Ravens preview: Facing tough transition season

The Ravens believe their defense can keep them in most games, but the fact of the matter is it gave up 24 points per game last season and is now a year older and without any significant reinforcements.

There's no reason to assume the offense will be any more help than a year ago because the quarterback situation remains unstable, the offensive line is being rebuilt on the fly and the wide receiving corps' most dangerous element is 35-year-old Derrick Mason.

Some hope lies in young mobile quarterback Troy Smith, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State who no one in the NFL really wanted. Smith struggled in limited action last year but this summer appeared to do enough to keep No. 1 pick Flacco and veteran Kyle Boller on the bench.

The biggest fears defensively are a secondary that has shown significant weaknesses and a defensive core that has too many top players 30 or older and may be ready to implode. If the defense fails them, you can quote the Ravens' playoff chances as "Nevermore."

On the hot seat

Jared Gaither may be a player of great potential but when you're asked to replace a future Hall of Fame left tackle your potential has to turn to production in a hurry. Two years ago, Gaither was a guy leaving Maryland early for the supplemental draft. Now he's protecting the blind side of his quarterback from a slot once occupied by Jonathan Ogden. Good luck to him.

Difference-maker

No one sees Kelly Gregg, nor understands what he does, but the Ravens' nose tackle is the reason Baltimore allowed an average of only 2.8 yards per rushing play last year. He finished third on the team in tackles (111), had three sacks, recovered two fumbles and generally jammed the middle and made life easier for Pro Bowl inside linebacker Ray Lewis.

Hard road to hoe

Baltimore has a four-week stretch from Sept. 21 to Oct. 12 in which it must face Cleveland at home, Pittsburgh on the road, Tennessee at home and go to Indianapolis. They'll have a hard time even splitting those four games, which means they'll have to dig out of an early hole.

Ravens will be better than you think if ...

Cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister stay healthy. They have some age on them but both are excellent cover corners when 100 percent. Last year they weren't, missing 18 games between them. If they can stay in one piece, the secondary won't be so often left in tatters.

Ravens will be worse than you think if ...

They continue to turn the ball over at the rate they did a year ago. The Ravens' 40 turnovers led the NFL in a statistic that is central to deciding who wins and loses games. If Baltimore can't cut down on that number it may put a defense not as strong as it has been in untenable positions way too often.

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