By Matt Vensel
The Baltimore Sun
9:54 AM EDT, October 14, 2013
Six games into the season, the Ravens are a .500 team with about 500 unanswered questions on offense.
The offensive line has often resembled a row of subway turnstiles. The running backs have shown little burst when they do find running lanes. The play of the team’s pass-catchers has been wildly inconsistent. And quarterback Joe Flacco has been erratic so far, alternating impressive throws with confounding ones.
Their saving grace has been the revamped defense, which has played very well since Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos made it rain touchdowns in the season opener. The Green Bay Packers put up big numbers Sunday, but the Ravens remained in the game because the defense held firm inside the red zone.
Rebuilding the defense was Ozzie Newsome’s primary focus this past offseason and he rightfully received rave reviews. And as the Ravens sit here at 3-3, I can’t help but think what their record would be if the defense was playing like it did for much of last season. It’s quite possible the Ravens could still be winless right now. The defense has been that good. And the offense has been that bad.
There are a lot of fans lamenting the loss of Anquan Boldin. They tell me nearly daily about how much the Ravens miss his strong hands and clutch catches over the middle.
There is a flip side, though. If the Ravens had kept Boldin, they could not have signed strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who was all over Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers throughout Sunday’s 19-17 loss. Starting defensive end Chris Canty probably wouldn’t be here. Ditto for Daryl Smith, their three-down middle linebacker.
Smith has been good. Canty has done OK. And Michael Huff, their other free-agent acquisition, has been a backup and a disappointment. But Dumervil has been the one that has helped changed this defense, teaming up with rush linebacker Terrell Suggs to turn what was a toothless unit for much of last season into one with a lot of bite.
For the better part of three quarters, the Ravens rattled Rodgers, who was having trouble hitting open receivers after two of his top targets were knocked out of the game. Dumervil got to him twice, stripping him both times, and the Packers did all they could to keep Suggs away from Rodgers, whether it was through play design or flat-out holding him whenever he beat his blocker. The Ravens shut out the Packers in four trips inside the red zone, which is why they were still in a game they shouldn’t have been.
Eventually, the defense ran out of gas, epitomized by Suggs sluggishly dragging his tired body to the sideline late in the fourth quarter as the Packers tried to pound out a win with running back Eddie Lacy. The defense had some up with the necessary stops all day -- and all season -- but they could no longer carry the offense on their shoulders.
Rodgers would finish the game with 315 passing yards and Lacy and company would rush for 140 yards. Those aren’t numbers the proud Ravens defenders probably feel good about. But if these Packers were playing the Ravens defense of 2012, they might have piled up 600 yards while running away with the game, perhaps before halftime.
This is not meant to rip that defense, one that did its part in helping the Ravens win the Super Bowl. This is meant to point out how much better the defense is this season.
The Ravens have three wins and are just a game back in the AFC North due in large part to the play of the defense, the one that Newsome wisely overhauled this past spring. So when thinking about the poor play of their offense, it’s hard not to shudder when thinking of where the Ravens might be without one of the NFL’s best defenses.
One thing that I learned
The second-half success running the ball against the Dolphins was a mirage. I wrote last week that the running game appeared to be headed in the right direction, but it took an abrupt U-turn against the Packers. At one point, Ray Rice had three yards on eight carries and Joe Flacco was their leading rusher with six yards. The Ravens struck out at the goal line in the second quarter and mustered just 47 yards on 22 carries. The offensive line, which had newcomer Eugene Monroe at left tackle, continues to look out of sorts. I’m no offensive line guru, but perhaps the Ravens should just simplify things and let maulers like Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele go out and maul.
Handing out game balls
Wide receiver Tandon Doss continued to make plays in his second stint with the Ravens, catching four passes for a career-high 99 yards and also picking up 38 yards on a punt return. The defensive game ball goes to Dumervil, who now has five sacks in six games.
This week’s head-scratcher
I find absolutely no fault in John Harbaugh’s decision to go for it on 4th and Goal from the 1-yard line. You can quibble about the play call itself if you want, but it was a sound decision to go for it. The decision I didn’t get was asking Flacco to throw late in the second quarter. After an incomplete pass on first down took eight seconds off the clock, the Ravens should have just packed it in with 12 seconds left in the half and the ball at their 34-yard line. Instead, a passing play was called and Flacco fumbled. The Packers recovered and kicked a field goal as the half expired. I’m all for being aggressive, which is why I was cool with the fourth-down gamble. But what was it that Kenny Rogers said about knowing when to fold them?
They said it (or tweeted it)
“I think I’ve got to be better and we all have to be better or we’re not going to win football games.” -- Flacco, who threw for 342 yards and two touchdowns, though most of that damage was done during the fourth quarter.
The stat that stands out
14.3 -- the Ravens’ conversion rate on third down Sunday.
Three (thoughts) and out
1. The return of Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown made the receiver competition as crowded as it has been since training camp. For the first time all season, the Ravens had five active wide-outs. Brandon Stokley was the only inactive one. Brown got the start and Jones played sparingly, though he did score a touchdown in the red zone. Tandon Doss continued to have a large role and led the team with four catches for a career-high 99 yards. The rotation is far from settled, but we could see Jones and Brown split time in the two-wide sets and Doss and Brown could split snaps in the slot in the three-wide sets. We even saw the Ravens use four receivers on a couple of plays, something they only had done once in the first five games of the season. Now that everyone is healthy, the Ravens need to find the most productive combinations.
2. After a rocky start to the season, Jimmy Smith has settled in as a starting cornerback and is playing well. He had a strong game against the Buffalo Bills, and after struggling a little last week, he bounced back against the Packers. Sure, it helped that James Jones got knocked out of the game early. But outside of one poor missed tackle, he blanketed receivers on the right side of the field and picked off Rodgers once. Smith has been more physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage, bumping them then trailing them closely down the field. Smith is by no means a shutdown corner, but he has definitely improved.
3. My primary task after the game was writing about rookie safety Matt Elam’s low hit that knocked Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb out of the game with a knee injury. Rodgers was still ticked off about the hit in the locker room after the game and called it “questionable” at his post-game press conference. To his credit, though, he acknowledged that the NFL has made it tough for defenders with heavy fines for helmet-to-helmet hits. My take is that Elam had no malice on the second-quarter play. Had he gone higher, he might not have been able to wrap up Cobb. It was unfortunate that cutting Cobb down resulted in a knee injury, but Elam was just doing what he needed to do to keep Cobb from getting the first down.
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