Baltimore Ravens: Torrey Smith and 4 More Surprises so Far
A quarter of the Baltimore Ravens season has passed, and it has been very eventful so far. Through four games, the Ravens have sole possession of first place in the AFC North, and are tied for the best record in the AFC. All three of their victories have been by 17 points or more, and their only bad game so far has been a letdown loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Now in Week 5 the Ravens can kick back and enjoy their bye week. It's an early bye week, but for the Ravens it comes at an ideal time, as they have several players that need to recover from injury. After resting and getting healthy, they are preparing to take on the Houston Texans at home in Week 6.
The season's success can be attributed to many of the familiar faces responsible for their current three year playoff streak. But there have also been some surprise players that have contributed to this year's 3-1 start. The combination of these familiar and surprise players are helping the Ravens go for one of their best regular season records ever.
Here are those players that have been the biggest surprises so far.
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Coming into the season, Torrey Smith looked like he could be a disappointment. Fellow rookie Tandon Doss had outperformed him and seemed ready to pass him on the depth chart. Although it was premature, people were already calling Smith a bust and a rare misfire by general manager Ozzie Newsome.
Then came Week 3 against the St. Louis Rams. Smith started at wide receiver in place of the injured Lee Evans. His first career NFL catch was a touchdown, and so was the next one, and so was the next one.
By the time the game was done, Smith finished with 152 yards and three touchdowns. It was one of the most stellar rookie debuts for a wide receiver in NFL history. Smith's debut ensured that he would have a big role in the Raven's offense going forward, and that he could finally be the deep threat the Ravens have been looking for.
At the cost of Smith's success is Evan's disappointment. He was touted as one of the offseason's best acquisitions, but so far he has underwhelmed with only two catches and extensive time missed due to injuries. It may seem early, but at this point Smith could soon supplant Evans as the No. 2 receiver on the Ravens.
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Chuck Pagano is not a player, but his impact is nevertheless undeniable. Through four weeks of the season, his imprint on the Ravens defense is unmistakable. This unit has been drawing comparisons to the 2000 defense, which is very high praise for any defense.
The Ravens third overall ranked defense is ranked third against the run and seventh against the pass. What has set them apart from other defenses is the ridiculous amount of turnovers they've gotten. They set a record with seven turnovers against the Pittsburgh Steelers and another record with three defensive touchdowns against the New York Jets last week.
A huge reason for the defensive success has been a return for the Ravens pass rush. In four games they have managed 11 sacks. Hitting quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger and Mark Sanchez hard and often has caused them to perform poorly.
Simply put, Pagano has the Ravens playing fearlessly, as their chaotic scheme wreaks havoc on the opposing offense. Their 11 turnovers lead the NFL, and although they are unlikely to keep up this pace, they still seem destined to have one of the league's best defenses.
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This year the Ravens were expected to have help in the secondary from first round draft pick Jimmy Smith and Dominique Foxworth. It's still early, but clearly those two have not contributed much.
Smith has been hampered with injuries, and as a result hasn't played yet. Foxworth meanwhile is on the IR after a terrible knee injury. Both players are not starters anymore, which leads to other players getting the opportunity.
Still, the Ravens pass defense is ranked seventh, so it's clear other players have stepped up. Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams have been good so far as starters. Chris Carr and Danny Gorrer have also played well in relief roles.
During the bye week, several Ravens defensive backs are trying to recover from injuries. Smith and Carr are looking to get better from injuries, as is safety Haruki Nakamura. These players recovering could likely make this defense even better.
The Gelling of the Offensive Line
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There was some worry during the preseason about the offensive line. During the preseason, all five projected starters were unable to play together. With the group looking vastly different from last years starters, there definitely seemed the possibility they could start out slowly.
Well so far, so good. Even offseason acquisition Bryant McKinnie, who was cut from the Minnesota Vikings for showing up overweight, has done his part in helping the offensive line play well. Michael Oher has also clearly benefited from the switch back to right tackle, where he plays considerably better than at left tackle.
The offensive line's progress has been shown by the success of the run game. They have opened up holes for Ray Rice, enabling him and the rush offense to be the eighth best in the NFL. They have also been better at protecting Joe Flacco, who has only taken eight hits so far in 2011.
Ray Lewis' Level of Play
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This one may not really seem like a surprise. Ray Lewis playing well is something people in Baltimore have become so used to that it almost taken for granted. Still, we've got to remember that Lewis is 36 and in his 16th season in the NFL, so a slowdown isn't as farfetched as it may sound.
Lewis leads the Ravens in tackles this year with 30 so far. He's shown that he can still lay a hurting on people, and he even grabbed an interception against the hated Steelers. Amazingly, it looks like this will not be the year that he slows down.
Before the season, Lewis made the somewhat shocking claim that he would consider retiring if the Ravens win the Super Bowl. It's definitely too early to speculate if that happens, but if it does, it's clear that Lewis will be going out at the top of his game.