BALTIMORE — It was far from the convincing win most anticipated as the Ravens narrowly defeated the Cleveland Browns in a sloppy 23-16 final at M&T Bank Stadium.
Both teams appeared sluggish for extended stretches of play, likely a result of the NFL’s insistence on playing a weekly game on a day most players identify as the point in the week when their bodies are finally recovered from the previous weekend’s contest.
The offensive line struggled to protect quarterback Joe Flacco, allowing four sacks after only surrendering five total in their first three games. An interception and critical penalties netted zero points on two different trips inside the red zone.
The defense once again struggled to consistently pressure the quarterback as rookie Brandon Weeden threw for 320 yards on 52 pass attempts, and the unit continued its early-season tendency of surrendering big plays, allowing six plays of 20 or more yards to a Cleveland offense that entered the night ranked 26th in the league. However, the Ravens made a stop when it needed to as Weeden’s final pass from the Baltimore 18 sailed out of the end zone on the final play of the game.
No matter how many talk-show callers and fans on social media express panic because they didn’t blow out the lowly Cleveland Browns, the Ravens won the game and that’s all that really matters when the new season is still taking shape in September.
“I’ve been in this business long enough, I don’t care about playing perfect,” linebacker Ray Lewis said. “I like wins. Because I’ve been home before [after a loss], giving up four field goals and [hearing], ‘Oh, the defense played great, but we lost.’ Forget that, let’s find a way to win.”
As ugly as it appeared at times against the only winless team in the AFC, the Ravens improved their record to 3-1 and finished a challenging stretch of four games played in an 18-day span. Yes, critical questions remain about this team that make you wonder just how legitimate a contender they can be, but their record speaks for itself.
The Baltimore defense still appears incomplete without Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs — and to a lesser extent, Jarret Johnson — as defensive coordinator Dean Pees continues to search for the right combination among Paul Kruger, Courtney Upshaw, and Albert McClellan at the outside linebacker positions. Pernell McPhee and Arthur Jones haven’t made anyone forget veteran Cory Redding, who was stout against the run and had the ability to provide moderate pressure on opposing quarterbacks from time to time.
Those questions upfront have left the secondary in a vulnerable position, with cornerback Cary Williams facing the brunt of the criticism after struggling mightily against quarterbacks Michael Vick and Tom Brady in previous weeks. However, it was Williams who provided the eventual game-winning score as he stepped in front of a Weeden pass intended for Travis Benjamin on an out route and galloped 63 yards in the opposite direction for a touchdown to make it a 23-10 Ravens lead late in the third quarter.
Also rising to the occasion despite the pass-rush struggles was Kruger, who picked up the Ravens’ only sack, pressured Weeden at other points, and looked more comfortable when asked to drop into pass coverage by recording two breakups.
Only baby steps for the two struggling players, but the Ravens hope they’re signs of more improvement to come.
“One thing about this league is that it’s hard to win games here,” said Williams, who drew the ire of fans and media alike over his struggles in the first quarter of the season. “It’s hard to play at a high level each and every week. Sometimes, you’re going to get balls caught on you. What you’ve got to do is bounce back and learn from those mistakes you made in the game and just continue to fight.”
Offensively, the Ravens looked unstoppable for brief stretches and couldn’t get out of their own way in others, but Flacco shook off a first-half interception in the red zone to throw for 356 yards, which included an 18-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith. Despite being under duress for much of the night and hobbling from a turned ankle late in the game, Flacco showed once again that the offense is centered around him after the Browns showed a strong commitment to stack the box in an effort to slow running back Ray Rice (18 carries for 49 yards) on the ground.
The poor play by the offensive line resurrected questions about the unit after a strong performance against New England had all but silenced the talk about the younger alignment that includes Ramon Harewood and rookie Kelechi Osemele and a return of Michael Oher to left tackle.
“You go in there and you expect to go out there and score every time you have the ball and you move the ball smoothly,” Flacco said. “Obviously, that’s not the case. You have to go out there and you can’t blink. You go out there and do your best, play-by-play and move the ball.”
Just as we suspected throughout the offseason after the injury to Suggs and the departure of veteran free agents, the Ravens remain an unfinished product, especially on the defensive side of the football. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has more closely resembled a mad scientist in recent weeks as he mixes coverage and pressure packages in trying to throw out variables and identify the best ways for defenders to get to the quarterback.
The reputation of dominating defense built over the last 14 years in Baltimore is now just that — a reputation without the same substance. The Ravens defense in 2012 is vulnerable, bending often but not always breaking by finding ways to make plays in critical situations such as Williams’ defensive score after the Browns had moved into Baltimore territory while trailing by only six late in the third quarter.
Though it wasn’t impressive to allow a winless team to hang around late in the game, the Ravens find themselves sitting pretty atop the AFC North. The issues facing a team in September can still be resolved to some extent or another before they become fatal flaws to seal a season’s fate.
And a 3-1 record says the Ravens are in excellent position after completing the first quarter of the season, even if they didn’t beat up on Cleveland like most expected them to.
“That’s how it is. It’s not college football,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Every team in this league is really, really good. If you understand that, I think you have a chance to find a way to win. We’re a very good team too. When you understand that, you have a chance to find a way to win games against everybody. If you don’t understand that, you have no chance in this league.”
Yes, the Ravens have found a way to win three of their first four games despite their defensive shortcomings and the offense still searching for its true identity that most prominently includes a comfort level with the offensive line.
They must continue to find ways — ideally, by finding answers to their current problems — to keep the promising start rolling.