’08 Preview: Ravens officially in rebuilding mode

When Baltimore Ravens veteran quarterback Steve McNair announced his retirement on April 17, it unofficially began the rebuilding process in Baltimore.

It’s not a complete facelift, but the transition involves revamping an entire offense and trying to establish the same demeanor on that side of the ball that the Ravens have had on defense since 2000.

The Ravens still have aging – but great – defensive players such as linebacker Ray Lewis, end Trevor Pryce and cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister. There is enough talent left to keep Baltimore competitive in every game.

2008 TEAM PREVIEWS

AFC EAST: BUF | MIA | NE | NYJ

AFC NORTH: BAL | CIN | CLE | PIT

AFC SOUTH: HOU | IND | JAC | TEN

AFC WEST: DEN | KC | OAK | SD

NFC EAST: DAL | NYG | PHI | WAS

NFC NORTH: CHI | DET | GB | MIN

NFC SOUTH: ATL | CAR | NO | TB

NFC WEST: ARI | SEA | SF | STL

But the Ravens don’t have that kind of experience, nastiness and work ethic on offense – not yet anyway.

New coach John Harbaugh says it is a work in progress. The Ravens have a good core of youthful offensive linemen and two young quarterbacks to build around, including first-round draft pick Joe Flacco out of Delaware.

It’s just a matter of the offense catching up to the defense. But can it happen before veterans like Lewis, Pryce and Rolle run out of gas at the end of this season?

Offense

The Ravens have a new offensive coordinator in Cam Cameron. He’ll use the West Coast offense, but look for the Ravens to attack more than most teams that use this style.

The emphasis will be on ball control, but the Ravens will also use a lot of no-huddle sets. Baltimore doesn’t have many downfield threats, but tight end Todd Heap could have a big year in this offense.

Defense

The Ravens retained coordinator Rex Ryan from the Brian Billick regime, so the philosophy won’t change. Ryan loves to get after quarterbacks.

As a result, the Ravens will continue to blitz often. Ryan doesn’t just blitz linebackers, but safeties and cornerbacks as well. He wants aggressive cornerbacks because they are often left in one-on-one coverage.

Baltimore relies on having two big tackles up front to tie up offensive linemen, which allows its small, quick linebackers to run from sideline to sideline.

Breakout candidate

Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata: In just two seasons, Ngata has already established himself as one of the best run-stoppers in the game. But this year he’ll prove he is a complete player.

Ngata has had two offseasons to reshape his body and turn some of his baby fat into muscle. He simply out-muscled the opposition in his first two campaigns, but he has learned a great deal of technique while studying teammate and fellow tackle Kelly Gregg.

Ngata used to be able to only hold his ground at the line of scrimmage. By the end of last season, he was so quick off the ball, and so much better with his hands, that he began making plays behind the line.

Bottom line

The Ravens don’t want to admit it but they are in a rebuilding phase. They have plenty of talent on defense, as usual, but are also undergoing a major transition on offense.

If they can get some production out of their quarterbacks and stay healthy, then a .500 finish is possible. With an influx of young talent, however, the Ravens seem to have a bright future, and might be ready to make a serious run in a year or two.

SN prediction: 6-10, fourth in AFC North.

Mike Preston covers the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun and Sporting News.


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Updated Thursday, Jul 17, 2008