Float like a butterfly,
Sting like a bee,
The Ravens could rope-dope,
The whole AFC.
John Harbaugh is just 11 games into his rookie campaign, and in addition to besting his friend and mentor Andy Reid on Sunday, it seems that his version of the Ravens may have also begun the process of cementing their identity.
On the surface, the Ravens are much like the team we have grown accustomed to seeing year in and year out here in Baltimore. They’re once again an absolutely dominant, and for lack of a better word, scary defensive unit. They try to overcome the unbalanced talent on the offensive side of the ball by managing the game, and really attacking teams on the ground. That is after all, and always has been, Ravens football.
Look a little deeper though and you’ll notice that this time around, the Ravens have some talent that they can work with at quarterback. The additions of Ray Rice and Lorenzo Neal, and the brilliant repositioning of LeRon McClain have added a new level of depth and dimension to the running attack. And the hybrid skill set of Troy Smith, Flacco’s ability to tuck and run, and Haloti Ngata opening up holes at the goal line have collectively breathed some excitement and respectability into the offense. And the bottom line shows it, at 7-4, the Ravens are tied for 5th in the AFC, and lead the AFC North in scoring. And did I mention that they have a quarterback?
The Ravens, under Flacco have already had an unprecedented 4 game stretch in which they piled up 134 points, and after a week 11 slip up against perhaps the best team in football, they came back with another 36 point effort on Sunday against what had previously been the league’s 8th ranked scoring defense. And speaking of defense, the Ravens’ D is quite obviously holding up their end of the scoring load too, but that’s par for the course when it comes to the Ravens.
Again on Sunday though, as is quite often the case in football, and sports in general for that matter, the score might not have told the whole story. At 10-7, the halftime score sure didn’t feel indicative of the Ravens effort to that point, largely due to the 100-yard kick return by Quentin Demps just before the half. But as has often been the case in Ravens victories this year, the game still seemed to be very much in the balance (despite the insertion of Kevin Kolb) until a late surge closed the deal.
There’s no doubt that the Ravens have had a lot of obstacles to overcome already this season, particularly when it comes to injuries. But perhaps because of those injuries, or perhaps as a result of the new look hybrid offensive packages, or possibly because of the success of the Giants last season using a similar formula, the 2008 Ravens appear committed to using as much of their active game day roster as is effectively possible. And in doing so, they’ve proven to be too much for teams to handle late in games.
Consecutive losses in weeks 4 and 5, in which the team was unable to hold on to second half leads, and saw their defense give games away on late drives gave reason to believe that this year’s Ravens might be just the opposite type of team. Their seeming inability to finish games was a major reason for concern under the new regime. Since then though the Ravens have turned their second half fortunes around and turned the endgame into their time to shine.
There were glimpses of it early too. In week 3 against Cleveland the Ravens trailed at halftime 10-7. And although they didn’t wait until nail biting time to take control, it was a 3 TD, third quarter explosion that put the game away for the Ravens. Even in the heartbreaking loss to Pittsburgh in week 4, Flacco and his troops drove 76 improbable yards for the tying touchdown with just over 4 minutes to play.
After the tough losses to the Steelers and Titans, the Ravens have been lights out in the second half and particularly the 4th quarter. In their second meeting with Cleveland in week 9, the Ravens were down 27-13 until inside of the final minute and a half of the third quarter, before rallying for 24 straight points to finish the Browns off. The following week against Houston it was a 19-13 Ravens lead at the start of the final quarter, in which the Ravens managed 22 points to make it look like it was never in doubt.
I suppose you could view the efforts of the Browns, Texans, and Eagles and say that they simply quit down the stretch, having watched the games, it’d be tough to argue. But at this point, given that it’s been the trend in recent weeks, to dismiss it as teams giving up would do a disservice to the Ravens’ efforts. Over the last few weeks, the Ravens have quite simply outlasted teams, outworked them, and ultimately beaten them into submission.
Much like the Giants of last season and again this season, who seem to have been pressed into using more of the roster than they would have liked to, the Ravens are using that to their advantage. By shuffling guys in and out more frequently, and using their ball control offense to keep their defense fresh, they seem to be more willing and able to finish games, and bring their best efforts when the game is on the line. They are after all, all NFL players, and although the talent level is clearly varied, it seems that a fresh B- player against a fatigued A+ player can still create match up problems.
The Ravens will still have to figure out what they can do when teams are able to jump on them early like the Colts and Giants were able to do. If the Ravens could bring their 4th quarter game from start to finish, they’d be impossible to deal with. For now it seems that they’ll have to be content to play conservative, control the clock, keep the defense fresh, and stay in position to make a run in the fourth quarter. It would seem that they’ve found their profile. Until they can develop Joe Flacco into their “haymaker”, the Ravens may just have to lie on the ropes, finish every jab and let opponents punch themselves out.
Styles make fights, as they say, and the Ravens look to have found theirs. With the apparent lack of knockout power in the AFC this season, the Ravens may try to rope-a-dope their way back to the Superbowl.