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Mike Preston’s midseason report card: Position-by-position grades for Ravens’ 6-3 start | COMMENTARY

The Baltimore Sun hands out its midseason report card for the AFC North leader Baltimore Ravens.

The AFC North is a competitive division based on inconsistent teams, not quality ones.

There was speculation at the beginning of the season that it could be one of the toughest in the NFL, but it’s time to take another look after the weekend.

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The Ravens got upset by the Miami Dolphins, 22-10, on Thursday night and the New England Patriots crushed the Cleveland Browns, 45-7, on Sunday afternoon. Just as worse, the Pittsburgh Steelers tied the winless Detroit Lions, 16-16, in overtime.

And the game was played in Pittsburgh.

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The only AFC North team that didn’t get embarrassed was the Cincinnati Bengals, and that’s because they had a bye.

So heading into Week 11, the Ravens (6-3) are in first place followed by Pittsburgh (5-3-1), Cincinnati (5-4) and Cleveland (5-5). These teams have given new meaning to the NFL not being a week to week league, but “weak to weak.”

The Ravens have eight games remaining in the regular season and five of those are against divisional rivals, including two each against Cleveland and Pittsburgh. There are enough reasons to both laugh and cry.

But before the Ravens move into the third quarter, The Baltimore Sun hands out its midseason report card:

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Quarterback

Lamar Jackson hasn’t thrown the ball well the past three games. He made major contributions in the overtime win against the Minnesota Vikings, but his production has dropped off slightly from the first quarter of the season. He needs to do a better job of checking down and improving his mechanics, especially his arm angle. Teams have had recent success against him with eight-man fronts, so he’ll probably see more of that going forward. Jackson had a rare meltdown against Miami and was frustrated because he couldn’t come up with the right plays to solve the Dolphins’ defense. He has completed 64.4% of his passes for 2,447 yards and rushed 160 times for 639 yards this season. He has carried this offense, but those hits on his body are starting to add up. Grade: A-

Running backs

Latavius Murray seemed as if he was on the verge of becoming the top back in the first quarter of the season, but an ankle injury has forced him to miss the past three games. Before then, Murray had rushed 59 times for 212 yards. Devonta Freeman (43 carries for 223 yards) has performed well as Murray’s replacement, but the Ravens never give him or the running game enough time to get in sync. Still, Freeman has done well and become a factor in the passing game when given the opportunity. No. 3 back Le’Veon Bell has had occasional bursts but looks nothing his All-Pro form in Pittsburgh. The Ravens have forgotten about second-year player Ty’Son Williams, the only runner on the roster with enough speed to consistently get to the outside. Grade: D

Receivers

The Ravens have a young, exciting group, but now coach John Harbaugh has to find a way to divvy up the catches. Rookie Rashod Bateman (18 receptions for 241 yards) is better than advertised and can make tacklers miss after the catch. Third-year receiver Marquise Brown (52 catches for 719 yards) has become a go-to receiver, even though he might become a little timid if he gets hit often and hard enough. Tight end Mark Andrews (48 catches for 623 yards), who signed a contract extension in September, has shown he is worth the money. He is effective in all areas of the passing game and has come up with clutch receptions in almost every situation. Second-year receiver Devin Duvernay (19 catches for 166 yards) and veteran Sammy Watkins (19 catches for 299 yards) have played complementary roles. This group is a work in progress, but significant strides have been made since the beginning of the season. The future looks bright. Grade: B+

Offensive line

For the most part, this group has been solid but struggles against mobile and athletic defensive fronts. Right guard Kevin Zeitler has been steady and so has center Bradley Bozeman, even though Bozeman works too high at times. Left guard was a position of concern entering the season and still remains that way with the Ravens trying to find some consistency from Ben Powers, Tyre Phillips and rookie Ben Cleveland. Right tackle Patrick Mekari had been the most technically sound of the group but has missed the past two games with a high ankle sprain. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is the perfect symbol of this line. As long as he plays against an end or outside linebacker who can’t change directions, he will have success. But if an opposing player is athletic and has an assortment of moves, Villanueva will struggle. Grade: C-

Defensive line

The Ravens have been solid despite injuries to starting end Derek Wolfe (back/hip), who has yet to play in a game, and nose tackle Brandon Williams, who has missed the past two games because of shoulder problems. Williams’ career has been on a downward spiral the past two seasons and Wolfe is likely out for the season. Those two have been extremely disappointing. End Calais Campbell has been outstanding. Besides being one of the voices on defense, Campbell has 33 tackles despite drawing constant double teams. In short-yardage situations, he has been tough to move off the ball. The question is how long can he hold up at age 35? Both Justin Madubuike (16 tackles) and Justin Ellis (12 tackles) have filled in for Williams and Wolfe. Madubuike has been able to cause disruptions and record three tackles for loss because of his quickness off the ball but might be too undersized to play that position full time. Ellis basically just fills space. The Ravens aren’t getting much of a pass rush with this group, and that’s been a problem for years. Regardless, the Ravens are allowing only 88.2 rushing yards per game. Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Ravens struggled early in the season but have improved with the addition of veteran Josh Bynes in the middle and moving second-year player Patrick Queen over to the weak side. Bynes is seventh on the team in tackles with 31 and Queen is the leader with 47. Basically, the addition of Bynes allows Queen to be uncovered and move freely. The two have combined for 11 tackles for loss, including three sacks. The Ravens have had some success on the outside but not much as far as getting consistent pressure on quarterbacks. Rookie Odafe Oweh has 11 tackles, including four sacks, while strong-side linebacker Tyus Bower has 30 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Chris Board, who can play anywhere on the inside, has 20 tackles while Malik Harrison, who was replaced by Queen, has 22. Veteran Justin Houston has 17 tackles, including three sacks, but hasn’t been the force the Ravens wanted on the outside. In fact, no player has. Members of this group have been known to disappear from games. Grade: C

Secondary

The campaign is still on for the Ravens to find a safety with range who can cover ground in the deep third of the field. Until then, the Ravens are basically playing with two strong safeties. Both DeShon Elliott and Chuck Clark can tackle well, especially in run support, but there have been a lot of problems in pass defense. The Ravens are now without Elliott for the remainder of the season because of pectoral and bicep injuries. Anthony Averett, filling in for Marcus Peters (torn ACL), has played well in eight of nine games while his counterpart, Marlon Humphrey, has struggled, especially with speedy receivers on the outside. The Ravens aren’t just getting beat physically, but missing assignments, which is leading to big plays. They are allowing 283 passing yards per game. That’s unacceptable: Grade: C-

Special teams

The Ravens have only had one game in which things were out of sync on special teams, but they still beat Minnesota. Justin Tucker has converted 17 of 19 field-goal attempts, including all three from outside 50 yards. His two misses were in the 40- to 48-yard range. Sam Koch is averaging 44.6 yards on 39 punts and has put 15 inside the 20-yard line, but his leg isn’t as lively as in previous seasons. Duvernay has been a surprise so far this season, averaging 16.3 yards on punt returns and 24.6 yards on kickoff returns. He has become another weapon for the Ravens and could help in tight games, especially in the postseason. Grade: B+

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Coaching

The Ravens’ staff has gotten more out of this team than expected considering the injuries, but there is room for improvement. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has to develop a better feel for the game as far as knowing when to run or pass or take the ball out of Jackson’s hands when he is struggling. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has to tighten up his message or coaching because his players are missing way too many assignments, a sign of a severe lack of communication. Clock management has and continues to be a problem, and that’s on Harbaugh. Grade: B

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