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3 steps to success: The Ravens get younger, but can they be as effective?

A lot has been made about Joe Flacco's extension, but the Super Bowl champions have bigger questions than their QB.

Patrick Smith

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome is widely regarded as the one league's best. His reputation will be tested in 2013 as he transitions the Super Bowl champs into a new era, one without several of the team's core players from that championship run.

Extending Joe Flacco has been the team's most contentious issue publicly. The Super Bowl MVP has become the scapegoat for much of the veteran purge, but it was a necessary roster turnover that happened to coincide with the new deal. However, there are some big questions moving forward in 2013 at some of the key areas that made the team successful last year.

Three Steps to Success

1. Ray Rice needs to regain his importance

Baltimore's deep-ball passing took a lot of pressure off Ray Rice last year. The loss of Anquan Boldin leaves a hole in the passing game. Rice's 1,143 rushing yards were his lowest since his rookie season. Rice was willing to have his role reduced. The receivers this year aren't as talented as last year's group, which makes him vitally important in both the run and pass game.

2. Jacoby Jones has to prove he's a true second receiver

The Ravens traded Anquan Boldin, essentially a cap casualty, to the San Francisco 49ers. Jones becomes the team's second receiver by default. That makes for a risky situation. It's easy to remember Jones for his post-season heroics, but he had a fairly average regular season. Jones has deep-play potential, but Boldin's shoes are big ones to fill. Tight end Dennis Pitta will figure heavily into the passing game too. Will that be enough?

3. The pass rush could be deadly

Denver's fax issues helped Baltimore land Elvis Dumervil, which could give the Ravens the best pass rush they've had in years. That's a scary prospect for opposing quarterbacks. If Terrell Suggs can return to form (which we expect), he and Dumervil could become the best 3-4 pass-rushing tandem in the NFL. When paired with the strong defensive front, they'll be difficult to defend.

Three Feats toward Failure

1. Where is the leadership coming from?

It's been a long time since the defensive leadership in Baltimore needed to be questioned, but it's one result of Ray Lewis' retirement. The Ravens found ways through the draft to help with the on-field performance. How much will they miss Lewis in the locker room?

2. Safety play has become a major question

Over the last decade the Ravens were about Ed Reed, and it didn't really matter who was paired with him. Baltimore is without Reed and strong safety Bernard Pollard now. It left a big void in the secondary. Michael Huff and rookie Matt Elam offer a lot of potential. Will it take time for them to develop chemistry? With the talented receivers in the division it's a big risk to play around with the secondary.

3. Torrey Smith has to take the next step

Up to this point, Torrey Smith has been an almost-elite receiver on the cusp of 1,000-yard seasons. There's no questioning his talent, but he needs to take over and become a true No. 1. If that doesn't happen, the team could take huge steps back on offense. In losing Boldin they traded away 900 yards and their top receiver. If there's any hope of repeating, it's all on Smith.

Ultimate answer

It's impossible to predict back-to-back championships, but it will be very difficult for the Ravens to be as good in 2013 as they were last year. It's not about losing Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, but rather the smaller moving pieces that have shifted this offseason.

The offense could be in trouble unless the receivers can step up, and there's a leadership void on defense. However, the pass rush could be more potent this year — provided Terrell Suggs returns to form. They'll be in the hunt, though, because the team is still immensely talented.

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