For the fourth straight year, the Baltimore Ravens have begun their season with a 3-1 record.
It's not just 2012 that's been good to the Ravens, as they have won 10 straight divisional games (12 out of 13) and 14 straight home games (22 of 23). They've begun to establish their ideal offensive pace, mostly with the no-huddle offense, which has worked beautifully. Baltimore ranks fourth in total offense and is gaining an average of 424 yards per game (third in passing, 11th in rushing).
Defensively is where the weakness is. Currently Baltimore has the 25th overall defense (390.2 yards allowed per game), although its scoring defense is 10th (20.8 points allowed per game).
Even though points allowed is the only stat that matters, that is subpar for a traditional Ravens defense. Sure they've played some explosive offenses, but this group isn't one for excuses. They know they can and need to play better.
All that said, Baltimore is 3-1 (2-0 in division) and in sole possession of first place. In essence, the Ravens are two points away from being undefeated.
Like we knew, this is a talented, diversely skilled team that is built to peak in December and January.
For now, here are my grades for each position.
Key Player: Joe Flacco
Analysis: Flacco is on pace to set career marks in every major category. Before Week 4 began, he was second in the NFL in passing yards.
After four games, Flacco is easily on the short list for AFC Pro Bowl quarterbacks. He's also on a list for the league MVP award.
Flacco is unquestionably playing the best football of his life—of course, that's due in part to all of his offensive weapons. Still, someone needs to command and adjust the offense, and execute the play-calls, which Flacco has done very well so far.
At least for now the Ravens are winning because of Flacco, and not in spite of him.
Key Player: Ray Rice
Analysis: Rice is yet again off to his usual blistering start. He's averaging five yards per carry and 7.9 yards per reception. He's also averaging 123 total yards of offense per game, despite the team throwing on 62.1 percent of their plays.
Rice's protection is solid, and he continues to display rare elusiveness in the open field.
Bernard Pierce has been a pleasant addition to the Baltimore backfield. In 17 rushing attempts, he's gained 88 yards (5.2 per carry). When you see him giving a good effort when not much is expected of him, you know Baltimore has the right player.
Vonta Leach is leading the charge for the Ravens' 11th-ranked rushing offense and has contributed eight receptions for 56 yards on his own. As the fullback position is fading away, Leach remains a force that few opposing players (if any) want to deal with.
Key Player: Torrey Smith
Analysis: Of the 21 wide receivers who have at least 15 receptions this season, Smith leads them all with an average of 20.8 yards per reception. Of that same group, only Julio Jones (Atlanta) and Mike Wallace (Pittsburgh) have three receiving touchdowns like Smith does.
So far, we've seen what Smith worked on in the offseason: not being just a deep threat. He's running more types of routes, and his yards after the catch are piling up.
Right now, Smith has 332 receiving yards. This time last year, he had less than half that (153 yards receiving). It wasn't until his eighth game last year that he eclipsed his current mark.
Anquan Boldin (eighth in NFL with 19 receptions), Jacoby Jones (18.9 yards per reception) and Dennis Pitta (the second-best receiving tight end in the league with 18 receptions and 188 yards) also have shined through these first four games.
With Smith and Jones taking the tops off coverages on the outside and with Boldin and Pitta working the soft spots in zones on the inside, this passing attack is quickly becoming one of the very best in the league.
Key Player: Kelechi Osemele
Analysis: If you followed this group in training camp, you'd be really surprised to see how well they've played together this early, considering they mixed and matched first-team units on almost a daily basis.
Osemele has been just what the Ravens thought he would be: physical, mean, versatile and a finisher of blocks.
Ramon Harewood, who had yet to take a single NFL snap before this his third season, has started at left guard and played well throughout these first four games against some elite pass-rushers.
Baltimore's offensive front is 24th in sacks allowed (nine), but has only allowed five negative rushes in 97 attempts.
For an offensive line whose starters' average size is 6'4" and 321 pounds and hasn't played but four games together, I'd say the best is yet to come.
Key Player: Haloti Ngata
Analysis: Baltimore's defensive line has helped its defense achieve ranks of 11th in rush defense (3.2 yards per carry) and seventh in sacks (nine).
Ngata continues to be the catalyst for its success.
Twenty tackles and two sacks in four games aren't typical numbers for an interior defensive lineman. Ngata's abilities are anything but typical.
Pernell McPhee, Arthur Jones, Terrence Cody and Ma'ake Kemoeatu don't have the stats, but they are stout run-defenders, which is a necessity of any AFC North team with postseason aspirations.
Besides Kemoeatu, the average age of those four players is 25.
Key Player: Courtney Upshaw
Analysis: This unit has been average so far. Pass coverage has been below average, and its run defense has been above average (at least for normal defenses).
In other words, the linebackers unit hasn't shown you anything that blows you away.
The man charged with holding down the fort in Terrell Suggs' absence is rookie Courtney Upshaw, who has done a very nice job through his first four NFL games.
With 17 tackles and half of a sack, plus an improving knowledge of how to play the run, Upshaw has fought through a shoulder injury to validate him being picked 35th overall in April's draft.
He's turning out to be a tough, assertive run-defender with some pass-rushing skills, just like Baltimore hoped for.
Key Player: Lardarius Webb
Analysis: This would be the best secondary in the league if Cary Williams hadn't played so poorly in the first three games. As it is, the Ravens rank 28th in pass defense (295.8 pass yards allowed per game).
When you think of Webb, think of Darrelle Revis without the recognition, but with the ability to return punts.
Sure Williams had an interception for a touchdown versus Cleveland, but in his three previous games, he often looked lost and was frequently beaten in coverage.
Jimmy Smith could be a starter in time and, when healthy, gets better each game. Smith's size and Webb's coverage ability give Baltimore a lot of options on how to cover opposing receivers.
Key Player: Justin Tucker
Analysis: Sam Koch has been an excellent punter since Day 1. Tucker is following Koch's lead and is beginning his career along the same path.
Tucker has made eight of his nine attempts on the year, including two from more than 50 yards out. His 56-yard field goal at Philadelphia is the second-longest this season (San Francisco's David Akers tied an NFL record with a 63-yard field goal at Green Bay in Week 1).
In this his seventh NFL season, Koch is averaging 46.8 yards per punt (the highest mark of his career). He also is tied for second in the league with eight punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
You could've guessed Koch would play well, and based on his training camp performance, Tucker hasn't been a surprise. But to see Tucker's success translate to real games validates the Ravens' choice to stick with him over Billy Cundiff.