Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston is very critical of the Ravens performance in the team's 25-20 win over the Cleveland Browns. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
CLEVELAND — Nearly a year ago, the Ravens privately complained about their early-season schedule, which included four trips to West division teams during the first seven weeks.
They can't complain about their first two games in 2016.
They've played two of the NFL's worst teams and barely managed a 25-20 win against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. Afterward, the Ravens were giddy in the locker room because they are 2-0 and talked about resiliency and overcoming adversity because they rallied from a 20-point deficit in the first quarter.
Gimme a break.
This wasn't Frank Reich and the Buffalo Bills rallying from a 32-point third quarter deficit against the Houston Oilers in the 1993 playoffs. These were the hapless Browns, and the Ravens couldn't have pulled this comeback off against any other NFL team — maybe not even against some good teams in Canada.
And while the Ravens remain unbeaten in the AFC North, there were some troubling signs Sunday, including the team's lack of a running game for the second straight week. There were also some problems in the secondary and a lack of intensity from a team that has struggled on the road in recent years.
The Ravens got a reprieve last week because it was the season opener and they were playing the Bills, who at least finished 8-8 last year. But the Browns were 3-13 in 2015 and have a new coach in Hue Jackson and enough youth that they could have a pimple epidemic.
If the Browns hadn't committed stupid penalties at crucial times, the Ravens might have lost to a club that has less talent than an expansion team.
"This is a team that is going to be a force to be reckoned with because they are playing a bunch of rookies," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of the Browns.
And that's the problem. The Ravens struggled against a team with 16 rookies on its roster. Harbaugh knows that East Coast teams have to run the ball in late December and early January if they want to advance and go deep into the playoffs.
But the Ravens couldn't run against Buffalo and had only 80 yards on 26 carries Sunday. Terrance West had 42 yards on 11 carries and Justin Forsett had 37 yards on 14 attempts. The Ravens did managed to take five minutes off the clock with a strong running game late in the fourth quarter and Harbaugh hopes to build off that.
The Ravens also might also get some help from rookie running back Kenneth Dixon once he returns from a knee injury in about two weeks.
"We just have to get better," Harbaugh said. "We just have to look at the tape and figure out exactly what we have to do to the run game to get it going earlier."
The Ravens can't rely on quarterback Joe Flacco every week. Right now, he is struggling from half to half. Flacco threw for 302 yards and two touchdowns against the Browns, but Cleveland has one of the worst secondaries in the league.
If the Ravens want to take some pressure off Flacco and that rehabilitated knee, they need to get the running game going, which would open up the play-action passing game.
"We're not getting a ton of yards right now," Flacco said. "We're doing some different stuff and it probably isn't giving our linemen the best chance to be super physical. I think it's keeping defenses off balance and eventually it's going to pop. On that last drive, we were able to pick up a handful of first downs running the football. I think that's where we're trying to go with this thing. We want to get up 20-0 and we want to run teams over late in the game. It's just not going that way yet, but we just have to stay consistent and eventually it will turn."
Forsett agreed with Flacco.
"I think we finally got in a rhythm toward the end of the game, and everybody was doing their job," Forsett said. "When you have success running, everybody is doing their job and making plays. It's a team thing. We have to get it together where we are consistent for quarters."
Right now, a strong running game is the missing ingredient on offense. The Ravens have some speed, and they have enough weapons to spread the ball around.
On defense, the Ravens looked good against Buffalo in Week 1, but the Bills had one of the worst offenses in the league, which is why they fired offensive coordinator Greg Roman on Friday, after only two games.
There are still questions about the Ravens' secondary. The Browns had receptions of 47 and 28 yards, which aren't that big of a deal, but they attacked cornerback Shareece Wright, and safety Lardarius Webb was slow getting to the ball.
The Ravens gave up 387 yards of total offense including 260 passing to veteran quarterback Josh McCown, who would have thrown for more yards if he hadn't suffered a shoulder injury in the first quarter.
Right now, the verdict is still out on if the Ravens are much improved from a year ago. It might not be any clearer a week from now, when they play at Jacksonville, another perennial loser. In the big picture, the Ravens were happy with the great escape Sunday.
They are unbeaten and tied with Pittsburgh for the division lead. The Ravens can talk about overcoming adversity and never giving up, but deep down inside, they know there is a lot of improvement to be made.
It's not a good sign when you only beat the junior varsity by five points.