Preston: Ravens still need to improve but have too much for Steelers

The Ravens completed the first quarter of their season Sunday night, and they are in a great position.

It’s tough to go into Pittsburgh and win, but it’s even better when you go in and beat a team that helped crush your playoff hopes the past two years.

The Ravens didn’t just beat the Steelers; they smacked them around pretty good in a 26-14 victory. And the Ravens haven’t even reached their potential yet.

There are still some problems, and the Ravens might not be able to correct them until next season. But after four games the Ravens are one of the most complete and balanced teams in the NFL.

After last season, that seemed almost like an impossible goal in 2018, but they could be a tough, contending team before this year is over.

They still do dumb, careless things that keep games close. In fact the Ravens should have blown the Steelers out Sunday night. But running back Alex Collins had a second-quarter fumble that might have cost the Ravens a touchdown and changed the momentum of the game.

Wide receiver Michael Crabtree dropped a key pass and miscommunicated with quarterback Joe Flacco on another route that could have been a touchdown. There was a holding penalty on a punt that should have pinned Pittsburgh down in the second quarter but instead factored into a Steelers touchdown.

With the Ravens and their recent history, it always seems as if there is something that holds them back. But there is a different feeling this season.

On offense they finally have a passing game with multiple weapons. They have a deep threat in receiver John Brown and an underneath, possession type in Willie Snead IV. The Ravens, even without starter and rookie Hayden Hurst, have tight ends who play hard and can make catches in clutch situations in Maxx Williams and Mark Andrews.

And then there is quarterback Joe Flacco.

At the beginning of the season I stated that he had to be the player to step up and carry this team, and so far he has been. He was good on the long ball and also showed touch. He drilled passes over the middle in tight windows throughout the night, completing 28 of 42 passes for 363 yards and two touchdowns.

The Steelers are down this season on defense, but the point here is that Flacco has been consistent in his performances except for a below-average showing in Cincinnati.

You can feel the confidence growing in this team and in Flacco. You only have to look as far as the Ravens’ call on third-and-1 from the Baltimore 23 with 8:30 left in the game. At that point the Ravens were ahead only 20-14.

In the past Ravens coach John Harbaugh would have called a run. Instead, Flacco rolled to his right and threw a 22-yard completion to tight end Maxx Williams for a first down.

That’s confidence. That’s bold.

At this point I have more questions about the Ravens defense than the offense. I’m still wondering about Collins and his fumbling problem, but the Ravens don’t need to be a dominant running team. They just need to hand it off enough to balance up the offense and keep Flacco from getting hurt while dropping back.

Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has been successful with his blitz-happy, all-out-pressure approach on defense but it might be more out of necessity than actual philosophy.

The Ravens can’t get consistent pressure with their defensive line, especially in the middle. Overall their cornerbacks did a nice job on Pittsburgh’s receivers Sunday night.

But the Ravens still give up a lot of big passing plays in the middle of the field, which they have done the past three years. The idea of moving safety Tony Jefferson near the line of scrimmage works well against running teams, but the Ravens still don’t have a safety who can play deep or center field in passing situations.

Maybe those problems will show up and hurt the Ravens later in the season. But when you look at the other teams in the NFL, few have as much balance on offense, defense and special teams as the Ravens.

Denver does, but the Ravens already dusted the Broncos. The Jacksonville Jaguars have a strong defense but an offense that lacks firepower. The Kansas City Chiefs have a hot offense but a weak defense. Washington is comparable to the Ravens with the No. 10 offense and No. 2 defense, but the Redskins are only average in pass defense.

The Ravens are a work in progress. Those words are usually used for teams that are struggling and have major weaknesses, but the Ravens aren’t in that category.

They can get better. And after four games and winning three of them, it’s a good position to be in.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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