For the Baltimore Ravens to contend for the playoffs this season, here are the five players who can help make that happen:
Joe Flacco, quarterback: No one has been a bigger barometer of the Ravens’ success than Flacco. Since he joined Baltimore in 2008, the Ravens are 53-10 (.841) when Flacco produces a passer rating over 94. The problem is Flacco hasn’t delivered many big games on a consistent basis lately. During the Ravens’ three-year playoff drought, Flacco has thrown 52 touchdowns and 40 interceptions. That has to change for Baltimore to return to the postseason. With the Ravens drafting Lamar Jackson in the first round, the pressure is on Flacco to change his fortunes.
Jimmy Smith, cornerback: The Ravens are deeper at corner than they’ve ever been under coach John Harbaugh. But Smith is still the most valuable player in the secondary despite Marlon Humphrey’s strong finish last season. Baltimore’s path to the AFC North runs through Pittsburgh, and there is no one better at slowing down Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown than Smith. In seven regular-season meetings with Smith, Baltimore has held Brown to 60.1 yards receiving per game and one touchdown. In three games when Smith was sidelined, Brown averaged 151 yards receiving against the Ravens and scored two touchdowns.
Michael Crabtree, wide receiver: Much of the responsibility for turning around the NFL’s No. 27 passing game will fall to Crabtree. He is the most reliable, accomplished and consistent target in the Ravens’ new-look air attack. Crabtree has caught 579 passes over his career, more than the rest of Baltimore’s wide-receiver group combined (390). Where Crabtree is going to really make an impact is in the end zone. The Ravens' wide receivers caught 11 touchdown passes last season (only six teams had fewer). Crabtree has scored at least eight touchdowns in each of his past three seasons.
Brandon Williams, nose tackle: The Ravens face four of the NFL’s top five leading rushers from last season, and the key to containing Kareem Hunt, Le'Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy and Mark Ingram is Williams. When Williams was out four games with a foot injury last season, Baltimore allowed 169.5 yards rushing per game. With Williams, the Ravens held teams to 91.8 yards rushing. How important is run defense in what has become a pass-happy NFL? The best four teams at stopping the run -- Philadelphia, Minnesota, Carolina and Tennessee -- all made the playoffs. The No. 1 run defense was the Eagles, who won the Super Bowl.
Justin Tucker, kicker: Few kickers will probably make a team’s list of five most important players to winning a championship. Tucker, though, is not your average kicker. He’s the most dependable offensive weapon for a team that has scored the eighth-fewest offensive touchdowns over the past six seasons. Since entering the NFL as an undrafted rookie in 2012, Tucker leads all kickers in accuracy (90.2 percent) and field goals made (202). Where Tucker has really excelled is from long distance. He has hit 33 field goals from 50 yards or longer, which are two more than any other kicker over that span.