Mike Preston's midseason Ravens grades: After a strong start, Joe Flacco's performance has dropped

Very few times has any midseason game meant so much, but the Ravens need to have a sense of urgency when they face the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

Through the past couple of years, they have teased fans with some big wins, only to turn in unexpected losses. During the past two years, they have lost big games late in the season that probably would have put them into the playoffs.

There probably won’t be much to wait for if the Ravens lose Sunday.

Nearly a month ago, when the Ravens beat Pittsburgh, 26-14, these teams were on different paths. At the time, the Ravens were 2-1 and the Steelers were 1-1-1. Since then, Pittsburgh has won three in a row and the Ravens have lost three of four.

Pittsburgh’s defense no longer gives up big passing plays and the Steelers have had several defensive players improve. And they’ve found a running game, featuring James Conner.

The Ravens?

The long passing game is missing, they can’t stop the run and premier quarterbacks such as Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, the New Orleans SaintsDrew Brees and Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton beat the Ravens with quick-paced, uptempo offenses.

After being embarrassed last week by the Panthers, the Ravens get a chance to redeem themselves against Pittsburgh, their most hated rival.

But before we move on to Sunday’s game, the midseason report card comes out.

Quarterbacks

Joe Flacco started off strong in the first four games, but his performance has dropped off. Flacco has never been one with great patience as far as reading defenses. In the past two games versus New Orleans and Carolina, those teams have taken the long ball away from Flacco, forcing the Ravens to have drives of more than 10 plays to score. It forces Flacco to be patient, which is not a strong point, and also accurate on short to intermediate passes, which is also not strong point. Flacco had two poorly thrown interceptions last week against the Panthers. He has completed 209 of 342 passes for 2,259 yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions and has a quarterback rating of 84.9. The Ravens have used rookie Lamar Jackson sparingly, mostly on running plays. Grade: B-

Running backs

Alex Collins has been the starter and has rushed for 358 yards on 98 carries, and his longest run has been only 19 yards. That’s not good enough. Collins runs hard and always gives second effort, but sometimes he dances and shuffles too much before hitting the hole. It’s not entirely his fault, because there are hardly any holes. A lot of times, he makes something out of nothing. Buck Allen is the No. 2 and third-down back. He is solid, but a lack of acceleration and speed limit him from making big plays in the flats. Maybe recently acquired Ty Montgomery will give this group an added dimension or take it to another level. It is desperately needed. Grade: C-

Offensive line

In the preseason, there were questions about the lack of depth, and the Ravens are paying the price for it now. The group was healthy for most of the first quarter of the season, but even then this unit was far from dominant, especially in the run game. Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda started off slow but has made progress. Center Matt Skura has been steady but not always sturdy. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley is having the best season of the bunch, but the Ravens haven’t had a lot of continuity with injuries to guard Alex Lewis and tackle James Hurst. The Ravens have been forced to play two rookies at times, and that’s not a good recipe for success. Grade: C

Receivers

John Brown leads the team in receiving yards with 586 on 31 catches. He was the team’s big-play guy in the first four games, but, as expected, teams have focused on taking him out of the offense. Unfortunately for the Ravens, they have few other vertical threats. Both Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead IV are more possession types. Crabtree had his bad game against the Cleveland Browns in Week 5, but has rebounded well and has 38 receptions for 440 yards and two touchdowns. Snead has 38 catches for 390 yards, but the Ravens need more consistency out of him. He has a tendency to disappear from the offense. Rookie tight end Mark Andrews has been a pleasant surprise, but fellow rookie tight end Hayden Hurst hasn’t gotten into the swing of the offense because of injuries. In the past two weeks, tight ends have dropped a couple of passes that have hurt the offense. Grade: B

Defensive line

This group started out stopping the run well earlier in the year, but has struggled against stronger teams, such as New Orleans and Carolina. There are two run stoppers in tackles Brandon Williams (20 tackles) and Michael Pierce (11). Both work hard and can take on two blockers, but neither dominates, which is what a tackle must do at the nose position. End Brent Urban has been solid at times, but hasn’t had any spectacular plays. Fellow end-tackle Chris Wormley seems to be entering a groove and has progressed well in recent weeks. End Willie Henry has been slowed by injuries and hasn’t contributed much. Overall, the Ravens are ranked No. 11 in rush defense, but this group doesn’t get much pressure on the quarterback. Grade: C+

Linebackers

It appeared that C.J. Mosley played hurt the last game, so it will be interesting to see how he plays Sunday against the Steelers. Regardless, he is leading the team in tackles with 53 (34 solo). Mosley and other inside linebackers such as rookie Kenny Young (33 tackles) and Patrick Onwuasor (23 tackles) run well to the ball, but they have become liabilities in pass coverage and the top teams take advantage. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs has played well at times, but he is no longer a threat for an entire game. Za’Darius Smith and Matthew Judon have also had standout moments, but they don’t deliver big plays weekly. Overall, this is a group that works hard and plays reasonably well, but there is no one on this unit who another team fears. Grade: B-

Secondary

Regardless of what the Panthers did to the Ravens last week, this has been the most consistent unit on the defense. Overall, they have played well despite the four-game suspension to cornerback Jimmy Smith earlier in the season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy and the two recent games missed by cornerback Marlon Humphrey with a thigh injury. It appears that Smith, who suffered an Achilles tendon injury last season, still isn’t in football shape. He doesn’t accelerate or run as smoothly as he did before the injury. Without Humphrey, Smith has had to line up against the other teams’ top receivers and has struggled. Tavon Young, the nickel cornerback, and Brandon Carr have been solid. The Ravens are fortunate to have two strong safeties on the roster in Tony Jefferson (49 tackles) and Eric Weddle (41 tackles). The problem is that they don’t have a roaming free safety with speed who can make tackles one-on-one in the middle of the field. Grade: B

Special teams

In the past, the Ravens could always count on special teams, but not this year. They have missed blocks on punts and field-goal attempts and have made costly penalties. The Ravens got outcoached by the Panthers last week by allowing a last-second field goal at the end of the half and blew a fake-punt attempt with a penalty. Fortunately, the Ravens have quality kickers in punter Sam Koch and Justin Tucker, though Tucker’s missed extra-point try in the loss to New Orleans was mystifying. The Ravens seem to have found a good return specialist in Cyrus Jones after having failures there earlier in the season. Grade: D

Coaching

The Ravens have lost three of their past four, and coach John Harbaugh has to find a way not only to break the streak, but also get his team on a winning run to get into the postseason. Teams have cut off the long ball from the Ravens, so offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has to change up his game plan a little. The same goes for defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, because teams are moving their quarterbacks out of the pocket more to avoid pressure. While special teams have struggled, coordinator Jerry Rosburg will make corrections. He is still one of the best at what he does in the NFL. Grade: C

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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