Turning Apparent Weaknesses Into Strengths Every Week Makes The Ravens Almost Impossible To Game Plan For.
You’d think that by now we’d simply know better. If there’s one thing that we can say with certainty about today’s salary capped, free agency version of the NFL, it’s that parity is king. We should understand that in the NFL, games and even entire seasons can swing on a single play or in the blink of an eye. We should be conditioned by now to accept the fact that the difference between winning and losing teams in the league simply isn’t that great. Yet somehow as fans, we tend to throw all of that logic out the window at the beginning of each new season as we sit down with the schedule try to predict how “good” our team will be that year.
For Ravens fans, you could actually say that this season is exactly like each of the previous three, sort of. In 2005, expectations were high, and the team finished 6-10. They entered 2006 with a new QB, but the expectations were modest because the rest of the offense looked so bad that it was a safe bet they’d get McNair killed. Of course, they went on to go 13-3 and earn the first playoff bye in team history. They came back poised to defend their AFC North title in ’07, and did so to the tune of 5-11.
Enter this season, where the schedule provided 8 match ups with playoff teams from last year, a trip to the west coast, a pseudo homecoming game in Dallas to close their building, 2 games with the Browns who were coming off of a 10-6 season themselves, and two with The Bengals who have certainly been trouble for the Ravens, if for no one else, during the Marvin Lewis era. Throw in a rash of injuries before the season even began, a worst case scenario in terms of having to press your rookie QB into emergency duty without much warning, a rookie head coach, and a bunch of “lame duck” contracts, and even the most hopeful among us would have been delusional to think that they’d be where they are right now. And then to top it all off, an act of nature in week 2 forces the team into an early unscheduled bye, thereby forcing them to practice and game plan for 17 weeks during the regular season. And did I mention that they were 5-11 last year?
So of course, all of that equals the Ravens going into week 17, controlling their own playoff destiny, against one of the playoff teams from last season, and an old nemesis to boot, and opening as an early 12-point favorite. Its just more evidence of what we should’ve known all along about the NFL, which is to expect the unexpected.
Still, never has that mantra been more applicable than in the 2008 season. Consider that given all that the Ravens have accomplished this year, the odds are that when the playoffs start in two weeks, they’ll only be the 3rd least likely playoff team, given the depths from which both the Dolphins and Falcons have managed to fight back.
And even though we all should have known better, none of us, including Jerry Jones apparently, can really be blamed for being taken by surprise by this team considering all that they’ve gone through in the last year and a half. What is somewhat incredible about this team though, is that the surprises just keep on coming, seemingly every week. These Ravens have taken expecting the unexpected to a whole new level.
From week to week, these Ravens seem to all but reinvent themselves. What’s more, to say that they do it without warning is an understatement. This year, it seems that the Ravens have not only been able to get contributions from the most unlikely of sources, but they seemingly turn their supposed weaknesses into strengths each and every week.
Think back to the beginning of the season. Going in, the biggest deficiencies that the team seemed to have were at QB and offensive line. There were probably few among us who had hoped to see the rookie thrust into the starting job from day one, and even fewer who thought that anyone would stand much of a chance behind the young and somewhat makeshift offensive line. But Joe Flacco quickly proved that just because he’s a first year player, doesn’t mean that he’s a rookie. And the offensive line has allowed a middle of the road 30 sacks on the season despite having to face some of the most ferocious pass rushes in the NFL all season long. It’s also a safe bet that teams are trying to bring more pressure than usual because of the fact that the QB is a rookie, making the O-line’s performance that much more impressive.
Coming out of camp, there were a lot of concerns about McGahee. His health and his attitude were very much in question, and adding Lorenzo Neal to the mix didn’t do much to ease those concerns for most. That is, until LeRon McClain went out and proved that he could be a tailback too, and added another dimension to the running game with his versatility.
The running game though has been the most difficult part of the Ravens attack to predict from week to week. Early on, McClain was rolling, McGahee was healing, and Ray Rice seemed to be struggling. In week 6 against the Colts, McClain appeared to hit the wall somewhat, and the running game looked suspect again, until Rice and McGahee went off against Oakland and Miami. Then with Rice injured, and McGahee in the doghouse, the Ravens appeared to be down to just one decent running option, and even went out and got another back to add to the mix. But after Saturday’s game, McGahee appears to be healthy and on board again, McClain is still rolling along, and the team has to be excited about getting Ray Rice back possibly before the playoffs begin.
Ed Reed, it seemed had a big game in week three, but otherwise didn’t even seem to be a factor on defense for the first ten weeks of the season. Speculation was rampant that Reed’s neck injury was probably as serious as we had all feared, and that we may have seen the last of Ed Reed the playmaker. Perhaps opposing offenses began to feel that way too, because since week 11 against Philadelphia the ball seems to be coming his way more often, and Reed has played his way right into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. He’s clearly still a playmaker.
Chris McAllister looked to be the most solid part of the secondary for the first 5 games of the season, his injury / doghouse status could have been the biggest blow of all to the Ravens chances at being competitive this season. Instead Fabian Washington has played like the first rounder that Oakland probably envisioned him to be once upon a time, and he and Reed have combined to pick up the secondary, putting the Ravens pass defense almost on par with their dominant run defense, as if that seemed possible.
And when it comes to special teams, outside of the performance of Sam Koch all year long, special teams have seemingly been a work in progress all season. Matt Stover appeared to have reached the end of the line; the return game was struggling, particularly on punts, the coverage teams were giving up too many return yards, etc. All of this despite the special teams background of the new head coach and the number of special teamers seemingly brought in as free agents this off-season. On Saturday night however, the special teams turned that game around for the Ravens.
Changing your plan of attack from week to week would seem like a necessity in today’s ultra-competitive NFL, but being able to take your seemingly glaring weaknesses and turning them into your strengths not only makes you impossible to game plan for, it would seemingly cause opposing teams’ game plans to play right into your hands.
What it’s amounted to for the Ravens is nothing short of a remarkable coaching job, and a remarkable season overall. Even when the locker room appeared to be divided over the quarterback situation, the Ravens worked both QBs into the game plan and turned that situation into a positive. They’re an unbelievable bunch, these Ravens.
So if you’re concerned now, like I am with the Ravens prevent defense, be careful not to speak too soon. Based on what they’ve done so far, it’s almost a lock that the endgame defense will give the team a critical boost, at the most unlikely of times. That’s just the kind of season it’s been.
It would seem that if you’re going to beat the Ravens, the way to do it is to attack their strengths and prepare to be attacked by their weaknesses. Come to think of it, that’s basically what the Giants were able to do against them. It’s an unconventional approach, but that’s the kind of season it’s been so far. Even when you expect the unexpected, it can still be quite a surprise when you get it.