Here we are, heading into the second half of the Ravens' surprising season. There is reason for hope in Baltimore with the 5-3 record and the possibility of truly finding a franchise quarterback. By the same token there is reason for serious concern, as that young quarterback has still not passed the test against an upper-echelon defense and as the injuries continue to play a factor with no bye week to look forward to. So! Questions are abound at this time of year to see exactly where this team is going; that's the exciting thing about the potential for a playoff run, the minutia of midweek practice notes become overanalyzed and dissected. In that spirit, on with the dissection!
Update on the secondary health: On the plus side Samari Rolle is finally back at practice this week and all word is that he should be ready for Sunday. Harbaugh has seemed very optimistic that Rolle would play, but it's very clear that we will not be seeing Dawan Landry or Chris McAlister this week as neither player has practiced for some time.
Regardless, the probable return of Rolle is a huge win for the Ravens, particularly entering this stretch. With the next two opponents being the Texans and the Giants, the Ravens need a cover man who can do a reasonable job against Andre Johnson and Plaxico Burress. No, Samari Rolle is not a shutdown cornerback anymore, but he's still a very capable and intelligent corner who will make an immense positive impact on the secondary. His insertion puts Fabian Washington at the two and Frank Walker at the nickel spots. In my opinion, the secondary will be far more solid now that Walker and Washington have gotten such extended playing time; the experience of successfully covering the other team's top receivers will make them that much more effective now that they're covering the second and third options primarily.
McGahee getting healthy again, but a question of what his role is: Willis McGahee practiced today and it's looking like there's a good bet he will be ready to go on Sunday. I believe he was healthy enough to play on Sunday but the Ravens had the luxury of depth such that they didn't need him to take on the Browns. The real question is that, when he's at full speed again, will he start? McGahee was the unquestioned starter coming into the season, but the recent play of Ray Rice mixed with Willis' injuries forces a re-evaluation of that role. Ray Rice was the sparkplug to the Ravens' comeback on Sunday, and without him I do not believe that the Ravens win that football game.
At the end of the day I believe that a healthy Willis McGahee is the best option for the starting running back. There's a place for each of the three (McGahee, Rice, McClain) in this offense, but Willis' experience and versatility makes him the best starting option. Keep in mind that Ray Rice had significant fumbling problems at the start of the year; it hasn't shown up recently, but that's another factor that makes me lean toward McGahee. I'll be intrigued to see what the coaches end up deciding, and if it means McGahee not starting, how he will handle it.
More questions about receiving corps depth: Ernie Wheelwright was placed on waivers today to make room for the signing of second year safety Daren Stone. This raises a couple questions. Just to get it out of the way, I do have to wonder why they chose to sign this kid Daren Stone. I don't know much about him and this is not a slight to his talent, but the Ravens do expect Dawan Landry to eventually return and have excellent depth behind Jim Leonhard and Ed Reed in the form of Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura. Now to my main point...
Releasing Ernie Wheelwright is very perplexing, considering that he was activated last week over Marcus Smith. All indications pointed to the coaches having a good deal of faith in the receiver, and I don't understand why the organization would reduce receiver depth which they desperately need for unnecessary safety depth. My guess is that Terrance Copper (recently signed) has shown up big in practice and has been tabbed as the fourth option behind Mason, Clayton, and Figurs. I would like to say Marcus Smith has shown something good enough, but if that were the case he would have been activated over Wheelwright. It looks like the staff looks at Smith as more of a project, but with enough potential to take up a spot on the roster even though he has not contributed yet this year.
A final congratulations: Joe Flacco was named this past week's AFC Offensive Player of the week for his impressive performance against the Browns, leading the Ravens from 14 down in the second half against the Browns (in Cleveland) to a win. Flacco was 17-29 for 248 yards and 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. This leaves Flacco's streak of consecutive passes without an interception at 88, spanning three games. Another note about Flacco's overall performance this season: during CBS's coverage of the game against the Browns, they noted that Joe Flacco is currently putting up the second most accurate (completion percentage) season by a rookie quarterback in NFL history (second only to Ben Roethlisberger).
One other thing: the NFC Offensive Player of the Week? Fellow rookie Matt Ryan. Can you think of a better year for rookie quarterbacks? I sure can't.
(Photo Credit: Elizabeth Malby/Baltimore Sun (Joe Flacco), Gene Sweeney Jr./Baltimore Sun(Ray Rice))