Time for Ravens to take the turf

The last time the Ravens played a game that counted, hearts were broken.

Four points - more specifically, a ball that wasn't caught and a chip shot that wasn't made - were all that separated Baltimore from a win over the Patriots and a Super Bowl berth.

So here the Ravens are again, ready to make another run at the Lombardi Trophy.

The young offensive weapons are a year more mature, and the team hopes a year better. But that also means the defensive stars that have been at the center of the Ravens' success are a year older and that much closer to the end.

The preseason brought hope in that the team was at its best in the one game that mattered, a 48-17 thumping of the Jaguars in the third exhibition contest.

So now Monday has arrived and the countdown to kickoff is down to hours instead of days and weeks.

This time around, the Ravens will have a slightly different look. Billy Cundiff and Lee Evans, the two biggest goats from the AFC championship loss, won't have to face the boos of the home fans as they've both been cut loose. Offensive lineman Ben Grubbs signed with the Saints. Linebacker Jarrett Johnson and defensive end Cory Redding have also departed.

And above all, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs won't be available until Week 7 at the earliest because of an Achilles injury.

But the big pieces are back.

Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin return to lead the offense while Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata are at the center of an accomplished but aging defense.

Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was reluctant to put expectations on his unit when talking to the media this week. But he did say what he hopes to see.

"I think we definitely want to get off to a fast start," he said. "I think in the back of everybody's mind, we want to be a great team that can finish.

"The statistics show that if you start fast, you win a lot more than you lose. But if you don't, then obviously you better be able to do what? You better be able to finish; finish games, finish drives, finish in the red zone. You're going to hear us talking about that. You've heard it throughout the last few years, but I think this year, those two things stand out in my mind. We have expectations for each guy. When it's all said and done, when this season (is over), however it plays out from start to finish, we want to be the best offense we could have possibly been, because we have control over that.

"You really can't control other people's expectations, but we have high expectations. We want to be a great offense. We want to be as good of an offense as we can be."

And that could be an awfully good one if Flacco is as impressive when it matters as coaches say he has been in practice. The 6-foot-6 former first-rounder has been pretty solid the last three seasons, passing for at least 3,600 yards and 20 touchdowns in each. If he can top that, the offense could take some pressure off the defense.

One change is the way the team attacks, as it appears to be adopting an increased tempo more of the time, going with a no-huddle offense with greater frequency. Flacco often voiced his support of that during the preseason.

Although Rice has been the Ravens' top weapon over the last three seasons, he sees it differently now.

"In pecking order, this is Joe's offense, then everybody else. And he's proven that this preseason with how he's played, his tempo, how vocal he is, and the quiet Joe phase I think is pretty much over," Rice told reporters last week. "He's been outspoken - and I guess you guys get to see it more going into Year 5 - but for me and him, we came in together, and I think he's going to prove to everybody why he's a top quarterback in the league.

"And going into this game, I'm confident, he's confident - I just can't wait to get out there with the guys so we can go out there and show guys what he's really capable of doing."

Flacco told reporters he could see the Ravens' offense break out this year.

"I just feel, overall, we are growing as an offense. Our young guys have a lot of experience; they played last year," he said. "We just have a lot more experience on our side of the ball. We have a lot of guys that are feeling comfortable with their play and feeling comfortable heading into games and have a lot of confidence, and I think when you have a lot of guys playing with a lot of confidence, that's when you can see good offenses really start to emerge."

Defensively, the biggest storyline remains how the team will fare without Suggs.

Linebackers Paul Kruger and Courtney Upshaw will be filling his spot. However, defensive coordinator Dean Pees made it clear that he doesn't look at it like Kruger has to replace Suggs' production.

"It has nothing to do with 'Sizzle,' " Pees told reporters. "It has to do with playing outside linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens. You guys keep comparing. You can never compare two people. It has nothing to do with another guy. There is no comparison. I never compare them. It's playing outside linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, period.

"When Ray (Lewis) was out, it has nothing to do with a guy having to take another guy's position. It has to do with that guy playing his position. ... (Kruger is) one-eleventh of this defense, and so is 'Sizzle' when he's in there. He's one-eleventh. Whether you game-plan certain ways or whatever, that's what they are. They all have one-eleventh stock in this defense."

Reed expressed confidence that the Ravens' defense can still be a good one without someone as crucial as Suggs.

"We knew in the offseason that we were going to be missing some guys and some guys are still not as healthy, but that's part of the game," Reed told reporters. "That's part of the business. Those guys have been through when I was down, we've been through when Ray (Lewis) was down, and now we're going through with (Suggs) down. I mean, he's just, Terrell is a big part of our team, a big part of what we do, and guys are going to have to step up - not just one player, every guy that's on offense, defense and special teams.

"We've all got to pick up that slack, because we know what Terrell brings to the table. Watching film on the Cincinnati game and watching him play last year, doing those dominating things he does, he's definitely going to be missed until we get him back."

It may look a little different, but the expectations of recent seasons haven't diminished.

Notes: It could be an emotional start to the night for many in the organization as the Ravens will observe a moment of silence for former owner Art Modell, who died Thursday morning. ... Tight ends Ed Dickson (shoulder) and Dennis Pitta (hand) are expected to play after missing much of the preseason. Tackle Jah Reid (leg) is listed as doubtful after not participating in practice Thursday through Saturday. Cornerback Asa Jackson (stomach illness) is listed as questionable after sitting out Friday and Saturday practices. Safety Sean Considine (head) and Upshaw (shoulder) are both listed as probable and are expected to play.