The Baltimore Ravens must use their bye week to address their biggest weaknesses.
The Baltimore Ravens have a 3-4 record headed into their bye week. At this point last season, they headed into the bye at 5-2. Clearly, things are very different this year for the defending Super Bowl champions.
At his press conference on Monday, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh acknowledged his team's struggles and voiced his commitment to making any change necessary to right the ship. Cuts, trades, new signings, changes in scheme—none of the options are off the table over the coming week:
John Harbaugh: 'We'll trade guys, we'll cut guys. We'll sign guys. We'll change schemes. We have to find a way to get better.'— Aaron Wilson (@RavensInsider) October 21, 2013
The Ravens are in uncharacteristically bad shape. Their efforts to rebuild the roster after allowing so many veterans leave, whether they were released, signed elsewhere as free agents or traded, haven't worked out as well as they seemed destined to on paper. As linebacker Terrell Suggs said earlier this week, via Clifton Brown of CSN Baltimore, the Ravens are "in a state of emergency."
Presently, the Ravens rank 21st in yards per game with 328.7, 28th in rushing yards per game at 74 and 21st in points per game at 21.4. Their defense is giving up 343 yards per game and is middle-of-the-road against both the run and the pass.
Just as Rome was not built in a day, an NFL team can't easily go from a sub-.500 record to Super Bowl contender in the matter of a bye week. But there are changes the Ravens can and must make on their week off. Here are a few ways the Ravens can make their road ahead a bit more smooth.
Fix the Run Game
In the course of one offseason, Baltimore's run game has gone from the top 10 to the league's basement. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce are still there as the team's two primary backs and Vonta Leach remains to provide his fullback services, but the Ravens cannot get much going on the ground. They've broken 100 yards rushing only once this year.
The problem is not Rice's or Pierce's. While Rice has dealt with a hip flexor strain—leading the Ravens audition additional running backs to provide insurance should the injury flare up again—the real issue is the offensive line.
It begins with the center, Gino Gradkowski. With longtime center Matt Birk retiring at the end of the 2012 season, the Ravens needed to fill his considerable shoes. The second-year Gradkowski beat out A.Q. Shipley for the honor this summer, but he hasn't had a good season either as a pass-protector or run-blocker.
Gradkowski has an overall grade of minus-13.6 from Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Though that mostly owes to his struggles as a pass-blocker, his run-blocking grade of minus-3.1, combined with him holding the responsibility to call out the protections, means that he takes a good share of the blame.
However, he's not the only Ravens offensive lineman who is struggling to create running lanes. Only guard Marshal Yanda and new left tackle Eugene Monroe—who replaced the benched-then-traded Bryant McKinnie and his minus-9.5 run-blocking skills—have positive grades in run support at plus-2.5 and plus-1.2, respectively.
Right tackle Michael Oher has a run-blocking grade of minus-8.4. Guard Kelechi Osemele—who is dealing with an ailing back that will likely require offseason surgery, per Wilson—is minus-0.7. Shipley, who has 39 run-blocking snaps out of his season total 75, rates minus-4.8.
Overall, the line is Football Outsiders' 31st-ranked unit in run-blocking, and it ranks dead last in runs stuffed and runs getting to the second level of the opposing defense.
Making matters worse is that the other players tasked with assisting the run game aren't doing a good job, either. Leach has a minus-5.8 run-blocking grade after being the league's best fullback for years. Tight ends Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark also each boast negative run-blocking grades.
Rice and Pierce are getting little help; no wonder Baltimore is averaging 74 rushing yards per game.
This is a complicated situation to fix. Swapping out Gradkowski for Shipley only revisits the same problems, albeit with a different player. Monroe and Yanda have been playing well, but the answer isn't simply running in their direction—the rest of the offensive line needs to hold up to make a run play work. Not running the ball isn't an option—not with quarterback Joe Flacco himself having an inconsistent year.
The Ravens can choose to move players around on the offensive line and take longer looks at some of their depth players to see if perhaps they would fare better. Guard Ricky Wagner and guard/tackle Jah Reid could both be worked into the line in a rotational or even permanent basis, especially considering how Osemele's injury has affected his season.
It's not much, but it's a start. Baltimore's offensive line is much the same as it was during the team's playoff run, save Monroe taking over for the disappointing McKinnie and Gradkowski as the new center. If it's an issue of Osemele's health, then Reid or Wagner need to see more playing time. If it's Rice's, then Pierce should get more carries and the Ravens need to add another running back.
No matter what, this is Baltimore's top must-fix priority for the bye week.
Stability in the Passing Game
One week, it's Marlon Brown. The next, it's Tandon Doss. After that, it's Jacoby Jones, and back around again. The Ravens need more stability in the passing game.
In an ideal situation, all three of these wide receivers would be major contributors every week alongside Torrey Smith. Joe Flacco would have no shortage of playmakers to target, and the Ravens could effectively mask their struggles in the run game with a high-octane passing offense.
The undrafted Brown has been impressive, catching 21 passes on 34 targets for 243 yards and three touchdowns. However, he hasn't had a score since Week 4 and his production on his catches varies wildly. His two best games—Week 6 with 71 yards and Week 1 with 65—both included long runs after the catch. Otherwise, he's been good for around 30 yards per game.
Jones has played just 91 snaps in three games after missing time with a knee sprain. He made an instant impact upon his return in Week 6, with two catches on two targets for 42 yards, including a long touchdown catch-and-run for 31 yards. But his yardage dropped to just 32 yards on four catches in Week 7.
Doss has probably been the most surprising of the non-Smith receivers. Released on cut-down day, he came back on the roster after Jones' injury, and the wake-up call of not having an NFL job seems to have made an impression on him.
Typically drops-prone, Doss has just one on the season, which came in his return in Week 4. He has caught 13 of 23 passes thrown to him for 239 yards, and though he has no touchdowns, he leads the Ravens in yards per reception at 18.4.
The issue is that all three of these receivers have inconsistent production on a weekly basis. While it may seem like Flacco has a hand in this—his accuracy percentage of 68.1 ranks him 30th out of 38 quarterbacks according to Pro Football Focus—Flacco isn't actually all that less accurate this year than he was in 2012, when his percentage was an even 68.
The difference is in the receivers. Instead of Smith plus Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta, Flacco has had to throw to a motley crew of wideouts and tight ends Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark.
Clark has had some improvement now that he's more comfortable with his new offense, not registering a dropped pass since Week 3 and scoring a touchdown in each of his past two games, but Dickson has seen his targets dip to two in each of those games. Dickson has four drops and no touchdowns and has caught just 53.8 percent of the passes thrown his way. That's a far cry from the 68.8 percent catch rate for Pitta last year.
It's hard to force any receiver to suddenly become reliable; however the Ravens need to be more mindful about feeding passes to players who have shown improvement. Doss is inching toward a breakout game and Jones' veteran presence has been invaluable since his return.
The Ravens need to find someone other than Smith for Flacco to rely on, so they need to be a bit less committed to shaking up the receiving corps and focused more on finding that one player who can make plays every week. It's Week 8, and the Ravens have yet to find someone to fill the holes of Pitta and Boldin; they need to figure it out over the bye.
Addressing Coverage Problems
When it comes to bringing pressure to opposing quarterbacks, the Ravens are on the right track. Their 25 total sacks is the second-most in the league, and linebacker Terrell Suggs seems like he's back to his Defensive Player of the Year-winning 2011 season, with eight sacks of his own.
However, Baltimore's secondary is another story. After letting free safety Ed Reed and cornerback Cary Williams leave in free agency and releasing strong safety Bernard Pollard, the Ravens drafted safety Matt Elam, brought in free agent safety Michael Huff and promoted Jimmy Smith to Williams' former role alongside Lardarius Webb.
Already, the Huff signing hasn't paid off as well as initially hoped. Benched after Week 1, the rookie Elam had to move to free safety. James Ihedigbo took over at strong safety. Webb, coming back from a 2012 ACL tear, hasn't looked as dominant as he has in the past. And Smith is struggling in coverage more than any of his contemporaries in the secondary.
via Pro Football Focus (subscription required)
Of the members of Baltimore's secondary (which includes Corey Graham at nickel corner), only Ihedigbo has a positive coverage grade from Pro Football Focus at plus-1.7. Webb and Smith are struggling the most, with negative grades of minus-4.9 and minus-5.2, respectively.
Only Smith and Graham have interceptions, Graham has given up four touchdowns and Webb has already been burned for 428 yards, including 136 after the catch.
With the Ravens' front seven doing its part, the coverage has been more than disappointing. Barring a depth-chart shakeup, the next-best option is for that front seven to dial up even more pressure to help minimize the struggles in the secondary.
Pressure can force quarterbacks to throw the ball away, throw it too quickly, make mistakes and, of course, kill drives with sacks. Twenty of Baltimore's 25 sacks have come on second or third down, while five have come on first down. The Ravens may have to bring more pressure on early downs to force offenses into uncomfortably long situations and then bring pressure again to hopefully result in errant passes.
Ravens on bye in Week 8
Baltimore has more problems this season than any in recent memory; however, all can at least be tweaked, if not fixed, during the bye week. Though the Ravens are 3-4 through four games, the AFC North is still fairly wide open. They share second place with the Cleveland Browns, are just two games behind the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals and are a win ahead of the last-place Steelers.
Even just slight improvements to these three areas could net the Ravens better results—wins, of course, being the most important of them.