With a perfectly-timed bye this week, the vibe in Baltimore is a subtle blend of frustration and optimism, second-guessing and un-waiving faith. Three close losses in a row to three good teams can do that to a fan base, even one as fervently proud as the Baltimore Ravens’.
But the team itself hasn’t lost sight of who they are and what they can do, at least not publicly. Head coach John Harbaugh has stood by every personnel move, every play call and every decision that he, his staff and his players have made.
But the fact remains that after a 3-0 start, the Ravens are 3-3, with an extra week to steam over the failed last second field goal against the Minnesota Vikings in Week Six that could have generated some strong momentum and put the team at 4-2 heading into their week off.
All Baltimore can do is look ahead.
We have a big picture plan in mind. We do know who’s on the schedule,” Harbaugh said a day after the Vikings loss. “We do know what’s in front of us big picture-wise, and we have a plan to attack. We know who [our opponents] are, and we have an idea of what we want to try to accomplish.”
The Ravens have done a lot right in the first six weeks of the season. And they’ve done a lot wrong. And despite the miscues, they’ve had chances to win the last three games in the closing seconds. This is a competitive team, and if history is any indication, they won’t start letting up just because of a rough patch.
Baltimore is only one game back in the AFC North, and still have four divisional games left, so the proverbial phrase “anything can happen” is still very much in tact. With that optimism in mind, here are three things that can guide the Ravens to success throughout the season:
1 ) They’ve been in this position before. It was just one season ago that the Ravens lost three in a row, all to teams that made the playoffs in 2008. It was even at the same point in the season: Weeks four through six.
At the time, quarterback Joe Flacco was struggling, and doubt was just starting to bubble to the surface after an overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, a defensive letdown against the Tennessee Titans and a complete thrashing by the Indianapolis Colts.
This time around, Flacco is flourishing, but close losses against the perennial contender New England Patriots, divisional rival Cincinnati Bengals and of course the anguishing Vikings loss have created a whiff of déjà vu. Harbaugh led his team back from adversity before. There’s no reason to think he can’t do it again.
The Ravens have always played better with the “underdog” tag attached to them, when they’re playing the “no respect card.” Well, all of a sudden, they’re the underdogs again.
2 ) The legs of Ray Rice. What was once a three-headed monster is now the Ray Rice show. Rice has show himself to be a legit featured back in the National Football league. Rice is averaging six yards per carry this season and has three touchdowns. He’s also proven to be an able wide receiver, an admitted goal of his.
“The game has slowed down for me enough where coach will let me do certain things that he knows I’m going to make a play,” Rice said. “That’s the thing that feels good, knowing that I’m in an offense where I’m comfortable and an offense where I can be successful.”
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3 ) Joe Flacco. Teams go years without finding a franchise quarterback, and often it can cost them. Baltimore knows first hand, going through the likes of Tony Banks, Trent Dilfer, Elvis Grbac, Randall Cunningham, Chris Redman, Kyle Boller, Anthony Wright and Steve McNair throughout the past decade. Flacco has already shown in his first two seasons he can be the quarterback of this team for the next decade.
The second-year starter has already thrown for 11 touchdowns and 1,674 yards in six games this season. for a 93.8 QB rating. When your team has a talented quarterback like that, you’ll always be competitive. Just ask the Patriots and the Colts.
But a lot needs to improve for the Ravens to make the postseason. The week off will allow the Ravens more to tinker with schemes and packages, make personnel moves if necessary and generally light a fire under their squad.
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1 ) The secondary. Starting cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth and Fabian Washington are speedy but undersized, and backups Chris Carr and Frank Walker fit that same mold. Carr has been generally ineffective as a nickel back, and Walker is prone to pass interference calls, much to the chagrin of the fans.
Pro Bowl free safety Ed Reed has been known as a gambler on field, but those gambles have been going against the team lately, while strong safety Dawan Landry is off to a slow start after recovering from a neck injury last season.
All in all, this unit is giving up too many big plays. They’re not getting much help from the defensive line, who haven’t generated a consistent enough pass rush on opposing quarterbacks.
There are too many strong-armed gunslingers on the schedule to allow this to happen. Carson Palmer, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler all will have a crack at the Ravens this year. They need better play from their defensive backs.
2 ) The ground game as a whole doesn’t improve . Despite the play of Ray Rice, the Ravens have become much more of a passing team in the last three games. Harbaugh has noted the team’s desire to stay committed to the run, but their game plan varies from opponent to opponent and they were forced to rely on Joe Flacco’s arm perhaps more than they’d like.
Willis McGahee is healthy this year and at one point led the league in touchdowns this season. Le’Ron McClain is a former Pro Bowler himself and a great north-south runner for short yardage situations. The point is, there’s too much talent on that side of the ball to let it go to waste.
3 ) The AFC North is just too good this year. The Ravens can’t do a whole lot in this area but just play better, period. The Pittsburgh Steelers are the defending world champions and play as such. The Cincinnati Bengals are much improved and are 3-0 in the division already.
Very rarely do three teams from a division make the playoffs in any given year. The two-horse race everyone expected from the AFC North this year is much more crowded with the emergence of the Bengals, and Baltimore may very well be the odd man out.
But the Ravens are still in control of their destiny. They’ve shown that they play hard no matter what the score, and should be competitive from here on out. As they enter this crossroad again at midseason, which route will they take. The Denver Broncos will be the first to find out in Week Eight.
Until then, all the team can do is look forward and improve. And all fans can do is keep the faith.