The Baltimore Ravens had a sorely-needed bye week in Week 8, buying them some time to fix the many issues that have been plaguing them over the first half of the season. From a seeming inability to stop the run to quarterback Joe Flacco looking shaky on the road and all manners of problems in between, seven days isn't a lot of time to turn around what ails them.
However, it's more time than they would have had otherwise. With just 16 games guaranteed every NFL team every season, things seem to fly by. A week to step away, evaluate the situation and make changes—and just to rest—could do a lot to set things right in Baltimore.
Let's take a closer look at what the Ravens need to focus on in the second half of the season. At 5-2, Baltimore has the lead in the AFC North; here's how it can keep it.
Health Concerns, Depth Concerns
A number of key Ravens positions have been decimated by injuries this year. Linebacker Terrell Suggs is just one game back from his offseason Achilles' tendon tear, Ray Lewis is done for the season with a torn triceps and cornerback Lardarius Webb is also out for the year with a torn ACL.
Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is also dealing with an MCL sprain that the Ravens are hoping does not get worse before it gets better.
They cannot afford to lose yet another one of their defensive stars, especially considering the myriad problems they are having on that side of the ball. The week away from the field should have helped his healing, but with a sprain literally being a partial tear, he'll still need to keep the knee stabilized for the remainder of the season.
The Ravens are in a precarious position in the AFC North. Though they lead the division with a 5-2 record, the Pittsburgh Steelers are fast on their heels. More injuries to their starters would make it that much harder for them to maintain their lead, especially with three divisional contests in the next five weeks.
After eight weeks, no team in the NFL is healthy—there are merely degrees of health. In that sense, the Ravens are in no different a boat than the other 31 squads in the league. However, with the season that Baltimore has had—even when Lewis, Ngata and Webb were completely healthy—losing any more players will bring added stress to a team that is stretched extremely thin.
It wouldn't be as big of an issue if the Ravens' depth, particularly at defense, was stronger. At linebacker, Baltimore has amassed a number of pass-rushers, but it has few who specialize at stopping the run. It's why Baltimore has found itself near the very bottom in terms of rushing yards allowed per game, and it was a problem it had before the injuries started piling up.
The Ravens aren't likely to make any moves prior to Thursday's trade deadline, but that doesn't mean they won't make some changes. They'll need to take a more rotational, situational approach to their defensive front seven to help put them in a better position to stop the run. And no matter who is on the field, a greater attention to tackling will go a long way.
Paul Kruger has the worst tackling efficiency among 3-4 outside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus, and ranks 10th against the run. Jameel McClain is the league's worst run-stopping inside backer and ranks 24th out of 36 in tackling. If just these two linebackers could get their hands on running backs, it would do a lot to help the Ravens' ability to stop the run. A renewed focus on this most basic of football fundamentals hopefully comprised much of the team's bye week work.
Remember Ray Rice?
Ray Rice is rated third overall among running backs by Pro Football Focus, but of his 390 snaps, only 109 have come in obvious running situations—177 are in passing downs, and the remainder are split between run and pass blocking.
On those 109 run-play snaps, 106 of them have been carries by Rice, for a total of 524 yards, 273 yards after contact and five touchdowns. He's played the fourth-most snaps of any back in the league but has the 20th-most rushing attempts, a baffling disparity considering his talent. Now that the second half of the season is here, the Ravens must get Rice and the run game more involved in their offensive game plans.
It's one thing if the Ravens are stuck playing from significantly behind, as they were in Week 7 against the Houston Texans, but even in that scenario, head coach John Harbaugh said they turned away from the run too soon. With the defense struggling, the offense has had to carry more weight, with the majority of that responsibility falling to quarterback Joe Flacco.
This has produced mixed results. On one hand, Flacco's week-to-week numbers are more consistent this season than in the last, but on the other, he's still having some significant issues that only become magnified when asked to carry the team on his shoulders.
Flacco ranks just 30th in the league in accuracy as well as in passing under pressure, and he's 18th when it comes to completions of 20 or more yards all while throwing the 16th-most passes of any quarterback thus far. Most disconcerting of all is the fact that Flacco has the ninth-most play-action pass attempts in the league, but ranks 28th in play-action completions.
This further magnifies just how much the Ravens must run more in the second half of the season. It's not to set up play-action, where Flacco is weak—it's to simply have Flacco pass less, period. Running the ball more will also keep Baltimore's offense on the field longer. It is last in the league in time of possession, making every on-field appearance for its offense that much more urgent.
More carries for Rice will up its time of possession while still yielding the desired results. Rice is averaging 4.9 yards per carry, more than enough yards to warrant more running. If he was averaging 2.3 yards per carry, it would make sense that the Ravens would elect to pass more, but with production like that, it's clear he needs the ball in his hands more often.
As a receiver, Rice can also help Flacco. Of the 39 passes thrown his way, he's caught 29 of them for 245 yards. The Ravens needed to turn away from Rice being their most-targeted receiver, and they've succeeded at that, but in pressure situations, Flacco needs to check down to his back more often. Anything the Ravens can do to extend drives without forcing Flacco to throw it deep, play after play, the more it will help their offensive bottom line.
What's Next: The Cleveland Browns
A passing glance at the respective win-loss records of the Ravens and their Week 9 opponent, the Cleveland Browns, and it seems like the outcome of this game is easy to predict. At 5-2, the Ravens look like the strong AFC North contender they've been year after year, while at 2-6, the Browns are again in the league's basement.
To look at it that way wouldn't be fair to the more nuanced aspects of this matchup. The Browns have won two of their last three games, the first win a shootout against the Cincinnati Bengals and the second a defensively-strong, run-heavy, low-scoring affair against the San Diego Chargers in poor weather conditions.
The Ravens, on the other hand, are in triage mode after numerous injuries to important defenders and a season-long inability to effectively stop the run, rush the passer and, to a lesser but very real extent, keep pass games at bay.
It helps significantly that Baltimore is coming off of its bye, but it is facing the Browns in Cleveland, where the home team has a decided advantage. Further, this isn't the same Cleveland team the Ravens faced in Week 4.
The Browns managed to hang around in that game, but ultimately fell 23-16. Since that time, rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden has improved his accuracy, his ability to make fewer mistakes under pressure and hasn't turned the ball over in the past two weeks. Running back Trent Richardson had his best game of the season thus far in Week 8, with 122 rushing yards and a touchdown, and a receiving corps that was once a liability seems to have found its identity.
It won't be an easy out for the Ravens. Terrell Suggs will need to bring heavy pressure on Weeden, while the defense as a whole will have to keep Richardson under control. On offense, Flacco must be mindful to not take too many risks—Cleveland's secondary is rife with talent, not limited to cornerback Joe Haden.
Baltimore cannot go into this game assuming the Browns are an easy out, or else it could find itself upset in an extremely important divisional contest. The Ravens must play strongly off of their bye week and not repeat the same mistakes they made two weeks ago against the Texans. The Browns aren't the Texans, no, but any opponent could capitalize on Baltimore's errors the way Houston did, so the key is to limit the flaws and again work to improve its run-stopping ability.
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