Things are far different for the Baltimore Ravens heading into Week 7 than they were last week. For a team that has already dealt with its fair share of change since the 2012 league year began, the news that both linebacker Ray Lewis' and cornerback Lardarius Webb's seasons have ended with injuries didn't carry with it an unfamiliar pain.
Regardless, losing two key defensive starters in a year that has them presently without the services of their top pass-rusher, Terrell Suggs, and in bad shape when it comes to stopping the run has rendered the Ravens far less fearsome on that side of the ball than in seasons past.
There's a lot for the Ravens to do if they want to hold onto their sizable lead in the AFC North; let's take a closer look at what's going right and what's going wrong in their attempt to do so as they prepare to meet the Houston Texans in Week 7.
The Good: Baltimore's Offense is Well-Equipped to Make Up the Difference
If the Ravens are going to overcome their many defensive injuries and issues, they'll need to do more than just address that side of the ball—they must also rely on their offense to help them along to victory.
What was once a defense-heavy team with a smattering of conservative-but-effective offensive production is now, out of necessity, one that must find a new identity out of what quarterback Joe Flacco and the rest of the offense is capable of doing.
Presently, the Ravens are averaging 385 yards per game, the eighth-highest average in the league. They average 272.7 passing yards and 35.3 pass attempts per game and run the ball an average of just 23.8 times per game, but net 112.3 yards from them. At 26.8 points per game, the Ravens have the ninth-highest average in the league.
Flacco's issues with weekly inconsistency seem mostly in the past. He's had just one game this season with under 200 passing yards, and even in last week's close game against the Dallas Cowboys, he was rather sharp, going 17-of-26 for 234 yards and a touchdown.
His 65.4 completion percentage was better than all but three of his games last season, and though none of his receiving targets hit double-digits, he threw completions to eight different players. As long as he can keep up this pace, the Ravens should be in good shape to maintain their significant lead in the AFC North and not add too many losses to the one they have at present.
The Ravens must run the ball with Ray Rice more often, however. Rice had just 16 carries for 63 yards against the Cowboys, though he did also add two rushing touchdowns. With so many defensive stars out for the season—and Terrell Suggs' playing status down the stretch still unknown—the Ravens need to hold onto the ball as long as possible. Expect Rice's carries to go up in order to extend their time of possession, which is presently just 26:50, or 28th in the league.
The Bad: Injuries, Injuries, Injuries
The Ravens defense, particularly their run defense, wasn't in good shape prior to last week's game against the Cowboys, but now, things have gotten markedly worse. Linebacker Ray Lewis is done for the year with a torn triceps, and cornerback Lardarius Webb is on injured reserve with a torn ACL.
Prior to these two injuries, the Ravens were without 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs, who tore his Achilles' tendon in the spring as well as run-stopping linebacker Jarret Johnson, who headed to the San Diego Chargers in free agency.
These two losses directly affected the Ravens' ability to both stop the run and rush the passer, and things are going to get even more difficult in both areas with the two most recent losses. Not helping matters, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata sprained his MCL against the Cowboys, and though he did return to the game and is going to be on the field against the Houston Texans on Sunday, it's not ideal that yet another defensive Pro Bowler is at less than 100 percent.
Even before Lewis' injury, things weren't going so well when it came to the Ravens stopping Dallas' run game. All told, they gave up 227 yards on 42 carries, including 93 yards on 14 rushes for DeMarco Murray, 92 yards and a touchdown on 18 Felix Jones carries and 31 yards on nine carries to Phillip Tanner.
Presently, the Ravens rank 26th against the run, giving up an average of 136.5 yards per game and 22nd against the pass, allowing 260.2 pass yards. With Suggs sidelined, their pass rush relies more heavily on the blitz, which opens them up to giving up big completions when they do not reach the quarterback in time, and they just don't have enough run stoppers on defense now that they're without Johnson (as well as defensive end Cory Redding, who was also integral to their run defense).
The Ravens are hurting for depth at linebacker now that Lewis is injured; they'll need to either promote someone from the practice squad, bring in a free agent or start rotating their starters inside and outside to produce better results in both pass rush and run defense.
In the secondary, there is simply no replacement for Webb. Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams will now be Baltimore's two starting corners, with Chykie Brown and Corey Graham rotating as necessary. Safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard will be asked to do a lot more when it comes to supporting both the run and pass defenses; that's almost certain.
What's Next: The Houston Texans
The Ravens are taking on the Houston Texans this coming Sunday afternoon at the worst time possible. Not only does Baltimore have to find ways to mitigate the losses of Webb and Lewis, it'll have to do it while preparing for the other one-loss team in the AFC.
The Texans are coming off of a crushing home defeat at the hands of the Green Bay Packers and will be playing with a far greater level of intensity as a result. Houston ranks in the top 10 defensively against both the rush and the pass, and it hasn't given up a single rushing touchdown all season—bad news for a Ravens offense that needs to run the ball more.
Most importantly, Houston has a top 10 rushing offense, with 134.2 yards per game coming on 35.2 attempts per game. This is the third time this season that the Ravens take on a top-10 rushing team, and if it goes as it has gone in the past, they'll likely be looking at another 200-plus yardage day out of Houston's trio of Arian Foster, Ben Tate and Justin Forsett.
The Ravens must find ways to contain Houston's run game and force quarterback Matt Schaub to pass the ball. The Texans passing offense ranks just 19th in the league in yards per game, and despite losing Webb, the Ravens still have a better shot at keeping the Texans at bay if they're passing the ball rather than running it.
Baltimore must establish and maintain a lead early in order to minimize the damage the Texans' run game can do. It's going to be hard—the Texans are currently averaging two more points per game than the Ravens—but if it cannot stop the run, then its offense is its only hope to pull out the win.