Super Bowl champs enter new era without Lewis

It’s going to be a different kind of season for the Baltimore

Ravens.

For the first time in their 18-year existence, middle linebacker

Ray Lewis won’t be on the roster. And for only the second time, the

Ravens will reign as defending Super Bowl champions.

Much has happened to the franchise since Lewis hoisted the

Lombardi Trophy following Baltimore’s 34-31 win over the San

Francisco 49ers last February. The metamorphosis began with Lewis

and center Matt Birk heading into retirement, and soon after that

general manager Ozzie Newsome began tearing apart the team in an

effort to create some room under the salary cap and retool a

defense in desperate need of some younger talent.

Starters Lewis, Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Paul Kruger and Cary

Williams are out. Elvis Dumervil, Chris Canty, Marcus Spears, Daryl

Smith and Michael Huff are in.

”There’s no place but to go up from last year,” tackle Arthur

Jones said of a defense that last year ranked 17th in yardage

allowed.

Joe Flacco, with a new six-year, $120.6 contract in hand, is

back to direct the offense. But he’s missing two of his favorite

targets – wide receiver Anquan Boldin was traded after refusing to

take a pay cut, and tight end Dennis Pitta is feared lost for the

year with a dislocated and fractured hip.

Regardless, the Ravens remain highly confident that they’re good

enough, and plenty hungry enough, to make a run at another

championship.

”There are a lot of reasons you have to make moves, but every

one of them has been made to be the best that we can be,” coach

John Harbaugh said. ”I think we can be a very good football team,

but we have to prove it.”

Five things to know about the Ravens:

FLACCO IN THE FOLD: One of the first things Newsome did during

the offseason was to sign Flacco, the Super Bowl MVP, to a new

contract. The amount of money he received was influenced greatly by

his performance in the playoffs: 11 TD passes, no interceptions. At

the time of the deal, Flacco became the highest-paid player in NFL

history. Flacco has never missed a start and never missed the

postseason. ”It’s very important. It’s a big advantage,” Harbaugh

said of Flacco’s reliability. ”Every team in the league is chasing

that (if it) doesn’t have it. We feel we’re very fortunate to have

our quarterback in place.”

MAN IN THE MIDDLE: No one is going to replace the leadership

Lewis provided, but someone’s got to at least take over in the

middle of the defense. That man is Daryl Smith, who signed as a

free agent during the offseason and has been playing well this

summer. Smith doesn’t want to be known as the next Ray Lewis. ”You

can never replace a guy like Ray Lewis,” he said. ”The only thing

I can do is focus on what I do.” What he does is what Lewis did –

hit the man with the ball. Smith is the leading tackler in

Jacksonville Jaguars history, which makes him a solid replacement

for the leading tackler in Ravens history.

HERE’S THE CATCH: The Ravens’ success on offense this season

will depend heavily on how well they adjust to the loss of Boldin.

Torrey Smith will probably be Flacco’s main target, and Ray Rice

will continue to be a threat to grab a short pass out of the

backfield. But Jacoby Jones is going to have to contribute more on

offense, and the loss of Pitta means Ed Dickson and newcomer Dallas

Clark will have carry the load at tight end. Brandon Stokley could

be the key, if at 37 years old he can still shine as a possession

receiver.

LAST LINE OF DEFENSE: The defense is strong up front and the

linebackers are solid. The big question is, how will the Ravens do

without Reed on the back end? Michael Huff, signed as a free agent

who played 16 games with Oakland last year, has been asked to

replace the irreplaceable Reed. ”Ed Reed is a special player. The

playmaking ability that he brings to the table, you can’t really

replace that,” Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said. ”But Michael

Huff is a great player. He’s been doing it for a while, so

hopefully he can step in and make some big-time plays.”

FOLLOW THE LEADER: With Lewis and Reed gone, linebacker Terrell

Suggs appears to be the next leader of the esteemed Ravens defense.

Suggs was introduced last in the final home preseason game, an

honor that used to be bestowed upon Lewis. ”Once Ray and Ed Reed

left, Terrell Suggs has been here the longest,” lineman Haloti

Ngata said. ”It’s just kind of fallen on him and Joe, since he’s

our quarterback.”

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org