Ravens look to rebound after rare playoff blackout
BALTIMORE (AP) The Baltimore Ravens regard making the playoffs as the minimum requirement to a successful season.
Under those guidelines, last year was a complete bust. Not only did the Ravens fail to defend their Super Bowl title, but they missed the postseason for the first time in coach John Harbaugh's six-year tenure.
Baltimore rebounded from a 4-6 start to finish 8-8 and remained in the playoff hunt until the final week. None of that mattered in the end, and little of that is worth remembering as the Ravens enter the 2014 season.
''You look at last season - it's over, it's said, it's done with, it didn't go the way we wanted,'' defensive end Chris Canty said. ''We didn't end up in the postseason. Ultimately, we want to give ourselves an opportunity to compete for championships around here.
''That's the culture, and that didn't happen, so it's a disappointment. We put that behind us, we try to focus on what we can do to improve, so we can be where we want to be at the end of this regular season.''
The Ravens brought in Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator, shored up the defense through the draft, signed free agent Steve Smith to provide Joe Flacco with another target and retained left tackle Eugene Monroe.
The hope is that will be enough to get Baltimore the AFC North title or at worst a return trip to the postseason as a wild-card entrant.
''When you make the playoffs the whole time that the coach has been here, it's like, `OK, yeah, we're going to go to the playoffs,''' linebacker Terrell Suggs said. ''When we missed it, it was definitely a rude awakening. It's definitely something we don't want to feel again.''
Here are some things to look for from the Ravens in 2014:
NEW-LOOK OFFENSE: Kubiak's version of the West Coast offense is predicated on quickness. The running back hits the hole without hesitation and the quarterback throws before the pressure intensifies. That should do nicely to improve an offense that last year averaged a paltry 3.1 yards per rush and allowed Flacco to be sacked 48 times.
A good sign: During their first three preseason games, the Ravens totaled 83 points, 64 first downs and averaged 4.4 yards per carry.
MISSING RICE: Running back Ray Rice will miss the first two games while serving an NFL-imposed suspension for domestic violence. Rice is coming off a lackluster season in which he fought a hip injury and finished with 660 yards rushing, fewest since his rookie year of 2008.
Bernard Pierce will start in place of Rice in the opening two weeks and could see considerable action throughout the season if Rice can't return to the Pro Bowl form he displayed in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
ROOKIE ROLL CALL: Baltimore's top three draft picks should contribute heavily to a defense that showed its age in the fourth quarter last year. Linebacker C.J. Mosley, end Timmy Jernigan and safety Terrence Brooks are expected to receive significant playing time on a unit with improved depth.
''Our big thing is our tenacity and our ability to run to the ball,'' said Mosley, a standout at Alabama.
The defense gave up 134 points in the fourth quarter last season, more than in the first and third quarters combined.
''There are a lot of ways we can improve off last year,'' defensive line coach Clarence Brooks said. ''Putting it quite simply, last year wasn't good enough.''
GETTING HIS KICKS: The Ravens' most valuable offensive weapon last season didn't throw a pass or run the football. Justin Tucker went 38 for 41 on field goal tries, including a 61-yarder to beat Detroit in a must-win December game.
Tucker scored 140 of Baltimore's 320 points and is almost assured of getting Baltimore a field goal if Flacco can get the ball to the opponent's 40. He's so reliable, the Ravens didn't bother bringing in any competition at camp.
HOLDING THE LINE: The Ravens let right tackle Michael Oher leave as a free agent and are counting on 2013 fifth-round pick Rick Wagner to fill the hole.
If Wanger can do the job, the offensive line should be better this year. Monroe and guard Kelechi Osemele are solid on the left side, Marshal Yanda is a Pro Bowl right guard and center Jeremy Zuttah (obtained in a trade with Tampa Bay) is an upgrade from last year's starter, Gino Gradkowski.
AP NFL websites: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL