Ravens Midseason Assessment

By Martin Steger

At 5-3, the Ravens are entering the second half of their season far ahead of expectations. Many analysts expected Baltimore to battle Cincinnati for last place in the division, while fans had similar tempered hopes in the face of a new head coach and quarterback. Instead, the Ravens are just one game (and a tiebreaker) back from perennial power Pittsburgh. Though they do not have a bye, they roll into the brutal second leg of their journey with momentum provided by surprising offensive rookies and a resurgent defense.

Joe Flacco and Ray Rice, the team’s first- and second-round 2008 draft picks, combined to lead Baltimore to their most important win of the season on Sunday, a 37-27 thriller in Cleveland. Baltimore finished its season sweep of the Browns not with a stifling defensive performance (they surrendered 20 on defense and 7 on special teams before scoring 7 of their own), but with 429 yards and 30 points of offense. Flacco had his best game of the season while Rice dominated to the tune of 154 rushing yards in Willis McGahee’s stead.

Down 27-13 at one point, the Ravens offense made a huge comeback to both win the game and make a statement for the rest of the season. As recently as last year, the Ravens would implode once faced with a large deficit. That was even the case mere weeks ago, against Indianapolis. Not this time. Baltimore’s offense is far from a finished product, but if Flacco has put his early-season jitters behind him for good, this team will be very scary down the road.

And though the defense didn’t completely dominate Cleveland, they stepped up in the fourth quarter when Terrell Suggs sealed the game with his interception-return touchdown. This had been a problem earlier in the season as well: Against Tennessee, the Ravens surrendered a fourth-quarter lead in a close, physical contest. Again, not this week.

Not all is well, though. Contributing to the 27 points Baltimore surrendered was shaky coverage on special teams. Though Joshua Cribbs is an elite return man, the Ravens did a poor job of containing him for much of the game. Shoddy tackling let him bring the Browns back into the game with a kickoff return touchdown in the first half, while a punt return put Cleveland in striking distance for a touchdown pass later in the game. Adding to that worry, the Ravens gave up some decent returns to Ted Ginn Jr. against Miami as well.

There is too much talent on this special teams unit for it to continue to hurt the rest of the team—Brendan Ayanbadejo showed his value on Sunday, while Tom Zbikowski delivered a thunderous hit to Cribbs—so the situation is not extremely dire. The young Ravens are growing up fast, and the special teamers need to do the same for this team to be a legitimate power in the AFC. They cannot keep hurting the defense, the force that gives this entire team energy. The Ravens will need every bit of help they can, especially from their special teamers, if they are to make some noise as the season goes on.

Though they’re staring at a formidable second half—Baltimore still has to play the entire NFC East, among other niceties—the Ravens have positioned themselves well. They’ve already swept one divisional opponent, while hanging tough with Pittsburgh and Tennessee in losses to the two best teams in the AFC. It will be tough for the banged-up secondary to get healthy without a bye, but the replacement players have improved every week. Furthermore, this offense is growing by the game and has Baltimore fans legitimately excited about that part of the game for the first time in a long time.

It’s probably foolish to mention the word “playoffs” this early, but it’s going to be a fun ride to see where they go from here.