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BALTIMORE — Ravens coach John Harbaugh was speaking about the decision to insert Matt Elam and Jimmy Smith into the defensive starting lineup on Sunday, but he might as well have been describing the state of his entire team following an underwhelming 14-6 win over the Cleveland Browns.
“You’re always going to chase, especially early in the year, trying to figure out who you are.”
Trying to figure out who the Ravens are after a blowout defeat at Denver and an uninspiring first-half showing at home against the Browns isn’t an easy task. You’re always happy with a win, especially one that brings your record to 1-1 and lands you in first place in the AFC North after the first two weeks of the 2013 season.
The Ravens know they have a great quarterback and a number of talented players on each side of the ball. Their defense rebounded from allowing a franchise-record 49 points and seven touchdown passes in the season opener to hold the Browns to six points and sack quarterback Brandon Weeden five times while hitting him 12 times in the game.
But, it was only the Browns, who appear to be continuing their yearly pattern of shooting themselves in the foot with the keystone play being a Weeden incompletion to a wide-open Chris Ogbonnaya down the sideline that could have been the go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter. It’s not uncommon for these teams to play ugly affairs over the years — even in Baltimore — but the Ravens appeared as vulnerable as ever in the Browns’ bid to end their winless streak against their AFC North foe in the Harbaugh era.
Even kicker Justin Tucker missed a pair of field goals, adding at least a slight hint of doubt at a position where the Ravens believed they were set all offseason.
The sum of the parts looks like they should be enough for the Ravens to be a playoff team this year, but the deficiencies make that an uncertain proclamation. The Ravens appear to have a chance to be pretty good, but it’s difficult to figure out just how good.
And most of that concern rests with the offense despite some questions still remaining in the Baltimore secondary moving forward. Even through all the years of complaining about Cam Cameron running the Baltimore offense, the Ravens were a much better offensive unit at M&T Bank Stadium, making their scoreless performance through the first 30 minutes that much more concerning on Sunday afternoon. The Ravens were held to just 122 yards on 32 plays and had only seven first downs before halftime.
They should be commended for scoring 14 points and going 7-for-9 on third down in the second half, but the offense simply doesn’t pass the eyeball test at this early stage of the season when it comes to throwing the ball or grinding out yards on the ground.
On the day that his second son was born, quarterback Joe Flacco was solid despite his wide receivers and tight ends letting him down for the second straight week. Torrey Smith and Marlon Brown dropped what would have been touchdowns in the first half while Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark were complete non-factors all afternoon.
The tight end spot is so bad right now for the Ravens that No. 3 option Billy Bajema was their leading receiver at the position when he made an 18-yard reception in the first quarter. Dickson dropped a pass over the middle on the first play of the game and wasn’t targeted again while Clark made just one catch for eight yards.
Smith and Brown atoned for their first-half drops with solid performances overall. Smith capably worked the short-to-intermediate portion of the field to the tune of seven catches for 85 yards, and Brown caught a 5-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
It’s clear that Smith’s ability as a vertical threat has been hindered by the injury to Jacoby Jones, but he is still the most reliable target Flacco has by far. The 6-foot-5 Brown appears to be emerging as the red-zone target Flacco desperately needs after the long-term hip injury to tight end Dennis Pitta.
After being shut out in the first half, Brandon Stokley made four receptions for 36 yards on third down as three moved the chains for the Ravens offense, but his ability is limited to third-and-manageable situations at this stage of his career.
With so much concern over the Ravens’ ability to pass, there has been plenty of clamoring for offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell to run the ball, but Baltimore averaged just 2.8 yards per carry against a formidable Cleveland front seven on Sunday. The Browns deserve some credit for their ability to keep Rice and backup Bernard Pierce in check for most of the afternoon, but you have to wonder if there’s enough physicality from this offensive line — particularly from second-year center Gino Gradkowski — to warrant an increased focus on running the football other than a pure need to do it.
The Ravens expressed optimism following the game that they don’t believe Rice’s hip flexor injury is serious, but it only adds to the sinking feeling of uneasiness accompanying the 1-1 start as the undefeated Houston Texans will come to Baltimore next Sunday. The defense made strides against a Cleveland offense that couldn’t get out of its own way, but the lackluster Baltimore offense still makes you wonder if the Ravens will have what it takes to beat the better teams in the AFC this year.
Harbaugh and the Ravens continue to try to figure out who they are just like the rest of us.
On Sunday, they were good enough to beat the lowly Browns, but that’s not saying very much for the weeks ahead.