The Ravens do a great job of moving beyond injuries, not fretting about them publicly and not using them as excuses. However, I'd have to think that there is significant concern in the Castle about the health of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Ngata is dealing with knee and shoulder injuries and Harbaugh was noncommittal Monday when asked about whether he could be held back a little to make sure he's healthy for the end of the season. And the reality is that Ngata at 50 percent is far better than anything else that the Ravens could put out there. However, after having nearly two full weeks to rest, Ngata was held without a tackle and wasn't much of a factor in the 25-15 victory last Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. It's true that Ngata's pressure on Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden led to Cary Williams' third-quarter interception. It also should be mentioned that Ngata drew a ton of attention from Pro Bowl center Alex Mack and others. Still, it's alarming that Ngata didn't have a single tackle when the Browns ran the ball 27 times. Injuries really limited Ngata's production down the stretch last year and the already-struggling Ravens' defense can't afford to have that happen again.
In a year in which several young Ravens' defensive players haven't distinguished themselves after being asked to fill bigger roles, a good case could be made that inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has been the team's best defensive player over the past couple of weeks. Yes, that Ellerbe who some considered on the roster bubble during an injury-plagued training camp and who had frustrated team officials with his work habits and durability. Ellerbe had nine tackles, a sack and three quarterback hits versus Cleveland. He currently leads the team with 3 1/2 sacks and is among the leaders in tackles. He's been a definite bright spot during a year of struggles for the Ravens' defense.
Most of the talk about the offensive struggles the past two weeks centered on Cam Cameron's play calling and how much Ray Rice is touching the ball. That's understandable but one area that shouldn't be overlooked is how few big plays the Ravens have had the past couple of games. I wrote this statistic in yesterday's paper but it's worth repeating. Through the first four weeks, the Ravens led the NFL with 24 passing plays of 20 yards or more. They have only nine such plays in four games since. Quarterback Joe Flacco took a couple of shots down the field to Torrey Smith in both the Browns and the Houston Texans' games and none came particularly close to being completed. A couple of big-play completions would certainly help Flacco get back in the rhythm that he was in earlier this season.
Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs was solid against the run Sunday against the Browns but he mounted very little pass rush against Cleveland's Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas. Suggs' quick return from a torn Achilles was nothing short of miraculous but he himself admits that he has a ways to go. Sunday's game was proof of that. Anything the Ravens get from Suggs this season has to be considered a bonus. But the perception, which was only heightened when he played so well against the Texans in his first week back, that Suggs was going to step on the field and save the defense was way off base and not at all fair to Suggs.
Five things that I'd like to see Sunday against the Oakland Raiders: 1. Rookie Bernard Pierce getting eight or more carries; 2. Safety Bernard Pollard re-emerging as a physical presence in the secondary; 3. Somebody other than Suggs, Ngata or Ellerbe hitting the quarterback; 4.The Ravens committing fewer than five penalties; 5. Wide receiver Jacoby Jones and tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson making big plays down the field.
Remember when some were calling the AFC North the best division in football? It hasn't played out that way so far. The AFC North currently has a combined record of 16-17, including an 11-14 record within the conference. The Ravens have five of those 11 wins. The statistic that I find most interesting, however, is that AFC North teams currently are just 3-10 against teams with .500 records or better. Those three wins are the Ravens beating the New England Patriots in Week Three, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeating the New York Giants this past week and the Cleveland Browns edging the San Diego Chargers two weeks ago.
And finally, you'll read plenty over the next couple of weeks and during the holiday season about Ravens players helping out in the community and giving back. None of it will probably get the attention it deserves, but I wanted to point out a pretty cool thing that Ravens quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell and his wife, Cheryl, did for The Salvation Army Ken Carlson Boys and Girls Club in Winston-Salem, N.C. According to an article last week in the Winston-Salem Journal, The Jim and Cheryl Caldwell Foundation donated an estimated $70,000 for the opening of a "Project Phoenix Learning Center" at the Boys and Girls Club. The learning center includes 20 new computers and other interactive instructional software, along with other new furniture and equipment. Caldwell has ties to the Winston-Salem area from his days as the head coach at Wake Forest.