Ravens take stock after eight games

OWINGS MILLS - The NFL isn't haunted by opinion polls or computer formulas like college football. It's supposed to be a true meritocracy. Regardless of the fact that the opponents the Ravens have defeated in the first half of the season have a combined mark of 13-28, Baltimore (5-3) is atop the AFC North.

The Ravens have never won a division title in their eight years of existence.

In their only two games against winning teams, the Ravens lost to the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs and beat the injury-riddled Denver Broncos.

The Ravens feature the top-ranked running game headlined by Jamal Lewis, a defense ranked sixth in the league and kicker Matt Stover's accuracy. Because of those factors, Baltimore has been able to overcome a passing game ranked last in the league, red-zone struggles, turnovers and bouts with instant replay officials.

"We're a team that has a good defense, that runs the ball well, that has great coverage teams, that has shown a vertical presence on the outside, but needs to find more consistency at that," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I think that defines us pretty well."

In the second half of the season, the Ravens face teams with a combined record of 30-35. However, the next month is challenging, beginning this week against the St. Louis Rams, followed by the Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.

"I think we haven't played our best ball yet," linebacker Ed Hartwell said. "We have great potential. That should come out in the second half of the season."

Here's a review of the Ravens' track record through eight games:

Quarterback: Rookie quarterback Kyle Boller is the lowest-rated passer in the AFC with a 62.3 quarterback rating, completing 105-of-202 passes for 1,138 yards, six touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Strengths: Mobility allows first-round draft pick to escape sacks, fairly durable so far, arm strength is at elite level when his mechanics are correct.

Weaknesses: Throws into coverage at times, needs to be more careful handling the football, overly reliant on primary targets. Fundamentals are an issue.

Running back: With a bruising style and a capacity for the breakaway sprint, Jamal Lewis leads the league with 1,045 yards rushing. Despite a stacked line of scrimmage, Lewis averages 5.6 yards a carry, breaking the single-game mark with 295 yards against Cleveland. Chester Taylor is emerging as a capable backup. Fullback Alan Ricard is a rugged blocker.

Strengths: Lewis demoralizes tacklers with a combination of size and speed that Jaguars personnel boss James Harris describes as "rare." His all-purpose output represents 47.5 percent of the Ravens' total offense.

Weaknesses: The running game has struggled near the goal line. Offense ranks last in the league in red-zone offense with just seven touchdowns in 24 possessions inside opponents' 20. Will Lewis wear down?

Receivers: They haven't been the picture of reliability or production. Travis Taylor has played better lately, but has dropped far too many passes. He could easily have 10 more catches than his total of 21 for 314 yards and three scores. Veteran additions Frank Sanders and Marcus Robinson have combined for only 14 catches, 136 yards and no scores. Randy Hymes' season-ending injury was a major loss.

Strengths: Route-running is solid, but there isn't much speed here except for Taylor, whose leaping ability is a plus. Robinson can create separation, but hasn't produced. Sanders is a polished player. All three have excellent size. Weaknesses: Inconsistent hands, lack of ideal speed, not respected much by opposing defensive backs.

Tight end: Todd Heap is a Pro Bowl selection often used at wide receiver. He has 29 catches for 398 yards and two touchdowns. Terry Jones is a good run-blocker who makes the most of his limited pass-catching opportunities.

Strengths: Heap's versatility, athleticism and toughness, along with Jones' unselfish attitude and physical nature.

Weaknesses: Heap could employ more fakes to disguise his flag patterns.

Offensive line: Heaviest blockers in the league are led by All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden to produce league-best 171.5 rushing yards a game. Left guard Edwin Mulitalo, center Mike Flynn, right guard Bennie Anderson and right tackle Orlando Brown have improved at getting to the second level on running plays.

Strengths: Overpowering run blockers. Ogden has excellent size and footwork. Brown is a mauling intimidator. Mulitalo excels at drive-blocking. Flynn is quick and smart.

Weaknesses: This unit isn't exactly nimble. Brown and Ethan Brooks are magnets for penalty flags. Pass protection has been decent.

Defensive line: The defensive line's statistics and active play indicate a more aggressive style this fall. Nose guard Kelly Gregg already has 50 tackles and two sacks. Tony Weaver and Marques Douglas have three and two sacks apiece.

Strengths: Hustle has been at a premium along with technique and a degree of scrappiness supplied by Gregg.

Weaknesses: Lack of size curtails ability to keep blockers off the linebackers. No dominant pass rusher.

Linebackers: Ray Lewis has recovered from his shoulder surgery and leads the Ravens with 114 tackles. More of his tackles have come downfield, though, but he has made an impact in pass coverage. Hartwell has been aggressive inside. Peter Boulware is starting to makehis presence felt as a pass rusher again. Behind Adalius Thomas and Cornell Brown, rookie Terrell Suggs has a team-high six sacks.

Strengths: Speed is the watch word along with Lewis' contagious intensity.

Weaknesses: Group makes far too many tackles downfield, including Lewis.

Secondary: Between Chris McAlister, Corey Fuller, Gary Baxter and Ed Reed, the defensive backs have intercepted 10 passes and held opponents to 11 touchdown passes. Reed has four interceptions and blocked two punts.

Strengths: Reed is the instinctive ace of the group likely bound for the Pro Bowl.McAlister is showing signs of deserving his franchise player status and salary. Baxter's versatility is a key factor. Fuller is a savvy leader who hasn't surrendered that many deep balls, although he has been picked on some.

Weaknesses: Fuller is injured. McAlister is prone to penalties. Which position is Baxter better at, free safety or corner?

Special teams: Kicker Matt Stover ranks third in the AFC in scoring. Punter Dave Zastudil averages 41.4 yards per punt. Lamont Brightful averages 26.7 on kickoff returns while Chester Taylor is averaging 20.4 yards on kickoffs. Gary Zauner's coverage units have been gotten the job done with the lone exception of being another of Chiefs star Dante Hall's victims.

Strengths: Stover's accuracy, Zastudil's consistency and kickoff specialist Wade Richey's distance along with Brightful's explosiveness.

Weaknesses: Unsettled between Brightful and Dedric Ward on unproductive punt return team.

NOTE: Brightful, Hymes, Jones, Mulitalo and Weaver participated in the American Red Cross blood drive Tuesday at M&T Bank Stadium.

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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