NEAR THE end of a minicamp practice in June, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco floated a pass 25 yards down the right sideline to undrafted rookie receiver Gerrard Sheppard. Sheppard stretched but didn't dive for the ball, which fell to the ground just beyond his fingertips. The voice of linebacker Terrell Suggs rang out from the sideline: "Make a play for your quarterback, [number] 7."
Yes, the Ravens said goodbye to such leaders as linebacker Ray Lewis (retirement), safety Ed Reed (free agency) and receiver Anquan Boldin (trade), all of whom were integral to last season's run to a Super Bowl title. But anyone who thinks Baltimore will have a leadership void this season would do well to recall that scene from a meaningless practice involving a player who likely won't make the final roster. Despite popular story lines, the Ravens have never been about a few rising above the rest.
"They lost some great guys, no doubt," says Titans safety Bernard Pollard, who started last season for Baltimore but was not re-signed. "But it's not about one guy or a group of guys being leaders. All the guys are accountable to each other. That was a brotherhood there."
In this way the Ravens are not unlike the Patriots, who won three Super Bowls from 2001 to '04 with players such as Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Rodney Harrison and Anthony Pleasant patrolling the locker room and making sure everyone was held accountable.
"An organization or team is not about one guy," says coach John Harbaugh. "I think Ray would tell you that, and I know Ed would tell you that." So Lewis, Reed and Boldin are gone, but Suggs, Flacco and cornerback Lardarius Webb remain to carry on the tradition and open a drum of whupass if necessary.
"That's one of the reasons I chose to come here," says outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, a key newcomer. "I felt the leadership was outstanding. And it is."
On the field the defense will be improved, even with Lewis and Reed gone. Their instincts for the game made them effective within their specialties—Lewis against the run and Reed against the pass—but the two, after all, were 37 and 34, respectively, last season.
New middle linebacker Daryl Smith should come close to meeting the standard of his predecessor. The nine-year veteran was the talk of Ravens training camp and the preseason as he seemed to be in on every play. At safety, Baltimore will lean on the combination of Michael Huff, who underwhelmed for most of his seven seasons with the Raiders, and first-round pick Matt Elam (sidebar) to replace Reed and Pollard.
Replacing outside linebacker Paul Kruger, who signed a five-year, $40 million contract with the Browns, will be easier. Dumervil was the team's top choice among free-agent pass rushers, and Baltimore was able to sign him to a five-year, $35 million deal. The 5' 11", 260-pound Dumervil had 11 sacks last season and has 63½ in his six-year career. The defense will also be buoyed by the return of Webb, who was on his way to becoming one of the league's top cornerbacks before surgery on his left knee ended his season after six games in 2012.
On offense the loss of Boldin is more problematic, especially after tight end Dennis Pitta had hip surgery in July, meaning that he's likely lost for the season. One of the big reasons the Ravens surged to their second Super Bowl victory was a renewed emphasis on owning the middle of the field with Boldin and Pitta after Jim Caldwell took over for Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator in Week 14. That shift in strategy gave speedsters Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones more room deep and opened all sorts of fresh options for Flacco.
The lack of receivers who run inside with the precision and fearlessness of Boldin and Pitta remains the team's biggest shortcoming—though critics will continue to cite a leadership void. "Keep questioning it," Suggs says. "[Lewis] left a standard here, and every man on our defense will be held accountable for playing to that standard."
THE CASE FOR ...
Strong safety Matt Elam
After the Ravens decided not to bring back longtime leader Ed Reed, they drafted Elam out of Florida in round 1. Right now, that's not an even swap (they signed Michael Huff to take Reed's free safety spot), but the team does expect Elam to be an impact contributor soon enough. Just give it time. Before he entered the draft as a junior, there were concerns about Elam's size (just shy of 5' 10" and 206 pounds), but he's quick (4.54 in the 40-yard dash), explosive and a fearless, big hitter—a skill set varied enough that he can play either safety position. And the Ravens have been impressed so far. "He's a smart player," says coordinator Dean Pees. "He just needs to keep on learning the system." Elam exhibited that intelligence early on, becoming the first rookie the Ravens recall to have negotiated his own contract, without an agent. He might not be a starter on Day One, but Baltimore needs his young legs in the secondary. James Ihedigbo, another very smart player, is currently filling the strong safety spot. But he's mostly been a special teams and sub package contributor over his career. Elam will be the total package. The only question is when.
SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE
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