1. Joe Flacco isn't making the kind of progress that everyone believed he would, expected he would, and hoped he would. To argue otherwise right now is to deny reality.
Prior to this week's game against the Bengals, I was thinking a lot about what a polarizing player Flacco has become for Ravens fans.
In one camp, we have people who were so thrilled to see real quarterbacking after the years of wandering through the desert with the likes of Elvis Grbac, Chris Redman, Kyle Boller, Jeff Blake and Anthony Wright, they were convinced Flacco was the real deal. In the other camp, we had people who were never sold on his footwork, his detached leadership and his shaky decision making. They were convinced Flacco was a taller Kyle Boller, but with bushier eyebrows. I always felt like the truth fell somewhere in the middle. Flacco, statistically, had a good season last year, and when given time, he could throw a deep out as well as anyone in the league. But he never really seemed to have the kind of confidence in himself that you see in elite quarterbacks, and his mechanics were often stiff and awkward. He wasn't consistently great, or even consistently good, but he had his moments that made you believe he was the guy.
I shrugged off the first camp as outright homers, and the second camp (mostly) as nattering nabobs of negativism (to quote former Maryland governor and Vice President Spiro Agnew). But now, I'm wondering if the second camp has room for all the members who will be looking to join their ranks after this week. I can't decide yet if I'm one of them. I suspect a lot of people suddenly feel this way.
To be fair, what happened against the Bengals was not entirely Flacco's fault. In the first half, it seemed like the offensive line didn't know what protections to call to keep rushers out of his face, and the Ravens ran (I believe this is accurate) one play-action pass the first two quarters. It's unclear exactly what happened to the team that led the NFL in rushing attempts three seasons ago, but it seems to have vanished. Maybe it's nailed shut in one of the vacants and we need Lester Freamon and Jimmy McNulty from Major Crimes to find it for us, but right now, it's gone.
But as my colleague Mike Preston wisely pointed out in his blog this morning, Flacco seems to have the most trouble against Cover-2 defenses like the ones the Bengals and the Colts play. The corners play aggressive and sit on his favorite routes to the sidelines, the safeties and linebackers know he won't, or can't, beat them by throwing in the middle of the field, and so the windows where he feels comfortable throwing are pretty small. His first interception was a good aggressive play by Adam Jones. His second pick was a dying quail that was either the worst throw he'll make all season (you'd hope), or T.J. Houshmandzadeh ran the wrong route. I watched it four times and I'm still not sure which it was.
The Ravens coaches and players will likely rally around their quarterback this week, saying that one bad game does not make a career, and that anyone who criticizes or doubts him is an armchair quarterback who has no clue what he's talking about. And that's what they should do. That's what I would do if I were John Harbaugh. You protect your guy, otherwise he'll be eaten alive if you start expressing doubt. Anyone who points out how awkward he looks in the pocket or how rarely he steps into throws when he's pressured will be dismissed as a hater. They'll point to the Jets game (where he made some nice throws against a good defense), the fact that he's been to the playoffs twice, and say that, for whatever reason, Cincinnati just seems to have his number.
But privately, you have to know the Ravens are concerned. This is not a rookie quarterback anymore. Things have to start clicking at some point. Will they? No one can say for sure. 2. The immediate answer for this team is going to be patience, not Marc Bulger.
Let's shoot down the "Bulger needs to start against the Browns!" talk right now. It's not going to happen. The Ravens have invested a lot in Flacco -- time, money, hope -- and to panic and pull the plug now because of one really bad game would be a disastrous move. The entire organization is likely going to take a deep breath tonight and realize they're 1-1, and the fans calling for Bulger need to do the same.
I know that's going to be tough, because everyone (players, coaches and fans) is emotional right now. But for the fans, it would be wise to think back to last year for a second, when 90 percent of the fanbase wanted defensive coordinator Greg Mattison fired after four games. I wrote a post here on Ravens Insider explaining why firing your defensive coordinator in the middle of a season, his first season, would be totally foolish, and I've never been called so many nasty names. By the end of the year, the Ravens ended up with one of the best defenses in the league.
I point this out not to praise my own analysis, because I've been wrong plenty and will likely be wrong in the future, but to express that acting irrationally and impulsively is not how you want to run your organization. The NFL season is a long season. Look at what the Jets did today, for example. The people who were shoveling dirt on Rex Ryan's coaching career after one game suddenly aren't looking so smart, are they?
Bulger's time may come at some point this year, especially if the Ravens can't protect Flacco. He does have a quicker release than Flacco and more experience. But there is also a reason he's not the quarterback in St. Louis right now. But now is not the time to push the Bulger Panic Button (I'm going to trademark that, just in case, for the rest of the year). For Flacco, the psychological repercussions of getting benched would be immense. It's not like he has the kind of swagger that could be easily regained if Bulger's stint didn't work out. Then where would you be? Running the triple option with Boldin and Ray Rice?
3. After two games, it looks like the Ravens defense may have to do its best Bob Gibson impression this year.
In 1968, Gibson had one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. An intimidator and a fierce competitor, his ERA that year was a filthy 1.12. He racked up 268 strikeouts. In 24 starts, he allowed either one run, or zero runs. He threw 13 shutouts and 28 complete games.
And he still lost nine times.
His run support that year was only marginal, which brings us back to the Ravens. Can they win a Super Bowl when their offense can't seem to put points on the board? I know it's early, and both the Jets and Bengals have good defenses. But what if this continues? What if this team can't find something it can do on offense consistently well, regardless of whether or not the other team knows it's coming?
Before you invoke the 2000 Super Bowl defense, remember how much the league has changed the rules in the last 10 years. Performances like the one from 2000 are virtually impossible now. Look no further than Terrell Suggs' roughing-the-passer penalty today against Carson Palmer. It was a silly flag by the official, considering Palmer let go of the ball as Suggs was hitting him, and there was no helmet-to-helmet contact. I'm not sure how you throw a guy to the ground when you're already flying through the air. Check out this picture by Sun photographer Gene Sweeney Jr. It's a pretty good piece of evidence for Suggs and the Ravens.
If the current rules were in place 10 years ago, does Tony Siragusa pull up and not land on Rich Gannon in the AFC Championship, knocking him out of the game and essentially sending the Ravens to the Super Bowl? It's a different game that it was that day. Even if the Ravens defense was as good as the 2000 defense (which it's not) I don't think that aggressive blueprint would work. You have to score points.
The Bengals had some minor success running the ball, and Carson Palmer bailed them out by missing a wide open Chad Ochocinco in the back of the end zone early in the game, but overall, it was another excellent defensive performance from the Ravens. Say what you will about the lack of pass rush and a few missed tackles, but the Ravens didn't get beat deep and they didn't let the Bengals in the end zone. Ray Lewis continues to play really well, making an impact even when he doesn't make the tackle by blowing up plays by taking on fullbacks and lineman. (I disagree with him that he shouldn't have been flagged for tripping. Like it or not, that's the rule. And I dislike it very much when he complains about the referees. I know the fans enjoy it, especially those convinced the league is out to get the Ravens, but to me, it's just another excuse, and he preaches against making excuses all the time.)
The only thing you can really quibble with is the secondary can't seem to finish plays. Dawan Landry's dropped interception could have been a huge spark for the Ravens. He made a great read on the play, he just didn't finish it off.
4. T.J. Houshmandzadeh didn't exactly look like the missing piece to the decade-long puzzle that is the Ravens passing attack.
Houshmandzadeh got in the heads of the New York Jets so often in Week One, we probably forgot he caught only one pass in the 10-9 victory. He drew a pair of key penalties, but didn't catch a lot of balls. Today, he didn't do much either, failing to help out his struggling quarterback a couple of times when Flacco threw pretty decent balls to him. They weren't drops, he just didn't make a big play that might have yanked Flacco out of his funk. The Ravens don't really have a lot of choices, but I wonder if they're expecting a lot from him too quickly. On Flacco's second interception, Houshmandzadeh seemed like he was the intended receiver on a deep in route, and as I said above, the throw was so awful, I wonder if Flacco was expecting him to run at a different depth or Houshmandzadeh didn't continue his pattern across the field.
5. Ray Rice is still the most important player on this football team.
I could easily focus this entry on some of his excellent runs and insist that the Ravens get him the ball more frequently, but that seems fairly obvious. You'll hear that frequently on the litany of radio talk shows all week. Instead, I want you to go back and watch what he did on Flacco's best throw of the day, the touchdown pass to Derrick Mason. Rice threw a beautiful block on Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga, who was blitzing on the play. Rice lost his helmet in the process of throwing the block, but Maualuga never got within 10 feet of Flacco, who calmly flicked it to Mason for the touchdown.
Having Rice catch passes out of the backfield was probably the Ravens' most consistent weapon last season, so you can make an argument that they would be wise to go back to some of that in the weeks to come. One way or another, they need to get him the ball more. There's no debating that. At this point, it seems like it no longer matters that he's not the biggest running back in the AFC North, because he's clearly the division's best.
But if they ever do get their downfield passing attack going, it wouldn't surprise me if Rice's blocking was a big reason for it. The offensive line is still clearly in flux, and Heap is too important to Flacco's confidence to keep in the backfield. It's time to take advantage of Rice's all-around game, and that includes his blocking.
COMMENTS OF THE WEEK:
At the suggestion of some of the live chat participants, I thought it would be fun to pick out three comments each week and share them at the bottom of the Five Things.
1. I have found it humorous how fans, reporters and columnists seem to think Flacco is simply destined to evolve into an elite QB. He has never shown ANY indication of 'eliteness.' It is just wishful thinking by all of us who want to see Flacco do well. He is simply a significant upgrade over Boller and he plays on a very talented team. -- KenJ
2. (After Flacco's touchdown throw). Ray Lewis prolly told Flacco to use some Old Spice Swagger body wash. -- KC
3. Flacco is ripping my heart out right now and pouring A-1 sauce on it as he cooks it at a slow medium-rare roast. -- AK
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