The Ravens were already set up at the beginning of the season because their final two games in 2017 are at home. Now, they are getting a bonus because their last three games are against losing teams.
The Ravens’ road to the postseason starts with road games at the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-2) and Cleveland Browns (0-12) before finishing at home against the Indianapolis Colts (3-9) and Cincinnati Bengals (5-7). This is not exactly the Murderers’ Row of the NFL.
Granted, three of the games are against AFC North rivals. But only Pittsburgh will probably continue on to the postseason. Most of Cincinnati’s playoff ambitions ended with a 23-20 loss to Pittsburgh on Monday night while the Browns and Colts were practically eliminated at the midway point of the season.
The Ravens (7-5) ride the momentum of a three-game winning streak into Pittsburgh for their Sunday night encounter with the Steelers. If they win, that would be a statement game that the Ravens are serious contenders, not just one of those one-and-done teams that earns a wild-card playoff spot.
But before Sunday’s game, we hand out the third-quarter report card. The grades are similar to those marks at the midterm, even though there is some slight improvement, especially on offense.
Quarterback: Joe Flacco had his best game of the season last week against the Detroit Lions, throwing for 269 yards and finishing with a quarterback rating of 105.0, the second time he had been over 100.0 all season. The question is whether he can repeat the performance and become more consistent. He played well earlier in the season against the Oakland Raiders, but struggled the following game. Flacco has had poor mechanics and been inaccurate most of the season. He has to play well for the Ravens to get into the postseason and be considered serious contenders. Grade: C
Running backs: Alex Collins has rushed for 705 yards on 144 carries in his first 12 games and has been the team’s best offensive player. Since the midway point of the season, the Ravens have gotten him the ball more, especially as a pass catcher out of the backfield. That’s a good move because he’s a big-play threat. Collins doesn’t appear to have the same explosion to get outside he had earlier in the season, but he runs well inside the tackles and has good vision for cutback moves. Danny Woodhead has returned to the lineup after missing most of the first half of the season with an injury, but hasn’t been the weapon in the passing game the Ravens thought he would be. Buck Allen remains the Ravens’ top runner in short-yardage situations, but the Ravens have also used him as a blocking or lead back. Grade: B
Offensive line: This unit performed well against the Lions. Maybe it’s because the Ravens have had the same starters for the past couple of games or maybe it was because Detroit’s defense was so weak. A better test will come Sunday against the Steelers. The Ravens are sound at the tackle positions with Ronnie Stanley and Austin Howard, especially in the run game. But both struggle with speed rushers when it comes to pass protection. Ryan Jensen has been adequate at center and keeps getting better. The Ravens lack power off the ball with guards Matt Skura and James Hurst, but the blocking scheme works for them because it takes advantages of angles and combination blocks. The Ravens have 33 sacks while giving up 23. Grade: C-
Receivers: Tight end Benjamin Watson leads this group with 45 catches for 347 yards and three touchdowns. During the first half of the season, he was this group’s most consistent performer. Opposing teams, though, are bracketing Watson more. The problem with this group is that it seems to lack the timing with Flacco, but maybe that was corrected in the Detroit game. The Ravens have to get more out of veteran Jeremy Maclin (36 catches, 391 yards). His presence opens up things for both Watson and Mike Wallace (34, 487). Keep an eye on second-year receiver Chris Moore. He seems to be responding well after replacing Breshad Perriman as the No. 3 receiver. Moore has good speed and more reliable hands than Perriman, even though Perriman is a 2015 first-round draft pick and Moore was taken in the fourth. The Ravens can’t afford to lose Nick Boyle. He is the best blocking tight end on the roster. Grade: C-
Defensive line: The Ravens have one of the best run defenses in the NFL and that’s largely because of nose tackle Brandon Williams. When he was out of the lineup earlier in the season because of injury, the Ravens struggled. Now, opposing teams find it hard to run against the Ravens and Williams, who has 22 tackles despite getting constantly double teamed. Tackle Michael Pierce has 40 tackles and is tough inside against the run as well. Young players such as tackle Willie Henry and Carl Davis are solid and continue to improve. Davis is strong against the run while Henry is a better pass rusher because of his relentless pursuit. This group, though, needs to get more pressure when rushing the passer. Grade: B
Linebackers: When Terrell Suggs is dominating, so is the Ravens defense. He leads the team in sacks with 10½ and has become more of a team leader than ever. C.J. Mosley leads the team with 101 tackles and has become the consummate professional both on and off the field. Matthew Judon has developed into a good all-around linebacker even though he plays on the strong side. Patrick Onwuasor has cut down on some of the costly mental mistakes he was making earlier in the season. Ideally, the Ravens need to get more out of backups Tim Williams, Tyus Bowser and Za’Darius Smith. Without Suggs, the Ravens’ pass rush has been lacking. Grade: B+
Secondary: Compared with previous seasons, the group has been stellar. Not only have the defensive backs played well in pass coverage but the tackling and communication has improved from earlier in the season. Cornerback Jimmy Smith was having a good year (not sure if it was Pro Bowl-caliber), but will miss the remainder with a ruptured Achilles tendon. The Ravens have two good, ample replacements who are rangy and athletic in Marlon Humphrey and Maurice Canady. The youngsters will get tested early and suffer some growing pains, but they’ll pay off for the Ravens in the long run. The Ravens appear to be playing safety Tony Jefferson more in the box than Eric Weddle, who is playing more in coverage. Regardless, this group is tough to beat even though there are still questions about defending the long ball. Grade: B
Special teams: The Ravens have the best pair of kickers in the NFL. Sam Koch is averaging 45.8 yards a punt with a net of 41.3. Of his 66 punts, 31 have landed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Justin Tucker has missed only three field goals this season, but has connected on five of seven from 50 yards or longer. The cover units are solid with Anthony Levine Sr. and Vince Mayle, but the Ravens need better protection as far as blocking for field goals and punts. Grade: A
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Coaching: Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has done a good job of getting a lot of young players involved in rotations, especially in the secondary. He also has done well as far as mixing up packages on third-down passing situations. The offense is still struggling, especially in the vertical game. Flacco wants to throw long more, but the Ravens appear more comfortable in allowing the defense to win for them instead of Flacco’s arm. Head coach John Harbaugh has done a good job of keeping his team focused and not involved in any finger pointing. He still has to find a way to get more out of his offense. Specials teams has been outstanding for most of the season, except for a few over aggressive penalties. Grade: B