BALTIMORE — At times, the Baltimore Ravens (2-1) have looked absolutely brilliant in their 24-17 win over the Cleveland Browns (0-3) Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. At other times, it would have been difficult to describe them as anything but lost.
Still, the Ravens improved to 2-1 and can get right back to the top of the AFC North with a win next week against the Ben Roethlisberger-less Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
And I’m sure everyone in Charm City is absolutely 100% convinced the Ravens will have no trouble in the Steel City, right?
Head Coach John Harbaugh said after the game Sunday that he thought his AFC North foes played “really really well.” And truth be told, they absolutely did. But did anyone think the Ravens would find themselves in a one possession game in the final minutes of the fourth quarter? Did anyone think there was much of ANY chance that the Ravens would find themselves trailing at any point in the fourth either?
I find it hard to believe anyone did.
Credit the Browns for using RB Peyton Hillis very effectively (29 total touches, 180 yards and a touchdown) against a Ravens defense that has struggled against bigger backs in the past (Brandon Jacobs, Cedric Benson, etc). Credit QB Seneca Wallace for showing an ability to escape and not force throws into coverage. Credit the Browns’ Offensive Line (behind all world OT Joe Thomas) for opening holes in the run game and keeping pressure off of Wallace.
In the same way, credit the Cincinnati Bengals for getting pressure on Ravens QB Joe Flacco with their front seven in a Week 2 win. Credit the Bengals’ secondary for forcing Ravens WR’s into the same place on the field and not allowing them to make many big plays. Credit Bengals kicker Mike Nugent for connecting 0n all five of his attempts to account for the team’s 15 points.
And for that matter, credit New York Jets RB LaDainian Tomlinson for showing he still had some tread left on his tires and credit the Jets’ pass rush (as well as NYJ defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and head coach Rex Ryan) for getting after Flacco despite falling 10-9 in Week 1.
With all of the credit for opposing teams out of the way, the focus shifts back to the Ravens-who were a trendy preseason choice to win the AFC North and represent the AFC at Super Bowl XLV in Dallas.
The Ravens have been particularly impressive at times, and particularly lackluster at others.
Flacco was rightfully maligned following a dismal four interception performance in Week 2. On Sunday, he bounced back with a game that was practically flawless after his first completion (a deflected grab by WR Derrick Mason that should have been intercepted by Browns S T.J. Ward). Flacco finished the day 22/31 for 262 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He showed impeccable touch on a few passes, including his first of three touchdown tosses to WR Anquan Boldin. For the season, Flacco has played well in roughly six quarters (the four against Cleveland and the second half at the Meadowlands), and has played poorly in 6 others (the four at Paul Brown Stadium and the first two against the Jets).
Speaking of Boldin, he’s quite simply been the team’s best player thus far this season. On Sunday, he brought down eight catches for 142 yards and tied a franchise record with those three TD receptions. He now has 20 catches for 287 yards on the season, and has been a particularly reliable target on 4th down.
But for as well as Boldin has played, there are still questions within the passing game. The Ravens’ other top receivers (Mason and post-Training Camp acquisition TJ Houshmandzadeh) combined for just five catches and 34 yards Sunday. For the season, the duo has managed just nine catches, 113 yards and one touchdown (Mason’s 3rd quarter TD haul in Cincy). At times they’ve looked lost, at times they’ve looked frustrated (including Mason’s delay of game penalty for flipping the football Sunday-where he subsequently asked Harbaugh to take him out of the game) and at times they’ve simply looked ineffective.
The Offensive Line struggled mightily through the first two games, but was vastly improved Sunday. Not only did the unit (which has played without RT Jared Gaither) prevent Flacco from getting sacked even once in the game, but they also paved the way for Ravens running backs (Ray Rice, Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain) to average nearly five yards per carry. (Rice left Sunday’s game with a knee sprain, he will be re-evaluated Monday.)
Defensively, the Ravens are even more difficult to figure. The unit was less than a minute away from opening the season without allowing a touchdown for the first ten quarters; but Hillis plunged in just before halftime Sunday to break that streak. Even worse, after allowing an average of just 105 total rushing yards in the first two games; the Ravens were gauged for 173 by the Browns; including 144 from Hillis-who only started because of an injury to the Browns’ primary back Jerome Harrison.
The Ravens have still given up only 41 points on the season; but they’ve also forced just one turnover through three games as well (a Shonn Greene fumble recovery in Week 1). Over the last two weeks, the Ravens have started just one drive in opposing territory. Even that drive (a fourth quarter drive Sunday that started at the Cleveland 42) had more to do with a botched pitch from Wallace on the previous Cleveland possession than it did anything related to the Ravens defense.
Like I said, hard to figure.
Presumably, we’ll learn much more about this Ravens team when they get to Heinz Field next Sunday and square off with the 3-0 Steelers, who looked superb in their 38-13 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road Sunday.
To their credit, Ravens players don’t seem to be particularly concerned about the up-and-down nature of the start to their 2010 season. “Bottom line is (that) the scoreboard said W-Ravens win, we’re 2-1” said Pro Bowl LB Ray Lewis. “(It’s the) same thing I told (Flacco) before the game. Last week’s over, go on to the next week. That’s what he came out and (did). For us, with a couple of adjustments here and there-we’ll get right back to football.”
Maybe so, but until it looks like a complete performance, it will still be hard to figure this team out.
Hear from Harbaugh, Lewis, Flacco, Boldin, DT Haloti Ngata, LB Terrell Suggs and CB Cary Williams following the game in the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault here at WNST.net!