Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston answers a selection of reader questions after the Ravens' 55-20 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
Andy in Hagerstown: It's hard to gauge what improvements the Ravens have actually made, as the Raiders are a pretty bad football team. But what did you take away from the game that would give you confidence into the matchup against the Steelers?
Mike Preston: I thought the pass coverages and drops by the linebackers were good. I thought left guard Jah Reid was solid, but I don't think he has enough foot speed to make blocks in the second level. I thought, overall, the offensive line played well against a decent Raiders front four. Other than that, you build on the attitude because you won and played well heading into Pittsburgh. That should make practice a lot easier this week.
And Andy, you are right. In 25 years of covering the NFL, the Raiders were the worst NFL team I've ever seen.
Richard in Dallas: Is Jim Caldwell having any influence on Joe Flacco?
Mike Preston: I am positive Caldwell is having an influence on Flacco. He works with him every day. According to one assistant coach I spoke with earlier this year, Flacco has learned more this season than ever before under Caldwell.
Errol Phillips: Did Paul Kruger's performance make him the heir apparent to Jarrett Johnson?
Mike Preston: No, he just had a decent game against a bad team. Let's see him do it again, and again and again. 'Consistency' is the key word for playing in the NFL, and few among the Ravens front seven have been consistent this season.
Dr. Ken from Frederick: Was the fake field goal executed in poor taste?
Mike Preston: No, it was just executed against a poor team. Personally, I wouldn't have tried it and certainly not shown it against a sorry team like Oakland. I hold that one in my bag of tricks for another team at the right time. But the Raiders showed their hand by overloading to one side, and the Ravens took advantage. It's basic football. You try to take advantage of the numbers and the Ravens did. If the Raiders have a problem, it should be with themselves. They quit after the first period.
Frank Kalita: I note that most opposing teams are keying on stopping Ray Rice, and when we face quality teams, like this week with Pittsburgh, we are forced to attempt a lot of passes. As a Baltimore football fan of 30 years, I cannot understand why the coach does not use a quality running back sitting on the bench – Bobby Rainey. He is quick and can catch passes out of the backfield. With Rice and Rainey in at the same time, and with our big fullback, this would create a dilemma of coverage. Who would you cover with both of these fast little guys flying out of the set?
Mike Preston: Rainey isn't ready for the big time yet. I like the duo of Rice and Bernard Pierce. Pierce has size, explosion and a different style than Rice. If I were the Ravens I'd use both Rice and Pierce more, but that's a fight I've been fighting for years. As for Rainey, he gets a year to improve his body and work ethic. Down the road, I think he is going to be pretty good.
Harry Merriken: Did you think the Raiders' taunting had any impact on the Ravens' desire to pile it on? I recall Anquan Boldin reminding one of them of the scoreboard.
Mike Preston: No, the Ravens saw an opportunity to score a touchdown instead of a field goal, and they took it.
LordBern: Was Dean Pees moving upstairs into the coaches box part of the reason the defense has improved (somewhat)? Or is it because since he's moved upstairs we've only played Cleveland and Oakland? Perhaps Cam can sit next to him upstairs?
Mike Preston: Oooh, nice shot there at the old Camster.
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I can't say the move by Pees has had a major impact. You are correct, Cleveland and Oakland stink. But I give the Ravens credit for trying to improve their defense. You get tired of hearing a coach say we're going back to fundamentals and we're going to keep grinding. Try something new and insert some new players, which the Ravens have done. One good thing is that the transition period is over with Pees going upstairs. All of those elements are out of the way heading into Pittsburgh, so there shouldn't be any snags as far as communication from Pees to the coaches on the field to the players.
Jeff in Parkville: Does Matt Birk have anything left in the tank? He has been pathetic in run-blocking situations this season and average in pass protection.
Mike Preston: For a player who has been around as long as Birk, he turns in a good, solid effort every week. He is on the downside of his career, but there aren't too many players as professional as Birk. He struggles at times, but I will never question his effort.
Ruxton Atheist: The only other team in recent history with a similar home/away statistical disparity – Bill Belichick's Patriots – was busted for cheating. Could the Ravens' inexplicable home/away stats be explained away because there is something not quite kosher going on at M&T?
Mike Preston: Next question, please.
Richard in Dallas: After Doug Martin ran for two-plus football fields against the Raiders last week, do you really think the Ravens' running game is worthy of concern to the Steelers?
Mike Preston: When you have a runner the caliber of Rice, the running game will always be a concern. I can promise you he will be the No. 1 priority for the Steelers this week.