Aug 7, 2014; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith (89) is greeted by team mascot Poe prior to the game against the San Francisco 49ers at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore Ravens: Ten Questions for the 2014 Season

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What are the major questions and themes facing the Baltimore Ravens as the 2014 season rapidly approaches?

Here on The Baltimore Wire we are kicking off what will be our first FULL season of coverage and comment upon the Baltimore Ravens. Those of you who follow our site know that we have been all over the Orioles from the offseason up until this present time where they lead the AL East by five games. This Baltimore/Maryland sports blog was begun in November of last year after 10 games of the football season were in the books, and we are now going to get after covering the Ravens in the same intensive fashion as the O’s.

The questions we are asking here are those most prominently in the minds of Ravens fans, all of them having been expressed in some form or fashion in the offseason after the disappointments of 2013. As disheartening as that was, the offseason has really been a time of reasonable hope and encouragement for all of the moves made, coaches changed, free agents signed, and rookies drafted.

Here on the day after the first preseason game – a 23-3 win over the San Francisco 49ers – we are posting these questions in order to have them online to re-visit during the season (and certainly after the year is finished), in order to evaluate how hopes at the beginning were either realized or unfulfilled.

So here are our 10 questions (and hopes) about the 2014 Baltimore Ravens season …

  1. Will the Ravens offense return to a top-of-the-league power?

It was a painful season to watch the guys in purple last year and wonder who were actually inside the familiar uniforms. It did not look anything like the team that won the Super Bowl just months before. An offense ranked 29th in the NFL will simply not get the job done, and honestly, an 8-8 record with that ranking was even impressive. It has to change; it will change. But will it change enough to be, say, in the top quarter of NFL teams?

  1. Will the Gary Kubiak offensive makeover find success?

So much of the enthusiasm of the offseason revolved around the hiring of Gary Kubiak to bring an entirely new offensive scheme to the Baltimore Ravens. All signs and all comments of players and management point to positive change and direction.

Yet at the same time, there really, really, really is a lot of change and learning curves involved. This is especially true for Joe Flacco, and it is easy to Google search and find skeptical articles that this will not suit him well and enhance his skills.

I personally believe he is more than capable to find success along with his teammates on the offensive side of the ball. There is reason to be hopeful and to anticipate better things for this squad.

  1. Will Joe Flacco bounce back to his level of production prior to 2013?

We all know that Joe Flacco had the worst season of his career in 2013.  We are familiar with the dismal stats such as the 22 interceptions – 10 more than any other campaign. It is true that the offensive line did not help. It is difficult to throw a football with little time and a 300-pounder hanging on your arm. The lack of a running game was disastrous, as the old adage is true and is an old adage because it is correct that “the running game sets up the passing game.” And his targets were fewer and poorer than previously.

Yet at the same time, Joe was not the Joe of the past. The skills are certainly still there – the amazing arm, the endurance and resilience, and the accumulated experiences of years as a weekly NFL quarterback. Assuming a continuance of good health free of injury, this should be a much better season.

  1. Will Ray Rice bounce back from a terrible season in 2013?

Ray Rice was never right in 2013. That was clear from day one, and it improved very little. The quickness was gone; an injury was nagging – no matter what was (not) said or (not) confessed; a few more pounds were put on a frame that is not particularly tall. The offseason happened – something about which I have chosen to not comment much upon, other than that I would wish for all pro athletes to completely avoid bars, nightclubs, casinos, and all things alcoholic.

The story is that Ray Rice of the past is back, pounds are gone, quickness has returned, and his head is on straight and focused beyond the line of scrimmage. I hope it is all true, though I will confess this is the item on the list about which I have the greatest concern.

  1. Will the offensive line changes lead to a control of the line of scrimmage?

So much has been written about how bad the offensive line was in 2013 that we’ll not review it here, other than to say that they earned the derision. Who thought the retirement of Matt Birk would lead to such disaster?

But the best part of the line was re-signed, that being Eugene Monroe; and Marshall Yanda is a big asset (pun intended). Kelechi Osemele has put in an incredible offseason of training to get back to pre-injury form. Jeremy Zuttah will be a huge upgrade at center, while Rick Wagner will be given the chance to lose the right tackle job. He looked good in the first preseason game.

But it all begins at the line of scrimmage. This remains a huge question, even as it is a huge need.

  1. Will Steve Smith find success in Baltimore like he enjoyed in Carolina?

Smith is a perfect personality fit for the Ravens, and his leadership will maybe be as beneficial as his on-field contributions. The early returns are uniformly positive, as observers are daily awed by the glue on his hands that sticks footballs to them in Velcro fashion.

Even Smith knows his numbers will not likely be as fully inflated as in his glory years when a Panther, but they can be very good. The total crew of receivers – not even considering the tight ends – present a varied nightmare of problems for opposing defenses.

  1. Will first-year and second-year players adequately fill in holes on both sides of the ball?

There is no question that the Baltimore Ravens need their youngest players to contribute at a high level. This is particularly true in the defensive secondary.

With Matt Elam moving to strong safety in this his second year, free safety Terrence Brooks may well be called upon as a rookie to not get beat.

Other rookies needing to contribute include linebacker and top draft pick C.J. Mosley, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, and running back Lorenzo Taliaferro. Mosley was not at all “in over his head” in the first game; quite the contrary. And Taliaferro looked really good as well. I’d rather see this sort of larger back than the tiny little runt-like scatbacks sneaking through openings about six inches off the ground.

Second and third year players like Courtney Upshaw, Kyle Juszczyk, Brandon Williams, Arthur Brown and Bernard Pierce need to really step and be dominant players … can they do it?

  1. Will the varied injured players from 2013 make a comeback and high-level contribution?

There was no doubt that the Dennis Pitta injury was a significant loss for the Ravens last year, though he did return for that latter portion of the season. Likewise, the Osemele injury contributed much to the demise of the offensive line. Kapron Lewis-Moore never got to play at all, and Bernard Pierce was less than effective with his situation, along with the aforementioned Ray Rice troubles.

It is all a part of the game, and in all likelihood a different list will develop to match this one … though we can hope for the Ravens to fall out on the less-injured side of the ledger.

  1. Will Justin Tucker be able to repeat his All-Pro season of 2013?  

This is probably the item on the list about which I have the most confidence. He is an amazing kicker, and with extra point rule changes he becomes an even more valuable asset for the Ravens.

10. Will the Ravens be good enough to win the AFC North and/or return to the playoffs?

This is what it all comes down to, isn’t it? There would seem to be every indication that the Ravens of 2014 are a much-improved outfit over last year. Yet so is everyone else in the division. The Bengals are largely perceived as the cream of the crop, and articles abound upon the improvements to the Steelers. And that other team… that brown bunch… did you hear some story about them getting someone famous? Something like that. Can’t say I’m scared though.

Conclusion – So it looks to be a competitive and exciting year. I gotta say, even though I’m a baseball guy more than anything, it was great to see the Ravens play last night.

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