How do you describe the 2011 Baltimore Ravens?
An elite defense and an improving offense pushed them into the playoffs.
You can rinse and repeat that statement for most of the last decade with the Ravens. They're one of the most consistent teams in the NFL and have shown year in and year out that they're going to be part of the postseason conversation.
The 2011 Ravens won 12 games, helped by a season sweep of the Pittsburgh Steelers, en route to an AFC North title. The biggest offseason question mark is the status of Ray Rice, who has yet to sign his franchise tender. At some point he'll show up but this offseason will continue to worry Ravens fans as they watch the Rice contract talks unfold.
The Ravens play in arguably the toughest division with the perennial Super Bowl contending Steelers as well as the upstart Cincinnati Bengals. Did they do enough in the offseason to get over the hump and land in the Super Bowl?
Related: Bengals Are Climbing In AFC North
The Ravens finished the season 12-4 and lost to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game. As usual, Baltimore's defense led the way, finishing the season ranked third in the NFL. The Ravens' defense is about as sure of a thing as there is in the NFL -- it has finished the season ranked third in points allowed in each of the last four seasons. Offensively, the Ravens depended largely on Ray Rice, who had more than 2,000 yards rushing and receiving, as well as 15 total touchdowns. Joe Flacco continues his consistent solid-but-not-spectacular play with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last season.
What Baltimore did in 2011 is what it does every year -- play great defense, protect the football and lean on Rice while Flacco fills in with the occasional big play.
Best Free Agent Pickup
Curtis Painter! Just kidding.
The Ravens' free agency is usually more about who they lose than who they gain. As one of the best drafting teams in the NFL, the Ravens lose key players every year but because they draft so well they usually have another player waiting in the wings.
This year they were able to hang onto a number of key players, including restricted free agents Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams. They also re-signed Bernard Pollard to a multi-year deal and brought back Jameel McClain as well. Matt Birk returning secures the center position for another year.
2012 NFL Draft
How fortunate the Ravens are. Baltimore drafted Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw in the 2nd round -- the Raven traded out of the 1st round -- and the next day Terrell Suggs tore his Achilles tendon. Upshaw and Paul Kruger will get a crack at replacing Suggs; if it's Upshaw, it shows how fortunate they were to make that selection in the 2nd round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
The Ravens also lost Ben Grubbs in free agency but spent a 2nd round pick on guard Kelechi Osemele out of Iowa State. They added more depth along the offensive line by selecting another guard, Gino Gradkowski, in the 4th round.
Bernard Piece, 3rd round pick out of Temple, adds depth to the running back position which is important considering Ray Rice's status as an unsigned franchise tag player.
Tommy Streeter, despite being a 6th round pick, is someone the Ravens could be excited about considering how athletic he is.
VIDEO: Ravens NFL Draft Grade
The Baltimore Ravens won the AFC North title in 2011 and swept the division, going 6-0 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns. The team is expecting to do the same thing in 2012 and while many see the loss of OLB Terrell Suggs as a huge blow to their chances, it might not make a difference to Baltimore, especially with the addition of rookie OLB Courtney Upshaw, who will be counted on to fill Suggs' role.
At the same time, the Ravens did not sweep the division solely based on their defense. They used the arm of QB Joe Flacco to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh and the legs of RB Ray Rice to defeat the Bengals in Cincinnati. Oh, the defense did their jobs, but knowing the offense can put points on the board should jointly make Ravens fans happily looking forward to the 2012 season as well as add even more concern to the rest of the division.
They Make The Playoffs If...
They can sweep the Steelers again.
The Bengals are a concern in the division considering they won nine games last year and got a lot better, but they are not yet on the Ravens' nor the Steelers' levels. This division is still (mostly) about the Ravens and Steelers. Last year, Baltimore swept Pittsburgh and it will need to do the same this year in order to put itself in the best position to win the AFC North.