RAVENS HAVE NUMBERS, LUCK, OFFENSE AND AFC ON THEIR SIDE
For the second consecutive week, the Baltimore Ravens won a game they should have lost. With that said, I am sure there will not be any apologies from the boys at 1 Winning Drive because the Dallas Cowboys could not get out of their own way this past Sunday, especially as the game was ending.
With a 31-29 victory over America’s Team at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday the Ravens moved to 5-1 for the first time during the John Harbaugh era and just the second time in franchise history.
The win allowed the Ravens to take early season command of the AFC North. Head Coach John Harbaugh’s boys are now two and a half games clear of the third place Steelers (2-3), as well as two games north of the second place Bengals.
As you have heard by now, the Ravens 14th consecutive home victory was very costly.
The teams best pass defender, cornerback Lardarius Webb was lost for the season with another torn ACL and adding insult to Webb’s injury was watching future Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis go down for the season also. No.52 will miss the rest of the year with a complete tear of his right triceps.
Considering the Ravens remaining schedule and the injuries that are beginning to pile up, the 5-1 head start may be just what the doctor ordered. The Ravens hot and seemingly fortunate start could propel the black and purple into the playoffs for a current NFL best, fifth consecutive season.
However, many experts believe the Ravens are simply heading for disaster. Despite their record, pundits have the buzzards circling above the team’s future this season. Many are expecting Baltimore’s 2012 season to die a slow and painful death. After all, there were plenty of warning signs prior to the Lewis and Webb injuries to suggest trouble was on the horizon.
With both still playing, the defense was being run over as if it were a scout team unit and the offense, while seemingly picking up the slack at times, still seems to suffer an identity crisis during critical junctures of games.
FAST STARTS GUARANTEE NOTHING:
There is also some recent precedent to suggest that problems such as drastic injuries and poor defensive play can derail a quick start into a full-blown train wreck.
With an offense that ranked second at one point last season, the Buffalo Bills began the 2011 season 5-2 before losing 8 of their final 9 games. Other notable quick starters in recent years, who failed to make the playoffs include the 2008 NY Jets. With Brett Favre playing quarterback, the Jets started 8-3 and still managed to miss the playoffs. That same season the Bills, (again) were 4-0-- then 5-1, and missed playing in the post season.
Duante Culpepper and Randy Moss connected for 17 touchdowns during the 2006 season, as the Minnesota Vikings started 6-0. The Vikes promptly went 3-7 the rest of the way, and were able to watch the playoffs from aboard their luxury cruise liner, or the vessel better known as the “Love Boat”.
While many experts may want to think the Ravens are done, I would not be so sure, and I’m not so sure that while this may be tough to overcome during the short term, by seasons end, the Ravens may be better to have gone through this experience.
Not only does Baltimore benefit from their quick start, but they also benefit from the slow start of everyone else in the American Football Conference. Only the Ravens and their opponent on Sunday, the Houston Texans, have records above .500 after Week 6 in the AFC.
Every team has a major issue or concern. The story of the Ravens demise may be a tad bit premature my Steelers friends. Besides, as bad as the Ravens have injury problems on the defense is as bad as Pittsburgh has offensive line injury concerns.
The USA Today released their power poll of top five NFL teams today, and called them “The Flawed Five”. The Ravens, who were fifth in that poll, not only are two games better than the Bengals and Steelers, but aside from the Texans, are two games better than everyone else in the conference.
According to NFL.com’s seasonal forecast complied by Accuscore, the Ravens have a 91 percent chance of making the playoffs this season and a 72 percent chance of hanging on to win the division.
The forecast wheel uses current stats and factors in strength of schedule, home and away, as well as the stats of the opposing team. The stats are based on the average of 10,000 simulations, so while not 100 percent accurate, not a bad indicator. It is important to never forget that “On any given Sunday” anything can happen, but we are talking about a team that still has a ton of Pro Bowl talent on the field.
Accuscore predicts an 11-5 finish for the Ravens with a loss this Sunday in Houston. They also have the Ravens splitting with Pittsburgh, which would keep the Steelers at bay in the division and Accuscore predicts another loss out west in San Diego, similar to the one Baltimore suffered late last season.
You have to like those odds and the fact that something else seems to be helping the Ravens out this season. Something out of the ordinary, but something else is at work. Call it luck, call it divine intervention, I could care less. As long as a “W” is the end result, why ask why.
BETTER TO BE LUCKY THAN GOOD:
If it is luck, my father will tell you that, “Luck is what happens when hard work meets preparation”. That would make sense if you were familiar with the “Raven Way” of playing football. If you’re not, it is kind of like the Oriole Way. Long time O's coach and one-time Bird Manager, Cal Ripken Sr. used to say, “perfect practice makes perfect” and after five years, Harbaugh is still a stickler for good, solid crisp practices. Besides, isn’t it about time lady luck paid a visit to a Charm City sports team?
What else could it be? In last week’s game at Kansas City, Chiefs wide receivers could not run a pass pattern in the red zone without throwing a pick block, which took the go-ahead touchdown off the board. Matt Cassell could not hold onto the football on the Ravens goals line, which took the potential go-ahead touchdown off the board.
This trend continued on Sunday when a poorly coached Cowboys team handed the Ravens a gift-wrapped victory. After recovering an onside kick, Dallas ran just two plays during the games final 30 seconds. The first of the two plays resulted in a pass interference penalty on Ravens CB Chykie Brown. The penalty stopped the clock and should have allowed Dallas QB Tony Romo and head coach Jason Garrett even more time to get into sync with what should have happened next, another successful positive yardage play and getting their kicker closer to his field goal range. Instead, the Cowboys ran just one more play and could get kicker Dan Bailey no closer than 51-yards. Considering Bailey has not attempted a field goal beyond 39-yards all season, the odds were stacked against him in a hostile environment under those conditions. Bailey missed wide left and for the second consecutive week, the Ravens snatched victory directly from the jaws of defeat.
The Ravens did not win games like this last year, the year before, or since Harbaugh took over starting in 2008. In fact, except for 2000, they did not win them under former head coach Brian Billick. There was always something missing, that one play, that one break, whatever it was, “it” was always missing. Whatever it is this season, the Ravens will take it.
Lady Luck may help explain how the Ravens are winning games they shouldn’t be, but it is obvious how they are trying to lose them.
There are reasons why the Ravens are in this situation and while they may not be immediately correctable, there are ways to minimize the damage.
The defense is an obvious problem and will not be getting better anytime soon with Suggs still out and now, Webb and Lewis gone for the year. The Ravens have not allowed a running back to rush for 100-yards in a half against them since 1998, and the Cowboys fell nine yards short of being the second consecutive team to accomplish the feat.
Jamal Charles eclipsed the 100-yard plateau with almost five minutes remaining in the second quarter last week.
There are additional factors involved for the why the defense is playing so badly. Poor tacking technique is a huge key. Only Bernard Pollard seems capable of using his arms to actually make a tackle in the Ravens secondary. Ed Reed cannot tackle, but it’s not because he does not want to. If his shoulder is twisted in a bad way, aggravating his nerve impingement, his season could also be over, as well as his career.
The rest of the defense must have been running laps or missed practice when the Pop Warner Football coaches taught tackling 101, which is to tackle the legs and not the shoulders. I cannot tell you how many times Ravens defenders have been carried across first down markers this season or dragged out of bounds while a ball carrier stops the clock at a critical time.
DEFENSIVE PLAY HAS BEEN TRENDING:
The play of the defense should not come as a surprise to Ravens fans if you have watched the team closely for the past two seasons. This has not happened overnight. While the Ravens have maintained their ranking status in 2101 and again in 11, the writing was on the wall.
There have been some changes in personnel but for the most part, and as Led Zeppelin once sang, the song has remained the same. However, Dean Pees is the third defensive coordinator in as many seasons and while this is a defense filled with grizzled veterans, the system changes a little each time the signal caller on the sideline changes. The principal is the same, but the little nuances can be take time to iron out and adjustment periods are needed. Greg Mattson was different from Chuck Pagano and Peas is different from both of them. When the talent on the field is no longer as good as it once was, or is depleted by injury, every little nuance that takes time equals extra yards for the opposing offense.
In 2010, the Ravens blew eighth fourth quarter leads but still managed to finish 12-4. They also managed just 27 sacks, which was a franchise low. Last season, with a healthy Terrell Suggs, the Ravens defense returned to form, sort of.
Baltimore tied for second in the NFL with 48 sacks, but 31 percent (15) of them occurred in two games. To further illustrate my point further, 75 percent (36) of them occurred in seven games. As they did in 2010 and especially without T-Sizzle, the Ravens are again struggling to get to the passer. They are ranked 23rd with just 10 QB takedowns.
Despite a poor defensive showing this season, the Ravens are still one of the leagues best at forcing turnovers. They still do a great job of attacking the football and are second in the AFC with a plus 7-turnover margin. For the first time in years, the offense is capitalizing off those turnovers. Baltimore has scored 47 points off their 13 take-aways this season, ranking as the NFL’s sixth most. Of Baltimore’s 161 total points scored, 29.2% have come off turnovers.
The Ray Lewis injury will probably not end No.52’s career, but it is almost a certainty that we have seen the last of him playing a full series of downs. During the past two weeks, the Chiefs and Cowboys have combined to rush for 441-yards. Most of them came inside the tackles. You can read between the lines about what that may mean because offenses have certainly been running at will between them on Sunday’s this season. If you have watching and it does not have to be very closely, Lewis has been getting pushed around consistently.
Sunday’s Fox telecast with Thom Breneman and former Ravens head coach Brian Billick was as kind as they could be to the greatest ever Raven during their broadcast of the game. It is important to know this about the best middle linebacker to ever lace up a pair of cleats; he will get and deserves the Cal Ripken Jr. treatment. That means Lewis will be allowed to end his career on his terms despite how much of a business sports has become. Nevertheless, the Ravens are not foolish enough to sacrifice the “Raven Way” of playing football, which Lewis helped establish. That hardnosed, punch the opponent in the mouth style of football on the defensive side of the ball has been absent more than it has been present this season.
LEWIS ALWAYS A RAVEN:
The Ravens did allow Lewis to explore free agency a few seasons back before both ultimately decided Baltimore would always be his best option. Lewis has meant too much to Baltimore and he can probably help contribute on first and second down, if he can return next season. Lewis is going to have to accept the fact that he will not be able to play every down in the future. On Sunday, there were several instances when replays showed Lewis being blown up on blocks, and he was never double-teamed. That has been happening every week this season.
The Ravens defense has officially entered the transition phase and that means it is time for the offense to become a more consistent machine. While it may seem they are doing enough, it only seems that way because the Ravens are 5-1.
Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and company have done a good job of picking up the slack this season for a defense that is ranked 23rd and has allowed an average of 385 yards per game.
What has given the Ravens great success this season may also be causing some problems on the other side of the ball. The no-huddle offense is fun to watch, and Joe Flacco looks great running it, but there are several major cons that have hurt the Ravens defense this season because of it.
First are the inconsistencies with Ray Rice’s touches. Thanks to a 43-yard catch and run on a check down pass from Flacco, No.22’s numbers looked a lot better yesterday. He only 17 touches in the game and his two touchdowns prove he is capable on the goal line, but offensive coordinator Cam Cameron must use Rice more to get this offense to that point.
While Rice is the NFL leader in total yards from scrimmage, one has to wonder how many more yards would Rice actually have if he had more touches, which he should. The no-huddle simply does not allow an offense to establish a running game. When Rice does break a few decent runs, there does not seem to be any ebb and flow to how he is used going forward in the game. In other words, the Ravens offense still suffers from an identity crisis at times.
NO-HUDDLE MEANS NO REST:
No rest for the weary is the best way to describe the no-huddles major con. Not just for the team-playing defense on the field, but also for the one on the sidelines trying to catch its breath.
On Sunday, the Ravens longest scoring drive of the game was their opening drive. Flacco took the offense on a 14-play 60-yard drive that lasted just over seven minutes, resulting in a Justin Tucker field goal. From there, the Ravens had two scoring drives of 80-yards, one lasted four minutes and the other just 1:34.
The Ravens average time of drives this season is just over four minutes and that includes 13 touchdowns drives of 60-or more yards this season, which is tied for third most in the NFL.
The Jacoby Jones punt return forced the defense right back onto the field and you could see the exhaustion on their faces. The Cowboys had 30 first downs on Sunday to the Ravens 19 and held a 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession. So far this season, the opposition has 20 more first downs than do the Ravens and possess the football for seven extra minutes per contest. (33:10 to 26:50). These numbers cannot be good for any defense.
Call it burning the candle at both ends, call it playing with fire, or whatever catch phrase you want, but one thing is for sure, if the Ravens want to continue to win with the MASH unit defense that will now be on the field, the offense is going to have do one of two things.
Outscore the opponent as the Packers, Patriots and Saints did last season, or change the game plan and mix the no huddle up with more touches for Ray Rice.
Rice must get at least 20 rushing attempts per game and three to five receptions to be truly effective. That would mean the offense would have to slow down at times and when it does that, it tends to struggle.
Flacco has repeatedly said he loves the shotgun and is far more comfortable in it. However, running games are not that effective from the gun. This will be yet another adjustment period regardless of the team’s success through six games and it should be noted that the tendency is going to be to light it up more now that Webb and Lewis are gone. Therefore, the likelihood of the offense slowing down is slim to none, and slim left town.
Incorporating Rice more into the game plan by running the football will slow the game down and help Baltimore gain some time of possession back. It may also help the struggling screen game return. Teams are starting to stop it with more regularity and as the Ravens get into the part of the schedule that has the better defenses, being predictable will not be a good idea.
Let us also not forget that the best defense is to not to have to play any defense at all.
The Ravens still have eight games remaining against Pro-Bowl quarterbacks and there are some pretty good running backs still left to face as well. If the likes of the Manning brothers, Big Ben, and Phillip Rivers are all watching the Ravens offense from the sidelines, I can assure you their ability to do damage is extremely minimized.
It is nice to have a big play offense and the Ravens have the best in the league, completing 34 plays of 20 or more yards, with 30 of them coming through the air. I am certainly not complaining about quick scoring strikes and neither are the fans of Baltimore, who are grateful they have that aspect of an offense finally. Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong with slowing the tempo down and allowing Rice, or Bernard Pierce, who is running more effectively each week, a few more rushing chances during the upcoming games. It almost has become necessary now.
THE RUN IS OVER:
Baltimore has finished in the Top 10 in total defense (yards allowed) nine-straight seasons. Since the 1970 merger, only six teams have produced at least eight-consecutive seasons with a Top 10 defense. Baltimore (9) and Pittsburgh (12) boast the NFL’s longest active streaks of ranking in the Top 10.
That streak seems destined to end this season and for the first time since 2000, the Ravens Super Bowl hopes no longer rests on the shoulders of the man in the middle and the vaunted defense No.52 led with such passion. If the Ravens are to make it to the big game in New Orleans this year, it will be because Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense became elite along the way and made a few changes.
It is possible. Flacco leads a top 10 offense (8) and has an arsenal of weapons. Four different Ravens have produced at last 20 catches this season, making Baltimore just one of three NFL teams entering Week 7 to boast such a quartet. The offense has produced 13 touchdown drives of 60 or more yards, which ties (NO & NYG) for the NFL’s third most.
In Week 3’s 31-30 victory vs. New England, the Ravens’ offense produced a 300-yard passer, 100-yard rusher and 100-yard receiver for just the fifth time in franchise history. During that same game, Baltimore’s offense registered 503 yards of total offense (121 rushing and 382 passing), marking the third-highest output in team history.
Impressively, the Ravens’ Top 5 all-time single-game outputs have come during the John Harbaugh/Cam Cameron Era (since 2008).
This offense can get the job done and the Ravens still have a shot to be playing on the first Sunday in February. It will just take some getting used to for Ravens fans to accept those lofty expectations for a unit that was never really required to do more than protect the ball and watch Matt Stover kick the occasional field goal to finish a drive.
Unfortunately and sadly, the Baltimore Ravens organization and their fans have had to mourn tragic losses on two occasions this season. While this is no tragedy and certainly not comparable by any stretch, Ravens fans are in their own way mourning the loss of their once vaunted defense and its heartbeat. It is safe to say that fans are starting to realize that something they could count on every Sunday for 12-years, can no longer be counted on to produce as it once did. During a time of the year when hope and change is encouraged, Ravens fans must hope that the change in power from defense to offense will produce “Super” results.