As some, or none, of you have noticed, I have yet to blog about the Baltimore Ravens 2011 season since it began with a beautiful 35-7 thumping of those goofs from Pittsburgh on September 11th. Mostly because, in my humble opinion, life in the NFL is a marathon, not a sprint. But also because knowing that the Ravens have a Week 5 bye, I could simply wait to address them at the season’s “Quarter Pole”. So…here goes.
The one thing that I want to touch on is that I agree with John Harbaugh. I think that the Baltimore Ravens, as they are currently put together, will be a better team in the second half of the season, then they are in the first half. Now, let me say this, I believe that the Ravens, right now, are a very good football team. To think that this team is only going to get better, conjures up thoughts, not just of 2000, but of what this season could truly turn into. Especially in a year where the AFC is down. The participants in last year’s AFC Championship Game, the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets, have already been humiliated by the Ravens, and have a laundry list of issues that tells me they will be battling for the #5 and #6 seeds come late December. Indianapolis is done, thanks to Peyton Manning being on the shelf, and the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers have shown that while they can score points, they are by no means world beaters. All this points to the potential of a very happy New Year, with the AFC’s #1 seed, here in Charm City.
Now, as a very educated football fan, I know that while dreaming of glory in January and February is nice, there is A LOT of football left to be played. And the Ravens, like the other top teams in the AFC, have their own set of issues themselves. Not to mention the fact that if Joe Flacco goes down in Week 7, this could turn into a very long season. But for now, I will stick with the strengths and weaknesses of what I have seen so far.
The first strength I see, which can not be understated, is the pass rush the Ravens’ front four has brought. They have done a great job of covering up the #1 weakness, which I will get to later, but the heat brought on by Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Cory Redding, and Jarret Johnson, has fueled this Ravens’ defense, and is reminding us all of the historic 2000 club, and most recently, the 13-3 2006 squad that should have made a run to the Super Bowl. They are the catalysts of the league #3 ranked defense and the reason the Ravens have allowed a paltry 72.5 rushing yards per game and have tallied 11 sacks, good enough for 8th in the NFL.
Second, of course, is Ray Rice. One of the NFL’s most explosive playmakers, Rice is the team’s rushing and receiving leader who spearheads the offensive attack. My only complaint is that the Ravens have kind of gone away from the running game a little bit over the past two games, which have both been blowout wins, but as the weather turns colder, I forsee a return to the ground and pound style that this team has excelled in for the better part of a decade. And Ray Rice is going to be front and center. The offseason addition of Vonta Leach was huge, and I have liked what I’ve seen so far from Ricky Williams in a backup role. All this points to another big year for the pending free agent, Rice, who should command a healthy payday in Baltimore for years to come.
The third strength for this team that I have seen is the coaching staff. Look, for all of you who complain about Harbaugh, OC Cam Cameron, and those that will complain in the future about DC Chuck Pagano when the defense has a hiccup (let’s face it, that’s how some of you goofs are), this coaching staff is as solid as any in the NFL. I know that some of you out there want to poo-poo the fact that they have won playoff games in each of the past three seasons, but that is truly an astonishing fact in today’s NFL. Let’s look back to 2009. The Minnesota Vikings were a Brett Favre interception away from being in the Super Bowl. Less then 2 years later, they are 0-4, under new coaching with a quarterback who is clearly past his prime. The Kansas City Chiefs went 10-6, won the AFC West last season. Under the same head coach, they are a miserable 1-3 and one more blowout away from a full blown mutiny. My point is, that in today’s NFL, it’s hard enough to make a run for one season, let alone 3 in a row with a 4th looking like they’ve finally got the right mix. I would take this current group of coaches over any other in the league.
Veteran leadership is the last strength that I will point out. Is this a younger team? Yes. Is this a team with less experience then it’s last three? Yes. But is this a team with the right amount of veteran leadership capable of carrying the young talent through a Super Bowl run? You better believe it. With 16 year veteran Ray Lewis leading the way, the Ravens have enough quality battle tested veterans to guide the young talent through all the ups and downs of an NFL season. Ray, Suggs, Ngata, Johnson, and Reed on defense. Flacco, Rice, Boldin, Birk, Leach and Evans on offense. Enough said to go along with Jimmy Smith, Torrey Smith, Ed Dickson, Dennis Pitta, and Lardarius Webb. Veteran leadership is crucial in January, and the Ravens are loaded with it.
As I see it, the Ravens most glaring weakness is no doubt their secondary. A position that they did their best to shore up in the offseason, injuries have depleted the depth of the unit with Jimmy Smith, Chris Carr, Haruki Nakamura, and Dominique Foxworth (IR) all missing time in the season’s first four games. The bye comes at the right time as they should begin to get some of the guys, not named Foxworth back, but I forsee the secondary could be the defense’s weakness throughout the course of the season. The great pass rush the Ravens have been able to generate over the first four games has helped a great deal, and as long as that continues, they can afford the occasional hiccup, but if teams start to figure it out and scheme better against the front four/seven, the secondary could get exposed, especially in the postseason.
The only other weakness I see in the Ravens this season is their uncanny ability to beat themselves. We saw it in Tennessee. We started to see it in their game against the Jets, but great defense negated that. Critical turnovers at critical points of games has haunted this team for years. It’s real simple. When the Ravens play their game…they win, and most of the time, win big. When they turn the ball over, and seem to be fighting themselves more then the other team…they lose. The way the schedule shakes out, I don’t see any other teams that can beat the Ravens as long as they play “Like a Raven.” However, this is the NFL, and if the Ravens give teams turnovers and chances, it will bite them in the butt.
In all, I like the way the Purple Birds have started the 2011 season. Tennessee, in my opinion, should have been a win, but winning the other three by convincing blowouts gives me a faith in this team’s ability to score points that has been missing for a long time. I do believe that Joe Flacco is the right QB for this team, even though some of you want to take every chance to bash him. And as long as they get better throughout the season, which is something good, even great, teams do (just ask last year’s 10-6 Packers) I believe this will be a special season in Baltimore. One that could end, with a Vince Lombardi Trophy.