The differences between how the Ravens started this year compared to last season are well documented. Here's another factor that hasn't been discussed all that much: the immediate contributions of the Ravens' rookie class.
Last year's rookie class didn't provide much early. Breshad Perriman was injured, Maxx Williams had eight catches through the first six games, and Carl Davis and Za'Darius Smith played sparingly early on.
This year, rookie offensive linemen Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis have been starters from Day 1 and have played pretty well. Fourth-round cornerback Tavon Young has made two big plays and held up well in coverage. Fourth-round wide receiver Chris Moore and fifth-round pass rusher Matthew Judon have gotten on the field quite a bit and flashed at times. And for all the angst about second-round linebacker Kamalei Correa's playing time, he's done quite well on special teams. You also have to throw in Michael Pierce, an undrafted rookie who has come in and become a key member of the defensive line rotation.
It's really been a night-and-day difference with this year's rookie class coming in and contributing immediately.
Wins prevent big changes: If you listen to the fans, the Ravens need to replace the Justin Forsett-Terrance West duo with a West-Buck Allen combination until Kenneth Dixon is ready to return. They need to bench Jeremy Zuttah in favor of John Urschel or Ryan Jensen. And they need to sit Shareece Wright for Will Davis.
None of the suggestions are totally off base. Forsett has a hard time making the first man miss and breaking tackles. Zuttah has struggled mightily, and Wright has been picked on the past two weeks after a strong debut. Those changes would be easy to make if the Ravens were 0-3 or 1-2. It, however, is a little more difficult to pull the plug on well-respected veterans when the team is undefeated. Again, winning ugly shouldn't be an excuse for accepting the status quo and I don't think the Ravens are doing that. But winning certainly gives some players a little longer leash.
Game balls: My three game balls after the Ravens' victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars...
1.) Justin Tucker: The Ravens insist they don't take their standout kicker for granted, but Tucker does spoil the team and its fans with his propensity to make clutch kicks. His 54-yard game winner was dead center and would've been good from 60-plus. Tucker added three more field goals and is now 9-for-9 on the season.
2.) Timmy Jernigan: You had to figure the defensive tackle was going to play big on the weekend of his 24th birthday and in the same city where he spent some of his childhood years. He had a quiet first half, but took the game over during stretches of the fourth quarter with a sack and two big pass deflections, including one that led to Young's interception. He also deserves credit for arranging for approximately 70 kids from his hometown of Lake City, Fla., to come to Sunday's game.
3.) Terrell Suggs: Because of his age and the fact he's playing on two surgically-repaired Achilles tendons, it isn't realistic to expect Suggs to be a force on every play. However, Suggs is such a smart player and he has enough left to flash in big moments. That's exactly what he did Sunday with two fourth-quarter sacks.
Short passing game has flaws: There isn't a whole lot left to dissect with the Ravens' running game because it seems we talk about the same things every week, and then the same things happen every game. So here's another offensive statistic that should concern the Ravens: Joe Flacco is averaging just 6.56 yards per passing attempt, the fifth lowest among Week 1 starting quarterbacks.
The only quarterbacks with a lower average are Blaine Gabbert (5.54), Case Keenum (6.14), Brock Osweiler (6.38) and Jameis Winston (6.56). Obviously, completion percentage is important, and I'm not belittling the importance of establishing a short passing game. However, Flacco is at his best when he's taking more shots down the field. He's going to put the ball in harm's way a couple of times every game because that's just who he is as a quarterback.
I've always said Flacco is, in a lot of ways, like Eli Manning. They make a handful of "wow" throws into tight windows every game and they also have a few ill-advised throws that make you shake your head. However, that's the risk/reward formula you deal with, and more often than not, the Ravens feel like it will go in their favor with Flacco. But they need to take more shots down the field. It can only help open things up with the running game and some of the middle-of-the-field stuff.
And here's another point on the matter: If you're relying so much on the short passing game, shouldn't Kamar Aiken, who is seemingly derided by the fan base for being only a "possession" receiver, be playing more snaps and getting more targets. Aiken, who had 75 catches last year, played just 23 snaps against the Jaguars, three fewer than Perriman and Moore.
Through three games, Aiken has three catches on four targets. It's impossible to get everybody involved. That's the downside of being healthy on offense and adding these new weapons (Mike Wallace, Perriman and Moore) and getting others (Dennis Pitta and Steve Smith Sr.) back. Still, I don't see how it makes much sense to have your most productive receiver from last year, and a guy who seemingly improved every week, not have a role on offense.
Strong finishers: Through three games, the Ravens have outscored the opposition 13-3 in the fourth quarter. It's a small sample size but encouraging nonetheless. The Ravens defense, which wore down late in games last season, has been at its best so far in the fourth quarter. It was extremely hot on the field in Jacksonville and the Ravens' defensive front came up with four fourth-quarter sacks. The early returns on the team's revamped offseason condition program have been good. It also helps that the Ravens coaches have been rotating the personnel and keeping guys fresh.
Having said all that, getting off a good start Sunday against the Oakland Raiders Sunday will be vital. West Coast teams have a tendency to come out a little slow when they have to play 1 p.m. games on the East Coast. The Ravens, who have been sluggish on offense early in games, need to jump on the Raiders early.