After six games, the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens are 3-3, tied for second place in the AFC North. Their 19-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday was a rare home defeat. And still, we wait for a complete picture of Baltimore's team identity to emerge.
Dominated in Week 1 by the Denver Broncos, the Ravens responded with a pair of wins, first over the Cleveland Browns and then the Houston Texans. A close loss to the Buffalo Bills was followed by a close win over the Miami Dolphins. And now, after this latest loss, the only grade that seems appropriate for the Ravens' 2013 season thus far is "incomplete."
Hiccups on both offense and defense were expected for the Ravens this year after the team lost so many veterans in free agency and to retirement. They had to adapt to new faces at linebacker, safety, wide receiver and center, but the process appears to be ongoing.
The one player they believed they could rely on, quarterback Joe Flacco, is as inconsistent as ever, which may serve as the best metaphor for the Ravens' currently murky identity.
In Flacco's previous five seasons as Baltimore's starter, the team didn't always follow the quarterback's lead. It had a dominant defense to rely on, as well as a strong running game that often made up for Flacco's week-to-week inconsistency.
But now, with more responsibility on Flacco's shoulders, the team looks much more like him—both good and bad, and hard to predict which version will show up on a weekly basis.
Flacco has thrown for as many as 362 yards in a game this year and as few as 171; he's completed as many as 66.67 percent of his passes and as few as 50 percent. He's had seven touchdowns to eight interceptions, and he's averaged anywhere from just below six yards per attempt to well over eight.
The Ravens defense is performing just as erratically, with 510 yards given up in Week 1 against the Broncos, 438 to the Packers and under 270 twice (in wins over the Texans and Browns). They yielded over 100 rushing yards in their most recent loss and over 200 in a win over the Bills while at the same time effectively pressuring quarterbacks, and they presently have 22 sacks on the season.
Most out of character, however, is that the Ravens haven't run the ball well. They've had only one game with over 100 total rushing yards (in Week 5 against the Dolphins) and are averaging under three yards per rush. They ran the ball 22 times against the Packers but netted only 47 total yards. Ray Rice had just 34 yards on his 14 carries, while Bernard Pierce had a mere nine yards on six runs.
The reason for this is the offensive line, which Pro Football Focus ranked the worst in the league through the first quarter of the season.
New center Gino Gradkowski is not playing as well as his now-retired predecessor, Matt Birk. In Week 6, left tackle Bryant McKinnie gave way to Eugene Monroe, whom the Ravens acquired in a trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars because McKinnie has been playing so poorly. Second-year left guard Kelechi Osemele has been outmatched on a weekly basis and keeps drawing penalties.
The only thing that's clear about the Ravens right now is that this is not the same team from last season. Everything seems to be a work in progress with no indication of how things will end up. Echoing the seesaw play of Flacco is not a good strategy, however. The Ravens need to find their baseline.
Both circumstances and conscious decision making on the part of the Ravens front office have resulted in a very changed team. But yet we still don't know exactly what it has become. Three wins have been matched by three losses, but in all six games, the Ravens haven't looked like the same team twice.
Eventually, Baltimore's team identity will emerge. Whether that is one of consistent inconsistency or the Ravens can finally settle into a groove is presently as unpredictable as the team itself.