With almost the first half of the Baltimore Ravens' season wrapped up, it's time to reflect on the first seven games while looking ahead to the final nine.
It's been a roller coaster of sorts, as nothing seems to come easy in Baltimore. Just look at last year's AFC Championship run: During the regular season there were mishaps in Tennessee, Seattle and Jacksonville, yet the Ravens were still able to finish 12-4, earn a first round bye and host a playoff game.
And already this season, Baltimore has slipped up against Philadelphia and Houston. Granted, the Eagles and Texans are much better than the three aforementioned teams were last year, the Ravens had plenty of concerns arise from those two losses.
However, there have been a lot of positives throughout this season. Here's a chance to look at what's happened and what needs to change as the season progresses.
Most valuable player through seven games: Without a doubt, Ray Rice is what keeps this team trucking. Rice has 524 rushing yards and five touchdowns, and has added 245 receiving yards as well. It's a simple formula: If Rice gets his touches, the Ravens place themselves in good positions to win ballgames. When he doesn't, you see a one-dimensional offense that can't sustain momentum.
Worst moment: Without question, Baltimore's 43-13 loss to Houston was a low point in John Harbaugh's career as a head coach. There was no gap control with the defensive line as everyone got pushed back off the snap. The Ravens offense went away from Rice and the running game, creating little balance. If anything, it's a learning experience to draw from.
What's gone right: It's worth mentioning Rice again, as he's been the most consistent piece to Baltimore's team. He's the bell cow, as Ray Lewis would say, and he should be treated as such. If he continues to be involved and produces, Baltimore will be in any game it plays. When he doesn't get his touches, offensive outcomes such as the Houston game typically happen.
What's gone wrong: Injuries against Dallas suddenly decimated Baltimore. Losing Lewis to a triceps tear and Lardarius Webb to a torn ACL have been huge losses this year. Lewis was the emotional leader that could communicate calls on defense better than anyone else on the roster, despite his limitations as a 17-year veteran. With Terrell Suggs out of the lineup, Webb was the Ravens' best defensive player. His ability to help in run support as well as being a superb cover-corner were vital to what Baltimore wanted to do on defense.
What else has gone wrong: First it was the pass defense that couldn't stop anyone. After a blowout win over Cincinnati in Week 1, the Ravens allowed three consecutive quarterbacks to throw for over 300 yards. Heading into Kansas City at 3-1, despite past quarterbacks' success, it appeared Baltimore's struggling pass defense would have a week off. Instead, Kansas City's offensive line beat up Baltimore's defensive line to the tune of 214 yards on the ground. Now, Dean Pees did a good job adjusting his defense at the half, but the Chiefs drafted the blueprint for how to attack Baltimore's defense with a balanced offense. Dallas then ran for 227 yards and Houston for 181. But the latter two teams also had decent days throwing the ball with both Tony Romo and Matt Schaub going for over 200 passing yards each. The Ravens defense is all out of sorts, though it seems basic technique issues are what's failing it mostly right now. If the defense can study its mistakes and correct them over this bye week, and the following week of preparation, then it can possibly move forward and put these first seven games in the past.
More that's gone right: The Ravens' offense has looked poor on the road, even in a win over Kansas City. But you can't understate how good it has looked at home. In home games against New England and Cleveland, Joe Flacco threw for 382 and 356 yards, respectively. He also had outings of 299 yards against Cincinnati and 234 yards and Dallas. What makes the Dallas number spectacular is that he did that in 19:57. The Ravens offense had 320 total yards in that time span, which was good for almost 16 yards per minute.
‘Special' teams: After last season's woes, the special teams unit has been spectacular this season, especially as of late. Before fumbling the ball on against Kansas City, rookie Deonte Thompson was averaging 25.9 yards per kickoff return with a long of 49. But with Thompson coughing up the ball, the Ravens put Jacoby Jones in to return kickoffs the following week. And he didn't disappoint, returning a kick 108 yards for a touchdown against Dallas. In two games as Baltimore's primary returner, Jones has nine returns for 355 yards and a score. That's good for an average of 39.4 yards, granted the long score against Dallas helps. But even without it, Jones has looked impressive returning the ball. In addition to the return game, rookie Justin Tucker has made 14 of 15 kicks, including four that have been over 50 yards (51, 51, 54, 56). Tucker has proven that the coaching staff made the right decision by choosing him over Billy Cundiff, who was released in Washington after a poor start to his season. To put Tucker's season into even more context, this is the first time a Ravens kicker has had three or more 50-yarders in one season.
Best in-game decision: It's hard to evaluate this, because there are many schools of thought and it's not an exact science. But with a gut instinct taking over, Harbaugh decided not to call a timeout before Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey's 51-yard attempt to tie the game almost three weeks ago. Just imagine the fallout if Bailey had a second attempt and made it, or if he had more time to think about it, only to make a last second mental adjustment. Letting Bailey go out there and kick without interruption turned out to be the best move of the season so far. Yes, plenty of luck was involved. But sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.
Needed corrections: This is an obvious one, but the defensive line needs some major tweaking. Guys aren't communicating and are allowing gaps to open up pre-snap. A return to fundamental teaching is in order for the Ravens to be able to fix this. It's not like there's a shortage of talent on the roster. Haloti Ngata is the best defensive lineman in the game, though he's dealing with multiple injuries right now. Terrence Cody was a second round draft pick and Pernell McPhee was a monster as a third down specialist a season ago. Cody has been a disappointment so far this season, but that's not to say the talent isn't there. He worked his tail off this offseason to get in better shape and it's been unfortunate to see the first half of his season shape up like it has. But these linemen need to do a better job of occupying blockers and not getting pushed back. This will free up the linebackers to fly to the ball and contain the running game. Though the NFL has become a passing league, stopping the run is still key to winning games.
Needed corrections, part II: Someone has to work with Jimmy Smith on defending double moves. To be a corner in the NFL, you have to be able to sit on top of stop routes without losing your footwork, which enables receivers to then cut upfield and burn teams deep. Smith was a first round cornerback with high expectations. If he can work on his technique, especially since he'll be getting lots of snaps here on out, then he should be able to improve as the season moves along.
Needed corrections, part III: The Ravens offensive line has been the epitome of having ups and downs. Against Dallas it looked great, with Michael Oher having one of the best games of his career at left tackle. In games against Philadelphia, Kansas City and Houston, it looked dreadful. Baltimore has two options moving forward: It can go with a better pass blocking line to accompany the no-huddle attack, which would mean moving Bryant McKinnie back to left tackle, moving Oher to right tackle and placing Kelechi Osemele at left guard. Or it could go back to the original lineup from the beginning of this season and put Ramon Harewood back as a starting left guard. Harewood has shown he's a better run blocker than Bobbie Williams, who has struggled in two games. If they go this route, the Ravens will need to rethink their philosophy and center the offense around Ray Rice and the running game.
Moving forward: For all the doom and gloom after getting blown out on the road by one of the NFL's best teams, all is not lost for this Ravens team. Just look at the schedule: At the present time, Baltimore doesn't face a team with a winning record until Week 16 against the New York Giants. Yes, games against Pittsburgh will be tough. And don't sleep on Cleveland, which has found an attacking passing game the past three weeks. And of course, we all know what happened last year when Baltimore traveled out to San Diego. Yet this remaining schedule shouldn't strike much fear into anyone. Each team left has vulnerabilities that Baltimore can attack. It will be up to the Ravens to shore up the defense and keep the offense as balanced as possible, regardless if it huddles or not. Sure, it's easier said than done, but if it can make these corrections, Baltimore will earn a trip to a fifth consecutive postseason.
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