The Baltimore Ravens have had an up-and-down season so far to say the very least. After watching the Ravens through nine games, it’s hard to know if they’re the best team in the AFC or if they’ll even make the playoffs, and the worst part is the inconsistency seems to be getting worse.
Every team in the NFL is technically capable of winning any given Sunday, but there really is no good reason for the Ravens to lose to a team like the Titans or the Seahawks right after they’ve beaten teams like the Steelers and the Texans.
It would be one thing for the Ravens to lose to the Steelers, the Jets or the Texans. At least fans and analysts could then gauge how good the Ravens really are, but when they beat the good teams and lose to the bad teams, it perplexes and frustrates everyone. People don’t know what to believe when it comes to the Ravens anymore.
The only good news for Ravens fans is that there seem to be several patterns emerging after all the up-and-down performances. That’s only good news because it gives the fans something they can potentially understand and helps them wrap their minds around why the Ravens have been struggling this season. Let’s take a look at two of those patterns and try to figure out what’s going on with the team.
The biggest and easiest pattern to identify is the fact that all three of the Ravens losses have come against losing teams immediately after a big win. The Ravens lost to the Titans immediately after dominating the Steelers in Week 1. They lost to the Jaguars after a close, hard-fought win over the Texans and lost to the Seahawks after their second win over the Steelers.
At first glance, most people would say that the Ravens suffered a letdown in each of the games. In other words, they were emotionally and physically exhausted after the big win, and that led to the letdown against an inferior team. Another thing that a letdown implies is that the Ravens overlooked the inferior team.
There may be some truth to the letdown theory, but in reality, each loss was more complicated than that simple theory would indicate. The truth is that the Ravens probably did overlook the inferior teams to some extent… Not because they didn’t take the inferior teams seriously in preparation and practice the week before, but because they were expecting an easy game.
It’s just common sense to believe that the Ravens went into each game thinking that they were going to have an easy game in the backs of their mind, and the inferior team is coming out expecting an all-out war with one of the most-physical teams in the league.
On one hand, the Ravens are basically going through the motions and expecting to push their opponent around, and on the other hand, the inferior team is focused and prepared to do battle.
That slight difference in mindset may seem small and insignificant to pure football analysts, but we cannot overlook the human factor in football. The underdog mentality is a huge motivating factor in every professional sport.
That being said, all of the motivation in the world wouldn’t have mattered if the Ravens didn’t have the weaknesses that they have, but as good as the Ravens are, there’s no question that they have some exploitable weaknesses. Those weaknesses are clear to anyone who watches the Ravens play.
It’s one thing to say that a team has weaknesses because every team has them. No team is perfect, but the glaring weaknesses that the Ravens have—especially on offense—are what causes the Ravens to struggle with the inferior teams.
That’s because the players on the inferior team will watch film on the Ravens and realize that they’re beatable, and that leads to them going into the game with a game plan strictly to exploit the weaknesses of the Ravens.
Believing that the Ravens are beatable coupled with a solid game plan to exploit their weaknesses and motivated by the underdog mentality is a powerful combination and a clear recipe for a Ravens’ loss.
Another pattern that is emerging after the Ravens’ three losses is the fact that their offense seems to struggle most against 4-3 defenses. This is a legitimate problem that goes back to John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco’s first season.
Since then, the Ravens have struggled most and Flacco has had his worst games against teams like the Cincinnati Bengals, the Titans and the Indianapolis Colts—all teams that run a variation on the 4-3 defense.
One of the biggest reasons why the Ravens struggle with the 4-3 defense is because of the fundamental concept behind it. Although the 4-3 linebackers will need to keep their eyes open for the run, the 4-3 defense doesn’t put the burden of run defense on the linebackers.
The 4-3 defensive line’s primary job is to stop the run. Therefore, the 4-3 defense has four players on the line to stop the run which frees up the three linebackers for coverage duties. The three 4-3 linebackers are usually faster and lighter than 3-4 linebackers and will typically be much better in coverage.
This is vastly different than the 3-4 defense, which puts the bulk of the run-stopping duties on the two inside linebackers and nose tackle. Furthermore, the 3-4 defense can sometimes be viewed as a 5-2 since the 3-4 outside linebackers are more like defensive ends than true linebackers in many 3-4 defenses. This is particularly useful when game-planning against the 3-4.
The 4-3 defense basically has an extra defender in its base formation for coverage duties but cannot run many of the exotic blitz schemes that 3-4 defenses can. On the other hand, the 4-3 defense can usually play coverage better than the 3-4 defense. That’s the problem that the Ravens have had with the 4-3 defense.
When the 4-3 defense plays man coverage, the Ravens' offense has a hard time because the defense can have all of the offense's eligible receivers covered one-on-one and still have two deep safeties and a four man rush. The 4-3 linebackers are a big factor in this case because they can effectively cover the middle of the field or man cover the running backs and tight ends, and the Ravens have been unable to exploit the one on one coverage consistently.
The cloud of defenders that the 4-3 defense can flood the middle of the field with is another big problem. The 4-3 defense can have five defenders, three linebackers and two safeties, in zone coverage at any time over the middle of the field, so if the corners can lock down the outside receivers and the defensive line can stop the run, the defense can effectively shut down the Ravens offense.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what has happened against most 4-3 defenses in the Harbaugh-Flacco era. The outside receivers have had trouble beating the coverage, and offensive line cannot seem to hold their blocks in the running game. That has ultimately led to the struggles that we are seeing against the 4-3 defenses.
Those patterns aside, the Ravens are actually still a very good football team. The fascinating part is that they will still win games against quality opponents, will make life hard on any offense and probably will still make the playoffs at the very least.
That’s not saying that they don’t have things to figure out. There’s no question that they need to find a way to cover up their glaring weaknesses on offense, but the talk about firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron at this point in the season is just ridiculous.
That won’t solve anything, and as bad as Cameron has been at times, he’s better than anyone else that the Ravens could bring in right now to replace him.
The Ravens aren't stuck into these patterns and can fix them... or cover them up at least. They just need to start being more intelligent with their offensive game plan. The receivers aren’t getting open down the field, so the Ravens need to focus on simply moving the ball down the field in a calculated manner.
Even if they are only averaging 2 yards per carry, they still need to run the ball. They need to work the short routes with their tight ends, who have been their most consistent receivers, and most of all, they need to setup the offense with manageable third downs. This will help to keep the offense on the field and play to the defense.
The Ravens don’t need a quick scoring offense. A dink and dunk offense takes more time and burns the clock, but that actually plays to the strength of the team if they can keep from falling behind.
The Ravens will probably still struggle against good 4-3 defenses even if they implement an intelligent game plan, but they should still be able to win most of those games and make the playoffs on the strength of the defense.