The Ravens are at a crossroads. The rest of the season will be interesting to watch as we will find out what shape this team will take. Many predicated, myself included, that it would take the beginning of the season for this team to gel. Well, we are about at the mid-point of the season and this team is still struggling to find itself.
The Ravens lack a true identity. The Ravens have been, for years, a smash-mouth team. They are not that kind of team now.
On defense, they have tried to bring back that smash-mouth identity, with varying levels of success. On offense, this team has been dying to transition to a spread attack. Injuries and roster defections to the receiving corps have caused the Ravens to slow down the pace and go back to a running attack, yet the run game is abysmal.
Reality: Are they a ball-controlling offense with a suffocating defense? Like last year’s team, are they going to spread out opposing defenses and hope the defense is more of a bend, don’t break defense? A combination of both, or a mix of all?
The problem is that the Ravens don’t do many, or any, of these things well. The offensive line woes (performance and schematics) have caused many problems in finding a rhythm on offense. Defensive lapses, whether in the secondary or along the front seven, have allowed opponents to sustain drives and hit quick strikes for yards and/or points.
On offense, I believe the Ravens should employ the style they used in the second half against Pittsburgh—lining up in three wide receiver sets; spreading out defenses; and throwing short, quick passes. This puts little stress on the offensive line, gives opportunities for screens and draws, and allows the Ravens to get their best 11 players on the field. Until the offensive gets healthy and recalibrated scheme-wise, the smash-mouth run game needs to be put on hold.
The Ravens had a great opportunity this bye week to assess their situation and establish an identity on both sides of the ball. It will be fascinating to watch how it plays out on the field.
Offensive Line Play—Pointing Up?
The offensive line has struggled all season. The Ravens average 2.8 yards a carry and have given up 16 sacks, 19 quarterback hits, and 86 quarterback hurries per Pro Football Focus. They have struggled to open holes for the running backs and provide time for Joe Flacco to throw the ball.
Reality: While this is all highly accurate, there was a glimmer of hope for the offensive line coming out of the Pittsburgh game. They kept Flacco clean throughout the game (one sack surrendered by Ray Rice, courtesy of Pro Football Focus), and we saw a bit more of a push from the line. Kelechi Osemele, Eugene Monroe, and Marshal Yanda all had strong games against the Steelers in both pass protection and the run game.
While I do not believe this unit will all of a sudden snap back into a dominating line, I do believe the bye week provided time for Yanda (shoulder) and Michael Oher (ankle) to heal, while also giving Monroe more time to acclimate to his teammates and to the scheme (overhaul or not). There is evidence to suggest that the line will stabilize and start establishing itself.
In reality, the line play couldn’t go much lower, so it is not a stretch to say that its play is on an upswing.
Defensive Front Seven Play—Pointing Down?
After starting the season with a stout run defense, the Ravens have been gouged in the run game for 140 yards and 141 yards against the Packers and the Steelers, respectively. Is this a two-game blip, or is this a budding trend?
Reality: I would be willing to say that this was a two-game blip on the radar, but you have to factor in the disaster in Buffalo—203 yards on the ground.
Injuries to Haloti Ngata, Chris Canty, Marcus Spears, and Brandon Williams have hurt and challenged the depth of the defensive line unit. I think that has caused the ineffectiveness of this unit more than anything. Ngata is a shell of his former self. It will be very interesting to see how the Ravens handle him this offseason.
The linebacking crew has had its ups and downs as well; specifically, the inside ‘backers. Josh Bynes has struggled, both with over pursuing the ball carrier or getting lost in the wash when shedding blockers. For all of the accolades Daryl Smith has received this season, well-deserved I may add, he has been inconsistent against the run—his biggest gaffes coming against Buffalo and Pittsburgh. His forte has been defending the pass. Though Courtney Upshaw also struggled against Buffalo and Pittsburgh, he has been very stout when setting the edge.
All in all, this is hard to peg. I think the linebackers’ mistakes are correctable. It is hard to predict whether or not the defensive line can stay healthy. At the beginning of the season, this was an area of strength with the depth and athleticism incorporated on the line. If they can stay healthy, the line should be able to shut down the run, making opposing offenses more one-dimensional.
Offseason Roster Transformation Assessment
Ray Lewis (2012 version) vs. Darryl Smith
Minus the fire and brimstone that Lewis brings to his pre-game speeches, I will take Smith. He has been a steadying force in the middle, playing well against the pass, and well enough against the run.
Ed Reed (2013 version) vs. James Ihedigbo
Have you seen Ed Reed play in a Texan uniform? If you haven’t, be glad—it’s cringe worthy. Ihedigbo has been one of the biggest surprises on the Ravens this year.
Paul Kruger vs. Elvis Dumervil
Really? Really? This isn’t even close. The moment Dumervil signed this was a win for the Ravens—cap-wise and, more importantly, production-wise. Kruger, the sack artist: 2.5 sacks. Dumervil: 5.5 sacks.
Dannell Ellerbe vs. Josh Bynes
Though Ellerbe’s durability has always been in question—he has missed a few games for Miami this year—he has out-performed Bynes. With Jameel McClain on the mend, maybe we see more production from this position. Ellerbe would be great to have, but not at his salary: 7 years, $35 million, with $7 million guaranteed.
Cary Williams vs. Jimmy Smith
I was recently watching the last few minutes of Super Bowl XLVII, and I saw this play—something I had never noticed before, nor had heard discussed. Please watch Williams at the top of the screen. What in the world is he doing? Had he not driven his man into the bench area, he would have been there to help contain Frank Gore. Though Smith can be maddening at times, he has played very well the last four games. His stock is pointing up, and I will take him over the money thrown at Williams any day of the week, twice on Sundays.
Bernard Pollard vs. Matt Elam
Pollard was, and is, atrocious in pass coverage. His physical play led to too many bone-headed and unneeded penalties. He is a glorified linebacker who is stout against the run but a liability in the passing game. Elam has struggled in his rookie season. This is a push in the short term, but I believe Elam will prove his worth as a first-round draft pick in the long term.
Matt Birk vs. Gino Gradkowski
This may be the single greatest loss the Ravens have incurred this season. Gradkowski has struggled mightily and his play has affected the play of Osemele and Yanda. The interior of the line is getting pushed around and they still have not figured out the delayed blitz up the middle. Birk provided stability and experience that the Ravens sorely miss.
Anquan Boldin vs. Marlon Brown/Tandon Doss
Boldin’s toughness is sorely missed, especially in light of the Dennis Pitta injury. However, he struggles to get open against press-man coverage. I love this stat, courtesy of Matt Vensel: Boldin’s last four games—14 receptions, 179 yards, 0 touchdowns. Doss’ last four games—13 receptions, 239 yards, 0 touchdowns.
The Ravens are 2.5 games behind the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals. Many people are claiming that the only way for the Ravens to have a chance for the playoffs is if they go 7-2 over the last nine games to finish with a 10-6 record.
Reality: With five more divisional games, including two against the Bengals, the Ravens need to take care of their business within the division.
In addition, the next six games are very winnable: at Cleveland, vs. Cincinnati, at Chicago (possibly without Jay Cutler), vs. New York Jets, vs. Pittsburgh, and vs. Minnesota.
Looking at the Bengals’ schedule, they have four difficult games: at Miami, at San Diego, home against the Colts, and against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
What does all of this mean? I believe the Ravens’ season hinges on the last two games: home against New England and a week 17 showdown in Cincinnati. Win those two games, and the Ravens will be playing at home in the first round of the playoffs.