Ravens 10-pack on Steve Smith's production, the steadying run game, and defensive dominance at home.
Welcome to the Monday Ravens 10-Pack, where reporter Jon Meoli hits on 10 stats, notes, and thoughts following a 21-7 win over the Tennessee Titans that was somehow both closer and less competitive than the score indicated. Read ahead for notes on the Ravens' steadying run game, Steve Smith's declining production, and as always, plenty on the pass defense.
1. John Harbaugh would like someone to write about how good the AFC North is, though as he rightfully pointed out, one of those teams got whooped on Sunday. Another got whooped on Thursday. The Ravens were whooped a week ago, and the Browns lost to Jacksonville, which is worse than any blowout loss. All of which goes to say that it's probably going to be a week-to-week assessment of this division, which could put as many as three teams into the AFC playoffs after Miami and Buffalo both fell Sunday. The Ravens need results like Sunday's to ensure they are one of those teams playing in January.
2. While encouraging might be too strong of a word for anything relating to the Ravens' offense, and the opponent might play a factor, it was encouraging that the offense used the run game as a stabilizer instead of the passing game. Running back Bernard Pierce's return from the cold was about as good as he's been so far, and running back Justin Forsett's shifty running in the red-zone and consistent approach between the tackles throughout the game helped a sick quarterback and an uneven passing attack find some semblance of a rhythm and grind out a comfortable win.
3. Do the days of wide receiver Steve Smith being the centerpiece of the Ravens' passing attack feel as far away for others as they do for me? Smith's first four games, which include the Blood and Guts Bowl against his former team, the Carolina Panthers, saw the 35-year-old wide receiver catch 25 passes for 429 yards (17.2 yards per catch) and three touchdowns. In six games since, Smith has 24 catches for 299 yards (10.3 YPC). Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak refers to improvised plays as "off-schedule," and plays like Smith's 80-yard touchdown in Week 1 and his tip-drill touchdown against Carolina count as that. It could be the case that this was Smith's role in the Kubiak offense all along, and the early big plays only inflated it. Or, and don't let him hear me say it, he may be slowing down as the season goes on.
4. Much of this can be chalked up to the young quarterback they were facing, but the Ravens secondary featuring newly minted cornerback Anthony Levine and the newly signed Danny Gorrer appeared to pass its first test. Once there's tape on the two in this system, it might be a different story, but the pair was only targeted six times combined, and by comparison Lardarius Webb was targeted five times on his own and didn't fare as well. The unit will have most of this week off with the bye before facing as good of a test as can come in the form of quarterback Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
5. One area in which the Saints might be able to exploit the Ravens -- as they do with every team -- is with tight end Jimmy Graham over the middle. The Ravens are particularly vulnerable in that area because of the growth still left for rookie inside linebacker C.J. Mosley in pass coverage. No middle linebacker has been thrown at more (56 targets) or allowed more catches (46) than Mosley, who was exposed in that area against Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell and was picked on by Titans tight end Delanie Walker early Sunday. If Mosley's not up for the task, it could be a safety who draws Graham in the Ravens' coverage scheme.
6. Second-year safety Matt Elam's stint as a starter, which was essentially forced on him last year because the Ravens didn't have any other better options, appears to be over. Elam didn't start for the second straight week, and he played a season-low 15 snaps in the win over the Titans. Most of those came in run downs in what the Ravens call their penny defense, with Elam playing in the slot as the nickel back with starters Will Hill and Darian Stewart in at deep safety. Rookie safety Terrence Brooks, whose clean but explositve hit on Walker swung the game in a big way, replaced Stewart in passing situations and played 18 snaps.
7. Another rookie from Florida State, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, has arguably been the Ravens' best defensive player in his limited role over the last two weeks. Jernigan missed several weeks with a torn meniscus, but he picked up four tackles, including his first career sack, in just 16 snaps Sunday. That type of production over a full game would be top-level for the position, but even as a third-down interior rusher, Jernigan could be a huge asset inside in the second half.
8. Led by outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, whose team-leading 10.5 sacks are second most in the NFL, the Ravens' boom-or-bust pass rush may have some pattern to it. Some games, they have trouble getting to the quarterback at all, but others, the floodgates open. The Ravens have five sacks in their past two home games, and 14 of their 25 sacks on the season came at M&T Bank Stadium. It's proving to be an especially tough unit to block at home.
9. Wide receiver Marlon Brown, whose seven touchdowns a season ago set expectations high for his sophomore campaign, seems to have solidified his role as the team's third receiver since returning from a pelvis injury. Brown played 23 snaps to receiver Kamar Aiken's 18 on Sunday. Both are part of their own play package that typically ends up being a run formation, but Brown has played more snaps the past two weeks and had a pair of catches for 18 yards against the Titans. And for the second straight week, Jacoby Jones didn't play a single offensive snap. He seems to be relegated solely to return duties at this point.
10. If there's one thing I've been able to do in my weekly three-stars prediction, other than injure Dennis Pitta (which I'm still sorry for), it's pick the wrong person in a position group to stand out. This week's Three-star Accountability Corner" features a lot of that. After correctly tapping Dumervil a few times, I thought I'd mix it up and go with outside linebacker Terrell Suggs in a game where the pass rush would have a big impact, and I simply picked the wrong guy. I thought Forsett would start to slow and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro would come into the spotlight, but Taliaferro barely got off the bench while Forsett shined. And Titans receiver Kendall Wright, well, seemed to be playing in the Titans offense, and there's nothing any of us can do about that. Here's to a much-needed week off from this feature