AFC North: Baltimore Ravens

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Now that the Baltimore Ravens know they will be without Ray Rice for two games, they have to figure out who will be replacing him at running back when they face the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Rice is coming off the worst season of his career, averaging 3.1 yards per carry last season. But he clearly remains the team's best running back.

Pierce
The Ravens' top choice to fill in for Rice is Bernard Pierce. A year ago, he appeared to be on the verge of a breakout season after being a key factor in the Ravens' Super Bowl run. Then, just like Rice last season, Pierce struggled mightily, averaging 2.9 yards per carry -- second worst in the NFL among qualifying running backs.

Pierce, who was limited all offseason after having shoulder surgery, looked to be in good shape as the Ravens opened training camp this week. Still, Pierce has one career start in the NFL.

“I’m very confident in Bernard. I've always liked Bernard," coach John Harbaugh said. "He's a heck of a player. He’s worked very hard, he’s 217 pounds, [and] he's in the best shape of his life. He looked good out here the last couple of days. We'll know more by Tuesday once we get the pads on and seeing him move with the pads on and how the shoulder holds up -- that'll be important."

There are other question marks in the backfield after the Ravens were unable to lure the likes of Chris Johnson and LeGarrette Blount in free agency.

The Ravens' biggest free-agent addition at running back was Justin Forsett. He's been impressive in offseason practices with his elusiveness and burst. The Ravens consider him underrated, and he's the only back who has a familiarity with Gary Kubiak's offense. But there are concerns about the durability of Forsett, a smallish back who had a grand total of six carries last season for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The other options for Baltimore is rookie fourth-round pick Lorenzo Taliaferro. Unlike Forsett, Taliaferro is a big, power back. The challenge for Taliaferro is adjusting to the NFL after playing for Coastal Carolina.

"I have a lot of confidence in all of our guys," Harbaugh said.
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- There has been sweeping criticism since news broke Thursday that Baltimore running back Ray Rice was suspended for two games after he allegedly knocked his then-fiancée unconscious this offseason.

Two games? That amounts to losing Rice to a tweaked hamstring.

But the sole argument shouldn't be that the NFL was too easy on Rice. It's also a fact the league hasn't been harsher on domestic violence issues in the past.

Rice's punishment only falls in line with the league's disappointing track record on this issue.

[+] EnlargeRice
Rob Carr/Getty Images"My goal is to earn back the trust of the people, especially the children, I let down because of this incident," Ray Rice said in a statement.
There's a precedent for first-time offenders like Rice. Many first-time offenders don't get a suspension of any kind, and many get suspended for less than a month if they are disciplined. In the past three years, only 12 players received more than four-game suspensions, and all violated league policy multiple times.

What worked in Rice's favor is Janay Palmer standing by his side in court, at his debacle of a news conference in May and at his face-to-face meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Palmer even married Rice a day after he was indicted by a grand jury in March on third-degree aggravated assault.

This isn't being an apologist for Rice. Goodell simply followed form.

"I believe that you are sincere in your desire to learn from this matter and move forward toward a healthy relationship and successful career," Goodell said in a letter to Rice.

Goodell certainly could have delivered a stronger message with Rice and made an example out of him for the rest of the league's players. But if Goodell had suspended Rice for eight games or the entire season, it would be difficult to see that punishment sticking.

Rice would have undoubtedly appealed a harsher suspension because no first-time offender of domestic violence has ever received such a punishment. He could cite two former Ravens, Fabian Washington and Cary Williams, who were suspended a combined three games after being charged with domestic violence. Rice could point to the discipline handed out to wide receiver Brandon Marshall in 2008, when the Denver Broncos wide receiver was suspended only three games (later reduced to one) after multiple domestic disputes.

Rice's punishment goes beyond the suspension and fine. It includes the tarnishing of his reputation. For six years, he had worked hard to build his character in the locker room and the community, becoming the spokesman for the area's anti-bullying campaign.

Now, Rice will be forever linked to domestic violence. Opposing fans won't let him forget about it whenever he walks into another team's stadium. Even fans in Baltimore will have trouble looking at Rice without thinking about that TMZ video in which he dragged Janay out of the elevator.

"As I said earlier, I failed in many ways," Rice said in a statement. “My goal is to earn back the trust of the people, especially the children, I let down because of this incident. I am a role model and I take that responsibility seriously. My actions going forward will show that.”

Domestic violence isn't isolated to the Ravens or Rice. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune database, 21 of 32 teams last year had a player on their roster who had a domestic or sexual violence charge on their record.

Perhaps until the league changes its sorry track record on this issue, it will continue to be a widespread problem in the league.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- If the Ravens want to improve the efficiency of their passing game, quarterback Joe Flacco has to build a rapport with new wide receiver Steve Smith.

So, as Baltimore Ravens training camp opens Thursday, Smith was asked where the chemistry stands with Flacco.

Smith
"Do you want me to lie to you or tell you the truth?," Smith asked.

When the reporter said the truth, Smith said, "Honestly, for me, I’ve been catching passes for quarterbacks for a lot of years, and I’ve been running routes for a lot of years. If you throw me the ball, there’s no chemistry. You throw me the ball [and if] it’s catchable, I’m going to snag it. That’s what practice is going to be there for. Practice is there to make mistakes, to understand what I need to do and how Joe operates. Then, my job at the end of the day is to make him look good.”

Where Smith needs to make Flacco look good is on the intermediate routes.

Since 2011, Smith has caught 99 passes of at least 15 yards, which is the third-most in the NFL over that span. Last season, the Ravens had 77 completions of at least 15 yards, which was the seventh-fewest in the league.

Flacco said he's been most impressed with Smith's ability to catch the ball.

"He catches everything with his hands, and he does a great job doing it," Flacco said. "He is strong to the ball, even though he’s not very high in stature. He is just strong to the ball and his hands are really, really good.”

Steve Smith's effectiveness in the intermediate routes should compliment Torrey Smith's ability to catch passes deep downfield.

When asked what type of combination he makes with Torrey Smith, Steve Smith said, "I think you can call us, ‘The Law Firm: Smith, Smith & Associates.’”

Did Steve Smith just come up with that nickname?

“I’m pretty quick-witted, so I did actually come up with that."
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The biggest challenge for many rookies is adjusting to the speed of the NFL. Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, on the other hand, believes he can speed up his game in training camp.

That's why the Baltimore Ravens' first-round pick has circled Saturday on his schedule. It's the first day of full-contact practices in this year's camp.

[+] EnlargeRavens' C.J. Mosley
AP PhotoRavens first-round pick C.J. Mosley believes that he will be able to play faster in training camp.
“One thing that I always had going into wherever I played at was just me being fast to the ball and making plays in the passing game or running sideline-to-sideline making tackles," Mosley said. "One of the good things when I get in pads, I don’t have to be as slow as I’ve been just in shoulder pads, or just in our shells where you can’t really go as fast or fit up on blockers, things like that. So when we get pads on, it’ll kind of just be free football. You have to execute your plays; at the end of the day you have to be athletic and make your plays. So I feel like when we get in pads, I’ll be able to do that.”

Mosley is coming off an impressive offseason. He has shown good instincts, leaping ability and a strong grasp of the defense.

This is why he was running with the starters in the final practices of the offseason last month. Ravens coach John Harbaugh, though, isn't ready to hand over the starting job to Mosley just yet.

"He’s in a fight now for playing time, and he has a lot to learn," Harbaugh said. "He’s just beginning, so we’ll see where it goes. It’s going to be fun to see. [After] the first week we’ll know a lot more about these guys."

The Ravens already know about Mosley's pedigree. It led them to selecting him with the 17th overall pick in this year's draft.

Mosley won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker in 2013 and was the SEC defensive player of the year. He finished as Alabama's leading tackler for a second consecutive season.

"He is a natural, man," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "He looks like he covers ground out there really well. It’ll be interesting, once we get the pads on, to see some of the running backs and [Mosley] and some of our other guys go toe to toe a little bit."

The inside linebacker spot beside Daryl Smith became open this offseason when Jameel McClain, a four-year starter, wasn't re-signed and Rolando McClain flopped in his workout with the Ravens. Mosley will have to hold off Arthur Brown, a second-round pick from a year ago, to become only the third rookie draft pick since 2007 (safety Matt Elam and linebacker Courtney Upshaw were the others) to start a majority of the games.

"The competition is going to start as soon as we get our pads on," Mosley said. "So, I’m just ready to get in pads and show these coaches that they picked me for a reason.”
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is beginning his seventh NFL training camp with a new playbook, a new veteran receiver and two new starters on the offensive line.

What he doesn't want to hear is excuses, and what he doesn't want to see is repeated mistakes.

In a span of a year, Flacco went from being the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player to the quarterback of the NFL's 29th-ranked offense, which was the team's worst offensive ranking in nine years.

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco
AP Photo/Duane Burleson"I don't care if its' a new offense or not. I expect to come out there and be precise and operate at a high level," Joe Flacco said.
Flacco is putting the pressure on the Ravens to not only grasp Gary Kubiak's new offense but run it effectively and efficiently.

"I don't care if its' a new offense or not. I expect to come out there and be precise and operate at a high level," Flacco said two days before the Ravens' official start of training camp. "This is where it counts. We've got a couple of weeks and we're going to be playing real games. We have to execute at a high level in order to win those because they're going to come down to little things like that. That's why we can't expect and make little mistakes."

Flacco and his teammates had 13 offseason practices to learn the new system, and the offense has been installed three different times. Now, the Ravens have 16 days until their first preseason game and 47 days until the regular-season opener against the AFC North defending champion Cincinnati Bengals.

A lack of productivity with the Ravens offense hurt the team's chances of a seventh straight trip to the playoffs. In the Ravens' eight losses, they averaged 17.7 points and scored 20 or fewer points seven times.

This led to an offseason of change on the offensive side of the ball. The Ravens hired Kubiak as their offensive coordinator, signed wide receiver Steve Smith in free agency and added center Jeremy Zuttah and right tackle Ricky Wagner to the starting lineup.

"Yeah, we're still going to make mistakes but they have to be corrected quickly and you can't keep making them again and again," Flacco said. "You have to come out here right after that, and that mistake should be gone. I think we can expect a pretty high level of pace and I think we can expect a pretty high level of precision being that we've done it for a couple of months. That's what I'm going to expect."

Flacco said learning a new offense for the first time in his NFL career is "fun" and "exciting." When driving over to the Ravens' facility, he and Tyrod Taylor were jokingly reciting the cadence to make sure they remembered how to say it.

"I think we've passed the test," Flacco said with a smile.

Flacco acknowledged that the toughest part about adjusting to a new offense is wiping out everything that had become second nature in the old offense. He believes he has the athleticism to run bootlegs and can make all the throws required in the new system. The mental part, especially absorbing the terminology, remains the biggest hurdle.

Like Flacco said, there is little time to waste. And there's not an easy game for the offense in the first month of the season.

The first four defenses the Ravens face this season all ranked in the top half of the NFL: Cincinnati Bengals (No. 3), Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 13), Cleveland Browns (No. 9) and Carolina Panthers (No. 2).

That's why confidence is going to be key, Flacco said.

"If I show everybody else that they should execute at a high level and they will execute at a high level, I think we'll get that confidence to go out there on Sundays and kind of play with a little bit of swagger," Flacco said. "I think that's what it's going to take."
Examining the Baltimore Ravens' roster:

Quarterbacks (3)

Flacco is the Ravens' starter for the seventh straight season, and Taylor will be the backup for the fourth year in a row. The big decision at quarterback is with Wenning, a rookie sixth-round pick. The Ravens haven't gone with three quarterbacks since 2009 (Troy Smith and John Beck were the backups), and it seems like a waste to carry two backups when Flacco hasn't missed a start in his six-year NFL career. But, if the Ravens believe Wenning is going to be their top backup in 2015, they can't afford to put him on the practice squad.

Running backs (4)

Rice, Pierce and Juszczyk are locks to make the team. Taliaferro is a near certainty as well, based on the fact that he's a fourth-round pick. If Rice begins the season on the suspended list, it increases the chances of the Ravens carrying Forsett for veteran depth.

Receivers (5)

Torrey Smith, Steve Smith, Brown and Jones form one of the deepest receiving groups in franchise history. The tough question is whether the Ravens will carry five or six receivers, because Butler, Michael Campanaro, Deonte Thompson and LaQuan Williams could all be competing for one spot. Butler, an undrafted rookie out of Tennessee-Martin, has the edge coming off an impressive offseason. Campanaro, a seventh-round pick who has dealt with hamstring issues, could be placed on injured reserve at the end of the preseason and essentially redshirted.

Tight ends (3)

The Ravens' top three tight ends are guaranteed to make the team, barring injury. Pitta and Daniels would be starters if the Ravens go with two tight ends as their base offense. Phillip Supernaw, who was added after an offseason tryout, has a history with offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak in Houston and has an outside shot to earn a spot because this is an offense that uses a lot of tight ends.

Offensive linemen (9)

Monroe, Osemele, Zuttah and Yanda are the guaranteed starters, and Wagner is penciled in at right tackle. During offseason workouts, Gradkowski was the top backup at center, Shipley has been the second-team guard and Jensen has worked at both guard and tackle. The versatility of Osemele and Jensen to play tackle doesn't force the Ravens to carry Jah Reid or James Hurst, an undrafted tackle who had a rough offseason. John Urschel, a fifth-round pick, should make the team but likely won't play as a rookie.

Defensive linemen (7)

Ngata and Canty are returning starters and bring the most experience to the line. Williams is the favorite to start at nose tackle. Tyson earned more playing time after showing flashes last season, and Lewis-Moore has generated buzz this offseason. Jernigan and Urban, two rookie draft picks, should play a role in the rotation. This would leave out Terrence Cody, a second-round pick in 2010.

LINEBACKERS (9)

There won't be much change here because the Ravens return every linebacker from last season's team. The only addition is Mosley, the No. 17 overall pick in this year's draft. Because the Ravens aren't expected to keep 10 linebackers, the tough call will come down to Bynes or Albert McClellan, who has made the team the past three seasons.

Cornerbacks (5)

Smith and Webb are a starting tandem for the second straight year. Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson have been competing for the No. 3 cornerback spot all offseason. The competition became more crowded when the Ravens signed veteran free agents Aaron Ross and Dominique Franks at the end of the offseason. Ross, the former New York Giants defender, is the early favorite, given his history with secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo.

Safeties (5)

Elam is making the move from free safety to strong safety. Many assumed Brooks, a rookie third-round pick, would start at free safety. But Stewart, a free-agent pickup from the St. Louis Rams, strengthened his hold on the starting job this offseason. Levine is a valued special teams player. Miles gets the last spot right now based on his experience. But the Ravens might opt to go with Brynden Trawick or Omar Brown if they play as well as Miles because they're younger and cheaper.

Specialists (3)

There is no drama on special teams. Tucker, Koch and Cox team up for the third straight season.
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NFL Nation's Jamison Hensley examines the three biggest issues facing the Baltimore Ravens heading into training camp.

Filling in for Ray Rice's expected absence: The Ravens are coming off the worst rushing season in franchise history and likely will have to revive the ground game without having Rice for a period of time. He is expected to be suspended by the NFL for his off-the-field incident this offseason. After not signing a high-profile free agent such as LeGarrette Blount, the Ravens are left with no experienced starters in the backfield beyond Rice. Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro have combined for eight career starts. Pierce is the favorite to take over the starting job, but he was limited this entire offseason after having shoulder surgery. Forsett, the primary backup this spring, had a total of six carries last season. And Taliaferro is a fourth-round rookie from Coastal Carolina. Defenses could see a heavy dose of Pierce if he's healthy, or the Ravens could go with a running back by committee. Even when Rice returns, he has to prove he can be a productive runner again after averaging a career-worst 3.1 yards per carry last season. The Ravens believe they can turn around their running attack with the hiring of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who has built successful ground games in the past with his zone-blocking scheme.

Sorting out secondary competition: Two of the biggest questions on defense involve position battles in the secondary -- free safety and nickelback. The competition at free safety didn't unfold as expected this spring. It was presumed that Terrence Brooks was the front-runner for the job after the Ravens selected him in the third round. Instead, Brooks hasn't seen time with the first or second teams this offseason, and Darian Stewart has taken most of the reps at free safety. When the Ravens signed Stewart in free agency, he was considered a fallback option. He had six starts last season for the St. Louis Rams. Now, it looks as if free safety is Stewart's job to lose. At nickelback, Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown were fighting for the job all offseason. But it was presumed the Ravens would add a veteran when neither stood out this offseason. The Ravens, in fact, brought in two free agents, Aaron Ross and Dominique Franks, to make it a four-player race for the No. 3 corner spot behind starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. If Ross and Stewart end up winning the open jobs, they can thank secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo, who previously coached them in the NFL.

Preparing Rick Wagner to start at right tackle: The Ravens were expected to draft an offensive tackle. They didn't. There was speculation the Ravens might sign free agent Eric Winston, who has ties with Kubiak. But again, the Ravens didn't make a move. By standing pat, the team has given a major vote of confidence to Wagner. A fifth-round pick from a year ago, he has been penciled in to replace Michael Oher, who signed with the Tennessee Titans in free agency. As a rookie last year, Wagner struggled when he had to replace an injured Oher in the season opener. Wagner improved throughout his rookie year as the team's No. 6 offensive lineman, playing when the team wanted an extra blocker on the field (12 percent of the offensive snaps). The Ravens realized Wagner needs a lot of snaps to gain confidence in his technique, and they've been giving him plenty of reps during offseason practices. If Wagner doesn't live up to expectations when the hitting begins in training camp, the Ravens have other options. They could move left guard Kelechi Osemele to right tackle, give Ryan Jensen more snaps at that position or sign Winston. At this point, the Ravens are banking on Wagner as their season-opening starter at right tackle.
video Jimmy Smith became the fifth Baltimore Ravens player arrested this offseason when he was charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct late Saturday night.

The embarrassment for the Ravens isn't the individual arrests, per se. Three players were arrested for misdemeanors, and none may go to trial on any of the charges.

Five years from now, the lasting black eye from the Ravens' trouble-filled 2014 offseason will likely be running back Ray Rice's incident and the cumulative effect of the arrests.

The numbers are nearly unbelievable since this year's Super Bowl:
  • The Ravens have had five players arrested, and the other 31 teams combined have had 14 arrests. This means one out of every four NFL players arrested this offseason have been Ravens.
  • There are only three other teams with multiple arrests (San Francisco, Buffalo and Chicago), and none has more than two. The Cincinnati Bengals, who have been known for making headlines for arrests in the past, have had only one off-field incident.
  • The Ravens' five arrests have been in a five-month span this year and are one more than they had in coach John Harbaugh's previous six seasons.

Most of these legal issues have been resolved. Rice (felony aggravated assault) and offensive lineman Jah Reid (misdemeanor battery) have both been accepted into pretrial intervention programs, and wide receiver Deonte Thompson (felony possession of marijuana) had his case dismissed.

Running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (misdemeanor destruction of property as well as drunk and disorderly) has a July 31 court date, and Smith will have a court date assigned.

While many want to point a finger at the Ravens for not having a tighter rein on their players, all five arrests occurred when the players were on a break from offseason workouts. In fact, all but Smith's arrest occurred outside Maryland. There is only so much a team can do to keep an eye on all 90 players on its roster.

The good news for the Ravens is that the offseason is almost over. There are only 10 days until the entire team reports for training camp. The Ravens can only hope they don't add to this police blotter of an offseason before then.
A realization hit defensive coordinator Dean Pees when he talked to coach John Harbaugh about the Baltimore Ravens' depth chart this offseason: Only two starters remain from the defense that helped the Ravens win the Super Bowl 17 months ago.

"When you have the [roster] turnover, there’s always a little bit of time for those guys to develop," said Pees, whose only championship holdovers are Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata."But also, just like every team goes through it, you can’t keep the same guys forever."

Change often leads to a transition period especially when you're dealing with the loss of two future Hall of Fame players in Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. But change was a necessity for the Ravens. For the first time in 15 years, the Ravens went consecutive seasons without having a top-10 defense. The once-feared group suddenly had become average.

[+] EnlargeHaloti Ngata
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesHaloti Ngata is one of only two defensive holdovers from the starting unit that won the Super Bowl following the 2012 season.
The Ravens needed to get younger, faster and, if their projections are correct, significantly better. A major investment in defense -- their top three draft picks in 2013 and 2014 came on that side of the ball -- has brought an infusion of talent. Four of these players (strong safety Matt Elam, nose tackle Brandon Williams, linebacker C.J. Mosley and free safety Terrence Brooks) have a shot at starting this season.

The Ravens are mixing this youth with two of the best pass-rushers in the league in Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, a couple of emerging cornerbacks in Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith and a "game-wrecker" in the middle with Ngata.

"The expectation for our defense is to be top-five, at the worst," Harbaugh said. "It has always been that way and always will be."

Long before the Seattle Seahawks won a Super Bowl with defense, the Ravens did so in 2000. Then, from 2003 to 2011, the Ravens boasted a top-10 defense. Dominating defenses became as synonymous with Baltimore as "The Wire."

That streak ended in 2012, when the Ravens defense finished 17th in yards allowed and 12th in points given up. The defense played a integral role in beating the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl, especially that final stand in the red zone, but that doesn't erase the fact that the Ravens gave up the second-most yards in team history that year.

The lapses continued last season, when the Ravens ranked No. 12 on defense. If not for the offense finishing near the bottom of the league and Joe Flacco's career-worst 22 interceptions, there would've been more complaining about the defense allowing the most fourth-quarter points in team history.

"Last year, at times, we showed flashes of being a good defense, but then we'd have breakdowns," defensive end Chris Canty said. "We'd have mistakes, we'd have mental errors and those are the things that just can't happen if you want to be successful in the National Football League. ... We have to make sure that we're on top of our game every single play."

Some may suggest the Ravens made mistakes in this year's draft. Based on how the offense struggled last year, it was more of a priority to add a right tackle, wide receiver or running back early in the draft.

After the Ravens chose three defensive players with their first three picks, owner Steve Bisciotti reportedly turned to new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and said: “That’s what we do here. We ask you for your opinion, but then Ozzie [Newsome, general manager] always takes defensive players.”

Although some bemoan what the Ravens didn't address in the draft, the focus should be on the talent they brought in. They have a future Pro Bowl centerpiece in Mosley, an eventual replacement to Ngata in Timmy Jernigan and a speedy free safety in Brooks.

"A young defense is a good thing. I'm excited about it," Harbaugh said. "When we won the Super Bowl, we definitely weren't the fastest defense in the NFL but we had a lot of savvy and had guys who made plays when it counted. What we're lacking in experience, we're going to have to make up for in youthful vigor and speed."

When the Ravens won the Super Bowl, the average age of the starting defense was 29.5 years old. This year's projected starters on defense are nearly 3 years younger.

Now they have to prove they're better.

"We can be really good," Dumervil said. "I think we have the speed and athleticism. We're very versatile. We just have to continue to grind and continue to work, and the sky is the limit."

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC North

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
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This offseason has seen plenty of high-profile additions and departures in the AFC North.

The Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens brought more excitement to their offenses. The Browns drafted quarterback Johnny Manziel in the first round, and the Ravens signed wide receiver Steve Smith.

The Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers dealt with some significant losses. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer left to become the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, and three starters (Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan Clark) are gone from the Steelers defense.

How will these changes affect the teams in the division? That's the focus for ESPN's AFC North reporters: Scott Brown in Pittsburgh, Coley Harvey in Cincinnati, Jamison Hensley in Baltimore and Pat McManamon in Cleveland.

First Down

Johnny Manziel will be the starting quarterback for the Browns in the season opener in Pittsburgh.



Scott Brown: Fiction. Johnny Football has too much ground to make up to overtake Brian Hoyer as the starter by the time the Browns open the regular season in Pittsburgh. Manziel will start at some point this season, but it won't be Sept. 7 at Heinz Field. Even if it is a toss-up between Hoyer and Manziel leading up to the season opener, the Browns will be wise enough to go with the player who has NFL starting experience over the one who will have a Texas-sized bullseye on his jersey. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau generally torments rookie quarterbacks and definitely doesn't take selfies with them. The Browns wouldn't put Manziel in a position in which he has little chance of succeeding ... would they?

Coley Harvey: Fiction. As bold a prediction as it might be to claim Manziel is Cleveland's Week 1 starter at Pittsburgh, it's simply not happening. For starters, the Browns already said he wasn't going to get the nod. Right now, the organization seems to view the first-string quarterback job as Brian Hoyer's to lose, and judging from the way Hoyer's once-promising year so abruptly ended, I can't imagine he's going to be handing many reps to Manziel if he can help it. While I'd expect Manziel to perform well in the preseason, it just doesn't seem right now that Cleveland feels comfortable putting so much control in his hands to start the season. Manziel probably hasn't helped himself in that regard by going against the reported wishes of management and continuing to put himself in vulnerable situations weekend after weekend. By ignoring their requests to calm the partying, a coach or executive has to feel a little less inclined to trust the young quarterback for now.

Jamison Hensley: Fiction. There are too many factors going against Manziel starting right away. Browns coach Mike Pettine was on the Bills' sideline this past season when he watched EJ Manuel struggle as a rookie. The Browns have a legitimate alternative in Brian Hoyer. And the Browns' first game is against the Steelers, who are known to rough up young quarterbacks. Including the playoffs, the Steelers are a league-best 17-2 vs. rookie quarterbacks since 2004, when coordinator Dick LeBeau re-joined the Steelers as defensive coordinator. Plus, Manziel hasn't done much to prove to the coaching staff that he's mature enough to handle the starting job after becoming Johnny Las Vegas on holiday weekends. It just makes too much sense to sit Manziel as a rookie. Then again, the Browns aren't known for making logical moves

Pat McManamon: Fiction. The Browns simply do not want Manziel to start the opener, and Mike Pettine has made no secret of that. Over and over, he's said that though Manziel can start at some point, he does not believe it's ideal. Given that the first three opponents are the Steelers, Saints and Ravens, it's even more reason not to rush him. Those three opponents have chopped up a lot of veterans, not to mention rookies. If Josh Gordon is not on the team, the quarterback's challenge is even more difficult. The Browns want to take things slowly with Manziel, and right now he admits he's not the best quarterback on the team. The only way he starts in Pittsburgh is if Brian Hoyer is hurt.


Second Down

The Bengals have a top-10 defense even without coordinator Mike Zimmer.



Brown: Fact. With all due respect to Zimmer, he didn't make one tackle in the six seasons he coordinated the Bengals' defense. Not to marginalize coordinators, but Dick LeBeau has one of the keenest and most imaginative defensive minds in NFL history, and he somehow forgot how to coach defense this past season, when injuries and age caught up with the Steelers. The Bengals have plenty of talent, assuming defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall make a healthy return from their respective injuries. And the adjustment to new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther should be a relatively smooth one since Guenther coached the Bengals' linebackers before succeeding Zimmer. If the Bengals don't field a top-10 defense this season, it will be because they can't make up for the free-agent loss of defensive end Michael Johnson or their secondary springs too many leaks.

Harvey: Fact. Zimmer was rightfully deified during his time in Cincinnati, but his exit for Minnesota doesn't mean there's now a sudden end to the Bengals' era of defensive dominance. Cincinnati will be bringing back a defense that mostly mirrors the group it had last year. The only absences of note are Michael Johnson, James Harrison and Chris Crocker. Johnson was signed by Tampa Bay in free agency, and Harrison was released. Signed to a one-year deal when he emerged from retirement this past September, Crocker was a free agent this offseason who didn't have his contract renewed. Still, knowing Crocker's track record of signing as a September off-of-the-couch call-up the past two years, you can't fully rule out an appearance from him in Cincinnati at some point this year. Of all the Bengals' defensive departures, Zimmer's was certainly the biggest. The coordinator who helped revolutionize the Bengals' defensive system and turned them into a perennial power implemented unique rotations, lineups and blitz and coverage packages. As the league's No. 3 defense this past season, the Bengals pulled off a franchise feat that hadn't been replicated in more than 30 years. Under new coordinator Paul Guenther, who formulated many of the blitz packages for Zimmer, the Bengals are hoping to be even better than that No. 3 ranking this year. While they probably won't get ranked as high as No. 3, they still will be among the top 10.

Hensley: Fiction. It's true that a defense is only as good as its players on the field. But let's not disregard the impact of Zimmer on the Bengals' defense. In Zimmer's first season in Cincinnati (2008), the Bengals jumped from No. 27 to No. 12 in defense. The Bengals then went on to finish in the top 10 in yards and points allowed in four of the next five seasons under Zimmer. He's a fiery leader who got the most out of his players. Many expect a smooth transition with Paul Guenther being promoted to defensive coordinator, but he's never been in charge of a defense in the NFL. His job won't be made any easier by the fact that defensive end Michael Johnson left in free agency and defensive tackle Geno Atkins is still recovering from an ACL injury. The Bengals secondary is dealing with aging veterans (Terence Newman and Adam Jones), injury (Leon Hall) and unfulfilled potential (Dre Kirkpatrick). Don't be surprised if the Bengals slip out of the top 10 this season.

Pat McManamon: Fact. The Bengals have too many good players and too good a system to falter with Zimmer's departure. He'll be missed, but defenses are as good as the players on the field, and with stalwart Geno Atkins coming back from injury to go with a crew that includes Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals should still be formidable. Also, new coordinator Paul Guenther knows the system, knows the blitzes and worked closely with Zimmer. It always hurts to lose a coordinator like Zimmer, but the Bengals seemed to be as prepared as a team can be. The other thing to remember is that offenses can help defenses by possessing the ball, and new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will run the ball more than Jay Gruden did.


Third Down

Steve Smith will become Joe Flacco's top target this season.



Brown: Fiction. I'm tempted to say fact here because of the trust and rapport that Flacco developed with Anquan Boldin before the Ravens traded the veteran wide receiver to the 49ers this past year. Boldin, however, is bigger and more physical than Smith and doesn't rely as much on speed as the latter still does, even at the age of 35. Look for tight end Dennis Pitta to re-establish himself as a big part of the Ravens' offense after missing all but four games this past season because of a dislocated hip. Pitta caught 61 passes and was targeted 93 times by Flacco in 2012, while Boldin caught just four more passes than Pitta, despite getting targeted 112 times. A healthy Pitta becomes Flacco's go-to receiver again.

Harvey: Fiction. Another Smith will end up being Flacco's top passing target this season. Torrey Smith, the man who saw 139 throws directed his way this past season, will remain the go-to receiver in an offense that hopes for increased production from 2013. During the mostly down year for Baltimore's offense, Torrey Smith caught 65 of the 139 balls thrown his way, leading the team in receptions. While at Carolina last year, Steve Smith caught 64 passes on just 109 targets from Cam Newton. The longtime Panther was one of the stars of an offense that also relied on Newton to make plays with his feet, in addition to spreading the ball to other receivers. The Ravens had difficulty getting any kind of rushing offense going, which made it easy for defenses to sell out on guarding their receivers. If Ray Rice struggles to perform out of the backfield again this year -- or if he ends up missing considerable time due to a possible suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell following his arrest in Atlantic City this offseason for assault on his now-wife -- much the same could happen to the Ravens' receivers in 2014. Even if that happens, Steve Smith's addition ought to help Flacco and the Ravens. Still, don't look for the 35-year-old to take over as the team's dominant receiver. That title ought to remain Torrey Smith's.

Hensley: Fact. There's a chance tight end Dennis Pitta or wide receiver Torrey Smith will end up being Flacco's go-to receiver. In the end, Flacco will spread the ball around to Pitta, Torrey Smith and Steve Smith. But if you're asking who will be Flacco's top target, the best bet is Steve Smith. All you needed to do was watch one practice this offseason, and you'd see the chemistry building between Flacco and Smith. Many have compared Steve Smith to Anquan Boldin because both are tough receivers. Smith, though, stacks up more favorably to Derrick Mason, who averaged 71 receptions in three seasons with Flacco. Like Mason, Smith can get open on the comeback route as well as slants. A prideful player such as Smith will also do everything in his power to show the Carolina Panthers he can still play. The Ravens will get the best out of Smith this year.

Pat McManamon: Fiction. The Ravens still have this guy Torrey Smith, right? He's a little younger than the 35-year-old Steve Smith. A little bigger too. And he should be ready to be the No. 1 receiver on the team. This is not to say Steve Smith won't help. He will. He brings a veteran presence the Ravens lacked -- though it's curious they gave away Anquan Boldin before last year and signed another aging guy who fits the "crafty veteran mold" a year later. Ozzie Newsome said Smith is not the "typical aging player," which is good, because he'll catch a lot of passes and open up the field more to provide opportunities for Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta. The Ravens also seem to be a team well-suited to getting the most from veterans. But if Baltimore brought Steve Smith in to be the top guy, it's a problem. That role and responsibility belongs to Torrey Smith.


Fourth Down

The retooled defense is enough to get the Steelers back to the playoffs.



Brown: Fact: The Steelers got younger and faster and will be better on that side of the ball if their outside linebackers provide some semblance of a pass rush. The Steelers don't need dramatic improvement from their defense if their offense builds on its strong finish in 2013. The Steelers averaged just under 28 points in their final eight games this past season, and they only lost one starter (wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders) on offense. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey returns from a torn ACL to lead an offensive line that allowed just seven sacks in the final seven games last year. And the Steelers have enough talent at the skill positions for Ben Roethlisberger and the offense to carry the defense.

Harvey: Fact. I've gone on record in recent days saying I believe the Steelers will pose a legitimate threat to the Bengals' chances at defending their division title, so I won't waver now. Pittsburgh's culture will be the real difference-maker in getting the Steelers back to the playoffs. You're simply not going to see coach Mike Tomlin or quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tolerating the type of year the team had in 2013. By the way, we can't forget how close Pittsburgh was by the end of the season, after imploding near the start primarily because of a lacking offensive line that caused a poor running game and offensive imbalance. When it comes to the retooled defense, offseason moves such as drafting outside linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt ought to help. The addition of Cam Thomas on the line also should help counter the interior rushing attack teams like to employ in the physical AFC North. While I still see the Bengals making the playoffs too, the Steelers ought to get there again, thanks to their improved defense.

Hensley: Fact. The Steelers got younger and quicker with their first two draft picks this year, linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Cam Thomas, a free-agent addition, will be a space-eater on the interior of the line. What will help this retooled defense become even better are the moves made on offense. The Steelers stockpiled their backfield by signing free agent LeGarrette Blount and drafting Dri Archer in the third round. Plus, Le'Veon Bell was beginning to hit his stride at the end of his rookie season. This commitment to the run will control the clock and take pressure off a defense adjusting to its new parts.

McManamon: Fact. There is no team in the league that finds personnel to fit its system better than the Steelers. With three new starters defensively, Pittsburgh continues its transition from the James Harrison-James Farrior-Casey Hampton-Brett Keisel days. Kevin Colbert's drafting is usually logical and sound, and in Ryan Shazier the Steelers believe they found an immediate starter. One thing will be true about Pittsburgh this season: They will be faster on the field and they will not start slow. Pittsburgh will build on the momentum of an 8-4 finish in 2013 (after an 0-4 start), and as they build the defense will grow.

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Jacoby Jones; Rahim Moore Jeff Gross/Getty Images
This is the play voters and ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley picked as the most memorable in the team's history, beating out Ray Lewis' key interception return for a touchdown against the top-seeded Tennessee Titans in the 2000 playoffs and Jermaine Lewis' timely kickoff return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl.

Score: Ravens 38, Broncos 35
Date: Jan. 12, 2013 Site: Sports Authority Field at Mile High

It's not a surprise the voters and myself both agree the "Mile High Miracle" ranks as the most memorable play in Baltimore Ravens history. The better debate is whether this is the most memorable play in NFL playoff history.

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The desperation, high-arcing 70-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones had everything you want in a historic play. There was late-game drama: The Ravens trailed the Denver Broncos by a touchdown (35-28) with 41 seconds remaining and no timeouts.

There were high stakes: The winner advanced to the AFC Championship Game.

And there was the thrill of the upset: The Ravens were 9.5-point underdogs to the top-seeded Broncos, who were led by Peyton Manning.

This marked a turning point in the career of Flacco, who outdueled Manning by throwing for 331 yards and three touchdowns. His best throw, however, wasn't his easiest one. Even though the Broncos were rushing three players, Flacco had to step up into the pocket because of pressure before spotting a wide-open receiver down the right sideline. Jones wasn't jammed at the line of scrimmage and had slipped behind cornerback Tony Carter and safety Rahim Moore. After catching the ball at the 20-yard line, Jones had a clear path to the end zone.

This improbable play was even sweeter for the Ravens and their fans considering what they went through the previous year. The Ravens watched a trip to the Super Bowl get ripped away from them in January 2012, when Lee Evans dropped a touchdown pass and Billy Cundiff missed a short field goal in the AFC Championship Game in New England. The roles were reversed a year later when Flacco heaved that touchdown pass to Jones. According to ESPN Stats & Information’s win probability model, Denver had a 97.2 percent chance of winning the game prior to the touchdown.

What many forget is that the "Mile High Miracle" only tied the game. The Ravens needed to intercept Manning and kick a 47-yard field goal to win the game in double overtime. Still, what made this game so epic was the most memorable play in Ravens history.
When gauging where the Baltimore Ravens stand in the Future Power Rankings, the key is undoubtedly -- and not surprisingly -- quarterback Joe Flacco.

Flacco
All you have to do is look at the past two seasons to see the level of Flacco's impact. The Ravens won the 2012 Super Bowl when Flacco was at his best, putting together a Joe Montana-like performance through the playoffs (11 touchdowns, no interceptions). The Ravens failed to make the postseason for the first time last year under Flacco, when he struggled through his worst season (including a career-high 22 interceptions).

Whether Flacco can reach that same elite level, or even come close to it, will determine the Ravens' success over the next three seasons.

The Ravens will continue to lean more heavily on Flacco in future seasons. Ray Rice has shown signs of decline, and NFL running backs don't typically bounce back after the age of 27. There has been a similar dip with the Ravens' defense, which has finished the past two seasons outside the top 10.

Flacco has always been the Ravens' deciding factor since being the team's first-round pick in 2008. The Ravens are 35-6 (.853) when Flacco produces at least a 95 passer rating, and they are 36-32 (.529) when he doesn't. Beyond the numbers, Flacco has brought long-term stability to a position that had been a revolving door for the Ravens. In the nine seasons before Flacco's arrival, the Ravens went through 12 starting quarterbacks. That question mark always made it difficult to project the Ravens' future success.

How Flacco plays over the next two seasons will decide his future with the Ravens as well. Flacco's salary-cap numbers for the 2014 ($14.8 million) and 2015 seasons ($14.55 million) are manageable for a starting quarterback in this league. Where the situation gets tricky is 2016, when Flacco's cap number jumps to $28.5 million.

At that point, the Ravens will have to decide whether to rework Flacco's contract or go in a different direction.
Ray LewisROBERT SULLIVAN/AFP/Getty Images
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in team history. The Mile High Miracle and Jermaine Lewis' kickoff return in the Super Bowl were featured the previous two days. Please vote for your choice as the Ravens’ most memorable play.

Score: Ravens 24, Titans 10
Date: Jan. 7, 2001 Site: Adelphia Coliseum

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Of all the big plays in Ray Lewis' decorated career, the most memorable one was when he collided with running back Eddie George in the 2000 playoffs. The result: Lewis returned an interception, off a pass intended for George, for the touchdown that sealed a 24-10 AFC divisional playoff win for the Ravens.

Down by a touchdown in the fourth quarter, the Titans were trying to muster a scoring drive against the Ravens' record-setting defense and looked to George. Lewis was looking at George, too, and he got to the Titans' leading rusher in the left flat almost as soon as the pass did.

George bobbled the pass, and Lewis delivered the turnover by wrestling the ball away from him. Lewis then broke a leg tackle by George and ran 50 yards down the sideline for his first career touchdown. That score put the Ravens ahead 24-10 with under seven minutes left in the game.

"He's their offensive cornerstone and I'm our defensive cornerstone," Lewis said. "It was just a great war. We're great friends off the field, but when we're on the field, it's just two gladiators going after one another."

This was the signature play for a Ravens defense that had set the NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season. The Ravens went on to beat the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship Game and the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.

In both wins, the Ravens' defense didn't allow an offensive touchdown. Lewis, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year that season, would win Super Bowl Most Valuable Player.
Jermaine LewisTom Hauck/ALLSPORT
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in team history. The Mile High Miracle was featured on Monday and Ray Lewis' 50-yard interception return against the Tennessee Titans will be profiled on Wednesday. Please vote for your choice as the Ravens’ most memorable play.

Score: Ravens 34, Giants 7
Date: Jan. 28, 2001 Site: Raymond James Stadium

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The biggest play in the Ravens' first Super Bowl victory came from the smallest player on the team. At 5-foot-7, Jermaine Lewis secured the triumph with an electric 84-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the third quarter.

The Giants had returned a kickoff for a touchdown to cut the Ravens' lead to 17-7, but New York had the momentum for exactly 18 seconds. On the next kickoff, Lewis stepped up to make the catch, wiggled past a cluster of tacklers, bounced to his right where he squeezed down the sideline after receiving blocks from Corey Harris and Sam Gash, and sprinted all the way to the end zone.

Down 24-7 against the Ravens' record-setting defense, the Giants were finished.

"That emotional flop had to be devastating for them," Ravens coach Brian Billick said after the game.

When Lewis crossed the goal line, he pointed to the sky, a private moment on football’s biggest stage. A month earlier, Geronimo, the son of returner Jermaine Lewis, was stillborn.

"I just wanted to put everything into closure and move on," Lewis said after the game. "I know he's looking out for me. I really already had a message [to him]. I was confident that I was going to score today."

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