You’ve probably seen this by now but it’s worth reiterating. By virtue of the Denver Broncos’ comeback victory last night against the San Diego Chargers, only two of the AFC’s 16 teams will enter Week Seven with a winning record. Those teams – the Ravens and Houston Texans – play each other on Sunday at Reliant Stadium. What does that mean in the grand scheme of things? Well for one, there is a whole lot of mediocrity right now in the AFC and that might be understating it. Two, as bad as things appear right now for the Ravens with the defensive struggles and the injuries, they have managed to avoid the pitfalls that have hit their AFC rivals and they’re in ideal position in the standings. That’s probably worth keeping in mind with all the gloom-and-doom that you’re sure to be hearing and seeing this week.
Ray Lewis has yet to address his season-ending torn triceps injury, though the speculation on whether or not he’s played his last game in the NFL is sure to increase until he does. My take? I’ve been covering the Ravens for a little more than a full season now so I’m not going to claim I know exactly what Lewis is thinking about right now. However, I do feel comfortable in saying that I’d be extremely surprised if this is how Lewis goes out. It would counter everything that he’s preached, everything that he’s worked for and persevered through. He’s a guy that you’ve always believed will go out on his terms. Now, this clearly is a significant injury that requires surgery and a six-month rehab period. That would cast doubt in anybody’s mind about whether it’s worth it to keep going, never mind a 37-year-old who has pushed his body to the limit through 17 NFL seasons. My guess is that Lewis will consider it one more challenge to overcome, and be in training camp next year ready for an 18th season. And I’m certainly not alone in that belief. The next person I speak with who knows Lewis well and feels the linebacker will retire following this injury will be the first.
Count me in the group that believes that the season-ending loss of cornerback Lardarius Webb to a torn ACL in his left knee is a bigger blow than the Lewis injury. That’s no disrespect to Lewis, the team’s leading tackler and emotional leader. It is, however, a nod to Webb, who has become so much more than just a good cornerback. For much of this season, quarterbacks avoided throwing in Webb’s direction, the ultimate sign of respect afforded to only the game’s best. But in addition to being a dangerous return man, Webb was one of the team’s top tacklers, often helping against the run. He also came in on the blitz quite a few times and has really good ball skills. Webb, who will have to rehab a torn ACL for the second time, has become a great all-around football player. All you needed to do was see the reaction of his defensive teammates when Webb went down with the injury. The rest of the secondary immediately rushed over and took a knee around him. Fellow cornerback Corey Graham put his hands to his helmet the second Webb dropped to the turf. Not only is he a popular teammate, but he’s one of their most irreplaceable players.
The Ravens got relatively good news on the health of another of their top defensive players: defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. An MRI on his balky knee revealed an MCL sprain. Obviously, when you put that into context with the news about Webb and Lewis, it’s a huge relief for the Ravens. However, it’s still a situation very much worth watching and probably worrying about. Remember how much Ngata was affected by a leg injury down the stretch last year? Now, he’s hobbled again to go along with a bad shoulder, all while he continues to get double teamed as pretty much the only Ravens defensive lineman that is producing. That’s an awful lot of responsibility to be carrying around on a troublesome knee.
Before playing the blame game with first-year Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees – and the whispers have already begun – it’s probably wise to remind yourself of just how much the defense lost from the group that made things really tough on Tom Brady in last year’s AFC championship game. There is no Terrell Suggs, Cory Redding or Jarret Johnson. Reserve safeties Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski have departed. Lewis and Webb are now gone as well. You’re talking about seven players from last year’s defense that won’t be on the field come Sunday in Houston. And beyond that, I don’t see a vanilla and passive defense. Under Pees, the Ravens have blitzed plenty and tried different things. But right now, the Ravens are not getting to the quarterback, they’re getting pushed around at the line of scrimmage and they’re not tackling. I don’t see it as a coaching issue. I see it as a personnel issue.
With the struggles of Ma’ake Kemoeatu, Terrence Cody, Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee against the run, it will be interesting to see if the Ravens try to mix things up a little bit with the personnel. Young defensive tackles, Bryan Hall and DeAngelo Tyson, have both been inactive for the first six games. Their time may be coming soon with the Ravens having allowed more than 400 combined rushing yards the past two weeks.
And finally, here are five positive observations on things that were overlooked from Sunday’s victory over the Cowboys:
1. The Ravens went 6-for-10 on third downs after entering the game converting on just 33.3 percent of third-down conversions through their first five games. As good as their offense has been, their struggles on third down were holding them back a little. Sunday was a really good first step.
2. Second-year players Chykie Brown and Anthony Allen both made really good plays on special teams. As the gunner, Brown made a really nice tackle on Dwayne Harris on a punt return in the third quarter, while Allen made one of the big blocks to spring Jacoby Jones on his 108-yard kickoff return. The Ravens coverage units have made drastic improvements and a big reason is the emergence of young special teams players like Brown and Allen.
3. Offensive tackles Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele more than held their own against the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware. One of the game’s best pass rushers, Ware did get one quarterback sack but that was pretty much all he did. Oher and Osemele did a commendable job.
4. The Ravens made four red zone trips and three of them resulted in touchdowns. With the struggles of the defense, the Ravens probably aren’t going to have the luxury of regularly settling for three points.
5. Joe Flacco completed 17 of 26 passing attempts for 234 yards and Ravens’ receivers were finding ways to get open. With all the talk about the wide receiver’s struggles against press coverage, that shouldn’t be overlooked.