For the second consecutive season, and just the third time in franchise history, the Baltimore Ravens are 6-2 after eight games.
Aside from last season, the only other time Baltimore accomplished the feat was in 2006. The Ravens finished 13-3, won the division, earned a first round bye, and lost at home to the eventual Super Bowl Champion, Indianapolis Colts.
History says the Ravens are a playoff bound team.
Since 1990, 96 teams have started 6-2, and 76 of them (79.2 percent), have made the playoffs. Obviously only a major meltdown would keep the purple and black form playing deep into January for a fourth consecutive season, which would be a Baltimore football record.
No professional football team has ever made four consecutive trips to the post season from the Charm City. The current Ravens team is tied with the 1975-77 Baltimore Colts, with three consecutive trips.
Ravens fans are feeling much better about their teams 6-2 record this season, than they did last season. The Ravens have already swept their arch-rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and have victories over the Jets, and Houston Texans.
Despite being tied with the Cincinnati Bengals atop the AFC North, Baltimore holds the upper hand with two victories over the black and gold. As long as Baltimore continues to win, Ravens fans will need to be rooting for those same Steelers a lot during the second half of the season, and it begins this weekend, when Pittsburgh travels to play the Bengals.
Led by a trio of players, and two young tight ends, the Ravens are developing a balanced attack on offense. Running back Ray Rice, quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Anquan Boldin have all contributed to an attack that is seventh in the NFL with 208 points scored.
As the No. 2 ranked defense in the NFL, the usual cast of Pro-Bowlers have the Ravens defense feared as usual this season. Linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs fortify a Ravens defense that has safety Ed Reed, and defensive lineman Haloti Ngata playing at exceptionally high levels once again this season.
Although the team's two losses come against the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars, who have a combined record of 6-10, Baltimore is 4-0 vs. the Texans, Jets and Steelers, who are 17-9 combined.
The ideal situation for head coach John Harbaugh's team would be to win the AFC North, and possess one of the two first round bye's.
The Ravens second half schedule is very favorable, as the they face six teams with a combined record of 22-27 this season. They play just two teams (San Francisco and Cincinnati) that own a winning record. Duplicating their first half and finishing 12-4 would probably mean mission accomplished for the 2011 Ravens.
That mission is simply to have the road to Indianapolis, site of Super Bowl XLVI, running through Baltimore.
Can you see the headlines now Ravens fans "Baltimore wins AFC Championship, Will Play Super Bowl in Home of Colts".The irony would be nice, and after playing their last seven-playoff games on the road, the Ravens could use some home cooking in January.
Here are the grades for each unit after the first eight games of the 2011 season.
Aside from two good performances vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens offensive line has been the most inconsistent unit for head coach John Harbaugh so far this season.
In between the book end games with the black and gold, untimely penalties and not protecting their quarterback have been game changing issues at times. The Ravens have surrendered 19 sacks, and have allowed the seventh most hits to their quarterback with 46.
The web site Stats.com has produced a formula that ranks offensive lines based on how well they protect the quarterback, and open up holes for running backs. They call it The New York Life Protection Index. The formula factors in pass attempts, combined with penalties by offensive linemen, sacks allowed and quarterback hurries and knockdowns.
The New York Life Protection Index is updated weekly throughout the regular season, and currently the Ravens are ranked 18th. The best line on the list belongs to the Saints, and the worst to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
To be fair, Baltimore's O-line was assembled just prior to the start of the season, and has suffered from the injury bug.
Guard Ben Grubbs, who had the most stability at his position throughout training camp and the preseason, missed six games with a toe injury, and it’s no coincidence that those six games were the ones between the Steelers games. His return on Sunday night vs. Pittsburgh seemed to settle down the unit. Flacco had time to throw, and despite being sacked three times, looked extremely comfortable in the pocket.
Prior to Sunday night's game, this group, like the rest of the offense, was mired in their worst stretch of the season. It began in Jacksonville where they allowed the Jaguars to physically out play them in the trenches, and as result, had just 16-yards of total offense in the first half. Baltimore did not register a first down until there was five minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Last week vs. the Arizona Cardinals, quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked three times, and hit four more times, and despite playing at M&T Bank Stadium, there were penalty problems, as the offensive line was flagged five times. The Ravens are 23rd in the NFL with 813-rushing yards.
Despite having Ray Rice, who is amongst the league leaders in total yards from scrimmage, Baltimore averages a rather paltry 3.9 yards per carry. Even though the Ravens second half schedule is not stacked with winning teams, they do face the Cincinnati Bengals twice, who have the fourth ranked defense in the NFL, as well as the San Francisco 49ers, which are ninth in the league.
Left Tackle Bryant McKinnie has been average this season. He’s allowed six sacks this season, which is one more than he allowed last season.
Flacco’s former blindside protector, Michael Oher has been better on the right side this season, but he’s not become the shutdown tackle they thought he may become. He has cut down on his false start penalties, but Oher has already committed more holding penalties (three) this season, than he did in all of last season.
Like their quarterback, many Ravens fans are waiting for this unit to take the next step and play as their experience dictates they should be playing. When you combine career starts for the two guards, two tackles and center on team with the most starts in the current season, with 519 games, the Ravens offensive line is hands down the most experienced unit in the NFL .
This unit must start to play better. They have numerous Pro Bowl appearances, and as stated above, the experience necessary to be a good cohesive unit. It would be a shame to sweep the Steelers, earn a bye, and play at home without your starting quarterback, all because you could not protect him vs. the Cleveland Browns.
First Half Grade: C
Although not as inconsistent as the offensive line, Baltimore’s wide receivers have had some really good games, and some not so good ones. Just like with the offensive line, one injury in particular has affected this group, and how they started the season.
Nursing an ankle injury, Lee Evans, who was acquired from the Bills prior to the start of the season, missed his sixth consecutive game on Sunday. The speedy Evans was supposed to serve as Joe Flacco’s down the field threat, opening up defenses underneath for Anquan Boldin.
His replacement is rookie Torrey Smith, and if you saw the final game winning drive on Sunday night, than you know it represented Smith's entire season in miniature.
He has suffered from sporadic cases of the drops and a lack of self-confidence at times. Smith has shined, and flopped all at the same time. You saw it on Sunday; sometimes the inconsistencies can occur play-to-play.
The perfect example would be the first three catches of his NFL career, which were all touchdowns. Following his five catch, 152-yard, three TD performance vs. the Rams, Smith essentially disappeared with just 10 catches over his next four games.
Then came Sunday night.
His holding penalty negated an opening play 76-yard TD run by Ray Rice, and his two drops nearly cost the Ravens the game .Four plays prior to his game winning TD catch with just eight seconds remaining, Smith dropped a near perfect pass from Flacco in the end zone.
He has 20 receptions for 397 yards, and leads the Raven with four receiving touchdowns. Smith is third in the NFL averaging 19.85-yards per reception, but he's tied for sixth with five dropped passes this season.
Smith has been targeted the most of any receiver in the league on deep pass routes, according to Stats, almost 64 percent of Smith's routes have been considered deep patterns.
How Smith performs during the second half will play a big part in the success of the Ravens offense. Anquan Boldin has quietly become the team’s offensive MVP over the past two games. Boldin has been as clutch as any receiver in the league, and
During the second half of the Ravens largest comeback win in franchise history, Boldin showed why he was such a valuable acquisition for Baltimore by catching five passes for 117-yards. He drew three pass interference penalties totaling 33-yards, as the Ravens outscored the Cardinals 24-3 in the second half.
Boldin was once again instrumental on the final drive this past Sunday night, and over the past two games during the second half, has caught 10 balls for 177 yards, and drawn four interference penalties for 56-yards.
He leads the Ravens in receptions with 41, and yards with 627, and continues to be the veteran voice of the Ravens offensive huddle. The Ravens confidently cut Todd Heap, and if they were worried about replacing his production, they never blinked or showed it.
GM Ozzie Newsome continues to show why he is one of the best, as Heap's replacements, Ed Dickson, and David Pitta, are amongst the finest receiving tight end tandems in the NFL
They have combined to catch 51 passes, for 472 yards, with one touchdown. The duo does not yet have the numbers that the Patriots Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski have compiled ((77-929-11 td's), but as they mature, and continue to develop chemistry this season, they could be very dangerous at the right time this season.
As a unit, they have not been as consistent as many would like, but that may not be their fault. Flacco’s accuracy leaves a little to be desired this season, as he has missed many open receivers this season.
Aside from Smith, separation has also been an issue this year, and there have been some inconsistencies in route running.
As a group, these guys are young, and give Baltimore a lot of hope for the future. Smith (22), Dickson (24), Pitta (26), and LaQuan Williams (23), who has four clutch catches this season, as well as David Reed (24), who is getting more time, is just 23.8-years old.
Look for this group to mature, and if Evans can return to contribute, the Ravens could be scary good in the passing game. However, through the first eight games this season, average has shown the way, and that is good for a B-
Let me ask you a question Ravens fans, are you dissatisfied in any way with how Baltimore's backfield has performed this season? If you answered no, you most certainly would not be alone. Ray Rice, Ricky Williams, and fullback Vonta Leech have all done their jobs very well.
However, I bet you’d be surprised to find out that as a group, the Ravens are considered a below average running team with 816 rushing yards this season. That is a far cry from where the Ravens were two years ago, as offensive coordinator Cam Cameron seems committed into trying to make Joe Flacco, the next Aaron Rodgers.
The Ravens rank 25th or lower in rushing first downs (37), yards per carry (3.9), fumbles lost (eight), and rushes of 10-yards or more (18).
Despite the low rushing totals as a team, running back Ray Rice continues to effectively employ his dual threat capabilities, and is sixth in the NFL with 948 total yards from scrimmage.
They still average over the century mark per game, but barely, with 102.0 yards per contest.
Baltimore's rushing attack isn’t setting any franchise records, but they are the most consistent part of an inconsistent offense during the first half of the season, as Rice continues to be the little engine that could in Baltimore's offense. More often than not this season, the Ravens offensive success is based on Rice’s performance
That is why Sunday's game was pleasing to see.
Rice began the game by running for a 76-yard touchdown, but had it overturned by a questionable holding penalty. He was never able to catch his breath so to speak, as the Steelers D recovered and shut him down, holding Rice to 43 rushing yards. However, the Ravens offense still managed 23-points and 356 total yards of offense.
During their two losses to Jags and Titans, Rice rushed for 71 combined yards, and the result was a Ravens offense that struggled mightily, averaging just 197-yards of total offense. Rickey Williams has filled in admirably, and is on pace to chip in 450 rushing yards this season. That’s a little less than the rushing yards Willis McGahee and LeRon McClain combined for last season.
Vonta Leech continues to deliver crushing blocks when called upon to do so, and is a major reason Rice has success scoring rushing TD’s this season.
At 5’9”, and 195-pounds, Rice is certainly not built to take the pounding that goal line backs receive, but with Leech leading the way, Rice has found the sledding rather easy inside the five. Leech's blocking has Rice ranked ninth in the NFL in percentage of touchdown conversions inside the three yard line, converting three of eight attempts.
His six rushing scores are tied with the Bills Fred Jackson for sixth in the NFL. Rice is also one of the best receiving backs in the league, with 416 receiving yards, and 10.9 yards per catch.
Although Rice is one of the top weapons in the league, the Ravens are far from the days when they averaged 2135.6 rushing yards per season under head coach John Harbaugh.
After finishing with the fourth best rushing attack in the league two seasons ago, the Ravens dropped to No.14 last season, and continue to fall this season. The transition from a power running team, to a more finesse passing one, is almost complete. Baltimore is banking that Joe Flacco can deliver, and will eventually take the proverbial next step on a more consistent basis.
The Ravens are hope that having a power running game is no longer a prerequisite to a Super Bowl championship. They have undoubtedly noticed that the last nine teams to hoist the Lombardi trophy have finished with an average rushing rank of 15.6 in the NFL.
Of the nine teams, the highest ranked rushing team to win the Super Bowl was the 2004 New York Giants, who finished fourth. Five of the last nine champions finished 18th or lower, with two teams, the 02’ Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the 03’ New England Patriots, finishing 27th.
For now, the Ravens seem happy with their current arrangement. This is a tough grade to give because each back deserves an A for what they have been asked to do in the offense, and for how successful they are when called upon to do it, whatever it is.
However, according to the numbers, the Ravens rushing attack is no better than a solid C.
Sounds like we’ll split this one in half.
Running Backs: B
Joe Flacco is having a Clint Eastwood movie type of a season. There is the Good, (Sunday night in Pittsburgh), the Bad, (poor completion percentage), and the ugly (the Monday night game in Jacksonville) with the fourth year signal caller this season.
Denied a contract extension to start the season, Flacco seems to be distracted this season, and at times has played poorly. He is suffering his worst year statistically as a pro with just nine touchdowns and 11 turnovers this season.
Twenty-two quarterbacks have played eight or more games this season, and Flacco has the worst completion percentage (54.7) and third worst passer rating (76.9) of the bunch.
His six interceptions are the same amount he had last year at this time, but his five lost fumbles are a real concern. Flacco fumbled again on Sunday, making it seven consecutive weeks that he has fumbled, and his five lost fumbles are more than he had in his first two seasons combined, and are more than he suffered for the entire season last year.
Granted, his protection has been suspect at times, but he still does not possess the ability to make plays outside of the pocket, and on the run. If he has time to step up and throw, Flacco can look like Aaron Rodgers.
Flacco has also been inaccurate at times this year with time to throw. He has over thrown wide-open receivers at critical point during games. With defenders in his face, or running out of the pocket, he tends to play like Kyle Boller.
After his performance on Sunday night, many have anointed Flacco as grown up, and ready to join the elite quarterbacks of the NFL. Not so fast, yes, the 92-yard game winning drive he directed was a thing of pure beauty, and potentially a career changing drive for Joe Flacco.
However, it must be put in proper perspective.
Flacco must build on this, instead of using it as a hall pass for his next bad performance, which the last time he beat the Steelers came the very next week against the Tennessee Titans.
Sunday, the Ravens travel to Seattle to take on the 2-6 Seahawks and Flacco must do better than 184 net passing yards and two interceptions, which were his numbers in Nashville.
Flacco can be frustrating to watch, but has been easier on the eyes since the implementation of offensive coordinators Cam Cameron’s new diesel package. This package allows Flacco to throw out of the shotgun more often, and not only does he look more comfortable, but also a lot more accurate with his throws.
NFL quarterbacks must learn to be effective taking three and five step drops. Flacco has trouble doing so from time-to-time but if the Ravens can get to Indianapolis on the strength of Flacco's arm out of the shot gun, then I’m all for it.
His blitz recognition is getting better, but his release seems slow and drawn out at times.
Flacco has had a very up and very down first half of the season. He has been able to put points on the board, as the Ravens are seventh in the league with 208. He has also been great against the Steelers, winning both games this year, and that saves his grade.
However, his play has been average in leading the Ravens 16th ranked offense, but 6-2 is also a very big positive so he gets a C+
Be sure to check back tomorrow for the grades of the No.2 ranked defense, special teams, and coaches.