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Despite losses, Ravens still optimistic about defending title

| Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
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The Ravens' Torrey Smith celebrates after he scored a 32-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter against the Broncos on Jan. 12, 2013, in Denver.

In Baltimore, things aren't looking up for the reigning Super Bowl champions.

Still, with all the holes to fill, coach John Harbaugh often sounds as if the Ravens simply have reloaded after the core of the franchise was gutted by free agency and linebacker Ray Lewis' retirement.

This is not the same team that summoned a miracle to defeat Denver in the AFC playoffs before holding off San Francisco in the Super Bowl.

There is an inordinate number of strange faces in the locker room. More importantly, some familiar faces are gone.

No Ed Reed. No Anquan Boldin. No Paul Kruger.

No problem, Harbaugh said.

Still, the Ravens likely will be chasing their shadows much of the season. Aside from special teams, they are weaker on offense and defense, mostly because of some losses through free agency.

If that wasn't enough, quarterback Joe Flacco lost one of his key targets, tight end Dennis Pitta, to a season-ending hip injury. Then backup Ed Dickson went down with a knee injury.

Torrey Smith is still a feared deep threat, but he'll find out how effective he was with Boldin pulling double coverage.

“When Joe throws the ball, I catch it,” Smith said. “When Ray (Rice) is running, block.

“So my role doesn't necessarily change — just running routes like everyone else. Obviously I expect more out of myself performance-wise.”

Still, Harbaugh doesn't appear overly concerned.

“You love those guys when they're here, and it's pretty easy to realize the fact that they're not here,” he said. “So what are you going to do about it? You've got to move on.

“We've got a lot of talented players out there, and I think we feel really good about what we have the ability to do.”

Harbaugh is among the few who believe the Ravens can make the playoffs. They lost eight starters, including Miami linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, cornerback Cary Williams, Reed and Kruger.

The Bengals, considered the division favorite, have a history of underachieving with such lofty expectations bestowed on them. The Ravens still have a solid run game with Rice and Bernard Pierce, and general manager Ozzie Newsome has proven he can manipulate a roster to develop a surprising contender.

But if Baltimore is too repeat as Super Bowl champs, it again will have to lean on its defense.

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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