Baltimore Ravens: 5 Ways to Salvage Ravens' Declining Season
The Ravens are 5-2 and leading the AFC North, but they are definitely a team in decline.
They've given up 200 or more rushing yards in two of their last three games.
They've allowed Joe Flacco to be sacked 18 times in just seven games. They've only sacked opposing quarterbacks 12 times.
The Ravens have the talent to right this ship. They aren't that different from the team that dominated on defense last year, despite the injuries and departures. They aren't that different from the team that thrashed the Bengals and torched the Patriots secondary at the beginning of the year.
This team will be a Super Bowl contender again with a few changes. These five changes will help the Ravens to right this ship.
Play Press Coverage
To say that Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith have been awful this season might be giving them too much credit. Words cannot explain how poor they've been in coverage.
Opponents have constantly abused Williams' and Smith's lack of quickness, throwing short routes that they have no prayer of defending. For instance, DeSean Jackson kept running simple hitch routes on Williams to the tune of seven catches for 114 yards. Andre Johnson had similar success, racking up nine catches for 86 yards on mostly short patterns.
The duo has been just as bad on deep routes.
They regularly have good coverage, but their lack of ball skills often results in big completions anyway. They are also often guilty of penalties in deep coverage. Since they don't turn their heads to play the ball, they are often flagged for pass interference.
The stats further prove their deficiencies in coverage.
Williams has given up 40 receptions in just 54 targets for a completion percentage allowed of 74 percent. Smith, meanwhile, has given up 18 catches on 28 targets for a completion percentage allowed of 64 percent. These numbers are simply inexcusable for a starting cornerback duo.
The key to fixing this is to have the two corners play press coverage, something they've had success with this season.
Both Williams and Smith are physical corners with the speed to make up for a missed jam. Throwing receivers off their routes would help Smith and Williams cover better and boost the pass rush.
Further, the Ravens safeties, Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard, actually do have solid ball skills that would make them more effective in deep coverage than Smith and Williams, should receivers beat the Ravens' cornerbacks deep.
With Williams and Smith throwing receivers off their routes and the Ravens safeties covering deep, the defense could experience a renaissance.
Shuffle Around the Defensive Front Seven
The Ravens problems stopping the run have nothing to do with coaching.
Rather, they've struggled with personnel issues all season. Nobody, not even touted All-Pro Haloti Ngata, has succeeded in stuffing the run effectively.
Meanwhile, the pass rush has been non-existent. Just 12 sacks in seven games shows how far this unit has fallen, making the shaky cornerback duo look that much worse.
Ma'ake Kemoeatu has been an absolute disappointment stepping in as a starter at nose tackle, while Terrence Cody has been little better in relief. Both get pushed around on a regular basis.
The Ravens could try to use Ngata as a nose tackle, but it would neutralize his elite explosion and keep him from being an effective pass rusher.
Opposite Ngata are Pernell McPhee and Arthur Jones, neither of whom have stood out. McPhee has been dealing with injury, but he gets pushed around regularly and may need to be benched until he's healthy.
Jones, meanwhile, has been no better in run defense and offers even less of a pass rush. It's time to give Bryan Hall and DeAngelo Tyson more reps.
A healthy Terrell Suggs could allow Albert McClellan to step inside to replace a struggling Jameel McClain. McClain has just 17 tackles this season, despite being on the field for 183 running plays. He has been unproductive at best, and pushed around at worst.
McClellan, on the other hand, has played less than McClain and has still managed 20 tackles. He's better suited for the inside, so replacing McClain with McClellan could be a no-brainer.
Finally, the outside linebackers would consist of Terrell Suggs, Courtney Upshaw and Paul Kruger. Upshaw and Suggs are excellent run defenders, while Kruger is a balanced player who is solid but doesn't excel in one area.
The Ravens should be able to find a pass rush between these three. Suggs by himself offers a pass rush, so he'll only need a little support from Upshaw and Kruger.
With some personnel shake-ups, the Ravens might be able to find a front seven that works. Keeping the same players in the same positions, though, would be folly.
Shuffle Around the Offensive Line
The regression of Joe Flacco in recent weeks has to be directly attributed to the mediocre offensive line play. The Ravens unit has been awful, surrendering 18 sacks, 23 hits and 55 pressures in seven games.
Two Ravens have been solid all year: Matt Birk and Marshal Yanda. Both have been excellent run blockers, and Yanda is the only starter to have not surrendered a sack this season.
The Ravens have trouble everywhere else.
Michael Oher, Kelechi Osemele and Ramon Harewood have combined to surrender 37 pressures. Bobbie Williams replaced Harewood recently, only to give up three sacks so far this season.
On the plus side, Bryant McKinnie was excellent in relief of Osemele against the Houston Texans. In his only extensive action of the year, McKinnie allowed no pressure at all.
He belongs in the starting lineup.
That would leave the left guard position between Kelechi Osemele, Ramon Harewood and Bobbie Williams. Of the three, Osemele has been the best pass-blocker, while Harewood has excelled in run-blocking and avoiding penalties.
Osemele would probably be the best fit here, but Harewood is also a viable option. Williams should lose his starting job.
To do nothing would be to admit defeat, something the Ravens can't afford to do. They need to make changes, as this unit just isn't working.
Run the Ball More Effectively
Fans and analysts alike have been crying for more Ray Rice all season, and with the Ravens ranked 19th in the league in rushing, and losing the time of possession battle by almost eight minutes, that seems smart.
Getting Rice the ball more is important, but the Ravens have to do it effectively.
What this argument ultimately comes down to is that the Ravens need to run the ball more often and more effectively.
First and foremost, this means getting Bernard Pierce more involved in the offense.
He has averaged 5.3 yards per carry in relief of Rice. Pierce is actually a better running back in pure running situations, as he hits the hole quicker and more powerfully than Rice, who tends to hesitate to hit the hole.
To be clear, Rice is still a better back in almost every way.
He has more home run potential, more shiftiness and is a better weapon in the open field. Rice definitely should be getting the ball more, especially on designed screens and stretch plays. Rice is not as effective when running behind center, and the Ravens should be using Pierce for these carries.
Not only would using Pierce to pick up those tough yards be more effective, it would also let Rice rest more and use his touches more effectively. Saving Rice's body should be important to the Ravens, who will need him to make a playoff run.
The two of them should be averaging between 25 and 35 touches a game. They've averaged about 22 this season. That number needs to increase to take pressure off of Joe Flacco, the offensive line and the defense.
With more commitment to their talented running backs, the Ravens time of possession would rise as would their passing efficiency. The Ravens need to make this happen.
Play with Passion
The Baltimore Ravens have played two passionate games all year: Their season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals and a Sunday Night Football matchup against the New England Patriots.
Otherwise, the Ravens have looked flat in every single game.
In a way, it's a testament to their talent level that they can win games that they look so flat in, but it's certainly concerning.
Part of the problem is how poor the Ravens are on the road. Joe Flacco looks rattled from the first snap on the road, the defense doesn't look involved in the game and disaster ensues.
Even at home, though, the Ravens have not always impressed.
The Ravens are a more talented team than the majority of NFL squads. They have no excuse to not dominate games physically and mentally, yet they've been failing to do so.
Personnel shakeups would go a long way in letting the players know that they need to step up. The return of Terrell Suggs should also help the defense, though it was not enough against the Houston Texans.
Offensively, a rejuvenated, smash-mouth running game would work wonders for a floundering offense. A few big broken tackles from Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce would get the offensive line excited again and would open up plays downfield.
Ultimately, this comes down to coaching.
John Harbaugh needs to get these players back in the game, and fast. That comes down to intangibles that can't be measured, but it still needs to happen.