The Baltimore Ravens Remain One Of The NFL’s Most Interesting Questions

The Baltimore Ravens promised to be one of the more interesting teams in the NFL in 2013. After their dramatic Super Bowl run of 2012, the Ravens said goodbye to eighteen players, including the team’s heart and soul, in linebacker Ray Lewis. The captain retired and other key veterans like Ed Reed, Paul Kruger and Anquan Boldin went elsewhere, as the team had to pour significant salary cap dollars into retaining quarterback Joe Flacco, who was going into free agency.

Talent evaluators still felt that the ’13 Ravens would be a better team–Lewis and Reed were clearly at the end of the line, their main value being leadership rather than talent at this stage of their careers. The question was going to be whether talent could trump intangibles.

So far, the answer is no. Baltimore is 5-6 as they get set to host hated AFC North rival Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving night. But there’s enough good going on with this team, and after their sudden turnaround in December of last season, the Ravens remain as interesting a team as there is. Let’s take a look at what they need to do down the stretch.

The team as a whole might miss the leadership of Lewis & Reed, but that’s not being reflected in the defensive performance. The Ravens continue to play solid defense, ranking seventh in the NFL in points allowed. They’re a little susceptible to the big play, but that’s a byproduct of a defensive outlook that forces a lot of incompletions (6th in completion percentage allowed), has a great pass rush and shuts down the run.

Taken in that context, a ranking of 19th in yards allowed per pass is a pretty reasonable price to pay. Baltimore is having success turning outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil loose. If the only way to beat a team is to throw the ball downfield, that’s a difficult thing to pull off in December conditions with a hard pass rush bearing down on you.

It’s the offense that’s been a complete train wreck. The line has been terrible. Marked by instability on the left side, the Ravens can’t protect Flacco, nor can they clear any space for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Without time to throw, Flacco can’t use his accuracy on the deep ball and his receiving threats in Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith.

There’s no statistical category where this offense is anything less than poor. In a purely football sense, Flacco can’t be blamed–when there’s no time to throw and no running game, you can’t get anything done. But Flacco was rather vocal last offseason about maximizing his contract, even if it meant the organization would be hamstrung under the salary cap. If he comes in for some heat now that he’s not carrying the team singlehandedly, he’s asked for it.

But Flacco was inconsistent through much of last season, before turning in a brilliant run in the postseason. The same opportunity is still ahead. Baltimore is one of six teams that are tied for the AFC’s final playoff spot at 5-6. After Thursday night, they’ve got another home game with Minnesota, so getting to 7-6 is very reasonable.

December 16 is when the stretch drive gets tough. Baltimore makes a Monday Night visit to Detroit and they close the season with a road game in AFC North-leading Cincinnati. In between will be a hyped game with New England, the rematch of the last two AFC Championship Games and currently scheduled in the prime-time Sunday night slot.

The Baltimore Ravens remain interesting. I’m sure though, that head coach John Harbaugh would like to replace “interesting” with “unequivocally successful.” The decisive moment for answering all his team’s preseason question marks is rapidly arriving.