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A 26-23 bounce-back win on the road against the Miami Dolphins can’t mask a plethora of concerns for the Ravens through the first five weeks of the season.
A better effort in the second half doesn’t change the reality that the Baltimore offensive line had its behind kicked in the first 30 minutes of football. The soon-to-be-replaced Bryant McKinnie will receive the bulk of the criticism, but the Ravens’ problems up front won’t be solved by newcomer Eugene Monroe unless he has the ability to play all five positions along the line because no one played well in the first half.
The protection was so bad in the first 30 minutes that you feared for the safety of quarterback Joe Flacco and the run blocking managed just 33 yards on 15 carries at the intermission. To the unit’s credit, the Ravens were able to wear down the Dolphins’ front seven in the Miami heat in the second half by running 25 times for 100 yards and giving Flacco time to make several key connections at critical junctures to Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss.
Their second-half effort is something on which to build, but run-game coordinator Juan Castillo and offensive line coach Andy Moeller have a colossal amount of work to do in the coming weeks to find consistency up front to give the Ravens a better chance to win on a weekly basis.
Running back Ray Rice had his best game of the season, gaining 102 total yards on 33 touches, but more than a few observers have noticed a lack of explosiveness from the sixth-year back. It’s certainly fair to remember his recent hip flexor injury and the line’s shoddy play, but Rice hasn’t looked like the home-run hitter of past years and coughed up his second fumble of the year.
The defensive effort was strong overall, but the secondary was guilty of giving up five passing plays of 20 or more yards, including an inexplicable 46-yard completion to Brandon Gibson on fourth down that gave the Dolphins a last-ditch field goal attempt to tie the game. The secondary has been vulnerable at best this season and depends on great pressure from the front seven to be successful, which they received more often than not on Sunday.
But even with all those concerns that don’t appear to be going away anytime soon, the Ravens are tied for first place in the AFC North and don’t appear to be going away in the AFC playoff picture. In fact, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Cleveland are each 3-2 with a plus-7 point differential through five weeks, evidence that nothing has come easy in the division.
The truth is no team beyond the Denver Broncos — with a forced nod to the 5-0 Chiefs since no one has beaten them yet, either — looks like a clear juggernaut in the conference. The Ravens may not pass the eyeball test, but neither have the likes of other perceived playoff contenders like the Texans and Dolphins, two teams Baltimore has disposed of already this season.
There’s plenty not to like about the Ravens, but there’s enough there to argue they’ll be in perfect position to make their sixth consecutive trip to the playoffs this January.
The wide receiver and tight end positions have been albatrosses thus far, but Torrey Smith is blossoming into one of the best receivers in the AFC after he recorded six catches for 121 yards against the Dolphins on Sunday. Smith has recorded no fewer than 85 receiving yards in any game this season and that’s while often facing bracketed coverage limiting his ability to go vertical like he would in his first two seasons. His 556 receiving yards puts him on pace to not only shatter his career high but to also record the best receiving season in franchise history.
Smith got some help from Doss and second-year wideout Deonte Thompson on Sunday, and Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown should be back in the picture as early as next week. It would be foolish to jump to conclusions based on a couple nice catches against the Dolphins, but even tight end Ed Dickson reined in a 43-yard reception in the first half at Sun Life Stadium.
Despite its vulnerability in the secondary, the Ravens defense was monstrous up front against quarterback Ryan Tannehill with six sacks. Linebacker Terrell Suggs recorded the fifth three-sack game of his 11-year career and has dispelled any concerns that he couldn’t be the same player that he was before last year’s Achilles tendon injury. He’s now on pace for 22 sacks this season and has been everything the Ravens could have asked for defensively.
After a poor decision by offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell to call for a pass on third-and-22 deep in Ravens’ territory led to a game-tying interception return for a touchdown to tie the game with 8:03 remaining, Suggs responded with two sacks on the next defensive series when Miami had a chance to march down the field to take the lead. And after the excruciating deep completion to Gibson on the Dolphins’ final series of the game, fellow outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil — who’s been quiet after the first two games of the season — collected a sack that turned a potential 52-yard try into a long 57-yarder that harmless wobbled wide left with 33 seconds remaining.
Even if there is some hope for offensive improvement in the coming weeks, it’s becoming obvious that the Ravens will live and die with their defense as both losses this season included poor showings from that side of the football.
Kicker Justin Tucker was huge on Sunday — dismissing any hint of concern when he missed two field goals in the home opener last month — in connecting from three field goals 42 yards or more, including the game-winning 44-yard try with 1:42 remaining. An offense with little margin for error can take some consolation in knowing they’re virtually guaranteed a minimum of three points when they manage to move inside the opponent’s 35-yard line based on Tucker’s overall body of work since last season.
But perhaps the biggest reason to have hope over the final 11 games of the season is the steady hand of Flacco, who bounced back from last week’s five-interception debacle with a courageous effort in which he was battered for most of the second half. His interception returned for a touchdown came after McKinnie allowed rookie Dion Jordan to blow by him to hit the quarterback’s arm as he threw, but Flacco’s final statistics don’t explain how well he was able to hold up.
Flacco had only three healthy receivers and stood behind a porous offensive line without injured left guard Kelechi Osemele for a gritty 60-minute performance. Much like the Ravens on Sunday, his performance wasn’t pretty, but it was good enough.
As was the case last year when they ultimately won their second championship in franchise history, the Ravens aren’t easy on the eyes and have much about them not to like. Only time will tell if they’re able to overcome their potentially-fatal flaws, but they’re finding ways to win early in the year.
And that’s not a different story from most of the AFC, leaving them right in the mix with a 3-2 record at the start of October.