At 3-1 and atop the AFC North, the Ravens are enjoying their view on the rest of the NFL landscape.
But the team's continued residency there could depend on the rehabilitation and recovery of eight players from injuries.
Wide receivers Lee Evans (left ankle) and David Reed (left shoulder strain), cornerbacks Chris Carr (left hamstring) and Jimmy Smith (high left ankle sprain), safeties Tom Zbikowski (concussion) and Haruki Nakamura (right posterior cruciate ligament), left guard Ben Grubbs (right toe) and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (hamstring) have targeted the upcoming contest against the Houston Texans as their return date.
Count coach John Harbaugh as one who is awaiting their return.
"We hope to get them all back," Harbaugh said Monday during his weekly briefing. "I'd probably be a little bit disappointed if we don't get them all back. But I don't think you ever really know for sure on some of these things. Probably the No. 1 goal this week is to improve the health of our football team. We had seven guys out last night [before the game against the New York Jets]. I think that's a credit to the guys who played to play as well as they did."
That's one reason why Harbaugh elected to scrap plans to practice Tuesday and send the players on their way during the bye week. Injured players will continue to show up to the team's training facility in Owings Mills to receive treatment.
One player the coaching staff and fans are eager to see is Smith, the organization's first-round pick in April who has been sidelined since the season-opening rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers with his ankle injury.
Smith — who, at various stages of his rehabilitation, wore a protective boot on his left foot and shin, needed crutches to maneuver, and limped slowly — walked without discomfort or limitations in the locker room last week.
"I'm happy that it happened now and not later in the season," he said at the time. "I just try to stay positive about situations like this. … I'm just trying to hurry up and get on the Ravens train. That's all I'm trying to do."
Asked about the level of anticipation surrounding Smith's return, Harbaugh prefaced his comments by saying he hopes all the injured players can play against the Texans.
"I'm looking forward to seeing Jimmy get back and play and really begin his development as a player," Harbaugh conceded. "I hope that everybody would understand that it's going to be his first game playing when he comes back. We'll try to work him in there in a way that's best for our team and that's best for him becoming the player that he can become. We'll just have to see to what extent that is."
Smith would provide a boost to a defensive backfield that currently has seven healthy players in cornerbacks Cary Williams, Lardarius Webb, Danny Gorrer, Chykie Brown and Bryan McCann — who was signed by the Ravens on Tuesday — and safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard.
That group fared well against New York quarterback Mark Sanchez, who completed just 11-of-35 passes for 119 yards and had a pass intercepted by Webb and returned 73 yards for a touchdown.
"It'd be hard for me to point and say it was a problem," Harbaugh said of the secondary's play. "But we were down to six defensive backs when Zibby got the concussion. I'm impressed with the fact that those guys stepped up and played so well. We didn't play Chykie, so we were really playing with five at that point. And Danny Gorrer played very well. Webby obviously stepped up and played very well. I thought Cary Williams played like the starting corner that he is. He was in great position all day long. Very competitive. When you take away the quick game and your corners don't have to make a lot of those plays, if they throw a couple slants and if you break a couple of those slants up, that makes a big difference because that takes away something that is tough to defend when the corners have to do that for you."
One way of assisting the secondary is giving opposing quarterbacks scant time to find open receivers. The Ravens have done that, tying for eighth in the NFL in sacks with 11.
Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson acknowledged that the team's pass rushers are aware of the burden on the secondary.
"There's always pressure on the pass rush, there's always pressure on the back end," he said. "Everybody's got pressure. If they're struggling on the back end, then yeah, it would help to get to the quarterback more."
The Ravens are one of six teams with a bye week, the first one of the NFL season. The timing, however, couldn't have been better, according to Harbaugh.
"It really is with the number of injuries we have," he said. "Normally, you like to have it kind of in the middle, but where we are at injury-wise right now, it is the best timing we could have had."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun