EAST RUTHERFORD NJ - SEPTEMBER 13: Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens throws a pass against the New York Jets during the home opener at the New Meadowlands Stadium on September 13 2010 in East Rutherford New Jersey. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
This doesn't look like Ray Lewis' Ravens anymore.
A shift in skill among Baltimore's defense makes the team's 2012 squad look as strong as it usually is, but the strength is in the secondary as opposed to their front seven.
CB Lardarius Webb is emerging as one of the best all-around cornerbacks in the game, and having three potentially strong corners - Jimmy Williams and Cary Williams - will help Baltimore play in nickel as often as the strength of their two biggest rivals - Pittsburgh and Cincinnati - will force them to in 2012.
Being able to adequately blanket the A.J. Greens and Mike Wallaces and Antonio Browns of the AFC North will likely be the key determining factor in the race for the division this year. While Baltimore's pass rush will need to prove it can get after the quarterback without Terrell Suggs for what appears to be at least half the year, its secondary should be able to make that pass rush much stronger than it probably is.
That's a big advantage in a pass-happy league.
There are fair and valid questions surround the Ravens' offense, its offensive line in particular. Increasing age along a unit that didn't appear nearly as strong in its playoff run last season as it did in the first few weeks of the year raises concerns over whether improving QB Joe Flacco will be able to utilize the deep passing his arm is built for, and that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron wants so badly to implement.
It seems wiser for the Ravens to rely even more heavily on the versatility of RB Ray Rice and talented TEs Ed Dixon and Dennis Pitta (the Dennis/Dixon Combination). A ball-controlled offense and reliance on a defense that will be difficult to score on could make the Ravens the favorite in the AFC North.
It's also a philosophy that could have worked last season, but they finished a middling offensive team, despite a 12-4 mark.
The improvement of Flacco and a strong secondary will make it difficult to beat the Ravens in close games, which is a similar trait as the other two front-runners for the division title share. Baltimore went 6-0 in the division in 2011, but with both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati having improved, the question for Baltimore becomes whether they improved with any external help, and if it did not, will internal improvement be enough to make up for the loss of the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year for much of 2012?
Look for Baltimore to choose to use a hurry-up offense in spurts this season, something Flacco looked comfortable running this preseason as a means to jump-start a talented but sometimes inconsistent offense. However, their overall success will be found simply in the offense's ability to possess the ball and letting their secondary set their defensive tone.