Preview: Ravens in flux, still contending

The Ravens lost a lot of veteran talent after their Super Bowl win but still have a strong defense while the offense looks to overcome a changing line.

It's never easy for a team to repeat as a Super Bowl champion. Typically, winning a title raises the value of players throughout the roster, so a team typically loses key players to free agency for those willing to pay enough to lure them away. The schedule doesn't help either, because champions tend to face all the division winners in their conference the following season. Those are a couple of reasons that it is difficult for a team to repeat. That has been the case all season long for the Baltimore Ravens.

The Ravens have struggled to get above .500 all season. They are looking to be above .500 for the first time since mid-October with a win over the Vikings. How can a champion struggle so badly? Part of the reason is who isn't there as much as who is. Gone are Ray Lewis, Paul Kruger, Matt Birk, Anquan Boldin, Bryant McKinnie, Ed Reed, Danell Ellerbe and Bernard Pollard – all starters from the Super Bowl championship team. Replacing two or three longtime critical component pieces to an offense or defense is difficult enough, but to lose eight starters can be devastating – and a tribute to the solid drafting the Ravens have done over the years to maintain a strong base of the roster.

The offense has been turned over to quarterback Joe Flacco, who, following his impeccable postseason run, signed a $120 million contract to assure he wouldn't join the exodus out the door in Baltimore. He hasn't had a strong season – his passer rating (78.5) is barely ahead of Christian Ponder (77.9) and the combination of running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce are averaging less than 2.9 yards a carry. In addition, nobody other than Torrey Smith has averaged more than 32 receiving yards a game. No matter how you cut it, those are all pretty pathetic numbers for a team looking to repeat as world champs. The only teams in the NFL with worse offensive numbers than the Ravens are the Jets, Buccaneers and Jaguars. But the numbers may be more reflective of those who don't have many statistical categories – the offensive line.

The Ravens have undergone a significant shift on the offensive line. Marshall Yanda and Michael Oher have manned the right side of the offensive line, as they did last year, but Gino Gradkowski is in his first year as a starter at center and the two starters on the left side of the line are gone. Bryant McKinnie started the first five games of the season before being traded to Miami after being replaced by former Jaguar Eugene Monroe. Starting left guard Kelechi Osemele started the first seven games, but is on injured reserve and has been replaced by A.Q. Shipley. For a team that was anchored by a veteran offensive line, the changes over the last 12 months have been pronounced and the most glaring result is a 2.9-yard team rushing average and 39 sacks of Flacco. The unit has failed to date, but, much like the Vikings defense, has made significant strides in coming together over the last couple of games.

In the pass-happy NFL, few teams are defined by their defense, but it has been the Ravens' calling card since the turn of the century. Some things remain the same. Haloti Ngata is a beast up front and, while opponents have averaged 30 rushing attempts a game against them, Baltimore still has the sixth-ranked run defense in the NFL. Flanked by veterans Chris Canty and Arthur Jones, the Ravens have a dominant defensive front that will make it a challenge for Adrian Peterson to find interior running lanes.

Despite losing Lewis, Kruger and Ellerbe from the linebacker corps, the Ravens have held up, but might be without Elvis Dumervil, who has missed practice all week and is doubtful on the injury report. Terrell Suggs was drafted by the Ravens in 2002 when a botched trade fell through and two teams jumped in front of the Vikings before Minnesota took Kevin Williams. Like Kevin, Suggs has been a fixture of his defense since joining the league. With former backups Daryl Smith, Jameel McClain and Courtney Upshaw stepping into key roles in the linebacker corps, they have struggled at times but are one of the more talented linebacker corps in the league.

The Ravens are able to blitz often because they have one of the best secondaries in the league. With cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb and safeties James Ihedigbo and rookie Matt Elam, the Ravens can single-cover receivers and let the front seven attack. Few teams have as much quality secondary depth as the Ravens and that aggressiveness allows the entire defense to take risks up front with the confidence the back end of the defense can get the job done.

Since being blown out by Denver in the 2013 NFL season opener, the Ravens haven't allowed more than 24 points in any game and have averaged opposing teams to score less than 17 points a game. In the new-look NFL, you win a lot of games with that formula. The Vikings will have to play a near-flawless game and win the turnover battle because, for a 6-6 team, there are a lot of positives for the Ravens, who are 5-1 on their home turf and no easy out for the Vikings.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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