After escaping with an unconvincing victory over the Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore Ravens are tied for first place in the AFC North with a win and a loss. The defense rebounded after an embarrassing showing against the Denver Broncos and kept the Browns out of the end zone.
Next week, they face a Houston Texans team that is coming off consecutive comeback victories. The Texans have been uncharacteristically poor on defense, ranking in the bottom 10 for points allowed per game and Pro Football Focus’ overall defensive rankings (subscription required).
Houston has gone down to the wire against both the San Diego Chargers and the Tennessee Titans, needing last-second field goals to win the game. Regardless, it is still 2-0 and one of the best teams in the AFC.
A win over the Texans would be a signature victory for the new-look Ravens. Here are some of the things you need to know heading into their Week 3 showdown.
After a disappointing Week 1 where all the AFC North teams lost, the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals left Week 2 with a win that came at the expense of their divisional foes.
It doesn't get any easier for anybody in Week 3.
The Bengals defense will be put to the test when Cincinnati hosts the Green Bay Packers. The Packers offense was firing on all cylinders in Week 2 with Aaron Rodgers passing for 480 yards and four touchdowns and James Starks picking up 132 yards on the ground.
The Pittsburgh Steelers offense has had serious problems moving the football, and the Steelers host the Chicago Bears, who have looked impressive so far. The Bears offensive line is finally protecting Jay Cutler, and he has a couple of options besides Brandon Marshall to throw to.
The Cleveland Browns travel to Minneapolis to take on Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings are winless, but they have been competitive against two good NFC North teams, and the Browns will have their hands full trying to contain Peterson.
In a week where the rest of the AFC North teams could easily lose, Baltimore needs to take care of business at home and gain some separation in the division.
The most important injury news is that Ray Rice's strained hip flexor does not seem to be serious, according to Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com. Downing reports that Rice is "day-to-day," probably won't practice all week and will be a game-time decision on Sunday.
Head coach John Harbaugh told BaltimoreRavens.com that the medical staff is waiting to see the results of MRIs on Chris Canty and Arthur Brown, but it suspects they both suffered strains that aren't too serious. Brown was participating in the Monday walkthrough.
Deonte Thompson and Brandon Williams did not practice at all last week. According to BaltimoreRavens.com, Thompson told reporters that he's close to getting back on the practice field, but it is unclear whether that will be this week.
What Must Improve
The Patience to Establish the Run Game
One of the infuriating characteristics of Cam Cameron’s tenure as offensive coordinator was his tendency to underutilize Ray Rice. In the 13 games where Cameron was calling the plays in 2012, only twice did Baltimore run the ball more times than it passed.
After Jim Caldwell took over, the Ravens did it in five out of seven games.
The offense flourished with Caldwell’s emphasis on the running game to end the year. To start 2013, that same commitment to the running game wasn’t evident.
Against the Denver Broncos, Joe Flacco passed the ball 62 times while the one-two punch of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce only got 21 combined carries. The shift away from the run was expected once the Ravens fell behind, but Baltimore started the game throwing and held the lead at halftime.
In the first half against the Broncos, two-thirds of the plays were passing plays and Baltimore ran on only nine of 21 first downs.
The trend continued into the first half against the Cleveland Browns. Joe Flacco dropped back to pass 24 times, while Baltimore only ran seven times.
Life was much better in the second half once Jim Caldwell made a concerted effort to establish the ground game. The offense was in a much better rhythm, and it scored two touchdowns in the final 30 minutes of the game.
Moving forward, Caldwell needs to remain patient in attempting to establish the run. Even if there isn’t immediate success, the threat of the run opens the field for Flacco later on in the game.
Paving the Way for the Running Backs
For Caldwell to have more confidence in the rushing attack, the offensive line needs to do a better job of run blocking.
Since Joe Flacco is still building chemistry with his new receivers, the passing attack has been inconsistent. It is vital that the running game improves to take some of the pressure off Flacco for the near future.
Coverage in the Middle of the Field
There were significant defensive improvements in Week 2 after the drubbing at the hands of Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith both played well on the outside against the Browns, but guarding the slot receivers and tight ends in the middle of the field has been a weakness for two straight games.
With Owen Daniels and the Houston Texans coming to the M&T Bank Stadium in Week 3, those coverage issues will need to be rectified.
The defense entered the season without the two safeties who started for the Super Bowl-winning team. So far, the men elected to replace them have played uninspiring football.
There were missed tackles and blown assignments against the Broncos, and Peyton Manning made them pay.
First-round pick Matt Elam got the start against the Browns and was active around the line of scrimmage, but he made some errors in coverage, including a pass interference penalty and a bad angle and missed tackle, which gave Cleveland its longest play of the game.
Against the Houston Texans, the safeties will need to be ready to come up and stop the run but remain disciplined against the effective play-action fakes that Matt Schaub employs.