I am sure many fans had hoped that the Ravens would have come out on Sunday and buried the Cleveland Browns, answering the lingering questions that swirled around the team since their dismal performance against the Denver Broncos. I am sure fans wanted to see Joe Flacco and the passing attack find more continuity. I am sure fans wanted to see the secondary and linebackers lockdown the middle of the field. And, I am sure fans wanted to see the run game get cranked up.
Unfortunately, those questions were (at best) answered incompletely.
It is amusing, on one hand, to hear the griping and criticism from some fans (and national media). Many of the issues the Ravens face this year are the same issues the Ravens faced as they entered the playoffs last year! Relax! It is only week two of a very long, long season that will have many twists and turns along the way.
This week’s Reality Assessment will assess perceptions, realities, and emerging trends within this young Raven season. You are going to hear the following sentiment from me quite a bit over the next several weeks: This team is a work in progress, and is going to take time to gel together. We will have a much better bead on this team once we approach the midway point of the season.
Unanswered Questions on Offense
As it was against Denver, the offense was hit and miss—another tale of two halves. There were dropped passes, quarterback misreads, and struggles in the run game.
The passing game featured the good and the bad. In the second half, Flacco established rhythm and an emerging rapport with Brandon Stokley as they connected on 4 of 5 targets, many of them first downs. However, in the first half, Flacco stared down his outside receivers too much. On at least two occasions, he missed Stokley sitting in the middle of the field for first downs.
Marlon Brown is another player who performed like a yo-yo. After a dropped touchdown in the first half, Brown picked-up his game in the second half by connecting with Flacco on a few receptions. Brown’s touchdown snag showed great effort and toughness.
In fact, the entire offense established a more fluid rhythm in the second half. They attacked the middle of the field, were more patient with the run game (more on that in a bit), and had a better balance with their play calling (it took two and a half quarters for the Ravens to run consecutive run plays).
Reality: Offensively, there are just too many added parts to the equation at the skill positions to think that this offense is going to pick-up where it left off during last year’s postseason. That is not realistic. However, there needs to be more overall consistency. Contrary to national perception, I think the passing game has the personnel to succeed, and it will be alright in the long run. It will just take more time to get everyone in synch with one another.
The area that is most concerning is the run game. Outside of new center Gino Gradkowski, this is the same offensive line from last year. I had predicted that line coach Juan Castillo would make a difference with this unit, but so far, that has not translated onto the field. Gradkowski was getting abused by defensive tackle Phil Taylor, and there were few holes for Ray Rice to run his slashing style. If the offense wants to be explosive, they need to be more balanced, and that begins with the run game.
Defense: Pass rush vs. Pass Coverage
Wow! Watching the pass rush overwhelm the Browns offense was impressive. Terrell Suggs easily had his most productive day against a usual tough assignment in All-Pro Joe Thomas. Elvis Dumervil and Suggs are fierce off the edges, and the overall depth at this position is fantastic. The interior line pushed the pocket as well. Offenses have to pick their poison—be mindful of the outside speed or be stout up the middle. You can’t really do both.
If the pass coverage can get to the point where it matches the pass rush, this defense could be lights out. However, that hasn’t been the case. A change in the starting lineup helped. Matt Elam replaced Michael Huff, and though he looked tentative at times, Elam improved as the game progressed. Jimmy Smith found the ball most of the day, and played maybe his best game in a Ravens’ uniform. There was marked improvement, but the Ravens’ secondary still allowed some gaffes.
Reality: This falls mostly in the “needs time to gel” category. One area that needs to improve greatly is the zone coverage. When the Ravens rush four and drop seven into coverage, they have breakdowns in communication between the linebackers and secondary, and/or the rush doesn’t provide enough pressure. As the entire unit comes together (as many as seven new starters), this will undoubtedly improve. Like the skill positions on offense, the talent is more than adequate.
Tight End Issues, Both Sides of the Ball
The Ravens’ tight ends struggle with catching (Ed Dickson) and staying healthy (Dallas Clark seems to wince and every time he gets touched). Since the Dennis Pitt injury, not much has gone right with this position.
It appears as though Flacco has lost faith in Dickson. After Dickson’s drop on a perfect seam pass on first down to open the game was frustrating, Flacco didn’t target him again in the game. Clark went down with an injury after his one and only catch. When blocking tight end Billy Bajema is the leading receiver at tight end, there is a problem.
On the other side of the ball, the Ravens struggled covering another athletic tight end. For a team that excelled at covering the tight end last year (until Ray Lewis came back and was picked on repeatedly), this trend is troubling.
Reality: For the offense, I believe Flacco needs to exhibit more leadership and he needs to keep feeding the tight ends the ball. I say this because the tight ends are occupying the middle of the field and Flacco cannot merely attack outside the numbers. He needs to build their confidence.
Conversely, the tight ends need to catch the darn ball! Flacco and Dickson had chemistry in training camp, and it needs to return. Dickson needs to put his talent and attributes together in his contract year—plain and simple. If Clark stays healthy, his leadership and experience can provide something. However, if things don’t improve, I am not against at giving the heralded rookie practice squad player, Matt Furstenburg, an opportunity.
On defense, I think the Ravens get this squared away. As I mentioned above, once the linebackers and secondary sort out their communication (and the linebackers work on the depth of their drops in coverage) the middle of the field will again be patrolled properly. Daryl Smith played a much better game than he played last week in Denver, especially in coverage (according to Pro Football Focus, he went from a negative rating to a positive rating in coverage). One potential area of concern is Arthur Brown’s injury. He has the speed to cover and he provides more schematic flexibility for coordinator Dean Pees.
Tucker Faces First Bump in the Road
Justin Tucker missed both of his field attempts, from 50 and 44 yards. Kind of hard to go perfect for the season when this happens…
Reality: There is no panic whatsoever. This is the first obstacle Tucker has faced since he won the job last year, and it will be interesting to watch how he responds. But, my opinion is that we will see him respond positively, with a resilient approach to the mental side of the kicking position.
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An avid sports fan, and a passionate Ravens fan. However, I don't always wear the purple-shaded glasses.