|Gail Burton / Associated Press|
|With new weapons in the passing game, QB Joe Flacco is under pressure to take Baltimore's offense to a new level.|
In Baltimore, the mantra has always been "defense wins championships."
The franchise captured its only Super Bowl title behind one of the most dominant defenses in league history, and its championship hopes have often rested on the shoulders of Ray Lewis & Co. for the better part of a decade.
The defense has ranked sixth or higher in nine out of the last 10 seasons, and that success has made the unit the face of the franchise.
The offense, on the other hand, has been synonymous with ineptitude for much of that time. Its futility has been the primary reason that Baltimore has failed to return to the Super Bowl despite the presence of a dominant defense.
In fact, the Ravens' offense has only finished in the top half of the league in total offense twice in the past decade (13th in 2009, 14th in 2001). However, after watching the team add several explosive weapons during the offseason, the unit is poised to not only be relevant, but title worthy.
General manager and executive vice president Ozzie Newsome initiated the offensive makeover by acquiring Anquan Boldin in a trade with the Arizona Cardinals. The three-time Pro Bowler cost the Ravens a third- and fourth-round pick, but they now have a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Boldin has amassed five 1,000-yard seasons in his seven-year career, and gives the team a gritty, hard-nosed wideout. He excels at finding open windows over the middle of the field, and his exceptional running skills make him dangerous on short crossers. The talented possession receiver is worthy of double-team attention on most downs.
While Boldin will serve as the anchor of the aerial attack, the Ravens brought in Donte' Stallworth to add an explosive element. The eighth-year pro still has the speed to blow the top off coverage. His ability to get deep will open up the underneath areas for Boldin and Derrick Mason, and put opposing coordinators in a quandary when deciding how to defend some of the Ravens' open formations.
Stallworth is capable of manning the slot or one of the outside receiver spots. The Ravens will tap into that versatility by moving him around to create big-play opportunities. Although most of those plays will be of the deep variety, his ability to turn bubble screens into long gains adds a different element to the attack.
Given the presence of two new weapons, it would appear that Mason's role would diminish. However, Boldin and Stallworth could make the 14th-year pro a bigger contributor. Opponents will likely assign their top corners to Boldin and Stallworth, respectively, which will leave Mason with favorable matchups against nickel or dime defenders. Given the fact that most sub-corners are young and inexperienced, the veteran will tap into his bag of tricks to get open over the middle.
Mason has posted four 1,000-yard seasons in five years with the Ravens without much help opposite him, so expect him to put up comparable production with the blanket lifted.
Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta were selected in the third and fourth rounds to provide speed and athleticism. Although Todd Heap is still entrenched as the starter, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has the flexibility to incorporate some multiple tight end sets into the game plan. Two or more tight ends on the field often signifies a run-heavy tendency, so the creative play-caller will have the ability to create mismatches by going to one of his athletic tight ends against an overloaded defense designed to stop the run.
With an upgraded supporting cast, Flacco could make a major leap in his third season. A year ago, he completed 63.1 percent of his passes for 3,613 yards with 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He passed for 7.2 yards per attempt with a passer rating of 88.9. Those numbers are solid for a second-year starter, but they could improve dramatically with more explosive options available.
Although the offseason focused on the passing game, the ground attack remains the strength of the offense. Led by a young, athletic offensive line, the Ravens overwhelm opponents with a power-based scheme that operates primarily between the tackles. The front line works in unison to blow opponents off the ball and create huge running lanes for Baltimore's deep stable of runners.
Cameron also helps open up running room by deftly using a variety of unbalanced line packages to create numerical advantages at the point of attack. The effective mixing of powers and counters makes the running game difficult to stop.
The Ravens have ranked among the top five rushing offenses the past two seasons, but they have done it by using a talented rotation of backs. Ray Rice, Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain have taken turns leading the ground attack, and each brings a diverse skill set. Rice, who earned a Pro Bowl nod after rushing for 1,339 yards last season, is a jitterbug runner with exceptional speed and quickness. He flashes an outstanding burst to the hole, and his robust average of 5.3 yards per carry is indicative of his consistent ability to get to the second level.
In McGahee and McClain, the Ravens have a pair of heavyweights to feature in short-yardage and goal-line situations. McGahee, who rushed for 544 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, thrived as the team's designated short-yardage back. He displayed an uncanny knack for finding pay dirt, and became the team's go-to guy on fourth-down calls.
McClain, who has been to back-to-back Pro Bowls, remains a viable option despite his move to fullback. He rushed for only 180 yards on 46 carries last season, but had 902 yards with 10 touchdowns in 2008. He's capable of playing tailback in the Ravens' "jumbo" package or in some of their one-back sets. As a bruiser with nimble feet, McClain can slither through cracks while delivering punishing blows at the end of runs. Given a defense's propensity to wear down in the fourth quarter, the opportunity to feed the ball to a 260-pound banger is a key part of the Ravens' strategy.
The Ravens have deservedly earned the reputation for being one of the league's most feared teams due to their ferocious defense, but this season could see Baltimore make a championship run behind its suddenly explosive offense.