Following their bye week with wide receiver Lee Evans, cornerback Jimmy Smith and left guard Ben Grubbs still sidelined, the Baltimore Ravens obviously didn’t get as many players back from injury as they had hoped, but that didn’t prevent them from beating the Houston Texans 29-14 in a decisive fashion.
There were times in the game where the Texans moved the ball on the Ravens’ defense and even more where the offense looked lost, but the Ravens played a solid game for the most part. It’s obvious that the team is still powered by their defense. The offense started and ended strong but struggled to protect quarterback Joe Flacco or get anything going throughout most of the game.
The Texans started with the ball, managed a few first downs and pinned the Ravens deep on their first possession. The Ravens drove down the field with an impressive 16 play, 97 yard drive that finished with a touchdown on a sneak by Flacco.
After that successful drive, the Ravens offense struggled throughout the rest of the game. In the second quarter, Flacco threw an interception that gave the Texans a short field and a touchdown. The Ravens struggled to find the endzone, and Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff added two field goals before the Texans took the lead with a 32 yard touchdown pass from Texans quarterback Matt Schaub to wide receiver Jacoby Jones.
After that touchdown, the Ravens didn’t allow another score to the Texans and finished an eight play, 74 yard drive with a field goal to retake the lead before the fourth quarter.
In the fourth quarter, the Ravens’s defense clamped down on the Texans. The Ravens’ offense played smash-mouth football and leaned heavily on the running game to grind out the game. The Ravens managed two more field goals and a six play, 66 yard drive that ended in a Ricky William’s rushing touchdown.
The Ravens defense once again led the team to victory and was the strongest unit on the field, but the offense did manage a few key drives that helped win the game. As the season progresses, we continue to see the evolution of the Ravens’ team on offense and defense. Let’s look at what we learned from Baltimore’s 29-14 win.
For all of John Harbaugh’s talk about the Ravens being a rough, tough football team, it doesn’t always seem like the Ravens’ offense is on the same page. In fact, they have seemed lost for most of the season so far –including this game against the Texans.
Much of the problems on offense were the direct result of the level of competition. The Texans are a very good team this year and they deserve credit. Their front seven on defense in particular is outstanding and is as good as any front seven the Ravens will face in the NFL this year. Even without defensive end Mario Williams, they really are that good, and that’s saying a lot.
That being said, the Ravens could be much better on offense than they let on versus the Texans. They still seem disjointed, confused and most of all, inconsistent. The biggest reason for these issues is the lack of identity, and in their defense, it’s hard for the offense to hash out an identity versus one of the best pass rushes in the league.
The biggest question is why is this such a complicated problem, and the answer to that is –complicated. The simplest answer is that the offense is struggling with inconsistent players. The only player on the offense that has been consistent is running back Ray Rice, but he cannot do it alone. The offensive line has been inconsistent. Flacco has been inconsistent, and the receivers have perhaps been the most inconsistent of all of them. Besides Rice and maybe right guard Marshal Yanda, there isn’t really a single player on the offense that is doing their job well on a consistent basis.
Yes, the Ravens won the game. They deserve credit for that, but it’s clear that the league is starting to key in on the weaknesses of the offense. That’s why they need to get back to what they do best –smash-mouth football. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has fooled around with the offense so much that they don’t seem to have an identity anymore. The six play, 66 yard drive in the fourth quarter broke the will of the Texans and revealed the true identity of the team. The Ravens need to get back to rough, tough football led by Ray Rice, Vonta Leach and the running game. They are very difficult to beat when they play like that.
After allowing a whole game of pressure on Joe Flacco, the offensive line would look like a liability to most people, but that’s not necessarily the case. They are actually a strong group but have been facing an uphill battle in each game of the season.
That’s because teams have learned that the way to stop the Ravens offense is to blitz like crazy and stack the line of scrimmage with eight defenders on every play. Usually, offenses will find a way to make you pay for playing such an aggressive game plan, but for whatever reason, the Ravens cannot seem to take advantage of that, and it’s one of the biggest reasons why the Ravens offense is struggling right now.
On top of that, the Ravens offensive line is running a weird scheme. At times, it seems like they are running a zone-blocking scheme where Rice runs outside stretch plays and looks for cutback lanes. Other times, it seems like they run a man, power-blocking scheme with isolation runs and off tackle runs where Rice looks for straight ahead yardage only.
There’s no reason that they cannot run both. In fact, it would be best if the offensive line could effectively run all blocking schemes since it would make them more unpredictable, but unpredictability without productivity and success is counterproductive. The problem is that the Ravens offensive line doesn’t seem to get into a groove very often, and if they are doing more work for less production, maybe they should focus on executing one scheme perfectly instead of trying to do everything poorly.
When the Ravens’ offensive line gets into a groove like the did against the Texans on the 66 yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter or like they did against the Jets when they ran the ball over ten consecutive times, they are nearly impossible to stop.
Joe Flacco has received his share of criticism over the last week after his horrible performance versus the New York Jets, but one thing is sure after watching Flacco against the Texans –Flacco will make plays when he’s protected and his receivers get open.
That doesn’t seem like a huge revelation but it’s the absolute truth and one that everyone should remember. Every NFL quarterback needs protection and receivers that can get open and catch the ball. There are many dynamics going on in the Ravens offense, and many of them are outside Flacco’s control. Flacco certainly isn’t perfect, but if his receivers aren’t running the correct routes or getting open, can we really blame him for throwing more incompletions than normal? If he’s getting hit and pressured all game long, can we honestly blame him for a fumble or interception?
The answer is that we can blame him for making bone-headed plays, which he still does occasionally, but we cannot blame him for the offense underperforming as a whole.
Many Ravens fans expect Flacco to be Peyton Manning. Sure, Manning would probably make many more plays in the Ravens offense if he were the quarterback, but even Manning would under-perform with a bunch of young receivers.
That’s the point. Flacco hasn’t had a season with a completion percentage under 60 percent. What is more likely… Did Flacco forgot how to complete passes, or are his uncharacteristically bad statistics and low completion percentage the result of the new factors on the offense, the inexperienced receivers?
Obviously, Flacco is struggling to connect with his new receivers. Wide receiver Torrey Smith looks fantastic. Tight end Ed Dickson has been better than advertised as well, but the problem is that Flacco doesn’t have a go-to guy. Even Anquan Boldin, who was great versus Houston, hasn’t consistently stepped up. When Flacco needed a play made in the past, he looked to Derrick Mason or Todd Heap, and they were always where he expected them to be. Now, Flacco seems to be throwing most of his incompletions on third-and-longs, plays that he use to look for Mason and Heap on. Unfortunately, none of Flacco's receivers are stepping up to make the tough catches for him.
The Pittsburgh game set everyone’s expectations extremely high, but we need to remember that this offense is still adjusting to the loss of Flacco’s top two targets over his first three years in the league and that those receivers were replaced with rookies and a player that has been injured all season.
With a 4-1 record, it’s clear that the Ravens are the best team in their division and one of the best in the AFC. They will be tough to beat for any team that plays them –particularly as the weather gets colder.
The defense is ferocious and has surpassed all expectations. It’s hard to find a weakness with them. Against Houston, they showed that they can handle any offensive line in the league as the sacked Texans quarterback Matt Schaub four times and held All Pro running back Arian Foster to only 49 rushing yards.
Perhaps their only weakness right now is the offense. It’s clear that teams have begun to ferociously attack the offense with blitzes and aggressive play calls. They are doing that not only because it works but also because they want to set their offense up with good field position against the Ravens excellent defense.
In other words, teams are starting to game plan around the Ravens defense, and the Ravens should pay attention. The way to combat this is to deny the opposing defense the opportunity to pressure the offense. Obviously, this is easier said than done.
The Ravens can start by committing to the running game. They need to find a game plan and a scheme that is difficult for defenses to stop without over-committing. If they can force teams to sell out for the run, that should open up the passing game for Joe Flacco.
We saw that in Houston’s offensive game plan. On the 32 yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones, the Texans were able to force the Ravens to overplay the run, fooled the defense on a play action and isolated Ed Reed one-on-one with Jones. Reed was out of position and the touchdown was easy at that point.
The Texans may have lost the game, but they do have an excellect offensive game plan. They soften defenses with the run, force them to over-commit and make them pay with play action passes. This keeps the defenses honest, and against most defenses, it work tremendously well. Maybe the Ravens should take a play or two from their playbook.