Week 8 is the Baltimore Ravens' bye week, and it couldn't have come at a better time. At 5-2 and in the lead in the AFC North, it appears at first glance that all is well—but peer just a little under the surface, and it's very clear things are not going so well.
Even before losing defensive starters Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb, the Ravens defense was in trouble. Giving up well over 100 rushing yards per game, it appeared the perennially fierce defense couldn't stop anyone. As such, the offense, led by quarterback Joe Flacco, had to pick up the slack.
The results have been mixed.
Last week, the Ravens fell to the Houston Texans, 43-13, as they were dominated on both offense and defense. A collapse like that requires some serious troubleshooting and luckily for Baltimore, it has some time in which to do just that. Let's take a look at what the Ravens' biggest priorities should be during their week off.
Offensive Priority: Increasing Carries for Ray Rice
Generally speaking, a feature back in the NFL gets at least 20 carries per game on a regular basis. However, Ravens running back Ray Rice—who is one of the best in the league at his position—has had just 20 carries once in seven games this season.
His lowest number of yards and carries came last week against the Texans. Rice ran well throughout the first half of the game, but with the Texans continuing to put up unanswered points, they fell too far behind to stick with running the ball. Rice had just nine carries for 42 yards (as well as five receptions for a mere 12 yards).
Despite having to play from behind, Rice could have been used more—something head coach John Harbaugh also acknowledged. Though not facing as severe a deficit as the Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers nonetheless stuck with the run with Jonathan Dwyer in Week 7.
If the Ravens would have done this with Rice, they could have extended drives—or at the very least, possessed the ball longer and not allow the Texans offense as many opportunities to shred their troubling defense.
Rice's involvement is also necessary because it provides relief for quarterback Joe Flacco. At home, Flacco has been sharp this season, but he's struggled on the road. He's had career-long issues with pocket awareness and pressure—two things the team's switch to a faster-paced, no-huddle offense has helped, but when on the road it becomes harder to implement an audible-reliant system.
Flacco's receiving targets are better than they were last year in that they are more experienced, and they've helped him immeasurably, especially tight end Dennis Pitta. However, that doesn't mean the Ravens need to turn away from Rice's running talents.
With the defense struggling and Flacco not always the answer, the best thing the Ravens can do is run the ball heavily with Rice (as well as rookie Bernard Pierce). The longer the offense can be on the field, the less the defense has to do. It would have helped matters against Houston, that's for sure.
The weather is about to get colder and the second half of the season begins a particularly grueling stretch for every team in the NFL, regardless of their schedule. That means more running, which should result in Rice getting increased carries. But whatever justification the Ravens make for doing it, they simply must get the ball into Rice's hands more often.
Rice is averaging around 15 carries per game, and there are times when 12 or 15 carries can do the job. But that should be the exception and not the rule. Rice has the talent—and the payday—to be treated like a true feature back.
What use is one of the league's greatest running backs if he's on the sideline or in the game only to assist with pass blocking?
Defensive Priority: Stop the Bleeding
The most disconcerting thing about the Ravens this season is how their defense is performing.
After giving up just 292.3 yards per game last season—the third-best average in the league—it now rank 26th, giving up an average of 400 yards per game. They rank 23rd against the pass, giving up 257.1 yards per game and 27th against the pass (142.9). They gave up 420 yards to the Texans last week.
A number of factors have contributed to the Ravens' defensive collapse. First was losing linebacker Jarret Johnson, defensive tackle Brandon McKinney and defensive end Cory Redding in free agency, depleting their ability to stop the run.
Then, 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs tore his Achilles tendon in the spring. He returned to action last week, playing 44 defensive snaps and turning in one of the better performances of the Ravens linebacking corps, registering a tackle, a sack, a quarterback hit, a hurry and a batted pass.
Linebacker Ray Lewis started to show his age in both run defense and coverage, helping to contribute to the defense's inability to stop the run from early on in the season. Now, he's out for the remainder of the year with a torn triceps, and while that may not harm their defensive performance, it is a major hit to the team's leadership.
And finally, cornerback Lardarius Webb's season is also over, having torn his ACL in the same game in which Lewis tore his triceps. Without Webb, easily their best cornerback, the Ravens ability to cover receivers is severely depleted.
So how do the Ravens fix this? These problems run far too deep for just one week off to turn things around completely, but they can at least make a few tweaks in both schematics and personnel that can improve their yards allowed.
Suggs' return helps this considerably; an improved pass rush will help the Ravens minimize their deficiencies in the secondary. If opposing quarterbacks cannot throw without being hurried or hit, their odds of throwing accurately and completing passes are severely diminished.
Further, with Suggs on the field as a pass rusher, there can thus be less reliance on the blitz. As I detailed earlier this season, Suggs' main contributions as a passrusher in 2011 came on first and second downs; without him, the Ravens have had to rely more on the blitz with other pass-rushing linebackers who simply don't generate as much speed and power as Suggs. This has opened up the Ravens to the big passing play and is one reason why their passing yards-allowed numbers are so high.
Against the run, it's more about fundamentals than anything. The linebackers in particular are having a tough time with tackling—Paul Kruger has four missed tackles on the year and Jameel McClain three. The other issue is that players like Kruger have had to step in and take on roles that are rather unfamiliar to them.
Kruger was a situational pass rusher just a year ago. Now, he's splitting his time between rushing the passer and defending the run. Of Kruger's 363 snaps this season, 164 have been in run defense, 153 in the pass rush and 46 in coverage. Last year, Kruger played a total of 334 snaps, with only 55 coming against the run—the other 239 were pass-rush situations.
In fact, a number of 2011's pass-rushers are now 2012's run defenders. Beyond Kruger, defensive end Pernell McPhee is getting more time in run-stopping situations, as are linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who has taken over for Lewis, and nose tackle Haloti Ngata.
It's never easy for defenders to switch their specialties from one season to the next. The Ravens, for all of their smart personnel decisions, didn't balance out their front seven between players who are adept at stopping the run and those who are better at pass rush and coverage. As such, they're fitting square pegs into round holes and hoping they can step up and show prowess with their new responsibilities.
With the issues stopping the run, in particular, mounting, even Ravens defensive backs have had more run defense assignments than last year. Clearly, the team is already attempting to throw the house at this problem, but the results don't seem to be there.
Baltimore, however, cannot simply sit back and concede that they'll give up nearly 200 rushing yards per game. The Ravens can attempt a "bend-but-don't-break" approach toward stopping the run (as I suggested last week in their game plan for Houston), but that's more of a quick fix than a real way to improve their run defense.
Improving fundamentals like gap discipline and tackling can help mitigate some of the problems in having career pass-rushers suddenly being asked to defend the run. The Ravens must also consider promoting practice-squad players, rotating more linebackers and defensive linemen and perhaps even executing a trade before next Tuesday's deadline.
Stopping the run is the Ravens' biggest priority, especially with a week off to address it. If Baltimore comes back in Week 9 looking defensively unchanged from how they've played in the weeks prior, it's going to be a difficult task to maintain control of the AFC North and make it to the playoffs.