After going 3-1 in first quarter of season, schedule becomes more challenging for Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens persevered through key injuries, an early division-heavy schedule, the challenge of grasping a new offense and seemingly daily off-the-field distractions to finish the first quarter of the regular season with a 3-1 record.
But as players and coaches exited the locker room late Sunday afternoon after a 38-10 blowout of the Carolina Panthers, the solid start to the season was tempered by an understanding of the challenges ahead. Coach John Harbaugh and his players won't be talking this week about anything beyond Sunday's game in Indianapolis against the formidable Colts, but it's not a stretch to suggest that the next five weeks could define the Ravens' regular-season.
At the very least, it will reveal how good these Ravens are.
They will play four of their next five games on the road, including the next two weeks against the Colts (2-2) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-3). Then, after an Oct. 19 home game against the Atlanta Falcons (2-2), the Ravens have back-to-back road games against their division rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals (3-0) and Pittsburgh Steelers (2-2), two games that should go a long way in determining their AFC North title hopes.
"It's the end of the first quarter, we are 3-1 but now we start a new phase, a new series so to speak," Harbaugh said Monday. "Three of these [next] four games are going to be on the road in very tough environments so we have our work cut out for us."
After Sunday's victory, Harbaugh said the Ravens would have to become "road warriors." They went just 2-6 away from home last season, but the Ravens passed their first road test this year with a 23-21 win against the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 21. The Colts, however, represent a step up in class.
"The challenge is you have to go play another team in their environment," Harbaugh said. "That takes an incredible amount of discipline and poise. The more disciplined and poised you are, the more able you are to execute and tune out the noise. That's what we've got to do."
After an 0-2 start, Indianapolis crushed the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans the past two weeks by a combined score of 85-35. They have scored 30 or more points in all four of their games and they are averaging an NFL-best 34 points per game.
Star quarterback Andrew Luck leads the NFL in passing yards (1,305) and touchdown passes (13) and he's thrown for 763 yards and eight touchdowns in his last two games. He's on pace to finish with more than 5,000 yards passing and 50 touchdowns, and he also has 10 career rushing scores, including one this season.
"You have to contend with his legs and arm," Harbaugh said.
If there is a significant Ravens' concern over the first four weeks, it's been the play of the secondary, which will be under fire against Luck, who has seven different targets with 10 or more receptions. Safeties Matt Elam and Darian Stewart have struggled, Lardarius Webb has played just four snaps all season and the team's cornerback depth has been challenged.
But the defense has made up for periodic miscues by stopping the run, avoiding big penalties — the Ravens were the third least penalized team in the league through Sunday — and stiffening in the red zone.
And of course, the offense has provided margin for error. The Ravens are tied for seventh in the league in scoring (25.8 points per game) and they've been able to maintain drives, keeping the defense off the field. The Ravens, relying on a resurgent running game and solid decision-making by quarterback Joe Flacco, have 12 drives this season of 10 plays or more.
"This is our mentality every week. We want to be able to run the ball and dominate the line of scrimmage," said running back Justin Forsett who entered Monday ranked ninth in the league with 255 rushing yards and first with an average of 5.8 yards per carry.
Not only do the Ravens rank eighth in the league in rushing after a season in which they were 30th, Flacco has been sacked just three times, tied with the Broncos' Peyton Manning for the second fewest times in the league. Denver has also played one fewer game than the Ravens.
"A lot of that is Joe," said center Jeremy Zuttah. "Joe does a good job of getting rid of it when he's supposed to. They try to bring some extra guys and he knows where they're coming from before they come, so he's doing a great job of helping us out and we're just trying to help him. He stands in the pocket and he's not afraid to take a hit and deliver the ball downfield."
With starting left tackle Eugene Monroe (knee surgery) and tight end Dennis Pitta (season-ending hip surgery) out against the Panthers, the Ravens racked up 454 yards of offense and scored points on six of their eight drives.
Still, several players talked Sunday about the plays that the offense left on the field, and the improvements that need to be made. It's a message that Harbaugh reiterated Monday, fully aware of what the Ravens have ahead.
"The main thing we have to do is get better," Harbaugh said. "People aren't going to stay the same. We just can't say, 'OK, we're playing pretty well in these areas and now we're fine.' It's not like you check off a box. Everybody improves, everybody attacks perceived weaknesses. They try to negate your strengths. You just got to continue to improve as much as you can every week."
Harbaugh did praise the players for the resiliency they've showed. Whether it's the fallout to the Ray Rice situation, the season-ending injury to Pitta and several defensive players, the three divisional games in a 15-day span to start the season or the attention surrounding Steve Smith playing his former team, the Ravens have handled it and are in good position heading into the hardest part of their schedule.
"Sometimes they say football or life reveal character, builds it, maybe it does both," Harbaugh said. "In our case, it's revealed it. It's galvanized us in some ways. We've been through a fire a little bit and it burns away. It either makes you or breaks you. I feel good about that, but you know what? We've just begun."