2005 preview: Ravens

Charles Robinson
Yahoo Sports
AFC North predictions
1. Cincinnati
2. Pittsburgh
3. Baltimore
4. Cleveland
Baltimore Ravens
Head coach: Brian Billick, 7th season
2004 record: 9-7
2004 rankings: Offense, 31st (273.4 yards/game); Defense, 6th (300.2 yards/game)
2005 strength of schedule: 4th (tie)
From SportingNews.com: AFC North overview

With the defense still one of the league's best, quarterback Kyle Boller became the convenient whipping boy for last season's failures. But anyone who paid attention to the Ravens could see the injury bug had a major role in his struggles.

Baltimore's big three of tight end Todd Heap, offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and running back Jamal Lewis all had significant and nagging injury issues. Granted, Boller made his share of mistakes, but the Ravens' late collapse (losing four of their final six) had as much to do with health as Boller's lack of poise.

One major positive came from the injuries: The coaching staff realized it had to retool the receiving corps before expecting Boller to flourish.

OFFENSE

For once, there are multiple options. Baltimore made several impressive upgrades to this unit, including receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton. It will be hard to expect a lot from Clayton in his first season, but he enters as the most polished and consistent of any rookie wideout. He will be a fourth option behind Lewis, Mason and Heap.

One addition that was mostly overlooked on the national scene was the signing of guard Keydrick Vincent, who is a significant improvement over Bennie Anderson. Vincent is not going to make the line younger (something that must be addressed next offseason), but he should mesh well with the experience of Ogden and Orlando Brown.

With so many improvements, Boller must show some healthy progress in his third year as a starter. Offensive coordinator Jim Fassel pushed hard to get him the tools for success, and quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel has put in plenty of offseason work to refine Boller's grasp on the position. It's time for Boller to make big strides, or the Ravens will be looking elsewhere for a QB next year.

DEFENSE

Rex Ryan takes over the defensive coordinator duties from the departed Mike Nolan, and he's been talking an aggressive game. With the signing of cornerback Samari Rolle, Ryan believes he has the elite man-to-man corners that will allow him to amp up the blitz packages. With the defense jumping back and forth between the 4-3 and the 3-4, that could mean a career year for defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs. But there is some skepticism about how long the Ravens can stick with the 4-3 scheme as a base defense.

While a 4-3 would seem to reinvigorate aging middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the Ravens don't have the experienced defensive tackles that Lewis flourished behind early in his career. Also, neither Dwan Edwards nor Kelly Gregg is a dominant space-eater that is often required at one of the defensive tackle spots. Ryan has the secondary to allow some creativity and risk-taking in the front seven, but it remains to be seen whether there is enough experience up front to keep the Ravens in the echelon of feared defenses.

SPECIAL TEAMS

B.J. Sams looked like a Pro Bowl returner in the first half of 2004, but he declined as the season wore on – not a surprising reality for a rookie on special teams. He should be more consistent down the stretch this year, giving Baltimore a home run threat on punts and kickoffs. Kicker Matt Stover doesn't have a bionic leg, but he's as accurate and dependable as anyone in the league inside 50 yards.

PREDICTION

The Ravens will finish 9-7 and third in the AFC North.