Ravens have potential, but lack consistency

Five weeks into the NFL season, the Ravens still haven't shown much improvement.

The questions you might have been asking going into training camp are basically the same ones you're asking now. Can quarterback Joe Flacco regain the high level he showed in the postseason? Can the Ravens replace both Ed Reed and Ray Lewis? Will those young receivers step up? How will the cornerbacks hold up? Can the new free-agent acquisitions on defense remain injury-free?

It is easy to say that some of those concerns might be eased if the Ravens beat the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, but they won't go away, not yet. This league is about consistency, or at least building to that level.

The Ravens aren't close, which is why they are 3-2. They got mugged by the Denver Broncos and they choked against the Buffalo Bills. They beat up on the Houston Texans and managed close wins over the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins.

"We always look forward to doing that," Flacco said of being consistent. "That's what our goal is. We haven't been necessarily consistent enough, and we haven't been good enough in a lot of areas, but we've been dealing with a lot. We're working hard, and we're getting better and better each week."

That's not true. Flacco probably meant that as long as they keep working, they hope to get better. But Flacco hasn't played up to the level that forced the Ravens to sign him to a fat contract during the offseason. He has been Joe Average, as streaky now as he was in his first five years.

The running game was expected to be a strength this season, but running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce have been timid, and the best blocking fullback in the game, Vonta Leach, can't get on the field because the running game has been failing (77.8 yards per game, 2.8 per carry).

Rookie receiver Marlon Brown has shown he can make plays, but neither he nor second-year receiver Deonte Thompson can avoid injuries and stay on the field for extended periods. Torrey Smith (Maryland) was expected to be the Ravens' vertical threat, but has turned into the team's lone big-play weapon.

A lot of these problems could be solved if the offensive line were playing better. Leading up to the season opener, this group was expected to be strong because the Ravens returned four of five starters.

Instead, Flacco has been sacked 14 times and beaten more than an old punching bag. The Ravens are expected to replace left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie with Eugene Monroe against the Packers, and that could solve some problems, but certainly not all of them.

"The running game hasn't changed much from last year," left guard Kelechi Osemele said. "We've added a couple more plays, but there hasn't been a significant difference. We're basically the same group as last year. We've been OK, but we've got to get better. We will."

There is much more optimism on the defensive side. The front seven has played reasonably well except for the debacle in Buffalo. The Ravens are ranked No. 14 in total defense, No. 6 against the run and No.16 against the pass.

But the concerns that were there before haven't disappeared either. The same guys who were injured last season — though some played for other teams then — keep getting hurt this year, such as defensive linemen Chris Canty, Marcus Spears and Terrence Cody.

And even though linebacker Jameel McClain has been cleared to practice soon, we still don't know whether his injured back would hold up for the rest of the season.

The secondary still gives up too many big plays. Cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith have improved, but nickel back Corey Graham has regressed. The starting safeties, Matt Elam and James Ihedigbo, are unpredictable from week to week.

If you're a pessimist, you can say that this appears to be a .500 team with a lot of weaknesses. If you're an optimist, you can point out that the running game started to jell last week, the passing game will improve with the return of receiver Jacoby Jones and the Ravens now have Monroe.

You are hopeful that all the defensive linemen will be healthy soon and that the secondary will continue to progress.

As for me, I see this team for what it is, regardless of whether it beats Green Bay. The Ravens have a lot of potential, but they haven't played up to it. There is still time for growth, but so far there has been little.

Very little.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

 
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