1.) Joe Flacco vs. the Cincinnati defense:
After a successful regular season in 2011, The Baltimore Ravens looked Super Bowl bound late in the AFC Championship game. But with a few costly miscues (The Controversial Lee Evans “Catch” and the missed field goal by Billy Cundiff) the loss devastated everyone in the Ravens organization, but in my eyes it devastated no one more than quarterback Joe Flacco. Coming into his contract year still with no deal done, Joe potentially has a lot going really well for him. For starters, Baltimore brought in former Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell who helped blossom future Hall of Famer and current Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. Jim has worked hand in hand with Joe during the off-season and it has paid off well so far. Caldwell and Ravens Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron have developed a new look to the offense and Joe himself, similar to how Peyton excelled in Indianapolis, and that is the no huddle offense. Baltimore also acquired former Houston Texans Wide Receiver and Return ace Jacoby Jones to help not only the special teams side of the ball, but also to give Joe another deep threat who can take the top off a defense alongside second year burner Torrey Smith, securing the slot position for All-Pro Wide Receiver Anquan Boldin. Cincinnati’s defense has been on the up as of late with the acquisition of young talent and the Defensive brilliance of Bengals Head Coach, Marvin Lewis. First round rookie Corner Dre Kirkpatrick will miss the season opener but watch out for projected first rounder but undrafted Linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who caught the eyes of many (Including Baltimore) and if it wasn’t for his poor conditioning at the Combine and his short temper, he could have been drafted by Baltimore. He has tremendous talent and in the right system can become an impact player. The Bengals Secondary is very underrated and could be the reason why Cincinnati does or does not have success this season. My prediction is that Baltimore is too good on offensive and should take care of business.
2.) Ravens bruised up pass rush vs. Bengals bruised up O-Line:
By far the biggest concern to the start of the season for the Ravens is how good will Baltimore’s pass rush be without the 2011 Defensive Player of the year Terrell Suggs. Not knowing yet that Suggs would go down for most of the 2012 season, Baltimore stole Alabama Linebacker Courtney Upshaw in the second round, who has a ease to getting at quarterbacks and stuffing the run with his combination of size and speed. He has been very limited thus far with a bad shoulder, but should be ready to go Monday night with his first targeted assignment being second year quarterback Andy Dalton. A player to look out for not only Monday night but moving on in the future is second year defensive end Pernell McPhee. McPhee impressed in his rookie season coming in and producing immediately. I think with his strength and quickness off the line, he could become a big name for years to come for the Black and Purple. Other names who must step up until number 55 returns are Linebackers Paul Kruger and Sergio Kindle. Kruger has been on the rise and has solidified himself in the staring rotation as Suggs heals, and when he has been on the field, he has showed flashes of tremendous upside. Kindle on the other hand has had first round potential since the day he came out of the University of Texas. Baltimore selected him in the second round, but his rookie season was dramatically cut short sidelining him all season and almost for good when he fell down stairs at his home before training camp. Finally after losing the ability to hear out of his one ear, and eventually now gaining the trust of the doctors and organization, Sergio has made the 53 man roster again due to the potential Baltimore still sees in him to rush the quarterback. I think he is finally healthy enough to make somewhat of an impact, and put in the right position he can have a great chance at being a top the Ravens sack leaders heading into 2012. With the experience on the D-line of Baltimore and the young talent they have surrounding them, they will struggle at times during the season, but they will be able to get around Cincinnati O-Line and pressure Dalton.
3.) The start of rookie kicker Justin Tucker- Under the spotlight
Rookie Kicker Justin Tucker has gotten a lot of press this off season beating out former Pro Bowl Kicker and current Washington Redskin Billy Cundiff, and gaining the trust of the organization after they had to watch a pro bowl veteran miss a game potential tying field goal late in the AFC Championship game. Coaches see something very special in Tucker, and I see it as well. He has not seemed fazed one bit throughout rookie camp, training camp or in the pre-season with him knowing he wasn’t the front runner under any circumstance just coming in undrafted off the streets. He worked hard and now that hard work has paid off when he closes his eyes and tells himself he represents the Ravens as their kicker. He will be nervous come Monday night, actually he will be very nervous. It’s normal to feel like that, but he also knows he has the leg, ability and trust of this organization at such a young age that all of the positives will and should diminish the spotlight pressure talks. Tucker is a keeper, so be excited Ravens fans.
4.) Rookies that could impact the game:
A couple rookies that could impact the game Monday night in my eyes, let’s take a look…
Linebacker Courtney Upshaw:
He is just too special of a talent to not put on this list. He looked iffy in the pre-season, but so did many other players in the league. Upshaw is going to be a star in this league. I believe he will start Monday night.
Offensive Tackle Kelechi Osemele:
The mammoth offensive line prospect is 6’5 335 pounds. He can move around quicker than most running backs and has a powerful frame. In my eyes he should start Monday at guard and progress into a tackle with some experience under his belt. He is going to be a guy opening holes for Ray Rice for many years.
Running Backs Bernard Pierce and Bobby Rainey:
Bernard Pierce was drafted with the full intentions he would back up Ray Rice. Pierce is a powerful back with some quickness in and out of blocks. He has tremendous hands and has the tools to see some goal line carries and to grab a couple passes from quarterback Joe Flacco. The undrafted talent with Ray Rice comparisons well deservingly made the team with his crisp running and good hands in the backfield. Rainey has a good chance at seeing some opportunities and making an impact.
Kicker Justin Tucker:
As I said before about Justin, he has a lot of upside and a strong and accurate foot with ice in his veins when it comes to the pressure he has received and has overcame it all by making the team. Expect him to miss some field goals, he isn’t going to be perfect, but he will make the ones that count the most.
5.) 3 players to watch on each side of the ball:
Joe Flacco has progressed each season and with all the support he has gotten this off-season, and in his contract year…This is when he must shine the most. He has the tools to succeed and the weapons to unveil.
Rice finally got the contract he wished for. He has the best fullback the NFL has to offer in Vonta Leach, he had the best statical year in his career in 2011. Ray is the most important player on this offense, eyes will always be on him, and thus far he has impressed us all.
Torrey worked hard this off-season to improve his hands and route running, and he is fully healthy from the sports hernia to start the season. He has scary potential. One of my favorite picks.
Ray Lewis/Ed Reed:
The two players everyone doubts. The two players everyone thinks are too old. They impress the doubters and they will look to do so for another season. Ray Lewis is in better shape than ever cutting down his weight to 235 so he can keep up with the quick tight ends. His mind and spirit will never slow down, with his hard work on the field and in the weight room. It just doesn’t seem to make sense that he will ever quit. Ed Reed is finally healthy as well. He still scares all quarterbacks and most still hesitate to throw his way. They both are hungry and they both want to hold the Lombardi Trophy.
Ladarius Webb/Bernard Pollard:
Ladarius Webb and Bernard Pollard are both in their prime and have both came off new contract extensions. Ladarius had Pro-Bowl stats last year and with his sticky “Webby” coverage mixed with his toughness and speed make him even more special to watch this season solidifying the Number 1 corner job. Pollard’s physical play shadows the “play like a Raven” theme. He is very underrated in coverage and is looking to back up his “put up or shut up” mentality.
I can’t stress this enough. Courtney is the man that must step up for the loss of Terrell Suggs. He has a lot of potential and if he stays healthy can be even more dangerous when Suggs returns. For now he won’t be back and Upshaw must find a way to make an impact Monday night, any way possible.
6.) Andy Dalton + Receivers vs. Ravens Secondary:
Second year quarterback Andy Dalton impressed last season with good numbers and a playoff berth. Also, having that go-to guy growing up with you in the NFL only makes you scarier. Second year first round selection AJ Green to some is one of the scariest Wide Receivers in the NFL. Dalton also has a young productive tight end in Jermaine Gresham. Cincinnati went out and drafted Mohamed Sanu to help Dalton and take some more pressure off AJ Green. This is a young and fast offense that will excel for many years to come. The Ravens secondary is also very young. Corners Ladarius Webb, Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams are all entering their prime and all have pro-bowl potential. The safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard are good ones. Reed is a ball hawk while Pollard is physical and can put the biggest and strongest players on their backs. It will be a great match up. Expect a good amount of Jimmy Smith on AJ Green. AJ will get his catches, but Baltimore should be able to contain Dalton.