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Retooled Ravens get set for defense of Super Bowl crown

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh (R) watches from the sideline during the first half of their NFL pre-season football game against
Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh (R) watches from the sideline during the first half of their NFL pre-season football game against

By Larry Fine

(Reuters) - The Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, hoping to find a cure for a possible title hangover worsened by the loss of defensive stalwarts Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, have retooled as they open defense of the Lombardi Trophy.

Repeating as champions is not easy and Baltimore's road to becoming the first NFL team to win back-to-back titles since New England in 2005 was made even bumpier with the retirements of inspirational linebacker Lewis and center Matt Birk, and the defection of ball-hawking safety Reed to the Texans.

"This year is different," said Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh, who won family bragging rights by leading his Ravens past a San Francisco team coached by his younger brother Jim in the Super Bowl. "But in a sense every year is a new season."

"It's not like we have to forget the Super Bowl in order to move onto the next season. We're capable of being proud of the accomplishment and moving on to the next thing."

Right from the start, the Ravens do not seem to be getting the proper respect, as contrary to tradition Baltimore will be hitting the road to open defense of the Lombardi Trophy.

The Ravens will kick off the season by visiting the Denver Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning on Thursday after the NFL was unable to resolve a scheduling conflict with Major League Baseball's Baltimore Orioles.

Adversity, however, can serve as a rallying cry and Harbaugh will use every motivational trick to get his revamped Ravens ready for the new campaign.

The Ravens were a team in transition even on their way to a thrilling 34-31 win over the 49ers at the Superdome in New Orleans for their second NFL championship in 11 years.

Led by a breakout season from strong-armed quarterback Joe Flacco, Baltimore had morphed from a defense-dominated team into a big-play offensive threat that scored a franchise-record 398 points.

Flacco threw for a career-high 3,817 yards including 22 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. After collecting Super Bowl MVP honors he signed a six-year, $120.6 million deal and instantly became the new face of the Purple and Black.

The offense, also fueled by all-round back Ray Rice, has been subject to revision as well as veteran possession receiver Anquan Boldin who was traded to the 49ers, opening up expanded roles for speedy wide receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones.

One blow to the offense came when tight end Dennis Pitta, a favorite target for Flacco, was sidelined with a dislocated hip. The Ravens hope back-up Ed Dickson can step up and they signed veterans Dallas Clark and Visanthe Shiancoe as insurance.

For the first time since 2002, the Ravens finished outside the league's top 10 in defense, so a retooling was in the cards in any event for an aging Baltimore defense.

They signed pass-rushing linebacker Elvis Dumervil to team up with holdover Terrell Suggs, added defensive linemen Chris Canty and Marcus Spears to a unit featuring Haloti Ngata, signed inside linebacker Daryl Smith to fill a void left by Lewis and acquired safety Michael Huff.

Baltimore also has high hopes for number one draft pick Matt Elam, a safety taken in the first round out of Florida.

Playing in the bruising North Division of the American Football Conference against bitter rivals Pittsburgh and emerging Cincinnati means just qualifying for the playoffs could be a stiff challenge for the Ravens.

Yet anything less would be a bitter pill for Harbaugh, who along with strong-armed Flacco has been to the playoffs every year of their five NFL seasons.

(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York, Editing by ......)

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