Normally, it is the Ravens defense that produces optimism entering a season, but as the 2012 season nears, it is the Ravens offense generating high hopes.
Quarterback Joe Flacco is in his fifth season, entering what should be his prime. He has never looked more confident or polished after an offseason with his new position coach, Jim Caldwell. Running back Ray Rice, not even 26 yet, is also in his prime, with a new contract in hand. There's more speed on the outside with Jacoby Jones joining Torrey Smith, and Anquan Boldin, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are already established as go-to targets for Flacco.
That's a lot to like, especially with the coaches having committed to an up-tempo philosophy Flacco clearly loves.
Sure, there are questions about the offensive line, which is among the NFL's oldest and remains unsettled to a degree; it's still not clear which five are starting up front. There's also the persistently tricky matter of finding the right run-pass balance, which was a problem early in the 2011 season and has the potential to rear again in the up-tempo environment.
But while no one should expect to see a reprise of the St. Louis Rams' scoreboard-blinking "Greatest Show on Turf" at M&T Bank Stadium, it seems reasonable to expect an offense that steadily puts up points – enough to tilt many games in the Ravens' favor.
The bigger question entering this season is whether the Ravens defense can hold off opposing offenses.
There's just more uncertainty on that side of the ball as the 2012 season opens. The unit's best player from a year ago, Terrell Suggs, is sidelined indefinitely with an Achilles tear. Two other key veteran starters, Jarrett Johnson and Cory Redding, also are gone, having departed via free agency. That's almost half of the front seven turning over.
Ray Lewis is 37. Ed Reed is in his contract year. The secondary had a shaky preseason. A new coordinator, Dean Pees, is in charge, and while his credentials are impeccable, he is the fourth new guy in five years.
The Ravens' defensive pedigree is so polished from years of success that I have long believed the unit could pretty much just roll out of bed and finish in the top 10 in the league. That's not the goal, but will anyone really be that surprised if the pieces come together in the end? Having an All-Pro, Haloti Ngata, as an interior anchor certainly is a nice start.
Nonetheless, that "roll out of bed" principle could get tested this season. There are just more variables on that side, more questions that need answering. Can Paul Kruger and Albert McClellan (or Courtney Upshaw) successfully set the edge of the run defense? Can the pass rush still wreak havoc without Suggs? Is the secondary, thought to be a strength, more sound than it showed in the preseason?
A thorny early-season schedule allows Pees little time for a trial-and-error period. The Ravens open against the Cincinnati Bengals, who rang up 819 yards of net offense in two games against Baltimore a year ago. That's followed by a trip to Philadelphia and the challenge of corralling Michael Vick, and then, a replay of the AFC title-game showdown with Tom Brady and the Patriots.
No time in there for breathing easy and sorting through possible solutions. The defense has to be ready from the start.
The pieces of a successful unit obviously are in place. The Ravens finished third in the league in defense a year ago, and while much has been said about how young guys such as Kruger, Pernell McPhee, Arthur Jones and others have to step up this year, sharing a huddle with Lewis and Reed should help the first-time starters.
Even without Suggs, the Ravens still have more star power on defense than many teams – so much that it almost seems counterintuitive to suggest that unit, not the offense, is the variable entering the season. But nothing is ever thus, and indeed, it is the play of the defense that will determine just how high the Ravens fly in 2012.