FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED ABOUT THE RAVENS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

1. It's time to admit it: This team lacks discipline. : For the most part, players are to blame for penalties, but when it becomes a recurring problem, week after week, it's time to start asking whether the coaching staff made some mistakes in training camp this year by forgetting fundamentals. Holding calls, pass-interference calls, roughing-the-passer calls - it's all adding up. And this team doesn't have a margin for error anymore.

At some point, blaming the referees is counterproductive. Let the fans buy into conspiracy theories, but the players and coaches need to look in the mirror. There might have been some bad calls against New England, but crying about it seems to have backfired.

Most of the flags thrown Sunday were deserved. Fabian Washington can't run down the field holding hands with Chad Ochocinco. Jared Gaither needs to let go of a pass rusher if he has his hands under his shoulder pads and Joe Flacco starts scrambling. Lardarius Webb can't be bumping guys in the back when he's blocking on punt returns. The question now becomes: Can you make a team more disciplined in a short time span? Doubtful. Those things happen during training camp.

2. This game was a painful reminder that Joe Flacco is a second-year quarterback. : Yes, he didn't have much of a pocket to step up into. And yes, he was hurt by a couple of early drops, including one by Derrick Mason, who let the ball bounce off his face mask after bragging earlier in the week that no one could cover him one-on-one.

But Flacco was inaccurate and indecisive, and his body language didn't help pick up the rest of the team when it was struggling. He's going to be a great quarterback in this league. Some weeks, he already is. But the fact that he has a subdued personality most of the time doesn't mean he can be a passive leader. This is going to be his team for the next decade. He needs to understand that and take control out there.

It's easy to psychoanalyze from your couch, but he did not seem engaged the way he was against Denver. His throws were short and didn't have their usual zip. The switch to the no-huddle was a good one, but it came too late. Flacco seems to embrace the quick reads and enjoy the responsibility. If the Ravens are going to continue to lose interest in running the ball, then perhaps they need to start running a Saints-esque offense.

3. Steve Hauschka is now trapped inside his own head. : That's two kicks now he's hooked under pressure from the left hash mark. Ultimately, it probably wouldn't have made a difference, especially when you consider how poorly the Ravens' final offensive drive went, but maybe those three points change the way the Bengals feel on their next offensive drive.

Maybe they get tight and maybe the Ravens do tie the game with a late touchdown. But that's also conjecture. What isn't conjecture is that Hauschka was handed the job this year because the Ravens thought the difference between him and Matt Stover wasn't big enough to justify the extra roster spot they needed to keep Stover. And all that pressure is now crashing down on Hauschka's head.

He can still be a good kicker in this league, even if he does look like he could pass for a member of NSYNC, but he has to make the next big kick he attempts. If he doesn't, it's time to look for alternatives. Because three misses in the clutch isn't something you recover from, especially since he'll be looking across the sideline at Stover in a few weeks, which will only mess with his head more.

4. Lardarius Webb deserves a shot to start. : It no longer matters if he doesn't know the defense as well as Fabian Washington or Chris Carr. Webb was physical and aggressive Sunday after he replaced Washington, who was injured. Webb tackles better than either Ed Reed or Dawan Landry now.

Sometimes coaches hear the fans whining about how this player should be playing instead of that one, and they laugh with good reason. No one sees what goes on in practice, and usually the guy on the bench is on the bench for a reason. This isn't one of those times, and this game proves it.

Webb absolutely cannot be worse than Washington, Carr and Frank Walker at this point. And he showed against the Bengals he has the potential to be a lot better. Domonique Foxworth has actually been fine on the other side. Put Webb on the opposite side and see what happens. At this point, it's hard to believe his confidence is going to be irreparably harmed if he gets beat a few times. And he'll probably make a few plays, too, which might just boost his confidence.

Elite quarterbacks are probably going to pick the Ravens apart anyway. Their pass rush just isn't strong enough or young enough right now to change that. But Webb seems like a fighter. Before Peyton Manning comes to town, it's time to give him a chance to build on what we saw against the Bengals. Also, as uncomfortable as this is, it's time to ask whether Landry is ever going to be the player he was before his neck injury. Right now, he is around a lot of plays, but doesn't seem to ever be making them.

5. This team probably wasn't as good as its record last year might have led us to believe. : In baseball, at the beginning of every year, stat heads like to examine the record of teams in one-run games the previous season. If you win a huge percentage of one-run games, chance are you're going to regress a little bit the following season because luck and chance play a role.

In 2008, the Ravens stayed healthy, got some breaks, and won a lot of close games. This year, they're not getting those same breaks, they're not creating the same breaks, and it's showing. Had the Ravens gone 9-7 last year under a first-year head coach with a rookie quarterback, it's unlikely anyone would have been predicting a Super Bowl berth.

But because they went 11-5, beat a mediocre Dolphins team, and because the Titans choked in the playoffs yet again, they seemed better than they were. This team can still beat every team on its schedule, and by no means is everything lost, but issues in the secondary and on the defensive line, plus the lack of a real specific identity on offense, are going to make the playoffs a real long shot.

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