Ravens Must Improve In All 3 Phases, Fact and Opinion

The Baltimore Ravens 27-12 loss to the Detroit Lions on Friday night may have come in a preseason game, but there is plenty to be concerned about as the season starts for the purple and black exactly three weeks from today.

The offense, which so many local pundits are "raving" about because the can operate the hurry-up and seem to be in sync, is struggling to score touchdowns. The defense is missing not just Terrell Suggs, but one of the key ingredients that made it such a feared unit during the 2000’s.

Here is one fact and opinion from each side of the ball, as well as a one from special teams from Friday’s contest. Please feel free to leave your comments below and be sure to log onto Blog Talk radio Thursday at 5:00 to catch The Baltimore Ravens Pre-game Show with yours truly.

Fact: The Baltimore Ravens first team offense has yet to score a touchdown against a first team defense. In a little over three and half quarters of work, Joe Flacco is 16-24 for 167-yards and one touchdown this preseason. The fifth year signal caller has looked good at times running the no-huddle offense but the Ravens have faltered in the red zone. Last week against the Falcons, the Ravens did not get a first down until their fourth drive, but Flacco moved the ball in each of the three drives while he was in the game on Friday against a better Lions front seven.  The Ravens have yet to establish any ground game this summer, as backup QB Tyrod Taylor has been the team’s leading rusher in both preseason games.

Opinion: Some of Flacco's best moments last year came in a no-huddle, shotgun attack, even though the statistics do not necessarily support that. According to NFL.com, Flacco completed 32 of 51 passes (62.7 percent) for 302 yards, throwing one touchdown and one interception. However, Flacco's winning drive in Pittsburgh and should-have-been winning drive in the AFC Championship Game were both in the hurry-up offense.  Yes, Flacco looks more in command of the offense, but in a division where points usually come at a premium, it is imperative the fifth year signal caller get six points instead of just three when inside the red zone. The Ravens did not do that on Friday and gave the Lions no reason to fear Ray Rice. The Ravens offense is centered on Rice, and it should be. In the past two seasons, the Ravens are 21-1 when Rice touches the ball 20 or more times in a game. Flacco should be able to run this offense with a blind fold on entering his fifth season with coordinator Cam Cameron. The fact that the Ravens offense is struggling to score touchdowns at this point is more than a passing concern. I know that Flacco’s receivers have let him down with a few drops, but again, No.5 is entering year five and there can be no more excuses. This offense must excel from week one, the defense will not be good enough this season to allow this unit another half of season to get into sync.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="319" caption="Bobby Rainey continues to play well"][/caption]

Side Note: The Jaguars defense will provide a stiff test this Thursday. Many of the same players that limited Flacco and company to just 13 first half yards last year during a Monday night loss in Jacksonville will play most of the game.  The Ravens must be better, much better.

Quotable: “I love the no-huddle,” Flacco told the Baltimore Sun. “We’ve got to get quicker and quicker at it. I like to go up there and run a play, run a play, run a play. That’s what we’re going to be, and I think we have to make sure we get it as fast as we can."  That’s sounds great, but you cannot forget about No.27 and the Ravens did just that on Friday when on third and short, Flacco hurried the Ravens right into a fourth down field goal attempt with an incomplete pass to Jacoby Jones from the shotgun.

Fact: The game began well enough for the Ravens defense on Friday. The Lions highly explosive offense ran 10 plays, earned only two first downs and was forced to punt on their first two possessions. From there, Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson took over. Stafford would complete eight of his next 11 passes and Calvin Johnson would catch three of them for 83 yards and one touchdown. Megatron would finish the night with five catches for 111 yards and Stafford would join Falcons QB Matt Ryan as the second straight QB to easily handle the Ravens defense. Combined, the Ravens first team defense has allowed 14-catches and 266 yards to Roddy White, Julio Jones and Calvin Johnson during the first two-preseason games.  Matt Ryan abused the Ravens secondary, completing nine of 13 passes for 155 yards, and he finished with a quarterback rating of 103. On Friday night, Stafford was 12 of 17 for 184 yards and two touchdowns. He left after about 25 minutes of work with a QB rating of 145.2.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="322" caption="Webb getting dragged by Megatron"][/caption]

Opinion: Since 1999, adjectives such as swarming, physical, and ball hawking have been used to describe the Baltimore Ravens defense. The one thing that made all of these adjectives possible was the fact that the purple and black possessed a ton of speed. How many times can you remember commentators saying that teams cannot run outside on this defense, QB’s cannot extend plays because they cannot get outside the pocket to do so? The Ravens were just too quick to the ball, and speed kills. So does a lack of it when you have had it since Jesus was a baby and now, when you go to the well, it appears to be empty.  The Ravens simply do not look fast enough right now and let just hope it is only right now, and they are working their way into Raven-like defensive speed. Although I must admit, I am not sure how one gets faster under these circumstances. Maybe more fluent and this unit could certainly also do that as well, but not quicker. Terrell Suggs may not have been the fastest guy on the defense in terms of running the 40-yard dash, but his speed off the edge commanded respect from opposing offenses, and usually a double team as well. This left at least one man free, and when there is no one to block you, it really doesn’t matter how fast you are does it?  When the Ravens brought a corner or safety up showing blitz, offenses had to adjust and decide between double teaming Suggs or picking up the Blitzer. This is part of the reason the Ravens tied for second with 48 sacks last season in the NFL. That and defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano’s aggressive scheme. To be fair to the stat, Baltimore recorded 50 percent of their sacks in just 25 percent of their games. They recorded nine against the 49ers, six versus the Cardinals, five against the Rams and four against the Colts. When the Ravens recorded a franchise low 27 takedowns in 2010, much of it had to do with the fact that the secondary was not as good and the Ravens “D” coordinator Greg Mattson was not as aggressive.

Side Note: Yesterday in practice, the worries continued. Covered by Lardarius Webb and eventually getting past Bernard Pollard as well, Curtis Painter connected on a pass with Dorian Graham. It may be just one pass, but Graham is an UFA and Painter is the third string QB. Paul Krueger, Sergio Kindle and Courtney Upshaw looked slow comparatively on Friday night. The rest of the Ravens front seven has yet to generate a substantial push this preseason. Without speed, this defense cannot be as physical or as aggressive as it needs to be in order to succeed and maintain a top five or ten status. Just last season the Ravens defense allowed a league low 11 TD passes, the first team has already surrendered three in three quarters. Last season the Ravens got off the field, thanks in part to a fast and physical pass rush. The Ravens were the second best team in the NFL, holding opponents to a 32 percent third down conversion rate. Through two weeks of the preseason, the Ravens have allowed a 36 percent conversion rate and on Friday, Stafford was almost 50 percent.

This does not mean the Ravens are old, but they sure as hell are not as quick as they need to be right now.  The Ravens secondary looks great on paper but if there is not a pass rush this season, the talent in the secondary will be chasing as they have done during the first two-preseason games. It is not just the pass rush; the secondary has shown some lapses in coverage as well as some questionable technique. Jimmy Smith had good coverage on the TD pass to Calvin Johnson, but he failed to turn his head to locate the ball.

The AFC doesn’t possess the types of receivers the Ravens have faced the last two weeks you say, maybe not, but  Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Pittsburgh’s has Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, as well as Brandon Lloyd (New England) may not agree with that assessment.

Quotable: "We've just got to play," Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, told Mike Preston of the Baltimore Sun. "We had some good drives, but when it's all said and done, we need to make sure we get off the field. I think next week we will get two and a half to three quarters of action. Coach [John Harbaugh] is kind of saving our legs, and that's good. We've just got to continue to grow as a defense."  Grow quickly Mr. Pollard, AJ Green, Jermaine Gresham, and Andy Dalton are just three weeks away.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="415" caption="Asa Jackson and Deonte Thompson"][/caption]


Fact: Justin Tucker and Billy Cundiff are waging the best battle of training camp. Both went 2-for-2 Friday night with Tucker hitting a 50-yard bomb. Yesterday at practice, Cundiff went 4-for-4 and the rookie Tucker missed one of his four attempts. The ball sailed wide left from inside 40 yards. Tucker, as he did when the Ravens practiced at M&T Bank Stadium 12-days ago, upped the ante by moving back even more and drilling the ball down the middle from 54-yards. That was the longest field goal of the day by either kicker. Tucker still leads Cundiff by 12 field goals this summer but who knows how much weight that number carries in deciding their fate.

Opinion: Unless he falls flat on his face, Billy Cundiff will be the kicker for the Ravens this season. John Harbaugh has carried two kickers only once during his tenure as head coach and that was in 2008 when Matt Stover and Steve Hauschka kicked for Baltimore. That is not likely in this scenario. The ultimate test is to see how your kicker responds under pressure. With Tucker essentially outkicking Cundiff thus far in camp, the pressure could not be any greater on Billy Boy. However, Cundiff has responded and has not done anything to lose his job. If indeed it is Tucker kicking for the Ravens on MNF in three weeks, then chances are he was damn near perfect the rest of the way and left Harbaugh with no other choice. That is not a bad position for Harbs to be in right now. Sure would have been nice to have a better and best option last January in New England.

Side Note: Ravens rookies Asa Jackson (punt) and Deonte Thomson (kick-off) each returned kicks for touchdowns only to have them taken off the board because of holding penalties. Thompsons TD came down after a holding call on Sergio Kindle and Jackson’s was nullified by a Nigel Carr hold. Counting those two mistakes, the Ravens special teams have not exactly impressed this postseason and how this continues to happen considering that John Harbaugh was a special team’s guru before joining the Ravens is head scratching. Last week in Atlanta, they have allowed a 45-yard punt return TD, another to be returned inside the 15-yard line, and on Friday had a Sam Koch punt partially blocked.  The Ravens have had a rough two-year stretch when you consider they allowed three kick/punt return Td’s last season after allowing only three during Harbaugh’s first three seasons. Special teams have not been a real positive for the Ravens, but if the defense takes a step back this season, the special teams must play better.

Quotable: "Everything is in the details," Ravens return specialist Jacoby Jones said. "There are good things going on out there, but one little thing can ruin the whole play. All 11 guys have to be on the same page to make this work."

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