- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 10, 2009

With a rookie head coach, John Harbaugh, and a rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco, the Baltimore Ravens last season reversed their losing record from the year before and got within one game of making their first Super Bowl trip since the 2000 season.

Now what?

Before losing to Pittsburgh 23-14 in the AFC championship game, the Ravens went 11-5 and beat Miami and Tennessee in the playoffs. It was a successful and surprising recovery from their 5-11 disappointment of 2007. The Steelers, who went on to win a record sixth Super Bowl, were responsible for half of the total losses. The two regular-season games, one of which ended in overtime, were decided by a total of seven points.

The AFC North foes have formed the fiercest rivalry in the league: two nasty, hard-hitting teams that resemble each other in style and substance. The Steelers have been a little bit better. Whether that continues might depend on whether the Ravens will be better than they were a year ago.

They believe they will.

“It is my job to let everyone know what we have here and how special we’re going to be,” Flacco said. “As long as everybody understands that and I make everybody understand how special we are - because I really believe it - then I believe we are going to go a long way. I think we showed that last year, and I think we can get back there and we’ve got to get a little bit further.”

Harbaugh, the former Philadelphia Eagles assistant, and Flacco, the first-round pick from Delaware who won the starting job during training camp, are no longer rookies. The Ravens’ punishing defense remains fast and furious - 34-year-old middle linebacker Ray Lewis lost 15 pounds and said he’s as good as ever - and the offense will still emphasize the run first, although offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is expected to give Flacco more to do and open things up.

Flacco, who joined Atlanta’s Matt Ryan as the only two rookie quarterbacks to make the playoffs during the same season, had modest statistics - 14 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and an 80.3 passer rating - and was neutralized by the Steelers. Then again, a lot of quarterbacks can say that. But he showed a strong arm and a maturity beyond his years, earning the nickname “Joe Cool” and the respect of his teammates. At the start of training camp, he pronounced himself “light-years ahead” of where he was a year ago.

“Joe understands football,” said Cameron, who gradually expanded Flacco’s role last year and plans more of the same this season. “It comes naturally to him.”

Flacco’s offensive unit is pretty much the same. He will work behind an experienced, capable line and hand the ball to three different running backs. Ray Rice, in his second year, apparently has emerged as No. 1. Tight end Todd Heap is finally healthy after a couple of shaky seasons during which his role as a pass-catcher diminished, and the Ravens also signed receiving tight end L.J. Smith, formerly of Philadelphia, although he was hurt during much of the preseason.

Both will help the offense because the receivers, led by 35-year-old Derrick Mason, who retired and then changed his mind, still don’t scare anyone. Harbaugh remains steadfast in his support, however, claiming “we have a group of wide receivers we can win with, that’s for sure.”

The defense lost linebacker Bart Scott to free agency and veteran cornerback Samari Rolle will miss at least six games with a neck injury. But the big loss was defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who took the New York Jets’ coaching job. Ryan’s loose demeanor and inventive schemes made him a player favorite. Scott, who also went to the Jets, recently blurted out that Ryan was the real coach of the Ravens before backpedaling on his remarks.

Linebackers coach Greg Mattison replaced Ryan, and Harbaugh sees no problem with the transition. In fact, the veterans on defense have helped Mattison ease into his new job.

“That’s the beauty of Greg,” Harbaugh said. “He has such a great relationship with those guys. … Greg seeks their input, and they’re not shy about it. They feel a real partnership with all the coaches, especially Greg.”

Although Harbaugh has made an effort from his first day to downplay the superiority of his defense over his offense, there is no doubt where most of the Ravens’ star power resides. Lewis and safety Ed Reed are perhaps the best of their time at their positions, and Terrell Suggs recently became the highest-paid linebacker in the league.

The next big star on defense might be 6-foot-4, 345-pound nose tackle Haloti Ngata, the anchor of a deep line that welcomes back the underrated Kelly Gregg, a former starter who missed last season with a knee injury. Gregg has been slowed by a sore shoulder, but he eventually is expected to reclaim his starting job.

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