NFL

Window may be closing on Ravens

Joe Flacco hasn't been able to lead Baltimore past the second round the past two years.
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A.J. Perez

A.J. Perez previously worked at USA Today, AOL and CBSSports.com, covering beats ranging from performance-enhancing drugs to the NHL. He has also been a finalist for an Associated Press Sports Editors award for investigative reporting. Follow him on Twitter.

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OWINGS MILL, Md.

John Harbaugh has led the Baltimore Ravens to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons as their head coach.

However, that path was admittedly far too short each time.

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"I thought we'd have won a Super Bowl by now," Harbaugh told FOXSports.com as the Ravens wrapped up training camp this week. "Every year going into the season, I thought we'd win it all. Every single year we got into the playoffs, I thought we were going to win it all. I believe it again this year."

The Ravens advanced to the second round of the playoffs each of the past two seasons, with the offense, led by quarterback Joe Flacco, receiving most of the blame for the runs ending there. Baltimore managed only three points as its 2009 season ended against the Indianapolis Colts, and three second-half turnovers resulted in a 31-24 loss to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers last season.

Flacco threw for as many touchdowns (one) in those two playoffs losses as the Ravens defense scored, which possibly fueled an offseason of criticism for a quarterback who is already the franchise's leader in every major passing category. Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley said Flacco wouldn't win a title "in this lifetime," and Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones questioned Flacco's ability to handle the pressure of a big game.

"I was injured by it," Harbaugh said. "It bothered me. It's one of those things you read and think, 'Where is that coming from? What's that all about?' At the same time, Joe realizes that people are going to find the one or two things (wrong), and those are going to be the things they pick out and criticize."

Added Flacco: "It is what it is. All you can do is go out there and continue to win games and let everything take care of itself. We are going to try to win football games and get into the playoffs. We've done a pretty good job of that so far. We just have to get a couple more wins."

Flacco has lost some familiar options in tight end Todd Heap, running back Willis McGahee and wide receiver Derrick Mason, as all three were released due to salary-cap constraints.

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"It was definitely different not to see him (Heap) here out on the practice field," said Flacco, who traveled to Arizona during the lockout to work out with Heap, now a member of the Cardinals. "To see a couple pictures of Todd in his new uniform was also different. As much as we miss those guys, we have guys here that can do a great job."

The battle for the starting tight end job is between second-year pros Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. Lee Evans, who spent his first seven seasons with the Buffalo Bills, joins Anquan Boldin as the starting receiving tandem. The ground game still will be driven by Ray Rice, a 1,220-yard rusher a season ago. Ricky Williams, who spent eight seasons in Miami interrupted by a retirement, drug suspensions and a stint in the CFL, will serve as Rice's backup.

"I love the fact we added Ricky," Harbaugh said. "I loved the running back position anyway with Ray and the younger guys. The reason we felt like we had an opportunity without Todd — even though we'd rather have Todd if not for the salary cap situation — is that we have those two young guys at tight end. We have guys who have a chance to be good players and we want to give them an opportunity."

The Ravens were 22nd in the league in yards per game (322.9), the lowest mark for a playoff team outside of the Seattle Seahawks and Chicago Bears last season. Now, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has to integrate some new faces and try to improve on their middling 22.3 ppg average from a season ago, without the benefit of organized team activities (OTAs) due to the four-month lockout.

"It's tough, but not impossible," said Harbaugh, who has a 32-16 record in his three seasons in Baltimore. "Normally, fewer changes would have been made in camp. You would have had your free agents through OTAs. Maybe you'd have one trade or something in camp, and you would have had your rookies (involved) already. It's a combination of all of these factors that have made things tougher."

John Harbaugh, unlike his younger brother Jim, the new San Francisco 49ers coach, is a defensive mind and doesn't have to worry nearly as much on that side of the ball.

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LET'S DO IT AGAIN

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The Ravens, who allowed the third-fewest points per game last season (16.9), lost nose tackle Kelly Gregg to the Kansas City Chiefs via free agency. The team also has a new defensive coordinator in Chuck Pagano, who was promoted from defensive backs coach after Greg Mattison left for the same position with the University of Michigan.

Other than that, the same hard-nosed defense led by linebacker Ray Lewis remains. Lewis, MVP of Super Bowl XXXV nearly 11 years ago, hinted recently that he may retire if he leads the Ravens to another title, something fellow linebacker Terrell Suggs doesn't buy — especially now that two-a-day practices have been banned under the new collective bargaining agreement.

"With this new schedule, Ray will probably play longer than Brett Favre," Suggs said. "He hasn't changed. He comes into camp in great shape. He feels he has a job to do and can still play at a Pro Bowl level. Why should he walk away? He could play 18 or 19 years."

This is Lewis' 16th season and he's been invited to a dozen Pro Bowls already. While Lewis may have a timeless quality to him, Suggs acknowledges the same might not be true for the rest of the team.

"Our defense is a year older and our offense is a year older," Suggs said. "We are not going to be young forever. We aren't going to be able to tackle people forever. The way I see this franchise, our window is closing. It's not getting any wider. I kind of feel it's going to happen now or never."

Tagged: Ravens, Cardinals, Steelers, Todd Heap, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Ed Dickson

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