We are approaching the final act of our three-part play, but before we dive into the final week of the preseason, I just want to express how much fun I've had being a part of the Ravens broadcast team this preseason. Gerry Sandusky is a first-class broadcaster and works extremely hard at his craft. He makes what I do easy and I appreciate the opportunity to work alongside him in the booth and all the other talented people behind the scenes that bring our games to life for you, the fans.
Additionally, it was a real pleasure being back in the bowels of the stadium and seeing familiar faces throughout the concourses as I made the walk to and from the pressbox each week. The interaction with the fans inside and outside of the stadium was truly remarkable. Thank you to everyone for all the smiles and the warm welcome back.
Now, onto football.
The Ravens sit at 3-0 and, while in the grand scheme of things, the preseason record doesn't mean a whole lot, it's definitely a lot better feeling than sitting at 0-3. As is typical in the NFL preseason, we have seen the ups and downs of a team trying to find its offensive identity. We have seen what was already a pretty darn good defense in 2016 add some key pieces that may put the finishing touches on a 2017 defensive unit that can truly be something special. We have introduced you to the players, both new and old. We have laid out some stress points as well as identified the things this team does very well. But what does all of that really mean as we look to close the curtain on the four-game preseason and enter the games that truly matter? I'll try and answer that below.
During the broadcast of the Week 2 game against the Dolphins, we made the comparison of how this year's defense is built in the same mold of some of the historically great Baltimore teams. In Week 3, we saw another dominant defensive outing in which the depth players actually outplayed the Buffalo Bills' starting lineup in the second quarter (albeit without Bills starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who entered concussion protocol early in the game).
If anything, John Harbaugh, Ozzie Newsome and the rest of the Ravens' front office are going to have a tough time trying to maneuver the defensive roster simply because they are so talented across the board, top to bottom. The defensive line alone, not including outside pass rushers, has eight players that could all play significant roles in the NFL, but it's just impossible to keep all of them. Because of the depth and talent at defensive tackle and defensive end, I would very much expect other teams to be reaching out and seeing who may be available via trade. With the recent need to replace Albert McClellan, who is lost for the season with a knee injury, the Ravens are thin at inside backer and missing a very impactful special teamer. That could be a position of interest for Baltimore. Either way, I wouldn't be surprised in the least to see a trade take place before the final defensive line roster is set in stone.
I am already on record as saying this may be the best defensive secondary in the NFL and that was even before I saw Marlon Humphrey take a snap and definitely before I witnessed Jaylen Hill break out before my very eyes. Speaking of Hill, his interception on Saturday night was truly spectacular in the way he fell off the flat defender and jumped the deep curl on the sideline. That play would have been impressive for a multi-year veteran, but an undrafted rookie in his third game? That was something to be seen. Hill may have very well played himself into a prominent role as a slot defender very early in the season as Humphrey has been plagued with injury. Hill and Webb could become the X-factors in sub-packages that are a real luxury in today's NFL. I'd be hard pressed to find a secondary that has as much talent and as much depth as this unit.
As for the offensive roster, I wouldn't expect a ton of movement before the Week 1 game against the Bengals. With the re-acquisition of Jeremy Zuttah last week, combined with the signing of Austin Howard the week before and a soon-healthy Ronnie Stanley, I think the offensive line has all the right pieces; they just need to put the puzzle together properly. And while the offensive line turnstile has been in constant motion, I think the Ravens are actually pretty happy with the collective talent this offensive line group has.
As for the skill positions … it's hard to tell. We haven't seen Joe Flacco at all, and while that wouldn't be overly concerning for a quarterback entering his 10th season, Flacco has missed a significant amount of game snaps working with presumably a new starting center and a wide receiver/tight end group that is looking to replace 156 receptions and 1,528 yards just in the vacancies of Steve Smith Sr. and Dennis Pitta from a season ago. This will surely be a group effort with the additions of Jeremy Maclin and Danny Woodhead, but I have also been impressed with Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams to add to what we already know about Benjamin Watson. Smith and Pitta won't be replaced by two guys, but the offensive side of the ball has enough talent to make up the production in a group effort. This group may not produce top-10 type numbers in the NFL rankings, but combined with this defense, it surely has enough firepower to compete very strongly for the AFC North championship.
We've all heard the saying that "defense wins championships," but that doesn't really ring totally true in the NFL. Yes, in 2000, for all intents and purposes, our defense did win us a championship. While the NFL game is different 15 years later, that Ravens championship team combined the historic defense with a top-5 rushing attack, and both are needed. We averaged better than 137 rushing yards per game in 2000, and the 2012 championship team averaged just over 118 yards per game. That should be the standard that this team aims. It will be a committee approach with Terrance West and Buck Allen most likely getting the bulk of the carries, with Woodhead and even potentially Taquan Mizzell, providing a change of pace. Matching the production of the 2012 team shouldn't be that far out of the question.
With all that said, and a schedule that could very justifiably see the Ravens starting 3-0, we will truly find out the resolve of this team come Week 4, when it hosts the Steelers after a long travel week back from London (typically reserved for a bye week) and then has to turn around and fly to Oakland in Week 5. If the Ravens find themselves at 4-1 or better, there will be a justifiable buzz around the outlook of this team as it works toward the Week 10 bye. But the road to securing a playoff spot won't be easy as the final seven weeks include trips to Green Bay and Pittsburgh, and five games against teams that finished the 2016 season with a record of .500 or better.