2015 AFC Preview: Baltimore Ravens
From now until the Patriots begin training camp, Phil Perry looks at the 15 other AFC teams: The biggest question they face heading into the season, their storyline on offense, their storyline on defense, and their "threat level" to the Patriots.
Today's opponent: The Baltimore Ravens
THE BIG STORY
How will Joe Flacco and the rest of the Ravens handle another change at offensive coordinator?
For the fourth time in four years, the Ravens and Joe Flacco will have a new offensive coordinator. Former Bears head coach Marc Trestman will be calling the plays in Baltimore with Gary Kubiak now gone to team up with Peyton Manning and run the operation in Denver.
Kubiak's offense suited Flacco well as he threw for career highs in yards (3,986) and touchdowns passes (27) in his seventh professional season. Trestman's reputation as a quarterback guru precedes him, however, and with some new personnel in the offensive huddle, Flacco could reach new heights again in 2015.
OFFENSIVE STORY LINE TO WATCH
Can Justin Forsett take on the role of Matt Forte?
Flacco has some intriguing new weapons to work with this season in first-round rookie receiver Breshad Perriman and second-round rookie tight end Maxx Williams, who could very well replace veteran wideout Torrey Smith (gone to San Francisco) and veteran tight end Owen Daniels (gone to Denver), respectively.
But the success of the Ravens offense will hinge in part on the performance of running back Justin Forsett. He was a significant reason as to why the Ravens made it to the Divisional Round of the playoffs in 2014, running for 1,266 yards on an an average of 5.4 yards per carry. He also caught 44 passes out of the backfield -- something he could be asked to do more in Trestman's system.
In two years under Trestman, Bears running back Matt Forte continued to solidify himself as one of the best dual-threat backs in the NFL.
He rushed for over 1,000 yards in both seasons (1,339 in 2013 and 1,038 in 2014) and he caught 102 passes last season, which put him first in that category among running backs and fourth among all pass-catchers in the NFL.
If Trestman leans on Forsett the same way he leaned on Forte, there could be almost 350 touches on the table for Forsett this season. It's a relatively shallow running back group in Baltimore, though, so keeping the team's top back healthy may be one of Trestman's priorities.
DEFENSIVE STORY LINE TO WATCH
How will the Ravens deal without Haloti Ngata on the defensive line?
Baltimore lost one of the faces of its defense when Haloti Ngata left for Detroit via free agency this offseason, but the Ravens are far from doomed on that side of the ball.
In the middle of the defensive line, where Ngata made his home for nine seasons, the Ravens have young players who appear read to take on bigger roles. The team's 2014 second-rounder Timmy Jernigan may be given an opportunity to show that he can handle a workload similar to the one shouldered by Ngata. Plus, Brandon Williams emerged last season as a dependable presence on the inside, and rookie Carl Davis out of Iowa -- a third-round pick some saw as a first-round talent -- will give the team added bulk on the line.
Linebackers on the inside (CJ Mosley and Daryl Smith) and on the outside (Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs) should help mask some growing pains felt by the line. If the secondary -- including corners Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb and former Patriots slot man Kyle Arrington -- can stay healthy, this should be a solid unit even without Ngata leading the charge.
THREAT LEVEL: SEVERE
This could be New England's most significant challenge for supremacy in the AFC. The Ravens offense got younger this offseason and may find another gear under Trestman. Defensively they have more than enough talent to emerge as the best club in the ultra-competitive AFC North.
The Patriots and Ravens won't meet in the regular season, but it would not come as any surprise if the two met in the playoffs for the fifth time in seven years this winter.