It’s difficult to recall a 6-2 start ever coming under more scrutiny than that of the 2012 Ravens, with major concerns existing on each side of the football and many doubting their ability to even make the playoffs despite being in excellent mathematical position in the AFC.
This marks the third straight year Baltimore has started 6-2, but the climate of this campaign has been much more uncomfortable as Sunday’s 25-15 win over Cleveland marked only their second margin of victory exceeding a single possession. In their first six wins last season, four had come by multiple scores as the Ravens looked the part of one of the best teams in the NFL.
Aside from expectations that were at opposite ends of the spectrum at the start of their respective seasons, the Ravens and Orioles share stunningly similar qualities in showing an ability to win close games and seemingly outperforming the eyeball tests suggesting they’re not as good as their records indicate. In the same way that many pointed to the Orioles’ run differential proving they were little more than a .500 baseball team that ran into plenty of luck, the Ravens’ plus-23 point differential would put them between four and five wins using similar metrics.
Regardless of how the second half of the season unfolds for the Ravens, this calendar year has brought an interesting case study of fan psychology with locals struggling to embrace an Orioles team playing over their heads all season and bracing for an inevitable collapse that never did happen. In comparison, many of these same fans have failed to enjoy the Ravens’ 6-2 start and are insisting the prosperity won’t continue against a beefier schedule over the final two months of the regular season. Others have even gone as far as suggesting the Ravens have underachieved, though it’s difficult to be much better than a 6-2 record when remembering the personnel losses this offseason and the injuries sustained on the defensive side of the football.
In an NFL season consumed with convoluted mediocrity as only a few teams have distinguished themselves as appearing to be very good at this point, it’s important to remember how little we actually know about the entire league and who the real contenders will be by season’s end. Few would have envisioned the New York Giants of a year ago or the Green Bay Packers of 2010 as Super Bowl champions at the midway points of those seasons.
What’s not to say the Ravens’ formula for offensive success at home doesn’t suddenly appear for road games later this season or that the defense can’t make some improvement with healthier versions of Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata in the fold? Or, will reality set in during the second half of the season, sending the Ravens crashing back to earth?
The truth is none of us really know what to make of this year’s Ravens, but it’s a much more enviable position to be 6-2 while coaches and players try to figure it all out.
> One of the central themes of the first half of the Ravens’ season has been the failure of young defensive players to fill the void left behind by free-agent departures and injured players, but fourth-year linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has been the exception to the rule while emerging as one of the best players on the Baltimore defense.
That doesn’t speak highly for the rest of a unit ranked 26th in yards allowed, 28th in run defense, and 15th in points surrendered per game, but Ellerbe deserves credit in not only being the Ravens’ best linebacker in pass coverage but also providing some juice to a listless pass rush as he leads the team with 3 1/2 sacks. Always thought of as an effective “thumper” while playing the run, Ellerbe has been a capable blitzer and recorded three quarterback hits and a sack against Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden on Sunday.
Some were surprised the Ravens offered Ellerbe a second-round tender when he was a restricted free agent this offseason, but the former rookie free agent from Georgia has more than earned his $1.92 million salary to this point. Fellow inside linebacker Jameel McClain received a three-year contract this offseason, but Ellerbe has had the better season and might be finding himself as part of the team’s long-term plans if he can remain healthy and effective.
Coach John Harbaugh has pointed to the young linebacker’s heightened level of professionalism after it was no secret that Ellerbe wasn’t always in the best physical shape in past seasons and had a reputation of lacking passion for the game. Another key for Ellerbe has been his ability to stay healthy as he missed seven games last season while dealing with hamstring and groin injuries.
Ellerbe’s 49 tackles rank third on the team and are already a new career high, but he is a sure bet to lead the unit in that category by season’s end as he’s topped the Ravens defense in tackles in each of the last two games.
> As I wrote on Monday, Ngata’s play over the last two games must be a concern for a defense already struggling to control the line of scrimmage. It’s clear that knee and shoulder injuries are hindering his ability to take on blockers and make plays, and you have to wonder if the Ravens missed an opportunity to provide a useful period of extended rest for the All-Pro defensive tackle by not sitting him out against Houston in Week 7.
Perhaps the extra week of rest coupled with the Week 8 bye would have done the trick, but now the Ravens are staring at two critical matchups with the Pittsburgh Steelers over the next four weeks without knowing how effective the three-time Pro Bowl selection will be moving forward. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees is desperately looking for others to emerge as viable options up front, so you can understand the Ravens’ hesitation in sitting down Ngata right now, but they must also weigh the long-term implications of continuing to play him at substantially less than 100 percent.
Considering the Oakland Raiders are banged up at the running back position — starter Darren McFadden and backup Mike Goodson are both dealing with high ankle sprains — and will likely lean heavily on Carson Palmer and the passing attack, it might be worth considering resting the big defensive tackle in hopes that he can look more like his normal self when the Ravens travel to Pittsburgh next week. But as Harbaugh said Monday, the Ravens are trying to win every game and this season has proven none are guaranteed victories.