NFL team previews: Baltimore Ravens

DT Haloti Ngata

With the 2012 NFL season approaching fast, we go around the league to preview every team. Up next: the Baltimore Ravens.

OUTLOOK

Although Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are a year older, the Ravens are still strong contenders after going undefeated at home last season and sweeping the AFC North. Getting back to within one game of the Super Bowl will be an arduous challenge, however, as the Ravens face the league's fourth toughest schedule. Baltimore faces 11 quarterbacks who've been named to the Pro Bowl, have consecutive games against Peyton Manning and Eli Manning, and play eight games against playoff teams.

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Ray Rice remains the centerpiece of an offense built around a punishing running game. Joe Flacco is known for his stoic personality, his strong right arm, and his durability. Torrey Smith is his most dynamic target. Defensively, the Ravens are led by Lewis, Reed and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. They have a new coordinator in Dean Pees, who replaces Chuck Pagano.

OFFSEASON

Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs, gritty linebacker Jarret Johnson and defensive end Cory Redding were the biggest departures. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs tore his Achilles tendon and could miss a large portion of the regular season. The Ravens signed Pro Bowl special teams ace Corey Graham, retained starting inside linebacker Jameel McClain and signed cornerback Lardarius Webb to a $50 million contract extension.


Durable Ray Rice will once again be key to the Ravens' offensive hopes.

ROOKIES

Courtney Upshaw is an aggressive pass rusher slated to start at either rush linebacker or strongside linebacker. Kelechi Osemele will compete for the left guard job. Bernard Pierce is a zone runner, physical and durable. Tommy Streeter has the size-speed combination to emerge as a dangerous red zone threat.

THE SCHEDULE

The Ravens face the fourth-most difficult schedule in the league as they attempt to defend their AFC North division title. They face multiple former Pro Bowl quarterbacks, including consecutive games against Peyton Manning and Eli Manning in December.

As always, the annual series against the Pittsburgh Steelers -- in Weeks 11 and 13 this season -- represents the key to the Ravens' season. The Ravens have a favorable bye scheduled in Week 8. An early-season AFC championship game rematch against the New England Patriots has been circled on the schedule as a pivotal clash.

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER

Ray Rice, running back. Rice is the centerpiece of the Ravens' punishing running game as one of the most dynamic all-purpose threats in the game.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER

Haloti Ngata, defensive tackle. Ngata is one of the most versatile, disruptive interior forces in the game and was signed to a blockbuster $61 million contract last year.

WILL WIN DIVISION IF ...

The offense gets another huge year from Rice and clutch performances from Flacco to generate more points. The defense might need to blitz more, and Lewis and Reed must stay healthy. The Ravens have the talent, leadership and coaching to successfully defend their division crown and get back to the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.

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