If the Ravens learned one thing on September 5th, it was this: that they're not the same team that won the Superbowl. Some of the faces are the same, sure. But they don't have the weapons offensively or defensively to win the way they did a year ago.
Manning picked apart a secondary using audibles at the line of scrimmage, flustering what was supposed to be a revamped defense. The Ravens let up two more touchdowns than in the divisional playoff round last year, got one less sack, and had two fewer interceptions. On offense, the Ravens had roughly 30 more yards through the air, but 97 fewer yards on the ground, resulting in 11 fewer points. That's just the numbers. In the divisional round, the Ravens stood toe to toe with the Broncos and found ways to make plays on offense and defense when necessary. That's not what happened last Thursday. What stings the most is that it wasn't a result of injuries or even bad calls, but getting downright out-played.
This team is a work in progress. The loss of Boldin and Pitta take away threats in the short passing game that make it tougher to move the ball the way the Ravens did in the playoffs last year. With only Torrey Smith deep, teams can double him with a safety and single cover their slower tight ends and receivers. It's visibly frustrating for Flacco, and it takes the bite out of the Ravens' newly adopted offensive philosophy. However, that said, their personnel allows the Ravens to do what they have been doing since winning their first Superbowl in 2000...run the football.
They've got a Pro-bowl caliber running back in Ray Rice, a solid and dynamic backup in Bernard Pierce, and the league's best fullback in Vonta Leach. Their running game can be both powerful and explosive, and even last year with Boldin, the Ravens were at their best when they gave Rice the ball at least 20 times a game. I'm not saying abandon the passing game, but the weapons aren't there right now. Once they've established the run, teams will have to load up the box, and that will open up passing lanes for Flacco to find receivers in more favorable coverage.
They can make big plays with play action and dominate the ball to keep their defense fresh. Less predictable play-calling is needed as well. When the Ravens are at their best, they line up and execute plays that get the opposing defense out of position. At their worst, they're a 3-and-out machine that runs when they're expected to, where they're expected to, and gets in obvious passing downs with no receivers open. Caldwell called a poor game, particularly in the second half. That will need to improve.
Defensively, the Ravens committed to playing man coverage and blitzing. I agree with the strategy, but they'll need to communicate better, particularly when playing top level quarterbacks. Eventually Elam will need to get on the field for more snaps. He's a better athlete than Ihedigbo, who got burned on more than one occasion. The defensive line was pretty stout. They pressured Manning consistently and bottled up the Broncos running game.
I don't believe the sky is falling after one game. Honestly, they looked rusty and out of shape more than anything else. With Webb coming off an injury, and Clark and Stokely coming to the team late, that's to be expected. Clark and Stokely will round into form as the year wears on, and Webb has Pro-Bowl potential. Shifting philosophies and tweaking their rotations will go a long way for them. With games against the Texans, Packers, and Steelers ahead before the bye, they won't have much time to ease into form. However, I still think this is a 10+ win football team.
One last note, Boldin had a great game for San Fran. I know Ravens fans are pining for him now, but let's keep things in perspective. If he averaged 200+ yards and 10+ catches per game as a Raven, we probably would've won three Superbowls between 2010 and 2012 and he would still be on this team. His production never matched his play as a Cardinal in terms of total yards and receptions, and while he will be missed, the Ravens made a smart economic decision knowing they were facing sizable losses, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. He said he wanted to be a Raven no matter what and that he wanted to be part of the team, but when asked to restructure his deal, he changed his tune. It's understandable, because he made some great plays in the playoffs and still has a couple good years left in him. But the Ravens couldn't pay him 7 million and fill voids at linebacker and safety. The Ravens arguably have more talent on both sides of the ball now than they did last year. Now they just need to work with the talent they have.