Mike Preston's first-quarter grades: Ravens offense gearing up, defense solid

The Ravens will enter the second quarter of the 2018 season on a mini-roll.

They just beat their nemesis, the Pittsburgh Steelers, on the road Sunday night, and that might set the tone for the next four games, three of them away against the Cleveland Browns, Tennessee Titans and Carolina Panthers. The offense is just starting to gear up with a passing game that features speedy wide receiver John Brown and a hot quarterback named Joe Flacco.

The top-ranked defense just shut out one of the NFL’s top offenses in the second half of Sunday night’s game, and this group should get better with the return soon of starting cornerback Jimmy Smith and end-tackle Willie Henry.

Of course the Ravens could use some improvement in their pass rush and the middle of the offensive line, and the running game could use more muscle, but the Ravens are in good position at 3-1 after four games.

They will meet an improved and confident Cleveland team Sunday that has a promising rookie at quarterback in Baker Mayfield. But before we officially move on to another part of the season, we gave to hand out our first-quarter grades.

Quarterbacks

Joe Flacco hasn’t put together a streak of good games like this since the team’s Super Bowl run in 2012. He has completed 110 of 171 passes for 1,252 yards and eight touchdowns. There are a number of reasons for his success. He is healthy, has new receivers, has a new quarterbacks coach in James Urban, has competition at the position and has the same coordinator for the third straight year. He appears more comfortable and is certainly moving better. Flacco has played well in every game except the loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, but still played well enough for the Ravens to win. He has been effective in completing passes to every area of the field. Grade: A

Running backs

The Ravens have failed to get this group going in the first quarter of the season. It’s not entirely the fault of backs Alex Collins and Buck Allen. There haven’t been many holes in the middle of the interior lines. Collins has rushed 45 times for 158 yards and two touchdowns. He gives great effort and is good bouncing outside, but he has trouble holding on to the football and struggles catching the ball and in pass protection. Allen has 15 catches for 87 yards and is an asset as a third-down receiver, but he’s no threat as a runner. The Ravens need to get more out of this pair in the next four games. Grade: C-

Receivers

Few people, even the coaches, knew what to expect from this group. Brown, Willie Snead IV and Michael Crabtree were all new to the team, but they were also hungry in trying to prove they could play in this league again. Brown has been the biggest surprise with 15 catches for 338 yards and three touchdowns. He has shown he is more than just a vertical threat. Snead has 18 catches for 198 yards, and comes up with a clutch catches in crucial situations. Crabtree has 18 catches for 184 yards but has dropped several passes. The Ravens have gotten good production out of backup tight ends Maxx Williams and Mark Andrews. They aren’t big, flashy players, but they find holes in defenses and punish opposing tacklers. Grade: A-

Offensive line

The Ravens have been hit hard by injuries and maybe that slowed their progress, especially guards Alex Lewis and Marshal Yanda. Yanda missed most of last season with an ankle injury. He has played well at times but hasn’t been as dominant as in years past. Lewis missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. He seems to be running better in the past two weeks. Matt Skura has struggled at center, and the two tackles, Ronnie Stanley and James Hurst, have shown improvement during the past two games. Pass blocking by this group has been very strong. Grade: B

Defensive line

The Ravens have done a good job of rotating five or six guys through on game day, and hopefully that will keep them fresher near the end of the season than in previous years. This unit has been good at shutting off the run and making the opposition one-dimensional. The Ravens are giving up only 82.5 rushing yards per game. Tackle Brandon Williams is the top player among this group and leads the Ravens in tackles with six. End Brent Urban has five, while utility linemen Chris Wormley and Patrick Ricard have four each. Backup nose tackle Michael Pierce has three. The biggest area of improvement for this team is getting a consistent pass rush. The Ravens haven’t been successful in providing pressure in the middle and get the quarterbacks off their mark. Grade: B

Linebackers

Like the linemen in front of them, this group has played well against the run. Few teams flow to the ball faster than the Ravens, especially rookie inside linebacker Kenny Young. He isn’t really big or strong yet, but flies and is always around the ball. He leads the linebackers in tackles with 22, nine more than fellow inside linebackers C.J. Mosley and Patrick Onwuasor. Pro Bowl and veteran outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is quietly having a sound season. He has 11 tackles, 2.5 of those sacks. Besides Suggs, the Ravens have been getting some pressure from fourth-year player Za’Darius Smith, who has 9.5 tackles, including two sacks. Smith and second-year player Tim Williams (sacks) have been much better this season in using their hands. The Ravens need a stronger presence from strong-side linebacker Matthew Judon. Grade: B+

Secondary

There was expected to be some drop-off in play when Smith was suspended for the first four games of the 2018 season for violating league policy. The Ravens struggled against Cincinnati, but have rebounded well against the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh. The Ravens might be playing more press coverage than any other team in the NFL, so that means they have two physical ones in starters Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey. Carr played extremely well against the Steelers on Sunday night. Cornerback Tavon Young has had occasional lapses but has been a key player in nickel coverage. Tony Jefferson is playing more like a strong safety and leads the team in tackles with 24. Free safety Eric Weddle has 16, and even though he is more of a strong safety, he has done well wrapping up players after catches. Anthony Levine Sr. is the hybrid safety-linebacker who can cover a tight end or running back close to the line of scrimmage. Grade: A-

Special teams

This is usually a unit of strength, but the Ravens have struggled early in the season. They have allowed a punt block and field-goal block, and struggled again Sunday night blocking for the punt team. The Ravens had problems fielding punts but appear to have found the right player in Tim White. The kicking game is excellent as usual with punter Sam Koch, who is averaging 49.9 yards a kick with seven inside the 20-yard line. Justin Tucker has been one of the NFL’s top placekickers for years and is 3-for-3 on field goals over 50 yards. Grade: B-

Coaching

Special teams need to get better and there isn’t a better coach around than coordinator Jerry Rosburg. I was waiting to see the adjustments made by coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale when teams started picking up his blitz and pressure packages, and he has done a nice job changing, especially Sunday night when he gave up the short passes to Pittsburgh but kept everything in front of the secondary players. Martindale has done well mixing and subbing his packages. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg got a little pass-happy after the opening season win against the Buffalo Bills, but has gone to a more balanced approach since losing to the Bengals in Game 2. The Ravens still rely heavily on the pass, but not to the point that they are one-dimensional. Coach John Harbaugh will have to keep an eye on Mornhinweg because he gets a little too overaggressive at times. Harbaugh lets his assistants coach but now appears more inclined to interject. He ran a tough, steady-paced training camp, but the Ravens might not have been in the best game-shape once the season started. The Bengals loss gave them a wake-up call. Grade: A-

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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