As much as the NFL has evolved through the years, there has been one constant: Control the line of scrimmage, or lose.
The Ravens have reached that point, and possibly the crossroads of their season. It is mid-November, the time of the year when serious title contenders separate themselves from the middle of the pack.
But the Ravens are in a morass with a lot of other potential playoff teams and they have several problems to fix, including the offensive and defensive lines, which have been hampered by injuries.
No head coach wants to use injuries as an excuse because they are a regular part of the game, but the Ravens’ interior lines have been decimated. The injuries aren’t the only reason the Ravens have dropped two of their past three games, including losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots, but that could prevent them from climbing out of a hole with the Tennessee Titans and the Steelers up next.
On offense, there isn’t a lot of hope for improvement. The Ravens lost starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley, one of the best in the game, for the season with an ankle injury against Pittsburgh two weeks ago and then lost tight end Nick Boyle for the remainder of the year Sunday night with a knee injury. Boyle was the team’s best blocking tight end who could also double as a fullback or H-back.
Against the Patriots, the Ravens were also without starting rookie right guard Tyre Phillips, who might return later in the season from an ankle injury. The worst part is that the Ravens signed veteran D.J. Fluker to become the starting right guard during the offseason and he couldn’t beat out Phillips.
Fluker replaced Orlando Brown Jr., who filled in for Stanley, as the starting right tackle, but the Ravens benched Fluker on Sunday night. It seems as if the Ravens are playing musical chairs, but that’s the problem. The Ravens linemen can’t move, and that includes second-year player Ben Powers, who is now the starting right guard. He replaces Patrick Mekari, who has become the undersized right tackle.
A group that produced the best rushing attack in NFL history last season could only manage 115 yards on the ground against New England, and the Ravens coaches hurt themselves by not allowing running back Gus Edwards, who finished with 42 yards on seven carries, to continually pound ahead.
Also, a group that struggled pass blocking a year ago is even worse.
“It’s an issue, for sure,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You don’t want injuries. We’ve had … These are contact injuries, most of them. These are guys in piles, guys getting landed on [and] guys getting hit – that’s football. That’s what it is; we’re going to have these things, and that’s it. So, we just have to overcome them. I don’t think it does anybody any good to sit there and say, ‘Well, it’s this degree of a problem.’ Teams have them. Guys are going to have to step up, and they’re going to step up.
“They’re going to step up and play well, and we’re going to be in good shape. I’m not worried about guys stepping up and playing well. That’s their job and that will be an opportunity for other guys until other guys come back. Most of those guys — a lot of those guys — will be coming back, with the exception of Nick so far. So, that’s really the answer.”
Stanley isn’t coming back, but it’s more promising on the defensive side of the ball.
There is the possibility that defensive end Calais Campbell (calf) and nose guard Brandon Williams (ankle) will return Sunday against Tennessee. Campbell sat out Sunday after exiting the Colts game early, and Williams left the Patriots game in the first half. Both players are two of the best at their positions in the game.
The Patriots rushed for 172 yards, most of it on “gut rushing,” which is inside the tackles. After seeing New England have that much success on the ground, the Titans are probably salivating about playing the Ravens.
Last year, Tennessee halfback Derrick Henry pounded the Ravens for 195 yards in the Titans’ 28-12 divisional-round upset in Baltimore.
“Whoever is in the game needs to play to a standard,” Ravens outside linebacker Matthew Judon said after the loss to New England. “When we let up that many rushing yards from a team, that’s unacceptable. We’re going to get on film and get it fixed, because if they have a rushing attack … If a team runs the ball like that, you usually lose. So, there’s no excuses.”
Justin Ellis and rookie Justin Madubuike were decent replacements for Williams and Campbell, but there’s a reason why they are backups and Williams and Campbell are stars.
Williams is primarily a big body run-stopper, while Campbell is strong against the run and pass. Because he is 6 feet 8 and has long arms, he can shut down or alter passing lanes. Both players can require double teams, which frees up linebackers to make tackles, much like former Ravens linemen Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams did for Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis in 2000.
Without Campbell and Williams, the Patriots chewed up and bounced around rookie inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison. Because the NFL has become a passing league, more teams draft fast, sleek linebackers who can run sideline to sideline instead of the old shock-and-shed bruisers. In Sunday night’s game, Harrison and Queen were the ones who got shocked and shed.
Eventually, Madubuike is going to be a good player. As the week progresses, we’ll find out more about the availability of Williams and Campbell. But with Tennessee coming up and a road game in Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving, the Ravens need to win now.
Pittsburgh has a three-game lead on the Ravens in the AFC North.
“A lot of guys have to step up, and we’re going to find out about ourselves,” Ravens receiver Willie Snead IV said. “We’re going to find out about the mold of this team — offense and defense. I think a lot of guys that are going to have to step up, they will step up, and they will show they can make an impact on this team — whoever that may be. We’re 6-3; we’re still in a good spot.”
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At least for now.