Last year we watched the Ravens play with the thought in our minds that this was a very good team that was just a hair below the elite teams in the AFC. I entered this season wondering whether they could make the leap to the elite level. Unfortunately, they have taken a step back- not just below the Colts/Patriots/Steelers level, but below playoff level in the conference. Don’t get me wrong, this team is still good, but only that. It is easy to look at the 4-4 record and say that of course this team is average as they stand now, but one must look at who their losses have come to. Cincinnati, for all its reputation, is still a division leader, as are Minnesota and New England. By no means are these losses embarrassing, but the idea that this team couldn’t pull out a win in any of these cases in disturbing. I am going to try to take a look at the biggest weaknesses on this team and what will be the difference whether they reach the playoffs or not.
The Secondary: Ed Reed is doing too much and getting hurt in the process, and the troubles of the cornerbacks is well-documented on this blog. While the Ravens have great depth at safety, neither Haruki Nakamura nor Tom Zbikowski are Ed Reed-level safeties. If Reed can’t go, that will be another huge blow to this group. To be honest, the Ravens are not starting cornerbacks who have any history to suggest that they will play better as the season goes on. Unfortunately this Achilles heel should stick around for a while.
The Kicker: One has to wonder whether the Ravens final drive could have been more successful last week against the Bengals if they didn’t have to try to get two scores rather than just one. We will never know, as Steve Hauschka missed yet another key field goal late in the game- and it wasn’t a 48 yarder as it was against Minnesota. He has never been a particularly accurate kicker, and while I didn’t think Stover should have been kept around I didn’t think that Hauschka was necessarily the answer. If a change is made or Hauschka gets his leg or mind straightened out, this could improve as the season goes on.
The Run Defense: I don’t get it. Baltimore used to shut down every running back who attempted to run right at them- now they are being gashed up the middle. This can’t be the result of losing Bart Scott, though revisionist historians would love to say they thought the Ravens should throw the checkbook at him to keep him in town. I worry that Kelly Gregg isn’t playing at his traditional high level, but he has been part of great Baltimore defenses in the past. The only great changes in this defense have been Greg Mattison and a suddenly awful secondary. The logical excuse would be to say that a terrible secondary has led to more players being sent into coverage, but that hasn’t been the case as far as I can see. I can’t explain this, so I have to assume it will get better over the year; but it will have to turn around by Week 12 or Baltimore may want to shop for a new defensive coordinator.
The Offensive Inconsistency: This isn’t going anywhere. So far this season either the defense holds the opponent under 20 points or the offense goes off- but it has only happened at the same time once this season; against the Broncos. I am not sure if this is a problem with execution or with Cam Cameron failing to adjust to certain teams, but the team can change from week to week from humming along to ground to a halt. However, two of this team’s three games where they scored less than 30 points came against the Bengals, who have two shut-down cornerbacks. This goes back to the weakness of the Ravens receivers, who are unable to matchup with elite corners (with the exception of Derrick Mason) and leave Joe Flacco with very few options. With the right matchups at wide receiver, this offense can be successful. When the corners are above average, this team will struggle offensively. Looking at the schedule, this could mean 3 or 4 more substandard offensive days.
The Browns game should go better on both counts, but with the Colts, the Steelers (twice), the Bears, and the Packers left on the schedule, this team will have a lot of work to do to reach the near-clinching 10-6 record needed to have hope of making the playoffs.