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Mike Preston: Ravens need improvements in several areas to make run for postseason

Despite a losing record, the Ravens are still in the AFC playoff hunt with seven games remaining. Only three of those teams have winning records so the Ravens could realistically pull it off even though the percentages are low.

The next two games are extremely important against the Packers (5-4) in Green Bay on Sunday, and then a Monday night contest in Baltimore versus the Houston Texans (3-6) on Nov. 27.

Both of those teams have lost star quarterbacks for the season though Green Bay broke a three-game losing streak Sunday with a strong performance from backup quarterback Brett Hundley in a 23-16 win against the Chicago Bears.

Houston, though, might be done for the season with Tom Savage replacing rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson, who was having an incredible year before tearing his ACL nearly two weeks ago.

The Ravens then face the Detroit Lions (5-4) with quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-2) with Ben Roethlisberger before closing out the season with the Cleveland Browns (0-9), Indianapolis Colts (3-7) and Cincinnati Bengals (3-6).

There is hope.

But from here on out it’s not as much about the other team as it is about the Ravens. Below is a list of 10 ways they need to improve in the remaining games to get into the postseason:

1. The Ravens need to run more of the hurry-up offense. Quarterback Joe Flacco seems to prefer the faster tempo and the offense performs better when there is a sense of urgency. It’s a gamble if it doesn’t work because the defense is out on the field longer but at this point, the Ravens have to get more production out of the offense. One other thing: In the closing minutes of a game, the two-minute offense is still too slow.

2. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh needs to stop talking about analytics and philosophies and do what is best for the team. In other words, cut down on all this gambling on fourth-and-short-yardage situations and take the points. The Ravens have one of the best field goal kickers in the NFL in Justin Tucker and an average offensive line at best. Football is a game of instincts, emotion and common sense, but emotion shouldn’t overrule the other two elements.

3. Safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson have to step up their games. Jefferson has struggled covering tight ends and opposing teams are taking advantage. Weddle’s forte was tackling in San Diego but he has struggled in the open field for the Ravens this season.

4. Whatever happened to screens, draws, bootlegs, rollouts and slants to slow the other team’s pass rush? The Ravens run some of the worst screens in the NFL. If they need a better idea, watch Green Bay on Sunday because the Packers are one of the best screen teams in the NFL.

5. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees needs to stay creative on third-and-long passing situations. It’s fun to watch the different pressures the Ravens use after crowding seven or eight players near the line of scrimmage. They have to do this because they don’t win a lot of individual matches without the craziness.

6. The Ravens have to find a way to get rookie linebacker Tyus Bowser more playing time. But it’s good to see the Ravens using cornerback and top draft pick Marlon Humphrey more in passing situations. That’s an impressive group with Humphrey joining cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr on the back end.

7. The Ravens need a veteran receiver to emerge, not only as a downfield threat, but as a team leader. Tight end Ben Watson has played well but more teams are starting to bracket him in passing situations. Whenever Jeremy Maclin appears to be on the verge of consistently breaking out, he suffers an injury. The Ravens have to find a way to get Mike Wallace more involved in the offense. If used properly, he could become a positive influence as far as leadership. The Ravens need better timing on route combinations and have to complete more passes in third-down situations.

8. The Ravens need to become less predictable in short-yardage situations. When that occurs, they just put running back Buck Allen in the backfield and run a simple dive. How about putting Alex Collins in the backfield as well to give a defense something else to think about? Or how about using Collins on a pitch? He does have good speed and body lean and runs with power.

9. Flacco has to cut down on the dumb mistakes like tripping over his feet or throwing interceptions because of poor mechanics. Those can be avoided with more self-awareness and coaching in practice.

10. Special team play is usually strong for the Ravens, but they are allowing too much penetration on punts and field goals. That could hurt them before the end of the season.

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