So this was the year the Baltimore Ravens offense was going to carry the season. The defense couldn't possibly continue to perform at such a high level. After all, Ray Lewis was entering his 16th season and Ed Reed seemed destined for social security, threatening to retire.
The secondary looked inexperienced, and very vulnerable.
The Ravens drafted cornerback Jimmy Smith with their first-round selection, which added more inexperience, and the Ravens most experienced cornerback, Dominique Foxworth, started the season still recovering from a torn ACL, and ultimately ended up on injured reserve.
Sure there is Haloti Ngata, the next perennial Pro Bowl player this defense seems to produce on a yearly basis for over a decade now. But for the most part, there were many unanswered questions entering the season, and the offense was supposed to have the answers.
As the old French proverb goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same, is absolutely true of this team, and especially this year. The offense, while better than in recent seasons, is not producing with any consistency, and the fate of the Ravens season once again lies in the hands of Ray Ray and company.
They have not disappointed. In yesterday's edition of the USA Today, NFL writer Jarrett Bell released his midseason All Pro Team today, and five Ravens appear on the list. Fullback Vonta Leech was the only offensive representative, while the rest, you guessed it, are on the defensive side of the ball.
DT, Haloti Ngata, linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, as well as safety Ed Reed—you know, the usual cast of characters, completed the list of mid-season All-Pros.
That makes the Ravens complete with a Pro-Bowler at every level on the defensive side of the ball. They are currently ranked No. 2 in the NFL in total defense and points allowed. They are third against the run, allowing less than 90-yards per game and fourth against the pass.
On Wednesday, I graded the units on the Ravens offense. Now, here are the defensive grades, complete with special teams and coaches.
Normally I would break these two units down, and grade the line and linebackers separately, but there is no need to, when both are playing “A" ball.
Throw out the 100 yards rushing by the Jaguars Maurice Jones-Drew, and the run defense has been nothing less than stellar. With all due respect to a man name Suh, the best defensive lineman in the NFL is Haloti Ngata. Aside from being the answer to Ray Lewis' late career prayers, Ngata is the force of this defense's future.
Ngata, while still early in his career, is leading by example. Line mate Terrence Cody appears to be headed for a great NFL future. The funny thing about both is they were touted as great players in college, but occasionally took plays off.
I wonder if opposing NFL offensive lineman would agree. Ngata and Cody have combined for 47 tackles. Ngata has two forced fumbled, three recoveries and one touchdown this season.
The Ravens rotation offers no relief for opposing offenses, as Brandon McKinney has done well when coming into the scheme. Defensive end Cory Redding continues to play consistent, but the surprise of the year is rookie end Pernell McPhee.
McPhee continues to improve, and the fifth-round selection (165 overall) could turn out to be one of the greatest second day draft picks in team history. McPhee has three sacks and one forced fumble, along with a fumble recovery and one pass defended.
With first-year defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano employing a noticeably more aggressive system, the Ravens have already registered 26 sacks after recording just 27 in all of last season. Much of this aggressive approach can be seen in the games of future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis and the franchise’s all-time sack leader, Terrell Suggs.
Ray Lewis has been a dominating force up the middle, and continues to chase down running backs across the field. Although he still struggles in short middle coverage, Pagano has disguised No. 52's poor pass coverage by applying more pressure on third downs, forcing the QB to get rid of the ball quicker.
The attacker usually applying the heat is Terrell Suggs. In his ninth season, T-Sizzle is on his way to his second consecutive Pro Bowl, and fifth overall. Sizzle has six sacks, two interceptions, six passes defended and two forced fumbles. He must be considered a front runner for defensive player of the year.
Last season, only nine Ravens defenders contributed at least one sack. Through just eight games, that total stands at an even dozen, as Jarret Johnson and Paul Krueger have combined for six of them.
Of course, challenging Suggs for defensive player of the year could be the one, and only, Ray Lewis. The future Hall of Famer has 60 tackles, two sacks and one interception, and continues to perform at a super star level after 16 seasons.
With the Ravens front seven playing this well, it is hard to imagine that teams like the Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers, who are playing great football, will have much success moving the ball on Baltimore during the second half of the season.
Look for more of the same from this group, and as long as the offense shows up, Baltimore’s defensive front seven should get better over the second half of the season.
Ravens Front seven: A
The Baltimore secondary was the biggest question mark entering the season for the Ravens defense. Safety Dwan Landry, who finished as the team’s second-leading tackler in three of the past four seasons, and cornerback Josh Wilson took off for greener pastures during the offseason.
Although no great loss, Fabian Washington did not return to the Ravens as well. The departure of the three left the Ravens scrambling to fill 16 years’ worth of NFL experience in just two weeks following the lockout, and a subsequent brief free agency.
With Ed Reed returning healthy, and the retirement talk on hold, for now, General Manager Ozzie Newsom never made any real attempt to keep Landry. Baltimore's front office stayed with their philosophy of not extending the contract, or re-signing the "other starting safety”, on the team.
Baltimore's answer was to sign the hard-hitting, and more Raven-like Bernard Pollard. The Ravens also used their first-round selection in this year’s April draft (26 overall), to draft a good, but troubled cornerback from Colorado, Jimmy Smith. Smith has yet to make any impact, as he has been hampered by an ankle injury, but he has started appearing in more and more packages.
However, Pollard is a different story and paying immediate dividends this season. He led the Ravens with seven tackles vs. the Steelers last week, and has 38 tackles with one sack this season. Each week you hear Pollards name being called as he breaks up a pass or makes a huge hit.
Pollard is always in the right place at the right time—his style of play is by far more conducive to Raven's football. Simply put, Pollard has played like a Raven this year, and has the fines to prove it.
After contemplating retirement following the 2009 season, future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed is as healthy as can be expected. The former Miami Hurricane, who is now in his tenth season, is playing at an All-Pro level again. He has 31 tackles, one sack and two interceptions this season.
Reed also has a career milestone and NFL record on the very near horizon. He needs just 20-interception return yards to break the NFL's all-time record held by Rod Woodson (1,483).
One casualty of the Ravens allowing 16-years’ worth of defensive backs to leave during the offseason was Dominique Foxworth and his surgically-repaired knee. With inexperience at the cornerback position, the former Terrapin rushed back from his ACL injury, which sidelined him for all of last season, and ended up back on the injured reserve list this season.
While Foxworth is missed, Lardarius Webb and Carey Williams have done fine jobs during their baptism by fire in the NFL. Williams’s coverage technique seems flawless at times. In fact, when Williams is on, it looks like pass interference on every play. But, after seeing the replay, you realize he was on his man like a cape.
Webb is learning how to play a more physical game and has demonstrated an overall improvement in tackling and cover techniques.
He finished with six tackles vs. the Steelers last week, and seems to have learned from his mistake in the playoffs last season. He's finally realized that speed alone will not produce a good cornerback.
In the NFL, it is not enough to simply run with a receiver.
The Ravens have depth, and as Jimmy Smith and Chris Carr–the one DB the ravens did re-sign this past offseason–fully recover from nursing injuries, the Ravens defense could simply become a total shut down unit at the right time of the season.
While the front seven are playing great, this unit is doing their part as well. Not every sack is a rush sack, and the Ravens secondary is a big reason why they are just one sack away from tying their sack total from all of last season.
Coverage sacks are underrated, and the Ravens have more than a few this season. Remember back in Week 1 when Roethlisberger was toppled four times?
Three of them were a result of great downfield coverage.
This unit ranks fourth in the NFL in stopping the pass. They have allowed just two 300-yards passers all season, and only two passing plays of 40 yards or more. The Ravens defense is where a quarterback's rating comes to die. They are third best in the NFL, holding opposing signal-callers to a paltry 67.8 rating.
Despite having just four interceptions as a secondary, and eight as a defense, this unit gets their hands on the ball a lot. This is a deep unit that has played exceptionally well. Watching games earlier in the year, you just kept waiting for the cracks to expose themselves.
It hasn't happened yet, and it won't going forward. This unit will help carry the Ravens to the AFC Championship game.
Ravens Secondary. A-
Each week it's hard to believe how fortunate the Ravens were in getting Billy Cundiff off the scrap heap back in 2009. Some organizations struggle for years to find a kicker that can help the team win, and some are considered solid if they don’t lose a game or two.
Obviously, I'm sold on Cundiff, and Sam Koch is doing a fine job in the punt game, but giving up two special teams touchdowns is not acceptable when you consider head coach John Harbaugh cut his teeth as a special teams coach in the NFL.
The Ravens return game must also get better, and I would be eternally grateful if Baltimore quit using future Hall of Fame safety, Ed Reed on punt returns, even if all he does is make fair catches.
Cundiff is all that is great with the Ravens special teams, as he has been nearly perfect inside of 50-yards. The field goal he boomed just before the half in Pittsburgh last week, was a lot bigger than most casual football fans will ever know. The 51-yarder wasn't kicked into the so-called tough end of the Heinz Field, but it allowed the Ravens to answer the Steelers three points before the half and loomed larger when the Ravens went up by 10.
Cundiff has hit 20 of 24 field goal attempts, and is 12-for-12 inside of 40 yards. And despite looking like he's in the seventh grade, his leg is strong. He has been a real weapon for the Ravens at times by not allowing the opposition to return a kick.
Cundiff has 43 kickoffs through eight games and 29 touch backs. Almost 70 percent of the time, there is simply no return. The NFL average is 58.3 percent, so Cundiff is well above that. The Ravens opponents’ average start is the 23-yard line.
Punter Sam Koch is currently averaging 46.7 yards per punt, which at present is a career high. However, his net average of 38.4 yards is only 20th best in the league. In his sixth season, Koch remains a clutch punter with 11 kicks downed inside the 20-yard line.
David Reed has 13 kick returns this season, averaging 30.2 yards per return. You get the feeling that he is close to breaking one like he did last year for a 103-yard touchdown.
The fact that the Ravens have given up two touchdowns while not scoring any costs them a grade or two, but it's hard to look past the play of Cundiff.
Special Teams: B-
As Thanksgiving approaches, more and more will be written and discussed as the "Harbaugh Bowl". Ravens head coach John, welcomes his brother Jim and his surprising team, the San Francisco 49ers to M&T Bank Stadium.
For the Ravens, It is hard to argue with six wins in eight games. Despite the Ravens record, there are some issues that need to be ironed out before Baltimore can fly into the post season.
It's possible that the Ravens should be 7-1, or even 8-0, and the fact that the team let down badly following big wins over the Steelers and Houston Texans, speaks to nothing but poor preparation, and even worse game planning.
That comes from coaching, and in both of those contests, the Ravens were not just badly out-played, but badly out-coached as well. The Ravens were soundly beaten by the Tennessee Titans, and Jacksonville Jaguars, and looked more like a 2-6 team than the 6-2 team they are.
The Cam Cameron, Joe Flacco issues were starting to get annoying before last Sunday night, and something tells me we haven’t seen the last of them either. The fact that John Harbaugh didn't know the full involvement of running back Ray Rice following the loss to the Jaguars was as bad a faux paux as Texas Governor Rick Perry last week during a Republican Presidential debate. Perry couldn't remember all of the branches of government he would cut in order to save spending if elected President.
Both mistakes are unacceptable, and because of those losses, many experts see the Ravens as an unpredictable entity that is not capable of winning the AFC. That may be harsh, but you have to admit, you’re wondering how the purple and black will do today in Seattle aren't you?
Baltimore should convincingly beat the Seahawks today, but you just don't know if this team is prepared well enough to do that. Will Cam Cameron’s game plan be conducive to helping his quarterback settle into one of the toughest places to play in the NFL? Again, you simply don't know, as Cameron seems to wonder off on his own agenda at times. At times, the play-calling is so puzzling it almost seems as if Cameron is auditioning his playbook.
Harbaugh doesn't seem to exercise the discipline over this team that he did two years ago, but then again, maybe this is the John Harbaugh we should try to know, and the coach from the past three seasons, was just cleaning up what Brian Billick left behind. Instead, the fourth year coach seems to be a lot more laid back than during his first three years.
The only concern is if the Ravens do get their first home playoff game since 2006 season, and a first round bye, will this coaching staff know how to handle that and have the Ravens championship ready?
Regardless of the Ravens record, the next three weeks are going to be the tell-tale sign of how ready this team is to play deep into January, and possibly the first Sunday of February. With a trap game out West vs. the horrible Seahawks, and a battle looming for first place with the 6-2 Bengals next week, not to mention the 7-1 Niners in two weeks, a lot can be learned about Baltimore’s focus, preparation and character leading up to all of these games.
Anything other than a 10-point win vs. Seattle would be cause for concern in my book. Only defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano's return to an attacking style of defense, and his proper use of the defensive rotation saves this staff from a lower grade.
How talented are the Ravens? Talented enough to be 6-2 in spite of some less-than-stellar coaching this season.
Ravens Coaching Staff: C-
There are still eight games to play, and the schedule benefits the Ravens greatly. The Ravens face the Seattle Seahawks today, the Bengals and Browns twice, as well as the 49ers and struggling San Diego Chargers. They also play the winless Colts, as the combined record of their second-half opponents is a measly 22-28.
What also benefits Baltimore, and most notably defense, are the young quarterbacks they are set to face.
The Ravens defense has feasted on young quarterbacks for years, and the last two seasons have been no exception. Prior to their loss to Jacksonville's rookie QB Blaine Gabbert (and let’s face it, did Gabbert really beat the Ravens), the last time the Ravens were beaten by a rookie was a 19-14 defeat to Trent Edwards and the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 21, 2007.
For a Ravens defense that ranks second in the league in fewest points allowed per game, and fourth vs. the pass, do you think rookie Andy Dalton, sophomores Colt McCoy and Curtis Painter, or even Alex Smith stand much of a chance to succeed where many others have failed?
Former Oakland Raiders QB JaMarcus Russell, who's hanging out at barber shops in Mobile Alabama these days, was the only one to pass for over 200 yards.
In their first starts against Baltimore, Russell, Dennis Dixon, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford combined for four touchdowns and six interceptions while being sacked 11 times. As a rookie last season for the Cleveland Browns, McCoy threw three interceptions against Baltimore.
Oh by the way: Let us not forget about Tavaris Jackson today, who threw three interceptions last week vs. the Cowboys.
The Ravens offense has some work to do, but the good news is that there is time to continue to get better. If the Steelers game, and second-half of the Arizona Cardinals game is any indication, the Ravens offense should be playoff ready in the very near future.
We know the Ravens are a good road playoff team, winning four away from Baltimore in January over the past three seasons takes a special kind of a team. If the kinks can be ironed out this season, it could be scary to see what happens when Ray Lewis, Ray Rice and company sleep in their own beds the night before a playoff game this season.
Through eight games, the Ravens are the best team in the AFC, and if they improve, will represent the conference in Indianapolis come January. Irony is a beautiful thing isn’t it?
Final first-half grade for team: Very Solid B+