During his weekly Monday news conferences, Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s mood usually depends on how well the Ravens played the previous day. That’s understandable and I’m sure not unique in any of the 32 buildings in the NFL on Mondays. But in the brief time I’ve been covering the Ravens, I’ve never seen Harbaugh as direct, open and candid as he was this past Monday following the blowout against the Houston Texans. He took accountability for the loss and said that he and his staff didn’t prepare the team well enough. He acknowledged that the Ravens needed to show more patience and abandoned the running game and Ray Rice too early. He agreed that the offensive struggles on the road have become a big issue and he offered no excuses for them. He also hinted that changes could be coming. He wasn’t defensive at any point, even when he was asked about Ed Reed not being included on the injury report. He didn’t hide behind coaching cliches or a vow of secrecy, and he didn’t dismiss any question based on the fact that the Ravens are 5-2 and in first place in the AFC North. Why am I mentioning all this? Well, I firmly believe that fans will see a different Ravens team in Cleveland next weekend. I could see Rice getting the ball more and Bernard Pierce playing a bigger role. I could see an offensive line rotation rather than a set starting five. I could see other young players getting worked in at different spots. Perhaps, I’m reading way too much into a 20-minute news conference, but everything about Harbaugh – his words, his body language, his tone – told me that he’s prepared to make some changes following the bye week. For those of you who keep asking whether offensive coordinator Cam Cameron or defensive coordinator Dean Pees could be in jeopardy, I’m not talking about drastic changes like that. I’m talking more about changes with personnel and play calling.
The big question this week was whether it’s too early to panic for the Ravens after how poorly they played at Reliant Stadium and all the key injuries that they’ve had recently. My answer is no, but it has to be concerning that that the Ravens’ best all-around performance this season was in Week One over the Cincinnati Bengals. Their six games since have either featured a poor offensive effort, a poor defensive one or a combination of both. The Ravens have long prided themselves on getting better as the season wears on, but it would be hard to mount an argument saying that has occurred so far this year.
Speaking of Rice, he is getting the ball less this season but not significantly less. Through seven games last year, Rice totaled 115 carries for 489 yards (4.3 yards a carry) and five rushing touchdowns, and 33 catches for 373 yards and two touchdowns. Through this season’s first seven games, Rice has 106 carries for 524 yards (4.9 per carry) and five rushing touchdowns, and 29 catches for 245 yards and no touchdowns. So on average, Rice is getting fewer than two touches less per game than what his workload was through this point last year. It is not a misconception, however, that Rice is averaging significantly less touches in Ravens losses than wins. In the Ravens’ 17 regular-season wins over the past two years, Rice is averaging 23 touches. In their six losses during that span, Rice is averaging 16.5 touches. Many fans, not happy with Cameron, have pointed out that a decreased workload for Rice is a common denominator in recent Ravens losses. I think there is more to it than that, but the numbers do support those claims.
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The 2,800 total yards that the Ravens have allowed through seven games is the highest their defense has surrendered since 1996, which was also the Ravens and Ray Lewis’ first season. The defensive issues have led some to question whether Pees is the problem. I opined last week in this place that it’s more of a personnel issue and that Pees has tried just about everything. My opinion hasn’t changed after the debacle in Houston. I understand that a coach’s job is to get the most out of his players and to put everyone in the best position to succeed. However, plenty of Ravens are getting an opportunity and is there one guy on the defense that has exceeded your expectations this season? Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has played pretty well. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was playing at a Pro Bowl level before the knee and shoulder injuries, but he always has huge expectations. Cornerback Lardarius Webb was playing really well but he’s out now. Am I missing anyone? The point is it’s always about the players and right now, they’re just not getting it done. Pees does share some responsibility in that, but he shouldn’t shoulder all the blame.
As has been pointed out a lot this week after linebacker Sergio Kindle was waived and ultimately signed back to the practice squad, some of the Ravens’ defense’s issues this year have to be traced back to a failure to land impact players on that side of the ball in recent drafts. It’s too early to judge this year’s class, though Courtney Upshaw has made nice strides. And it’s far too early to give up on cornerback Jimmy Smith, the Ravens’ top pick in 2011 who has struggled. However, Kindle has made no impact and the other defensive player the Ravens drafted in the second round in 2010 – nose tackle Terrence Cody – has been one of this season’s biggest disappointments. Webb was a great find in the third round in 2009, but in the second round that year, the Ravens selected linebacker Paul Kruger, who has had four uneven seasons in Baltimore. The two defensive players the Ravens selected in the third round in 2008 – linebacker Tavares Gooden and safety Tom Zbikowski – have left the organization. General manager Ozzie Newsome and his staff have set the standard in the NFL with quality drafting, but some of their early-round defensive picks in recent years have not panned out and the Ravens have felt some effects of that this season.
Rookie kicker Justin Tucker is now 14 of 15 on field-goal attempts, while the guy he beat out, veteran Billy Cundiff, is currently unemployed after missing 5 of 12 field-goal attempts for the Washington Redskins. By now, the Ravens’ decision to go with Tucker, which was one of training camp’s biggest storylines, is no longer being analyzed. But it is pretty remarkable that in parts of three seasons with the Ravens, Cundiff was 1-for-9 from beyond 50 yards. In just seven games, Tucker is already 4-of-4 from beyond 50.