Ravens' first half marked by ups and downs

OWINGS MILLS -- At the midway point of the regular season, here's a look at some of the highs and lows of the Baltimore Ravens' first half:

OFFENSIVE MVP: Joe Flacco has emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the league, upgrading his accuracy and command of the offense. His poise is remarkable.

BREAKTHROUGH OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Ray Rice. The diminutive running back has developed into one of the most explosive, versatile all-purpose backs in the NFL.

BEST THROW: Flacco's deep spiral to Mark Clayton for a late over-the-shoulder touchdown catch against the Kansas City Chiefs to open the season.

BEST RUN: Rice using his fingertips to propel himself off the ground to scamper for a long touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals.

BEST CATCH: Veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason's acrobatic touchdown catch against the New England Patriots where he was upended, landing awkwardly and remaining on the ground for several minutes.

BEST TACKLE: All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis' game-preserving hit on fourth down to stop elusive San Diego Chargers running back Darren Sproles.

TROUBLING TREND: The Ravens' pass coverage has taken a major hit with several quarterbacks thriving against a suspect secondary.

BEST MOMENT: The Ravens' dominant 30-7 victory over the previously undefeated Denver Broncos as they excelled in all three phases.

WORST MOMENT: New kicker Steve Hauschka shanking a potential game-winning field goal against the Minnesota Vikings wide of the left upright.

SCARIEST MOMENT: Offensive tackle Jared Gaither being carted off the field with a neck injury at Gillette Stadium.

BEST PLAY: Free safety Ed Reed anticipating quarterback Carson Palmer's intentions and breaking on the football for an interception return for a touchdown against the Bengals.

WORST PLAY: Cornerback Frank Walker grabbing wide receiver Sidney Rice for an obvious pass interference infraction in the fourth quarter that declined since Rice caught the football anyway. The long gain set up the Vikings' game-winning field goal.

WORST CALL: Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs being penalized for roughing the passer when he grazed Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's knees with Brady successfully using his clout to influence the referee to throw the flag.

WORST JUDGMENT: Lewis' costly helmet-to-helmet hit on Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco during the final minutes of the Ravens' loss this season to Cincinnati at M&T Bank Stadium. It was an unnecessarily aggressive shot with the pass sailing well out of Ochocinco's reach anyway.

WORST DECISION: Not retaining clutch veteran kicker Matt Stover.

BEST DECISION: A tie between signing six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk and trading up in the first round to draft Ole Miss offensive tackle Michael Oher.

DEFENSIVE MVP: Ray Lewis. The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year leads the Ravens with 73 tackles, also forcing one fumble and registering a sack. It's hard to imagine what the defense would be like without him, especially with the Ravens not having a replacement to equal former inside linebacker Bart Scott's high standard of play and intensity.

BREAKTHROUGH DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson. Johnson is a gritty, dependable run-stuffer who has also become a dangerous pass rusher this season.

BEST ROOKIE: Oher is an aggressive, hard-nosed blocker with outstanding quickness who has started at both right tackle and left tackle since being drafted in the first round this spring.

MOST EXCITING PLAY: Rookie cornerback Lardarius Webb's electrifying 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on the opening play of the second half against the Broncos.

MOST COSTLY INJURY: Special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo's season-ending torn quadriceps tendon.

BIGGEST DISAPPEARING ACT: Former Pro Bowl running back Willis McGahee scored seven touchdowns early in the season. Since then, it's like he's been enrolled in the witness protection program. It's apparently through no fault of his own. Ray Rice has just played too well to take off the field.

BIGGEST CHANGE: The departure of popular, swaggering former defensive boss Rex Ryan.

COSTLY DEPARTURE: Besides missing Bart Scott, the Ravens also miss the steadying influence of former strong safety Jim Leonhard. Both players signed with the New York Jets during the offseason to play for Ryan.

GREATEST STRENGTH: The passing game. With the exception of the Cincinnati games, Flacco has been solid throughout the season.

BIGGEST WEAKNESS: The pass coverage, especially against bigger wide receivers.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: How a usually stout defense allowed Bengals running back Cedric Benson to rush for 100 yards in consecutive games as Cincinnati swept the season series.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: After signing former University of Maryland standout Domonique Foxworth to a four-year, $27.2 million contract that included $16.5 million in guaranteed money, he has yet to develop into a shutdown cornerback as the team had hoped he would.

Speedy and possessing strong character, Foxworth has hardly made any plays on the football despite being targeted often. He has one interception and nine pass deflections.


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