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Preston: Ravens, with their identity established, could be on the verge of big things

The Ravens’ immediate focus is on the Cincinnati Bengals, but gaining momentum going into the postseason has to be a priority as well.

The Ravens proved Sunday night that they are one of the best teams in the NFL with a 37-20 victory against the New England Patriots, and they’ll face even more stiff competition in the second half of the season when they play the Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Rams and their archrival, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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In recent years, the Ravens had to struggle in the second half to find an identity and possibly work their way into the playoffs. They’ve already arrived in 2019. The past eight games are about expanding the offense, defense and special teams.

What we really need to do is go to work and continue to improve,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “I feel like we’ve been doing that, and that’s part of the process. We have to continue to do that to have a chance to be successful going forward. We have eight games left in the regular season.

“The second half of the season begins in Cincinnati, and we have to be ready to go and be our best, the best team we can be."

It sounds like coach-speak, but those words are true now more than in recent seasons. The Ravens know they are a running team built around quarterback Lamar Jackson and they can stop the run on defense, but they still struggle in the passing game on both offense and defense.

They have gotten better. They are going to need a stronger defense to face Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson and the Rams’ Jared Goff. They are going to need more balance on offense when the 49ers bring their No. 1 ranked defense to M&T Bank Stadium or when Pittsburgh comes to town for the last game of the regular season Dec. 29.

The Ravens have developed well. They were still conservative with Jackson at the beginning of the season, but his comfort level has been more noticeable in the past two to three games.

He is more patient and puts players in the proper position while at the line of scrimmage without all the gyrations of a Peyton Manning. Jackson is changing more plays at the line of scrimmage.

“I think Lamar is a lot more comfortable, we’re a lot more comfortable with the things we’re doing,” right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “We’ve been running the same things since training camp but G-Ro [offensive coordinator Greg Roman] is just putting more trust in Lamar. There were some things he didn’t call early in the season because Lamar wasn’t comfortable running yet.

“Now Lamar is running a lot of stuff on Sunday. G-Ro puts a good amount of pressure on him and Lamar does a good job with everything they put in his hands. He calls a lot more of his own stuff now and is making changes at the line of scrimmage.”

Maybe even more impressive is that Jackson is starting to win games with his arm and within the system. He can make plays with his legs through improvisation, but against New England on Sunday night, he converted on several third-down situations with timely throws.

That’s what the Ravens have been waiting for. A quarterback with Jackson’s skill set can’t be one-dimensional, especially in the postseason.

And there have been other improvements. Instead of using two tight ends, the Ravens run with four, including Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst, Nick Boyle and Patrick Ricard, who also plays fullback and defensive end. Ideally, though, the Ravens will need to get more production out of their wide receivers.

“We change a lot every game,” Harbaugh said. “I feel like we have a system. It’s a really well-built system, and we’re very flexible within it. We do a lot of different things that some people might notice of what we’re doing differently from one game to the next. But we change up a lot each game.”

The offensive line has been a pleasant surprise. The major key is that all five starters have been on the field for all eight games so far.

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Defensively, though, the Ravens are still a work in progress but getting better. Led by tackles Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams, the Ravens have the No. 2 run defense. They need to improve their pass rush, but that won’t come from Pierce or Williams, who are run-stoppers.

The Ravens’ front office and assistant coaches are drawing praise for adding free-agent linebackers Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort, but at the same time deserve criticism for starting the season with Tim Williams and Kenny Young.

The most intriguing unit going into the second half of the season is the secondary. The group was hampered by injuries and had multiple lapses in the first quarter of the season but has shown modest improvement in the past two games with the addition of Marcus Peters via trade and Jimmy Smith’s return from injury at cornerback.

The Ravens have a lot of versatility. Against New England, starting safety Chuck Clark played dime and starting cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey, Smith and Brandon Carr went inside to play nickelback over the slot receiver.

It’s a major adjustment because outside cornerbacks have routine routes to cover. Slot receivers, like the Patriots’ Julian Edelman, have more space to run and they can freelance based on a cornerback’s leverage. The Ravens adjusted well, especially when the Patriots went to a no-huddle offense and they couldn’t substitute personnel.

“Defensively, well, we’ve rushed the quarterback the way we’ve needed to in each of the last few games, the last two weeks especially,” Harbaugh said. “They were two completely different types of quarterbacks. Both, in their own way, are really good in the pocket. We rushed them differently but well, and that takes a lot of effort for those guys that do that. It really does. It gasses you to rush those certain, different kind of ways. You really kind of [go] through linemen.

“I think just the communication … We've been able probably to start hitting our stride just a little bit with scheme and doing some different things and changing up from week to week and getting it right,” he said. “That's probably helped us. We're getting some experience working together. [That's] probably a big part of it, and it's just week to week. We have to play well. We have to cover people. We have to stop the run. We have to be consistent with everything we do, and we're probably more consistent than we were early, I would say.”

It’s not even close. Now, it’s just a matter of expanding. The Ravens aren’t in the defining mode like the past couple of years. Serious contenders get even better in the second half of the season.

Then they make their run.

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