BALTIMORE (AP) — The face of the Baltimore Ravens is much thinner these days, and the identity of the team also appears to have undergone a transformation.
Ray Lewis, the centerpiece of the Ravens defense, reported to his 17th training camp as a far lighter version of his previous self. The 13-time Pro Bowl linebacker dropped around 20 pounds to improve his ability to pursue running backs on pass patterns, an endeavor the 37-year-old attacked with veracity during the preseason.
Thanks in no small part to Lewis, Baltimore is the only team to reach the playoffs in each of the past four seasons. Combining a relentless defense with a solid running game and a veteran placekicker, the Ravens won 49 games from 2008-11 under coach John Harbaugh — third-most during that span behind New England and Pittsburgh.
Baltimore fully expects to continue that success rate this year, although the fashion in which the Ravens (No. 5 in the AP Pro32) win could very well be different. For the first time since Vinny Testaverde was flinging passes for Ted Marchibroda in the late 1990s, this Baltimore team could very well depend more on its offense than defense.
The reason for the flip from the norm is that the defense has changed dramatically from last season, and quarterback Joe Flacco, now in his fifth year, is sharper and more confident than ever before.
“Baltimore’s definitely traditionally been a defensive leader,” second-year wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “But with a quarterback like Joe Flacco, a running back like Ray Rice, a receiver like Anquan Boldin, an offensive line like we have and the skilled players growing, I think there’s a lot of potential for this offense.”
If the defense is to excel under first-year coordinator Dean Pees, it will have to do so for at least two months without injured linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had 14 sacks last season in claiming NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. The unit also lost linebacker Jarret Johnson (56 tackles) and end Cory Redding (4 1/2 sacks) to free agency. Not to mention Lewis and safety Ed Reed are well into their 30s.
Lewis isn’t conceding anything about the strength of the defense. But if the offense happens to carry the load, he would not complain.
“At the end of the day, that’s why we’re called a team. It doesn’t matter who takes the lead, who does whatever,” Lewis said. “If we go into games and win games together, that’s the bottom-line emphasis. It doesn’t matter what it is. Me, Ed and the guys who are on our side, we are going to do what we are supposed to do, what we’ve always done. So, that’s not going to change for us.”
With Suggs out at least until November with a torn right Achilles tendon, the pressure is on linebackers Paul Kruger and rookie Courtney Upshaw to make up the difference.
“Those are the perfect guys to replace `Sizzle,”‘ cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “We’re going to miss him, yes we are. But we have some guys who are going to kind of step up and take some pressure off us and get to the quarterback. I just love how Paul and how Upshaw get to the quarterback.”
Flacco, Rice and everyone on the offense intend to do their part.
“It’s definitely tough without Suggs. It’s definitely a difference,” Smith said. “But that’s on everyone to pick up the slack — not only the defense, but us as well.”
A strong performance by the offense would help take the pressure off Pees’ unit, but Reed expects little change from a defense that has ranked in the top 3 in fewest points allowed for four straight years.
“We still hold everything we do to the highest standard,” Reed said, “regardless of what the other side is doing.”
If Flacco can efficiently run the no-huddle offense, the Ravens should have plenty of opportunity to score. If a drive stalls, it will be up to rookie kicker Justin Turner to get at least three points out of the possession.
Turner takes over for veteran Billy Cundiff, who was cut this summer and thus will never get the chance to atone for missing a potential game-tying field goal from 32 yards in the waning seconds of a 23-20 loss to New England in last season’s AFC title game.
The Ravens have won at least one playoff game in each of their four trips to the playoffs under Harbaugh and twice reached the conference championship game. But Baltimore is still striving for its first Super Bowl appearance since after the 2000 season.
“When you look at the Ravens, we’ve been close every year,” Rice said. “I think it’s just time for us to get over that hump now, and we have the pieces to do it.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)