A little more than a month ago, the Ravens stood 2-0 with perhaps the best defense in football and robust hopes for the rest of the 2017 season.
The ensuing weeks have not been kind, however, with John Harbaugh's team dropping four of five games and a different problem emerging in each loss. As they prepare to host the Miami Dolphins in prime time Thursday before a national TV audience with CBS' No. 1 broadcast crew, the Ravens are searching for answers on both offense and defense. Their home-field advantage has been nonexistent, and ticket holders left blocks of seats empty the last time the Ravens played at M&T Bank Stadium. If the Ravens don't right their ship quickly, they could fall out of postseason contention for the third year in a row and the fourth time in five seasons.
The offense, debilitated by injuries to key linemen and receivers, has fallen short of subterranean preseason predictions, ranking 31st in the league in yards per game. That's down from 17th last year, when it was already viewed as a toothless attack.
The more startling downturn has occurred on the other side of the ball, where the Ravens' historically stingy run defense is allowing more rushing yards per game than any other team in the league. The Ravens ranked fifth in the league in rush defense last year and have fallen out of the top half of the league just once in Harbaugh's 10-year tenure.
That hasn't been the only blow to the team's core identity. The Ravens have traditionally held one of the strongest home-field advantages in the NFL. But they've lost two of three games at M&T Bank Stadium this year, one a 26-9 stomping by the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers and the other a sloppy overtime loss to the Chicago Bears, who came to town 1-4. Chicago's Mitchell Trubisky became the first rookie quarterback ever to beat a Harbaugh team in Baltimore.
Also at the Bears game, an unusual number of seats remained empty, a reality not reflected by the announced sellout crowd of 70,616.
Despite all the bleak tidings, the Ravens do not sound like a team on the verge of crisis.
At an appearance in Ocean City last week, owner Steve Bisciotti said of Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome: "I don't think they're doing anything wrong."
The dean of the locker room, linebacker Terrell Suggs, said the team's defense can still be "magical."
"You want to be good. You want to dominate everywhere, every facet of the game," Suggs said at his locker Tuesday. "Now, we've just got to tighten the screws a little bit. We've just got to stop the leakage. We're not hitting the panic button just yet. We'll be all right."
Suggs also said "there is no stadium like M&T," a vote of confidence in a home crowd that hasn't always filled the seating bowl and that booed the Ravens after they knelt in prayer before the national anthem in Week 4.
The organization is concerned about waning fan enthusiasm after two consecutive home losses and two straight years not making the playoffs. Empty seats are always more likely in such scenarios, said team president Dick Cass.
"There's no question we tend to see more no-shows in years when the on-field performance is disappointing to our fans," Cass said. "You always worry when you sell a ticket and the buyer doesn't see it as worthwhile to come to the game. That might mean they're less likely to want to buy season tickets in the future."
Cass said he's recently talked to fans who are worried the team won't reverse its fortunes this season. He's prepared to see more empty seats Thursday night, because many fans aren't fond of late games, even under the best circumstances.
The Ravens are fortified by the fact that most of their fan base is locked in to permanent seat licenses and season-ticket plans. That means reported attendance is unlikely to decline. They've also still sold more general-admission tickets this season than all but three other NFL teams.
But data from the secondary-ticket market supports concerns about reduced interest.
The $158 average asking price for tickets on the secondary market is down 22.5 percent from the beginning of this season alone, according to TicketIQ, a New York-based company that monitors the market. More strikingly, the average asking price has hit a six-year low, down 46 percent from a peak of $293 in 2013. The average price for tickets to Thursday's game is $137, the lowest of the team's remaining home games.
Cass said prices inevitably fall when the team's not playing well. "So far, knock on wood, it hasn't affected our season-ticket sales," he said.
The home crowd has traditionally maintained a symbiotic relationship with a defense that has given the franchise its identity since the Ravens' first Super Bowl season in 2000.
From the front office down to the players, the Ravens thought they might field another historically good defense in 2017. They re-signed defensive tackle Brandon Williams and brought in veteran defensive backs Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr in the offseason. They devoted their draft to making the defense younger, faster and more dangerous to opposing quarterbacks.
That effort appeared to be paying off when the Ravens forced 10 turnovers and allowed just 10 points over their first two games. But their performance has eroded over the past five games, especially against the run. A 100-yard rushing day used to be a scarce commodity against the Baltimore defense. In the Ravens' past three losses, however, Steelers star Le'Veon Bell ran for 144 yards, Jordan Howard of the Bears ran for 167 and Minnesota's Latavius Murray ran for 113.
Williams, the Ravens' best interior defender, missed four games with a foot injury. Even with him back in the lineup, the Ravens allowed the Vikings to run for 5.1 yards per carry Sunday.
Beyond their struggles against the run, the Ravens have lost to a rookie quarterback in Trubisky, a backup in Minnesota's Case Keenum and one of the NFL's most maligned starters in Blake Bortles of the Jacksonville Jaguars. They'll face another backup Thursday in the Dolphins' Matt Moore.
"As you've seen the last couple weeks, it really doesn't matter who's under center," Suggs said.
Players say their troubles can't be pinned on any one position or schematic failing. "We just haven't played as good collectively, and as a defense, that's what you have to do," safety Eric Weddle said.
He echoed Suggs' optimism for the remainder of the season. "The history hasn't been written on the 2017 Ravens defense," he said. "We've hit a couple bumps in the road. We've played great at times. That's the NFL. But we know most of the times we haven't played well have been self-inflicted. We've just got to reel it back in."
At least the defense is relatively healthy and stocked with players who've played at a Pro Bowl level in past seasons.
The offense is playing without its best lineman, Marshal Yanda, and has seen its receiving corps decimated by a shoulder injury to Jeremy Maclin and concussions to Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman. Michael Campanaro could also miss Thursday's game with a shoulder injury. The Ravens' only offensive touchdown the past two weeks came on the final, meaningless play of the Vikings game. Quarterback Joe Flacco's passer rating of 70.0 is second worst in the league and would be the worst of his career.
The miserable performance has led to speculation about offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's job security. If the offense performs poorly again and Harbaugh wants to shake up his coaching staff, the 10-day gap between the Dolphins game and a Week 9 trip to face the Tennessee Titans would be a possible time.
On Tuesday, Mornhinweg again asserted that his players have not been shaken by their recent struggles.
"There's no time for that right now," he said. "Now, a few weeks back before the Oakland game, I was a little concerned. But, our guys … There is not a confidence problem with our guys. They think they're the best in the world, individually, and we have to put it together as an offensive unit."