6:38 PM EDT, November 1, 2012
The Ravens are at the crossroads.
When they play the Browns on Sunday in Cleveland, they will be hitting the midway point of the season and preparing for the second half stretch run.
So, there isn't a lot of time left to search for offensive or defensive identities, only to find strengths and how to build on them, and hide weaknesses.
"This is a stretch during the year that is pivotal for every team because you're going into November and November is really when you're able to position yourself for that stretch run, which is December and January football," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
"So, it's a big opportunity for us and what we do starting this week and going forward is going to determine where we stand when the games mean the most. So, there is a stepping stone effect here during the season. We're positioned well right now. We need to continue to improve so we can set ourselves up for when it counts the most."
Harbaugh says the Cleveland game is a "must win" and he is right. The Ravens have had two weeks to prepare for a team Harbaugh hasn't lost to since coming to Baltimore in 2008.
A win shows the Ravens can win a game without stars Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb. A win also sets the tone for a second half that includes Pittsburgh twice, San Diego, Denver, the New York Giants and the Cincinnati Bengals.
Despite a 5-2 record, the Ravens have been a model of inconsistency especially on the road. We could find out Sunday if the proper corrections were made.
"What's to be sick about?" asked Harbaugh when asked if his team was tired of the criticism of not playing well on the road. "It's a factor. We've got to play better on the road. We know that. We're going to hear about it until we do better. So, it doesn't really matter if we're sick of it or not, we just have to play better."
The Ravens won't make a lot of personnel changes. If they did, that would indicate panic. They are 5-2, remember?
But from talking to players this week, there were hints the Ravens might run the ball more. They have been dominated in time of possession and the Ravens have the No. 30 run defense in the league allowing 131.6 rushing yards per game.
They won't run and they can't stop the run: that's not a good formula for winning.
Ravens running back Ray Rice suggested a change might be coming.
"Yes, like I said, I always try to factor myself in — whether it's running or receiving — but I know where I am most effective," Rice said. "That 20 to 25 touch range is usually pretty good, but we know there's only one football to go around."
Harbaugh seems to be leaning toward running the ball more as well.
"We have had success running the ball, we feel like running the ball ties in with time of possession," he said. "That is something that we want to be able to do. We have always been able to do that. It's got to be part of our personality, and it's important to us."
The Ravens won't abandon the no-huddle. It's a major part of the offense now, and has been a strong weapon at times. During the bye week, though, the team made a concerted effort to improve the communication, especially on the road.
"We are still keeping that same mind set," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We want to come out and we want to put pressure on these guys. We think it gives us an advantage and it's something that we've been building and we're not going to let it go. I think its part of the reason that we've been very good a times.
"I think we're really building something here. I think that's a big part of it, so I think we have to continue to make that a big part of it."
There might eventually be some new faces on defense. The Ravens have gotten several starters healthy including defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and end Terrell Suggs. They will probably stay with the line rotation of Ma'ake Kemoeatu, Terrence Cody, Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee, but with the exception of Ngata, they all risk losing playing time if they don't perform better.
The Ravens are limited in changes they can make at linebacker or in the secondary, but it will be interesting to see if the cornerbacks are more physical in press coverage.
There is very little coordinator Dean Pees can do with this defense because of the lack of personnel, but he will be under scrutiny if the defense continues to falter in the second half. The Ravens are ranked No. 28 overall, which is unheard of in Baltimore.
Going to Cleveland will be a tough assignment. If the Browns could have held onto the football, they could have beaten the Ravens in Baltimore on Sept. 27 instead of losing 23-16.
Regardless of the score, the Browns have always been physical and played the Ravens tough. They have won two of their last three games including a 7-6 win over San Diego last week.
"In my mind, we need to win that game this week, and I know Cleveland feels the same way and they are going to be all loaded up the same way," Harbaugh said. "I am standing by my words — I want to win that game."
A win might signal the Ravens are getting better, which isn't the case at this point. On some days the offense shows up, and sometimes it doesn't. The defense has totally disappeared.
Sunday could be a new beginning or the beginning of the end. The Ravens are at a crossroads.
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