The Baltimore Ravens continued their dominance of the AFC North with an impressive win over the Cleveland Browns that gives them a 4-0 record in the division and a 9-3 record overall. The Ravens went back to running the football and playing defense against the Browns, and it paid off in a big way.
The Ravens defense was excellent against Browns quarterback Colt McCoy and kept him under 200 yards passing. They also controlled Cleveland’s running game with Peyton Hillis, who only managed 45 rushing yards in the game.
On the other side of the ball, the Ravens ran all over the Browns. Ravens running back Ray Rice had 204 rushing yards, and the Ravens had nearly 300 rushing yards as a team.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco didn’t have eye-popping statistics but always seemed to make the critical throws when the Ravens need them the most. With the Ravens running wild on offense, Flacco was simply managing the offense and keeping drives alive.
This win keeps the Ravens on top of the AFC North since they have the tie-breaker over the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it broke the Ravens trend of losing to poor teams after an emotional victory.
Whether the Ravens win or lose, we always learn more about them, so let’s take a look at what we learned from Baltimore’s 24-10 victory over Cleveland.
People are going to look at Joe Flacco’s statistics, 158 yards and no touchdowns, and just assume that it was a lackluster performance. Flacco certainly didn’t blow anyone away by taking over the game and throwing multiple touchdowns and a bunch of yardage, but anyone who has watched the Ravens and understands how they win has to be pleased with his performance.
That’s because Flacco played within the Ravens’ game plan for this game. It was very clear that the Ravens wanted to run the ball and grind out the game. That game plan makes sense because it burns the clock, limits the risk of injuries and almost assures a victory if the Browns cannot stop the running game.
It’s a game plan that Ravens fans have seen for years, and it’s still one of the best ways to cash in wins for the Ravens. It’s also a game plan that they’ve gotten away from time-to-time under offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, and that’s okay… The team needs to feel itself out in the regular season.
In order for the Ravens offense to be successful against the different types of defenses that they will face, they need to be able to be versatile. That’s why—despite the criticism that Cameron has faced so often—the experimentation can actually be a good thing. It certainly has helped the Ravens find their strengths and weaknesses this season.
After seeing the offensive experiment up to this point, there’s no question that the Ravens have struggled most when they’ve strayed too far from the running game. Now, that’s not to say that Flacco isn’t capable of running a passing offense, because Flacco is certainly capable of making every throw an offensive coordinator would need.
The problem with throwing too much is that they currently do not have the receivers around Flacco to make that offense work. Wide receiver Torrey Smith is an up-and-coming talent, but outside of him, the Ravens are still a team full of possession receivers and tight ends. This is a problem that the Ravens have had for a long, long time.
That being said, the Ravens will obviously need to throw the ball more than they did today against most good teams, but they will still be much better off if the bulk of their offense is centered on the running game rather than Flacco’s arm or—maybe more accuately—the receivers’ hands.
The bottom line is that Flacco has shown that he will make plays when the Ravens need them if they can have some measure of success in the running game. He did it against Pittsburgh twice, San Francisco and today versus Cleveland. We can ignore the statistics in those games for the most part because the most important thing for Flacco is that he makes conversions and threatens the opposing defense in critical situations.
If he can continue to do that, his overall statistics won’t really matter, and the Ravens will be a very dangerous team in December and January.
This season has been a roller coaster ride for Ravens fans. It started out at the very top with a huge win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, bottomed out the next week in Tennessee, hit another high after the game against Houston and came crashing down after losses to Jacksonville and Seattle. The recent high after the win against San Fransisco had people worried that the Ravens would drop the game against Cleveland.
Fortunately for Ravens fans, the team seems to have figured out whatever problem that it was having that was causing the inconsistency issues, which were a big concern for the Ravens and their fans.
As much as we like to speculate about why the Ravens were struggling and as much as we like to find a single issue or common denominator behind all of their problems, the fact is that the Ravens were probably still just figuring themselves out behind closed doors.
That may sound like a cheap explanation, but we need to remember that football is an extremely complicated team game. Coaches spend their entire lives drawing up plays and designing schemes, and they will always need to take those plays and schemes and apply them to the strengths of the players that they have. Furthermore, they need to adjust on a week by week basis for whatever team they are playing.
For the fans and analysts of football, we just see the plays that work or don’t work, but we don’t always see the plays that were close. We don’t see football like the coaches and players do. Sometimes we think a team stinks when they are simply trying to push through some issues, and there’s no way we can always understand how close or how far a team is from being successful at what they are trying to do.
Sure, sometimes it’s clear to everyone how bad a team is, and whatever they are trying to accomplish is pointless because they are incompetent. The hardest part is telling the difference. When a team is struggling like the Ravens were on offense, fans and analysts only see the failure and don’t see the point.
The Ravens certainly look better over the last two weeks as they seem to have found some things that work. That’s not saying that the Ravens have everything figured out. They obviously can—and should—get better and better. The point is that the NFL season is extremely long and hard and teams will be trying to find ways to win with whatever they have in each and every game.
Sometimes, teams will have a great system that runs like a well-oiled machine, but more often than not, teams will have to evolve during the season and adapt to each opponent. It’s not always pretty, but that is how the NFL works and where good coaching comes into play.
It was only a three weeks ago that we were talking about the Ravens defensive line being suspect against the run in Seattle. They weren’t very good in that game but have been excellent for the most part this season—especially over the last two weeks.
The defensive line had a great game against Cincinnati two weeks ago and were able to bring enough pressure on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to force him into throwing three costly interceptions, which were key in that victory. They were nothing short of dominant against San Francisco last week and tied a franchise record for sacks with nine.
Against the Browns, the defensive line played a solid game. They weren’t as dominant as they were against the 49ers, but it did bring a good amount of pressure on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy.
The most interesting aspect of the Ravens defensive line scheme this season under new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano is that it is more committed to rushing the passer than it was last season.
Under Pagano, the Ravens keep more pass rushers on the field. Even in running situations, Pagano will plays schemes with stretched out defensive lines, outside linebackers in pass rushing techniques and fewer run stuffers.
This has caused the Ravens to be more vulnerable to the run than people are accustomed to seeing, but it has also turned the Ravens defense into an absolute monster to play against when they have the lead.
When the Ravens have the lead—especially late in games—they really turn up the heat with their pass rush, and it seems that the more the opposing team is forced to throw, the stronger and more relentless the pass rush becomes.
This is almost the exact opposite scenario of what happened to the Ravens defense in so many games last season when they seemed to give up the majority of their yardage to teams trying to make a comeback late in the game.
Much of the Ravens success at bringing pressure is a testament to Pagano’s commitment to a blitz-heavy scheme, but the Ravens young talent, especially Pernell McPhee and Paul Kruger, deserve credit as well. It also helps that Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata are playing some of the best football of their young careers. They should both be serious candidates for Defensive Player of the Year.
The Ravens have one of the best defenses in all football and are making it happen with their young talent with Ray Lewis sidelined. The strength of the team right now is the defense, and the strength of the defense is the defensive line, which is leading off with their rejuvenated and incredibly effective pass rush.
It seems like the Super Bowl talk is starting to get serious now. People were talking about the Super Bowl in Week 1, and that was silly at that point. The Ravens have the same personnel as Week 1, but this team has changed and evolved so much that they aren’t playing like the same team.
People may like the Week 1 game more than some of the other games that the Ravens have played, but there’s no question that this team has improved as an overall unit. They have suffered through the loss of their best offensive lineman and discovered a new offensive weapon in Torrey Smith on offense. They suffered through a three game stretch where they gave up an average of 400 yards per week and discovered new pass rushers in Pernell McPhee and Paul Kruger.
Most important of all, the team seems to coming together at the right time. They also seem like they are just scratching the surface of their potential.
They are buying into the team concept that John Harbaugh has preached since he arrived in 2008, and Harbaugh seems to be more open, honest and straight-forward with the players. This season, there seems to be less talk about “mighty men” and more connecting with the players, and the players have really responded in a positive way. It’s clear that they really love playing for Harbaugh.
These are all great signs for the Ravens, who are looking to win a Super Bowl for the first time in over a decade. One thing is for sure…
If they continue to improve as a team and build on the team concept that they have developed and evolved this season, there really is no limit to how far they can go. The Super Bowl isn’t really all that silly to think about anymore.