Five Things We Learned in the Ravens 34-28 win

1. The dramatic improvement everyone keeps waiting for? The "light bulb" moment when everything clicks and the Ravens finally play up to their potential on both sides of the ball? It's not going to come. Not this season. This is who the Ravens are.

There is a ton we can say about this game, and we'll get there in a second. We'll touch on Josh Wilson and Sam Koch and Cam Cameron and more. But the most important thing I think you should take away from this game is that this game, right here, is essentially the 2010 Ravens. They're a good football team at times, and a bad football team at other times. They win more games than they lose because they have a lot of fight in them, they always seem to play one great half, but they can't put other teams away because they're maddeningly inconsistent. They blow leads. It's in their DNA.


It's very unlikely that's going to change, so buckle up for a bumpy ride the rest of the way. If you have stomach ulcers from stress, you may want to keep the Maalox handy.

The Ravens have passed the point in the season where dramatic improvements can occur. I really believe that. If that was going to happen, it would have happened in the middle of the season. Or after the loss to the Patriots. But someone put this song on repeat. The Ravens aren't going to fire their coordinators, or suddenly discover their running game, miraculously cover the middle of the field better, or tweak their line-up and begin putting together four consistent quarters with three games to play. They're going to continue winning or losing games like this, and that includes the playoffs. I can't tell you what the results will be, but I can predict how the games will go.


They're going to be in every contest, and they're going to make some incredible plays that tantalize and torment you at the same time. They're going to stall on offense and have lapses on defense, and cough up fourth-quarter leads. They won't figure out where the safety is blitzing from until it's too late. Flacco will make two great throws on one drive, then take a drive-killing sack on the next. Despite all that, they'll probably have a chance to win or lose the game on the final possession. Some weeks, someone like Josh Wilson will get shoved to the ground by Roddy White and beaten for a touchdown. Other weeks, he'll step in front of a pass in overtime and win the game with a pick six.

I think John Harbaugh sort of understands this. He basically said as much in his post-game press conference, where he looked like he'd just gone 12 rounds with Mickey Ward.

"Do we have things we have to worry about?" Harbaugh said. "Do we have things we have to work on? Yes, absolutely. But at this point in time of the season, you are what you are, and you've got to find a way to win."

You are what you are. They Ravens are 9-4. It seems like they should be 12-1, but they're not. And there is a reason for that. That pretty much sums it up for me after watching this game. I tend to be one of those people who thinks blaming the coaches, and only the coaches, is way too simplistic. The coaches need to get more out of these players, especially on offense, but the players have to play better, too. Derrick Mason's early drop was a perfect example. Good play call by Cam Cameron there. And Mason will be the first guy to admit that he didn't make the play. (He made up for it later, but you could tell that drop really bugged him.)

I'm sure Harbaugh and his staff will keep grinding away, probably working close to 20 hours a day, trying every last trick they can think of to get this team to play to its potential. Ray Lewis will give dramatic speeches, Joe Flacco will try to look calm and unflappable, and Mason and Terrell Suggs will continue yapping. But not much else feels like it's going to change.

It's theoretically possible they could keep winning games like this deep into the playoffs. But they could also crash and burn, too. This might be the hardest Ravens team to read in franchise history. I just think, at this point, you're kidding yourself if you think things will suddenly dramatically improve, and they'll start to dominate.

They are what they are.2. Jared Gaither's preseason injury had a much greater effect on this team than anyone realized it would when it happened.

It might seem like a strange time to write about Gaither, considering he hasn't played a single snap this year. But watching the offensive line struggle mightily against the Texans made me think a lot about the former Terrapin offensive lineman -- especially considering the Ravens decided to shuffle their line-up and insert Oneil Cousins at right tackle, move Marshall Yanda back to guard, and let Chris Chester serve as a blocking tight end. It's obvious they were experimenting with their line-up because they were desperate to get their running game going, but all it really seemed to do was make their pass protection worse.

For all the complaining fans do about the coordinators or the quarterback, it's becoming more and more obvious that a ton of the Ravens issues can be traced back to their offensive line. When they give Flacco enough time, he looks like a pretty good quarterback. When they give Ray Rice lanes to run through, he's the most electric player on the field. But right now, they're not doing either particularly well.

You can offer a subtle critique of each member. Matt Birk seems to do OK in pass protection, but he rarely, if ever, blows his man off the ball on running plays. His age is apparent every time the Ravens have to throw the ball on 3rd-and-2. He can't get to the second level. We all thought Ben Grubbs would be dominating by now, and instead, he's just OK. Marshal Yanda is an All-Pro guard playing out of position at tackle, but he's still been the Ravens best offensive lineman. Michael Oher gets way too many false start penalties and can't seem to recognize safeties when they walk up to the line for blitzes. The Ravens may have turned a great right tackle into an average left tackle. Chris Chester is a great athlete who might not be nasty enough to play guard.

Whatever the Ravens issues were last season, they could still run the ball when they had to. They can't do that now. And a lot of that goes back to having to fill in a hole created by Gaither's absence. Gaither became an easy target for the fans because of his questionable attitude and his debatable work ethic, but his injury and absence created a domino effect on that line. The Ravens offense stalls during games because defenses adjust and throw new wrinkles at the Ravens lineman and they struggle to adjust. That's why this team can't seem to get easy first downs. Every second half series of downs feels like a struggle.

I don't see how this can be blamed on Cam Cameron or Harbaugh. Cam Cameron seems to get slammed for every single misfire that occurs on offense, but in fairness to him, this is one of the few positions on the entire team the Ravens chose not to upgrade coming into this year. Think about it: They drafted a linebacker (Kindle), two tight ends (Dickson; Pitta) and a receiver who has proven effective in the return game (Reed). They traded for a cornerback (Wilson). They signed three wide receivers (Boldin; Stallworth; Houshmandzadeh). They added a pricey back-up quarterback (Bulger). They signed a defensive lineman (Redding). But they didn't add any depth, even in the form of backups, to the offensive line.

The Ravens front office knew Gaither was a bit of a wild card coming into this year, and they decided not to upgrade that position. That decision is coming home to roost these days.


3. Sam Koch deserves as much praise as Billy Cundiff has been getting.


Five Things We Learned has never had the chance to properly praise Koch this year, but let me correct that oversight right now. He's been outstanding. He can boom punts when he has to, and he can drop them softly inside the 20-yard line, too. He and Cundiff have done their jobs better than anyone on this team in 2010.

If Koch hadn't uncorked a 60-yard punt in overtime after another stalled possession by the offense, the Ravens might be 8-5 instead of 9-4. That was one of the most clutch punts you'll ever see. Koch's team was on the ropes and taking a vicious beating, and he put the pressure right back on the Texans with that soaring kick so good the Texans couldn't even return it.

It's a lot scarier for an offense to stand in the shadow of its own end zone than it is to stand at the 40-yard line. Matt Schaub threw that ball to Josh Wilson in part because he was conscious of the fact that he couldn't get sacked, or he might risk getting a safety. Koch took whatever advantage the Texans had by stopping the Ravens on their opening drive, and completely flipped it. It a good example of how the Ravens are 9-4 even though they have issues on offense and defense. Their kicking game has been the best in the NFL this year.

"Sam's punt was a huge part of that game," Harbaugh said. "I don't know how far it was. 60 [yards]? It was huge."

I don't think the defense deserves too much of the blame for letting Houston storm back. The defense was running on fumes from yet another disappearing act by the offense in the second half. But at least Koch was forcing the Texans to drive the length of the field by putting the ball inside 5-yard line.

4. Ed Reed isn't 26 years old anymore.

There was a moment in the first half when it felt like if the Ravens could just get one more defensive stop, the Texans might to roll over and quit. Houston has been pretty good at rallying from behind this year, but their performance in the first half made it seem like they wanted to be put out of their misery. The dropped passes were embarrassing.

But Houston's one drive before halftime set the tone for the second half, and it happened because Reed let Andre Johnson sneak behind him in a Cover 2, something that should never happen. It looked like Reed was creeping in, trying to bait Schaub into a bad throw somewhere, and though he could get back in time when the ball was in the air. Six years ago, he probably picks that ball off. At the very least, he gets a finger tip on it. But Reed looked half a step slow most of the night. He also got beat on Jacoby Jones' touchdown late in the game when Jones raced him to the pylon on an out route.

Now, as we're saying all this, let's stipulate that Reed is still a great player. I don't think most fans realize how often he takes away a third of the field, or half the field, and forces quarterbacks to throw incomplete passes to the other side. Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr have both explained to me that the Ravens tend to put Reed in difficult situations on defense, situations that other safeties couldn't handle, knowing that he'll be able to recover most of the time. For the most part, at least according to those two corners, Reed doesn't care if he looks bad if he thinks it will help the team win.

Sometimes I wonder though if Reed's brain is ready to accept that his body isn't 26 years old anymore. Lord knows I've pointed it out when I thought Ray Lewis showed signs of aging, so I don't have a problem pointing out with Reed. This was not his best game.

Josh Wilson, however, played a darn good game, and I'm not just talking about his pick six winner. He had the difficult task of guarding Johnson most of the night, and he handled it pretty well. It got a lot tougher in the second half when there was zero pass rush because the defense was literally getting oxygen on the sidelines they were so exhausted, but Wilson has shown steady improvement this season. He's had some rough moments, but he made the play that, in some respects, may have saved the Ravens' season.

5. Everyone seems to have issues with Cam Cameron, and at least some of those frustrations are justified. The offense really put the defense in a tough spot (again) when they quit playing up 21-0. However, Cameron did do one thing well Monday night, and he should do more of it. He called plays that gave Rice the ball in space.

Because of the offensive line problems (see above) I really think the Ravens are going to have trouble running the ball in a traditional, predictable way. But that doesn't mean they can't get yards on the ground. They just have to be creative.

You saw some of it against the Texans. Running a delay or a draw with Rice is a good way to open up running lanes for him. He has excellent vision and typically makes good, sharp cuts toward daylight, but the Ravens need a little deception to make it work. I've said this since the beginning of the year, they might actually be more effective running the ball from spread formations that they are jumbo sets.

I thought one of the best plays the Ravens ran all night was a 3rd-and-7 at the beginning of the fourth quarter where Rice went in motion, came to a stop in the slot, and Flacco (who was in the shotgun) zipped a slant to him. Rice beat his defender in space and picked up 18 yards. The drive was stalled when Brian Cushing sacked Flacco two plays later, but it was a good example of what Cameron can do well. All due respect to Boldin and Mason, but Rice is the best player the Ravens have on offense. Linebackers can't cover him, and no team is going to put a corner on him.

Flacco got a lot of grief for throwing Rice too many check-downs last year, and earlier this year, but the more the Ravens have tried to force the ball to their wide receivers, the worse the offense has looked. I feel like Flacco has gone too far in the other direction, perhaps trying to placate the ego and demands of his three wide receivers. Rice opens up looks down the field whether he's running or catching the ball out of the backfield. Sometimes, I'd like to see Cameron try to use him the way the St. Louis Rams used to use Marshall Faulk. Just get him the ball however possible, because he's the best athlete you have, and everything else will play off him.

It's going to be an intense week in Owings Mills with the New Orleans Saints coming to town. I don't see how the Ravens defense is going to slow down Drew Brees, and all the balls the Texans were dropping in the first half, the Saints will likely be catching next week. They got off to a slow start, but they're clicking right now. And until the Ravens prove they can beat an elite quarterback, I remain skeptical.


They're going to need points, and possibly a lot of them. When in doubt, get the ball in Rice's hands.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun