris Carr (to Vikings), S Tom Zbikowski (to Colts), S Haruki Nakamura (to Panthers)
QB: Numbers wise, Flacco (3610 passing yards, 20 TD, 12 INT in 2010) took a small step back from a terrific 2010 campaign in which the rifle-armed quarterback established career high marks for passing yards (3,622) and touchdown throws (25), but more than atoned for a few previous shaky showings in the postseason with a highly impressive 306-yard, two-score effort in the AFC Championship. Most importantly, however, the stoic 27-year-old owns a 44-20 regular-season record over his four-year career and hasn't missed a start since entering the pros as a first-round pick in 2008. Entering the final year of his rookie contract, he should have plenty of motivation to raise his play to an even higher level in 2012. Flacco's excellent durability is a huge asset to a Ravens squad that lacks a proven backup, as incumbent No. 2 Tyrod Taylor is a far more dangerous scrambler than thrower at this stage of the athletic second-year triggerman's brief career and offseason pickup Curtis Painter (1541 passing yards, 6 TD, 9 INT) flopped in a winless eight-start stint as Peyton Manning's stand-in in Indianapolis a year ago.
RB: Baltimore was able to extinguish one possible distraction to its eventful offseason when the organization and Rice (1364 rushing yards, 76 receptions, 15 TD) reached agreement on a new five-year, $35 million pact just prior to the deadline for signing franchise-tagged players to long-term deals. That would still be a bargain rate for the Ravens if the hard-working 25-year-old keeps up his insane production over the past three seasons, in which Rice has averaged nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns along with 72 catches as arguably the league's best all-purpose back. He'll once again be the focal point of coordinator Cam Cameron's game plan and team with fullback Vonta Leach (15 receptions), a battering ram of a lead blocker who's garnered first team All-Pro recognition in each of the last two years, the first of which came while with the Houston Texans. Williams' retirement leaves the Ravens without a seasoned secondary ball-carrier, though there are a few intriguing options with fresher legs. Pierce, a big back with quick feet and a physical demeanor, should have the inside track for the role if the Temple product can avoid the nagging injuries he continually battled as a collegian, while 2011 seventh-round choice Anthony Allen has a slight edge in experience. Undrafted rookie Bobby Rainey, who tallied over 6,900 all-purpose yards during a stellar tenure at Western Kentucky, is in the mix as well after a good camp in which the small-school standout has turned heads with his receiving and return abilities.
WR: The returning combo of veteran Anquan Boldin (57 receptions, 3 TD) and young speedster Torrey Smith (50 receptions, 7 TD) is back to give Flacco a pair of outside threats with differing skill sets. The 220-pound Boldin is a three-time Pro Bowl performer who's fearless going over the middle and excels at gaining yards after the catch, while Smith is a burner who showed a knack for making big plays during his rookie season of 2011, with seven of his eight touchdown grabs (including the playoffs) going for 25 yards or more. No. 3 receiver Evans was released following one disappointing and injury-plagued season in Baltimore, with ex-Texan Jacoby Jones (31 receptions, 2 TD) signed to take his place. Though consistency was an issue during his time in Houston, the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder is an outstanding return man with the size and speed to be an impact player on offense. LaQuan Williams, a good special-teamer who made the club as a college free agent last year on his proficiency in that area, rounds out the group along with 2011 fourth-rounder Tandon Doss and rookie Tommy Streeter (6th Round, Miami-Florida), two high-upside projects that are being brought along slowly.
TE: The decision to part ways with the trusted but declining Todd Heap prior to last season turned out to be a prudent one for Baltimore, as the team got increased production out of the tight end position from the young duo of Ed Dickson (54 receptions, 5 TD) and Dennis Pitta (40 receptions, 3 TD). The pair combined for over 900 yards and eight touchdowns as vital cogs in the offense, with Pitta often serving as the de facto third wide receiver operating out of the slot. Neither stands out as a blocker, a reason why the Ravens brought in former Ram Billy Bajema (9 receptions) in early August to be a hopeful pile- pusher in the running game. Davon Drew, a fifth-round pick in 2009, also has a chance to stick in that role after a solid camp and the fact that he's no longer eligible for the practice squad, where he's languished the past three seasons.
OL: One of the league's premier guard tandems was broken up when Grubbs chose to join the Saints, though the Ravens should still be in fine shape on the left side after signing former Bengal Bobbie Williams, a consistent and accountable veteran who's logged 130 starts over a 12-year career. Those adjectives aren't ones that best describe returning left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who raised the blood pressure of the coaching staff by missing the first few days of training camp without informing the team and has been beset by weight issues in the past. He's still a high-level talent with extensive game experience who provides Flacco with an able protector when in shape and properly motivated, however. Right tackle Michael Oher has yet to develop into the dominant blocker Baltimore envisioned when it took him in the 2009 first round, but the nimble lineman of "The Blind Side" fame hasn't missed a start in his three seasons and is hardly a liability at the position. He'll again work next to scrappy right guard Marshal Yanda, who earned a well-deserved All-Pro nod last season and has been one of the driving forces behind Rice's three straight years of over 1,200 rushing yards. Center remains in very good hands with master technician Matt Birk returning for a 15th NFL season, though the six-time Pro Bowler just turned 36 and both Williams (36 in September) and McKinnie (33 in September) are also getting up in years. Those age concerns were eased somewhat in this past draft, with Baltimore taking massive Iowa State product Keleche Osemele in the second round and Delaware's Gino Gradkowski in the fourth. The 6-foot-6, 335-pound Osemele is a physical specimen with future starting potential at either guard or right tackle, with Gradkowski to be groomed as Birk's heir apparent. The Ravens also like the promise of 2011 third-rounder Jah Reid, who performed admirably as a swing tackle during his rookie year.
DL: This three-man group may not get near the acclaim as the all-star linebacking crew behind it, but the line's proficiency at doing the dirty work up front has been as big a factor as any for Baltimore having ranked in the top five in rushing defense six years running. It's also no coincidence that stretch has corresponded with Haloti Ngata's (64 tackles, 5 sacks) tenure with the Ravens. One of the NFL's strongest players, the 340-pound tackle is near impossible to move off the ball and possesses the uncanny athleticism to also make an impact as a pass rusher. There's plenty of beef alongside the All-Pro anchor as well, with 350-pounder Terrence Cody (34 tackles) an effective space eater at nose tackle who'll now rotate with the even-larger Ma'ake Kemoeatu. The 33-year-old Tongan begins his second tour of duty with the Ravens, having had a previous stint from 2002-05, and returns from a one-year absence from the NFL caused by injuries and weight problems. The Ravens will miss the presence of Redding, an esteemed locker room leader, but his on-field contributions should be easier to replace with Arthur Jones (20 tackles) and McPhee (23 tackles) still on hand. The former is the prototypical run-stopping 3-4 end who can clog gaps with a large and long-armed base, while the lighter and quicker McPhee ranked second on the team with six sacks deployed as primarily a situational rusher.
LB: Suggs (70 tackles) joined Lewis and safety Ed Reed as current Ravens to be named the NFL's top defender after delivering a 2011 masterpiece in which the fearsome outside linebacker accumulated 14 sacks and a league-best seven forced fumbles along with a pair of interceptions. While a repeat won't be in the cards, Baltimore is holding out hope that its elite pass rusher can bring a spark for its expected playoff push while Kruger (15 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and possibly star-crossed third-year man Sergio Kindle provide a reasonable facsimile in the interim. Kruger flourished in a part-time capacity last year but has yet to handle a starter's load as a professional, while Kindle is trying to get a once-bright career that's been derailed by a skull fracture the 2010 second-round pick suffered prior to his rookie season back on track. Baltimore believes it's got the perfect replacement for Johnson in Upshaw, the defensive MVP of last year's BCS National Championship game who owns extensive experience in a 3-4 scheme as a two-year starter for Nick Saban at Alabama. The competitive rookie isn't being handed a starting job, however, with special-teams ace Albert McClellan (19 tackles) a capable fill-in in his own right. There's far less gray area at the inside positions, where the venerable Lewis (95 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) remains an all-around asset entering his 17th season with the organization and counterpart Jameel McClain (84 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) is a quality run-stopper at the Will position. With core special teamer Brendon Ayanbadejo (35 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Dannell Ellerbe (18 tackles) both well-versed in the defense, depth at the interior spots is a plus as well.
DB: With 57 career interceptions, eight Pro Bowl citations and one Defensive Player of the Year honor to his credit, Reed (52 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) is the obvious headliner of a strong secondary that was instrumental in Baltimore topping the NFL in pass efficiency defense a year ago. Cornerback Lardarius Webb (67 tackles, 1 sack, 21 PD) was arguably the unit's best player, however, after intercepting five passes and supplying lock-down man coverage on a near every-week basis, a performance that earned the ascending 26-year-old a six- year, $50 million contract in April. Former Tennessee castoff Cary Williams (78 tackles, 16 PD) also was sound as a surprise starter last year, but he's been spending the summer attempting to fight off a threat from the more- talented Jimmy Smith (20 tackles, 2 INT), the Ravens' first-round choice in 2011 who was eased into the rotation as a rookie, but has the size and cover skills to eventually become a Pro Bowl-caliber player. Baltimore also got great mileage off the scrap heap at strong safety, with hard-hitting ex-Texan Bernard Pollard (75 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) a force in run support and holding his own in coverage in a good first season with the club. Both backup safeties had to be replaced with Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura departing in free agency, with the well-traveled Sean Considine and rookie Christian Thompson (4th Round, South Carolina State) the new second-stringers.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Cundiff made the Pro Bowl with a breakout 2010 campaign in which the journeyman kicker made good on 26-of-29 field goals and tied an NFL single-year record for touchbacks (40), but returned to his previously erratic form with a rough last season capped by his infamous playoff miss. The 32- year-old was successful on just 75.7 percent (28-of-37) of his three-point tries in the regular season and is facing a serious push from strong-legged rookie Justin Tucker. Punter Sam Koch is on firmer ground after averaging a career-best 46.5 yards per kick, but the coverage units were not a strength, with Baltimore ranking 31st in opponent kickoff return average (29.7) and allowing three runbacks for touchdowns (2 punt returns, 1 kickoff) during the season. That prompted the offseason signing of reserve corner Corey Graham (16 tackles, 3 INT), the NFC's special teams Pro Bowl representative in 2011. Jacoby Jones should provide a boost to Baltimore' own return game, as the new addition owns four career touchdowns (3 punts, 1 kickoff) in that department and averaged a healthy 10.6 yards taking back punts last year. Rainey and rookie corner Asa Jackson (5th Round, Cal Poly) have been getting looks in the preseason as well.
PROGNOSIS: Baltimore's strong will figures to be greatly tested by Suggs' injury and the personnel losses it incurred during the offseason, but there's still a very firm base that exists and the leadership from the likes of Harbaugh, Lewis and Reed should ensure that if there's indeed a fall, it won't be much of one. Even without Suggs, the Ravens possess a difference-making defense with plenty of impact players, a game-changing playmaker in Rice, and a quarterback in Flacco who's shown signs of moving into the league's upper echelon at the position. Barring any other unforeseen stumbling blocks, Baltimore has all the ingredients in place for another run at an AFC title, though it may have to come as a Wild Card entry with a slightly more difficult schedule than chief competitor Pittsburgh in the AFC North.