Even if you’re someone who believes in good losses or moral victories, which I’m not by the way, you wouldn’t make an argument that the Ravens’ 30-10 undressing at the hands of the Giants on Sunday was either. The offensive juggernaut that was the “New Look” Baltimore Ravens for the past few weeks came crashing back to earth in a most humiliating fashion, in what was likely the Ravens final visit ever to the Meadowlands.
If you’re looking for a bright side, well then you’d have to look pretty deep. But I’d say that if there’s a positive spin to be put on the season as a whole at this point, it’s that championship teams are usually dealing with adversity and working out their issues at this time of year. As close as the Patriots came last season, you just don’t see teams dominate a season in today’s NFL from start to finish.
Look no further than the team that dismantled the Ravens on Sunday. At this time last season, the Giants were floundering. Eli Manning was struggling to get his team into the end zone, Brandon Jacobs was unable to stay healthy for a prolonged stretch, and the Giants couldn’t seem to beat anyone at home. Those Giants did just enough to be in position for the playoffs, and then took matters into their own hands from there. Outside of the Giants locker room, few believed that their week 17 showdown with the Patriots was a Superbowl preview.
If having struggles to overcome midseason is the precursor to postseason success, then the Ravens have a lot to be happy about. Because as good as they’ve been at times during this season, the Ravens have demons to overcome and questions to be answered on every side of the ball. Ready or not, the Ravens have positioned themselves right into the middle of the AFC playoff picture, and injuries and inexperience will not be an excuse, should they play themselves back out of contention.
On offense, the line has been makeshift, yet remains one of the pleasant surprises and true bright spots of this young team. They’ve done a much better than expected job of protecting Joe Flacco, and opening lanes for their three-headed running attack. Flacco, the rookie QB, is progressing much more quickly than almost anyone would have expected. And the creativity in the running and passing games has brought new life to the Ravens offense and their downfield potential.
Todd Heap however, has been surprisingly all but non-existent in the passing game this season. And in a match up this week, that seemed to set the table for Heap to find his role in the passing game, the Ravens elected to lean on a one-armed Derrick Mason as their primary passing target, over an able-bodied Heap and Mark Clayton. And while Mason, the unsung hero Flacco’s rapid development, deserves to be commended for gutting it out through his shoulder injury, clearly his one-armed status was a hindrance, and probably cost his young QB an interception too. The single wing offense has been dangerous this season, but a single winged wide receiver is probably best left to heal on the sideline.
Speaking of healing on the sideline, it appears that Willis McGahee could benefit from a little bit of Derrick Mason’s heart. Whether McGahee’s inability to stay in the lineup is a result of rushing him back too quickly, or his body simply breaking down, or an inability for him to stay interested in playing for prolonged stretches, it has to be of major concern to the Ravens going forward. Even last season, McGahee was unavailable at the ends of close crucial losses to Buffalo and New England. LeRon McClain and Ray Rice have definitely been pleasant surprises to this point, but without a reliable McGahee down the stretch, Flacco will have his hands full with the defensive pressure that he’ll likely be seeing.
On defense, the numbers are there, although the numbers took a little hit on Sunday too. But the Ravens have allowed crucial drives to allow points at the ends of halves and games that raise doubts about their status as an elite defense, like others that we’ve seen here in the past. And that was before Brandon Jacobs and his band of merry men ran all over the Ravens on Sunday. The secondary has held together remarkably in the face of numerous injuries, but maybe Sunday gave a glimpse as to why. Maybe the defense’s need to lend help to the secondary in coverage is taking away from the pass rush, and now maybe the ability to stop the run as well.
Bart Scott and Trevor Pryce have been all but invisible at times so far and Ed Reed is clearly just a shell of the player that we’ve come to expect prowling this secondary. At this point in the season, Reed has just 2 games with more than 2 tackles; he has just one interception on the season and just 6 pass deflections through ten games. Say what you want about teams throwing away from him, but if that were the case, defending half the field would be easy for the rest of the secondary. Teams are throwing at the Ravens all over the field, even at Ed Reed, plus he’s been thrown off of tackle attempts by ball carriers more than I can ever recall seeing from Reed in the past.
The fact that players aren’t even looking to pitch their interceptions to him this season may be a subtle indication of where Reed is health-wise. His reputation may be all that is sustaining him at this point. I’m sure that offensive coordinators are still preparing as if this is the Ed Reed of old, but clearly he isn’t. For a while, I wanted to believe that Harbaugh was just being prudent with Reed, guarding him from injury. But if Ed Reed isn’t making big plays, then he’s not Ed Reed. And if he’s not healthy enough to be put into a position to make those plays, then he certainly doesn’t belong returning kicks.
Perhaps the biggest reasons of all for concern, and also the ones least likely to change anytime soon, have been some questionable coaching decisions by our rookie head coach. Believe me, I’m not on the “Fire Harbaugh” Bandwagon, or even a basher at this point. Clearly Harbaugh has taken control of the attitude of this locker room, and brought back a winning mentality that may not have been possible this quickly under the old regime. But if you thought that Brain Billick was a curious manager of the clock, then like me, you must have been scratching your head at a number of timeouts, punts on short fields, missed challenge opportunities and curious end game clock usage by Harbaugh so far.
Some of this could likely be chalked up to the learning curve of a rookie head coach. Some of it can also probably be linked to the lack of depth and/or talent provided to him at certain key positions. But like it or not, Harbaugh’s learning curve, like that of his young QB, is happening right in the middle of the playoff chase. And the fans are going to be no more forgiving to Harbaugh, or Flacco for that matter than they were to Boller once upon a time in similar circumstances. So far, Flacco seems to be handling it much better than his young coach.
We all looked at the schedule with dread before the season began, and we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this team has performed well beyond reasonable expectations already. But the bar doesn’t go back down, and it’s been set pretty high at this point. Most expected the Ravens to win one game that it looked like they shouldn’t, and lose one the same way too. So far they’ve beaten what you’d call the “bad teams” that they’ve played, and came up short against the “good ones”. Close losses to Pittsburgh and Tennessee led most to believe that the Ravens could beat those types of teams, but so far, no luck.
The remaining schedule will provide them with lots more opportunities to pick up that elusive “quality win”. But if they want to contend for the playoffs, they’ll probably need to pick up a few. Quality wins would likely provide the confidence that this team needs to go into the playoffs with a head of steam. If the team is able to get back on track they’ll likely be better for having had to suffer this embarrassing defeat, but if they’re not, this will likely mark the beginning of the end for this season.
Next week provides Harbaugh and the Raven a fresh opportunity, back in a friendly environment to pick up that elusive quality win that would define the Ravens as true contenders. Given the decade of service that Harbaugh has in Andy Reid’s system, and his intricate knowledge of their strengths and tendencies, I’m looking at this week’s match up with the Eagles as a big test and a big opportunity for Harbaugh. With two teams of seemingly similar talent on the field, playing here in Baltimore next week, Harbaugh has a chance to coach his team to a win in this one. Doing it would go a long way toward burying the memory of yesterday’s massacre at the Meadowlands right where it belongs, right next to Jimmy Hoffa.