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Five things we learned from the Ravens' first half of the season

1) It’s difficult to separate Joe Flacco’s performance from the quality of his receiving corps and Marty Mornhinweg’s game plan.

It’s easy to say Flacco has been awful. His basic numbers — worst yards per attempt and third-worst passer rating in the league — support that position.

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The Ravens have paid him like a franchise quarterback since 2013, and the only season he resembled one was 2014. He’s less mobile than he was before his 2015 knee injury and, as a result, more easily overwhelmed by pressure. At least once a game, he fails to read the defense and forces a pass into a heavily covered area.

All of that said, Flacco has been better than the surface indicators suggest. His arm is as strong as ever, and he’s thrown fairly accurately.

But his context is so out of whack that it’s hard to get a read on what he might do in a more optimal situation.

The team’s offensive plans swing wildly between downfield aggression and numbing conservatism. How much of that is Mornhinweg and how much is Flacco checking down to an underneath throw at the first sign of pressure? Everyone seems to agree the offense is better when the design is bolder, so why does that spirit come and go?

As for the receivers, Breshad Perriman has simply not developed into the dynamic player the Ravens envisioned. Mike Wallace missed the better part of two games because of a concussion and has been strangely absent from the game plan other weeks. Jeremy Maclin has been the most productive of the group but has also missed games because of a shoulder injury. Even under the best circumstances, none of them would be the star receiver in a high-powered offense.

If you’re judging Flacco against the true stars at the position—Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, etc.—you’re always going to be disappointed. He’s not the guy to lift an undermanned offense to the promise land. But think back to that 2014 season, when the Ravens had a sound running game, a top offensive coordinator in Gary Kubiak and a stable receiving corps led by Steve Smith Sr. and Torrey Smith. Flacco was put in a position to succeed that year, and he held up his end.

Could he still be that player in the right setting? Probably, but we’re unlikely to find out this season.

2) Brandon Williams was worth every penny the Ravens paid him.

As much as everyone in town likes Williams — a giving figure in the community in addition to a very good player — fans and analysts questioned whether a two-down run stuffer was worth the $52.5 million the Ravens paid to retain him.

Well, we saw the defense without Williams for a month after he hurt his foot in Week 2. It wasn’t a pretty picture.

Even at their lowest points in recent seasons, the Ravens could generally count on stifling opposing runners. But they allowed three 100-yard runners in four weeks this season. Williams’ absence for three of those games wasn’t the only reason.

Still, it’s notable how much better the front seven has performed the past two weeks with him healthy and back in the swing. Williams has been more dominant than ever this season, making several impressive tackles in addition to his usual space eating.

Yes, $52.5 million is a hefty price for a defender who doesn’t pressure the quarterback. But when he exerts such an impact on the first two downs, you accept it.

3) Changes to the secondary have paid off in a big way.

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The Ravens invested more heavily in their defensive backfield than any other position group. They were tired of coming to the end of every season with a rag-tag crew that had no hope of stopping the league’s best passing offenses.

Many fans and analysts were surprised when they picked cornerback Marlon Humphrey in the first round ahead of defensive end Jonathan Allen and tight end O.J. Howard. Humphrey was probably the least touted of that Alabama trio, but he’s been excellent.

If he weren’t around, the Ravens would be living in fear of Jimmy Smith’s tender Achilles tendon. Instead, they know they have a world-class athlete and fierce one-on-one defender to plug in whenever Smith needs to take a series off. Humphrey hasn’t played as much as some of the other cornerbacks from his draft class and thus hasn’t received as much national hype. But he could evolve into a Pro Bowl player.

The Ravens also hit with their signing of veteran cornerback Brandon Carr. Not only is he one of the most durable players in the league, a big deal to a secondary that had been decimated by injuries for years, he has been reliable in coverage and a greater turnover producer than anyone expected.

With Humphrey and Carr in the fold and Smith playing the best football of his career, the Ravens cover outside receivers as well as any team in the league.

Tony Jefferson, whom they signed to pair with Eric Weddle at safety, has been a more mixed bag. He’s excellent near the line of scrimmage, functioning as a third inside linebacker at times. But he hasn’t been as consistent in coverage. Weddle has also played below his Pro Bowl level of last season, though he excelled in Week 9 against the Titans.

Setting individual performances aside, the Ravens have played elite pass defense in 2017 and that’s a significant step forward from recent seasons.

4) Alex Collins has been the team’s biggest revelation.

If your antenna perked up when the Ravens pulled Collins off the scrap heap after the Seahawks discarded him, congratulations. You know the NFL talent pool better than most of us.

In a year of dull, periodically incompetent offense, Collins has been the one genuine dash of excitement. From the first time Flacco handed him the ball in Week 2, it was apparent Collins ran with more quickness and fire than incumbent starter Terrance West. He made the most of any space the offensive line created and fought for extra yards at the end of each carry.

That instinct to keep churning actually got Collins in trouble when he fumbled twice in three weeks, a pattern that would have relegated him to the bench if it had continued.

But he worked doggedly to tighten his technique and hasn’t turned the ball over in the past five games. Not coincidentally, he’s become the team’s featured back over the same period.

Collins ranks second in the league in yards per carry. And he’s easily the biggest piece of found gold in a season defined more by injury losses and disappointing performances.

5) We could be headed for a winter of significant tumult, or not.

There’s a mounting sense of discontent around the Ravens.

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Baltimore fans got used to believing their franchise was among the best-run in the league, with a string of stellar drafts and playoff appearances to support that notion. Beyond that, the Ravens — with their brash personalities, impenetrable defense and unwavering home crowd — evoked a clear image to the rest of the football world.

But that identity has eroded since they won the Super Bowl almost five years ago.

They’ve made the playoffs just once since then, and they’re struggling to survive on the edge of the wild-card race this season. Ozzie Newsome’s recent drafts have not sufficiently restocked the roster, especially on offense. Doubts about Flacco dominate fan conversation. Blocks of seats have remained empty at recent home games.

To the world outside Baltimore, the Ravens are another largely faceless NFL mediocrity. To the people in town, they’re a ship adrift.

That would all seem to suggest foundational changes are looming if they don’t rally to make the playoffs or at least post a winning record. But it’s not at all clear owner Steve Bisciotti shares that outlook.

Bisciotti expressed unequivocal support for Harbaugh and Newsome at his postseason press conference in January, and he reaffirmed that stance at a recent appearance in Ocean City. No ultimatums, no backhanded criticisms.

It will be fascinating to hear Bisciotti’s message if the Ravens stumble to another 8-8 record, especially if fan apathy/antipathy continues to deepen. His belief in stability is understandable, even admirable, given the franchise’s past successes.

Harbaugh’s team still plays hard on the field, and most of Newsome’s picks and signings still make good sense, at least on the front end. If Bisciotti has total faith in their process, despite uneven results, then so be it.

But the drum beat will only grow louder for some kind of change to blast the Ravens out of their ongoing rut.

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