A year after coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and the offense were consistently criticized for not establishing or sticking to the run game, the Ravens are running the ball more than just four other teams and have been successful doing it. But have they become too predictable, specifically on first down?
In a 27-24 overtime loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday, the Ravens had 11 drives that weren't in typically pass-heavy two-minute situations. There were 18 first-down plays on those 11 drives, and they ran the ball on 13 of them. On the previous two drives, before the Ravens fell behind by two scores late in the fourth quarter, the Ravens ran the ball on five consecutive first-down plays.
To be fair to Mornhinweg, the Bears were playing their safeties deep to try and take away downfield shots by quarterback Joe Flacco. The Ravens were also without their full complement of receivers with Jeremy Maclin missing all of the game and Breshad Perriman missing most of it. The offensive line was handled, too. All those factors point toward going a little conservative.
However, it would certainly help for the Ravens to become a little less predictable early in drives. You can't take a deep shot every week on the first play of the game, like the Ravens did successfully against the Oakland Raiders, but you can mix in some downfield throws. The Ravens will need to do that to keep defenses honest.
The Ravens cornerbacks were barely tested by the Bears, but they played well in limited action and they continue to make up the team's most productive position group.
However, the Ravens need more consistency from starting safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson, billed as one of the top duos in the league.
Both factored prominently in the few big plays the Bears made as Weddle had Jordan Howard dead to rights for a short gain but missed the tackle on an eventual 53-yard run in overtime. Jefferson allowed tight ends to get behind him for two touchdown passes.
According to Pro Football Focus, Jefferson has been beaten for four touchdown passes this season while no other Ravens defensive back has surrendered more than one. The website ranks Weddle and Jefferson 61st and 66th among NFL safeties. Those ranking are subjective, but both players have been PFF darlings in the past.
Is it Hill's time yet?
I've sort of been amused by the fan obsession about when undrafted rookie cornerback Jaylen Hill will make his debut.
Hill has been inactive for the first six games after he suffered a hamstring injury late in a standout preseason. He has been practicing for the past couple of weeks and appears to be healthy enough to play. But where does he fit in the defensive backfield, and does he justify a game day roster spot without being a mainstay on special teams?
Outside corners Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey continue to play well and reserve safeties Lardarius Webb and Anthony Levine Sr. have been playing in the slot, so there's not an obvious and immediate role for Hill. But it's probably time to give Hill a look to see what you have. You can line him up in the slot, use Webb more in a deep safety role and push Jefferson closer to the line of scrimmage, where he's at his best. That certainly would be a way of getting more speed on the field.
Ten quick thoughts
1. It's a testament to how banged up the Ravens are up front that defensive lineman Willie Henry went from not playing a defensive snap as a rookie last year and being a healthy scratch the first two games this season to playing 68 of 80 defensive snaps Sunday.
2. The offense deserved plenty of criticism for its effort Sunday, but the fixation on not throwing the ball toward the sideline when the Ravens had it on their 44-yard line with 12 seconds remaining in regulation is overblown. The Bears knew that's what the Ravens wanted to do, so they were taking that away. You force a throw and you're setting yourself up for a pick-six.
3. Fans have the right to say whatever they want, but all the mocking of injured players on social media, along with the accusations that players are feigning injuries and counting their money rather than playing, is sad and ridiculous.
4. I think I've said this before but it seems pertinent again this week. If the offense can't perform at even a competent level, it won't matter if the Ravens are facing Case Keenum or Sam Bradford, Brett Hundley or Aaron Rodgers, Jacoby Brissett or Andrew Luck.
5. The Ravens' lack of a big, physical red-zone target, a problem in the past, is hurting them again this year. Flacco seems to trust only Benjamin Watson in the red zone and that makes the Ravens easy to defend.
6. Brandon Williams is a dominant player, but it has to be concerning to see the team struggle so much to stop the run without Williams after using third- and fourth-round picks in 2016 and a third-round selection this year on interior defensive linemen.
7. It seems that Williams is nearing a return, but the Ravens will have to decide whether he's ready to play two games in five days (Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings; Thursday against Miami Dolphins) after weeks of inactivity, or whether they should hold him out until the Thursday night game.
8. It will be interesting to see whether the Ravens are patient with tight end Maxx Williams, who is again dealing with a left ankle injury, or put him on IR if they find a player they want to add.
9. Ronnie Stanley is again playing like an elite left tackle, which is great news for the Ravens.
10. If it looks as if Breshad Perriman will miss some time with a concussion, why not promote Quincy Adeboyejo from the practice squad and give him a shot?
What's next for Ngata?
In case you missed it, former Raven and current Detroit Lions defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was put on season-ending IR after tearing his biceps last week. You have to wonder if this could be it for Ngata, a 12-year veteran who will turn 34 in January.
Ngata reportedly considered retirement last offseason and acknowledged that he consulted a neurologist before agreeing to play another season with the Lions. Now, he's heading to free agency and having to rehabilitate another injury.
Ngata is a devoted family man, so it wouldn't be a surprise if he opted to hang it up this offseason. If he does, his next likely stop will be the Ravens' Ring of Honor.