On the surface, one could easily say that the state of the Baltimore Ravens' union is strong. At 4-1 after five weeks, the Ravens have sole possession of the AFC North and the second-best record in the AFC. But let's delve a little deeper and see what we've learned about the Ravens through the first quarter-and-a-week of the 2012 NFL season and where they could be going in Week 6 and beyond.
Weeks 1 Through 5: A Look Back
The Ravens opened this season much as they did their last, with a complete decimation of a divisional rival. They defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, 44-13, and debuted their new-look no-huddle offense, resulting in 299 passing yards for Joe Flacco, who spread the ball around to eight different receivers.
It was a breakout game for tight end Dennis Pitta, who has since eclipsed Ed Dickson as one of Flacco's most favored targets. Interestingly enough, running back Ray Rice had just 10 carries in this game, though he got 68 yards and two touchdowns out of it. The defense, without sack leader and 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs, still managed to take down Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton four times; he was also picked off once.
In Week 2, the Ravens were handed a disappointment, a 24-23 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. The game marked a controversial play—Flacco throwing on a 4th-and-1 rather than handing it off to Rice, and Baltimore lost despite four Eagles turnovers, including two Michael Vick interceptions.
The pressure of the Eagles' Wide Nine defense combined with a loud Philadelphia crowd didn't allow Baltimore to turn to the no-huddle that was so effective against Cincinnati. And again, Rice had fewer carries than his talent would presumptively command, with 99 yards on 16 rushes. Pitta had the most of Flacco's targets, with 15 (and eight receptions), while Torrey Smith caught just two passes.
Week 3 brought the New England Patriots to town and with them, a glut of rhetoric about redemption and revenge. The Patriots, as we all are well aware, defeated the Ravens in last season's AFC Championship game and headed to the Super Bowl, thanks to a dropped pass and a missed last-second field goal that would have sent the game into overtime.
Granted, the third week of the following season is a far different situation than the pressure cooker of a conference championship game, but the Patriots are still one of the most formidable teams in the league. The Ravens had a fight on their hands.
It was a strong performance out of Flacco and the Ravens passing game. Smith, who had just found out about his younger brother's passing, channeled that emotion to a six-catch, 127-yard outing that produced two of Baltimore's four touchdowns.
Ironically, this game also came down to a last-second Ravens field goal attempt. Rookie Justin Tucker's 27-yarder was nearly off-target, but managed to split the uprights to give Baltimore the 31-30 victory.
The win didn't result in a Week 4 letdown, not with the Cleveland Browns coming to town. Cleveland kept things close, putting up 16 points, but Baltimore won out with 23 of their own, with seven points coming from a Cary Williams pick-six of Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden. Rice, notably, was held to just 2.7 yards-per-carry against a Browns defense that has had problems stopping the run in the past.
Week 5 presented us with a different Ravens altogether. Travelling to Kansas City to face the Chiefs, Flacco again found himself under duress and unable to get the no-huddle running. Baltimore ultimately won, 9-6, but when an offense attempting to be one of the higher-powered units in the league is held to just three field goals, it's a distressing sign that progress is halting.
Of note is the 140 yards the Ravens defense allowed to Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles. Run defense has been an issue for Baltimore in previous weeks, but they appeared to get the problem under control against New England and Cleveland.
However, against Kansas City, who couldn't pass the ball effectively whatsoever, they allowed a ridiculous number of yards. Though it didn't cost them the game, it is evidence that Baltimore still has work to do in stopping the run.
A Closer Look: Offense
Currently, the Baltimore Ravens offense ranks eighth overall in yards per game, at 389.8, have the fourth-most average yards per play, at 6.2, net 21.8 first downs per game all while ranking 25th in average time of possession, at 28:12. Clearly, the Ravens are making the most of their time with the football.
Breaking it down further, the Ravens rank eighth in passing yards per game (281.2) and 13th in rushing yards, at 117.6. For better or for worse, this is the Joe Flacco Show, with the Ravens averaging 37.2 pass attempts and 22.8 completions per game as compared to their 24.2 rush attempts per game.
When Flacco can successfully run the no-huddle, the Ravens passing game fares far better, but overall he's had a more consistent first five games this season than he did in the last. In 2011, Flacco's passing yards in games one through five were 224, 197, 389, 163 and 305; this year, they are 299, 232, 382, 356 and 187. Aside from his Week 5 dip against the Chiefs, he's been far less erratic.
This is attributable to a few factors. One is that no-huddle as well as the increased responsibility Flacco has been given to adjust plays at the line of scrimmage has showcased his advancements in reading opposing defense. Another is that Baltimore's young receiving corps has had a whole season to work together; thus, better communication between Flacco, Smith, Pitta and Dickson has resulted in more completions.
Also, there's simply more pressure on Flacco to lead his team this year. The defense is without Suggs, thanks to that Achilles injury, as well as Cory Redding and Jarret Johnson, who left in free agency. As such, it's not the same constantly dominant Ravens defense as we've seen in seasons past, and there is now more onus on the offense to hold up their end of the bargain.
Flacco's big arm has come through for him quite often this year, especially on deep, play-action passes to Smith. However, he still has shown signs of wilting under pressure. His pocket awareness could still use work, and is something that more no-huddle can help mitigate.
The issue is finding the appropriate situations for the no-huddle. On the road, in loud stadiums, it becomes almost futile to try to audible at the line. Baltimore must find other ways to speed up their game—it's how Flacco has looked so good at times this season.
Of note is how little the Ravens are running the ball, despite having Rice on their roster, easily one of the best backs in the league. Rice has had just 81 carries through five games—a 16.2 per-game average—and 23 receptions. He has the eighth-most rushing yards from scrimmage in the league presently, at 419, but considering he's averaging 5.2 yards-per-carry, it would make more sense for Rice to carry the ball more often.
A Closer Look: Defense
I mentioned above that the Ravens' defense isn't quite the unit it was last season, and again, that's mainly attributed to Suggs' injury and the departures of free agents Johnson and Redding. It affects both their pass rush and their run defense.
Last year, the Ravens were a top-10 team in sacks per game, averaging 2.7, while so far this season they are averaging 1.8 sacks per game. The same thing goes for rushing yards per game allowed—in 2011, they gave up just 94.9, the third-best average in the league, while this year they rank 19th, with 118.4 yards allowed.
Stepping in for Suggs is linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive end Pernell McPhee. Rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw has been switching between run defense and pass rush, with 119 total snaps in the former and 121 in the latter.
While clearly the Ravens needed a fix, especially when it came to "replacing" (using that word lightly here) Suggs, the hope was that they'd still be able to put the same amount of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Instead, they have just nine sacks as a team through five games, half as many as the league's leading teams.
The run-stopping has also been a particular concern. They started the season on a bad note, allowing 127 Bengals rushing yards and 129 for the Eagles. After two strong weeks stopping the run—77 yards to the Patriots and 43 to the Browns—they turned around and gave up a whopping 214 rushing yards to the Chiefs in Week 5, with 140 of those belonging solely to Jamaal Charles.
Without bringing more pressure to quarterbacks, the Ravens have a greater chance of being burned by opponents' passing games. They need to find a way, other than blitzes (which leave them open to giving up big gains) to get that pressure. And, in giving up so many rush yards, teams now have more than one way to get the better of Baltimore. As the season wears on, that struggle to stop the run will give them more and more headaches if they cannot fix it.
A Closer Look: Special Teams
Special teams—especially kick and punt coverage—was an area of weakness for Baltimore last season, so the turnaround they've experienced through the first five weeks of this season has been very much welcomed.
They have yet to give up a touchdown on either a punt or kick return, and rank 14th in kickoff yards and 22nd in punt return yards allowed. The Ravens' own return game is fairly strong as well, ranking them ninth in total kick return yards and 19th in punt return yards.
Rookie kicker Justin Tucker has fared better thus far than his predecessor Billy Cundiff did in 2011, making 11 of his 12 field goal attempts, with just one miss coming from between 40-49 yards and his longest a 56-yarder. He's made every extra point attempt, as well (13 of 13, for those keeping score).
Quick Preview: Week 6
This upcoming Sunday, the Ravens host the Dallas Cowboys in a game that is entirely winnable for Baltimore. The Cowboys have one of the most productive passing offenses in the league, but also one of the more inconsistent, pressure-prone quarterbacks in Tony Romo.
Romo has been picked off eight times already this season, and the Ravens could easily force him into making more mistakes this Sunday. This is an instance in which bringing pressure via the blitz could pay off by getting Romo to make bad throws rather than just simply sacking him.
At the same time, Dallas's pass defense is currently the best in the league, giving up just 169.5 passing yards per game. This, therefore, may be a good opportunity for Ray Rice to get more than his 16 carries-per-game on average and touch the ball 20, 25 or more times.
Baltimore's defense must also be careful not to allow Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray from breaking off huge gains. He's a similar style of runner to the Chiefs' Charles, whom they faced last week. With the Cowboys being an all-around better football team than the Chiefs, they must not allow Murray to have the 140 yards they gave up to Charles last week, because Dallas can actually make something out of them.