Monday, November 16, 2009

Too Legit to Quit: Baltimore Ravens Midseason Report

For lack of better phrasing, this is awkward.

Clearly, the Ravens were not expected to be sitting in third place in the AFC North at 4-4 heading into Week 9.  The offense has been unexpectedly good; the defense, unexpectedly bad.  At times it seems that fate has conspired against John Harbaugh's team: Mark Clayton's hands were just a little slippery in New England; Steve Hauschka got a bit nervous in Minnesota; the officials may have been overzealous with their flags in the first Bengals game, although that wasn't necessarily the determining factor in the outcome of the game.  There have been moments where second-year players Joe Flacco and Ray Rice have looked spectacular, and others where they have disappeared or been flat out bad.  These are uncharted waters for a team that is used to relying on its defense to preserve games.  The offense is ranked in the top ten in the NFL in points per game and yards per game, but the normally top five defense has been less than impenetrable, falling all the way down to 19th in pass defense and 13th in average yards allowed.  Still, as much as Baltimoreans everywhere wanted to shoot their television sets during last Sunday's game in Cincinnati, there is reason to believe that things can turn around.  I was a skeptic like many others.  But having tried to analyze what happened to a supposedly good team in the last few games, I've found evidence that, although improvement is needed, this team can still make the playoffs.  Save that cyanide for at least two more weeks - there's football yet to be played.  I'll start with an issue that may be the most obvious, but still needs to be analyzed.

Staying Grounded
In every win so far, the Ravens have compiled more than 100 yards rushing and held their opponents under that mark.  The only instance in which those statistics did not lead to a win was the Week 4 matchup against the Patriots, and it's not a reach to say that the Ravens could have (and probably should have) won that game.  Whatever happens in the upcoming weeks, it is absolutely imperative that the Ravens get the ball to each of their three running backs, even if that means only handing off to McGahee and McClain a handful of times.  Ray Rice has been the workhorse of the three, but it's important that he stays fresh so he can still be effective later in the season.  Rice has carried more than 15 times only twice this season, in wins against Kansas City and Denver. However, be careful not to misconstrue this as him being the focus of the offense correlating to Baltimore wins, as the Ravens are only 2-3 when he gets 20 touches or more. 

Balance is important, and it's Cam Cameron's job to find and maintain that equilibrium in sharing carries and mixing runs with passes, but running comes first. In the last few weeks, it's been difficult for Cameron to maintain the pounding ground attack that Baltimore thrives on because the Ravens have fallen behind early and have been forced to pass in order to get back in the game.  In every loss, quarterback Joe Flacco has attempted more than 30 passes.  In the brilliant season he had last year, Flacco averaged just over 26 attempts per game, and although he has played well for a second-year player, he's still young and given enough chances, he will make mistakes.  As dumb as it may sound, Cameron has to control Flacco's opportunities...rein him in, so to speak.  Those extra opportunities are the ones that get him in trouble - he's not yet good enough to carry the team by himself, and if he tries to force things and hope for the best (a la Brett Favre, on occasion), he will get in trouble.

I know that stats should not define an offensive gameplan, and I'm not qualified enough to assess Cam Cameron's tendencies as an offensive coordinator, but when it's not clear whether he should call a run or a pass (e.g. 2nd and 5, or something to that effect), it's not a bad idea to keep the ball on the ground. It's safer, and it seems to be more effective.  Of the remaining teams on the Ravens' schedule, only two have run defenses ranked higher than 15th: Pittsburgh (1st) and Green Bay (4th).  Those games will be difficult, but previous contests against the Vikings and Bengals have shown that Baltimore can at least be competitive against highly ranked run defenses.

On the other side of the ball, the Ravens have to take care of business against opposing running backs.  They sorely missed the presence of hole-clogger Haloti Ngata, who did not play in last week's loss to Cincinnati because of an ankle injury; consequently, the Bengals rolled up more than 140 yards on the ground en route to a win.  Ngata's mammoth size (6'4", 345 lbs) allows the Ravens to play with only three down linemen, which creates more blitz opportunities for the linebackers.  Without the big fella, Baltimore tends to use a four-man front, which has not been as effective in controlling the line of scrimmage.  Ngata is questionable for tonight's game against the Browns, but regardless of whether or not he plays, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison must find a way to keep Cleveland running back Jamal Lewis contained.  Regardless of what happens against Cleveland, Ngata's playing time needs to be monitored and, if necessary, limited in the coming weeks in order to minimize the risk of exacerbating his injury; it may be risky for the Ravens to keep Ngata on the sidelines on third and short situations, but unless the play occurs at a crucial momentum turning point during the game, it's better to hold him back.  I'm not an expert on the Ravens' defensive scheme, but in a situation where Ngata is not on the field, it would seem logical for Mattison to use five or six players to control the line, depending on the situation.  The Packers are the only team left on the Ravens' calendar who are ranked in the top half of the NFL in rushing, which bodes well for the defense.  They have a bigger (although related) problem to worry about.

Pressuring the Quarterback
The injury to Ngata and the lack of youth on the defensive line has prevented the Ravens from getting much pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season.  The defense has just 17 sacks so far, which is half the number accumulated to date by the league-leading Vikings.  In each of their wins, the Ravens have sacked the opposing quarterback at least twice, but that won't necessarily be enough to keep them in future games.  In games against teams who pass at least 30 times per game, the Ravens are 1-1 (lost to the Vikings, beat the Chargers), and four of their remaining opponents rank among the top twelve in the NFL in passing offense (Pittsburgh, Chicago, Green Bay, and Indianapolis). 

Whatever it takes to rattle the opposing passer, the Ravens have got to find a way to do it.  Clearly, the secondary is not as capable as those of years past, but playing more inept defenders in coverage is not going to help the situation.  This is where the D-line becomes vital to the survival of the team: if they can't rush the opposing quarterback's decision-making process, the Ravens secondary will look worse than a tomato going through a Cuisinart. Again, I can't say I have a bottomless knowledge of the intricacies of the Ravens defense, but given the personnel on the depth chart, it appears that the speedier linebackers and defensive backs would be the likely blitzers while the older D-line would serve to clog up the trenches.  The stats support this idea to an extent (Jarret Johnson and Terrell Suggs are among the top three sack leaders on the team), but Chris Carr is the only defensive back who has registered a sack this season.  Tonight's game against the Browns would be an ideal situation in which Mattison could test out a few blitzes that utilize the secondary, since Cleveland's offense is very weak (next to last in the NFL).  Dawan Landry has been a ghost this season, so why not use him and Carr to try and make an impact in some way other than defending the pass?

2nd Half Prospective
I've covered the two points that I think are most important.  Ravens fans are buzzing right now about Steve Hauschka's lack of execution, but I'm honestly not worried about him.  Harbaugh's a special teams coach, and he had faith enough in Hauschka to release the Ravens' all-time scoring leader before this season began.  The field goal against the Bengals was not as game-changing as people are making it out to be, and I think most of them will admit that.  The kicking will come around, and a game against the Browns should give Hauschka a good chance to get some confidence back with a few simple extra points.  Assuming he recovers from his recent woes, the plan for the rest of the season is plain, although not simple.  The Ravens need to go at least 6-2 in the second half, and that means running the table on non-conference opponents.  Basically, Baltimore needs to steal a win from Indianapolis or win one of their two meetings against Pittsburgh, neither of which will be easy.  But the Ravens got themselves into this mess, and it's time for them to mop it up, starting with Cleveland tonight.

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