Ravens playoff chances once again ride on the defense
An old adage (I don’t know who the author is) goes that “War is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.”
You could say that, to a certain extent, yesterday’s Ravens game followed that formula.
It was 30 minutes of exhilaration as the Ravens took their first comfortable half time lead since the Texans’ game, followed by another 30 minutes of offensive boredom and ineptitude that allowed the Bengals to creep back into striking distance, punctuated by an unbelievable Andy Dalton Hail Mary pass that was batted by two Ravens into the waiting arms of A.J. Green. The response in Section 134 was not terror, of course, but rolled eyes, silence, and a sense of…
You Have Got to be Kidding Me.
After losing a 17 point lead to the Bengals as the former Bungles tied the game at the final whistle, fans were not exactly confident that the Ravens could pull this one out. All the offensive momentum had completely shifted to the Bengals side and, as Cincinnati took the kickoff in overtime, we were expecting the worst. While the defense has been steadily improving all season, it had been bending and sometimes breaking all season at the most inopportune times. This could have been another. It was the defense’s game to lose.
But the defense made a fabulous stand at the Ravens 33 on a fourth and two Bengals screen pass that lost 11 yards and gave the ball to the Ravens. The offense had just enough gas in the tank to move the ball into field goal range. The drive, if you want to call it that, even included a rare Ed Dickson reception for a crucial first down. Seven plays later Mr. Clutch, Justin Tucker, my personal 2013 Ravens MVP, kicked a 46 yard field goal to win the game.
The defense came through, just like it’s going to have to for the rest of the year. There was hope that after that fabulous Super Bowl run in January that the Ravens will be transitioning to a more balanced offense that would take the load over from what was an aging defense. But it’s not what fans have seen.
• The running game is non-existent. The blocking of the offensive line, arguably the worst in the league, is horrendous and Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce have lost their ability to evade tacklers. In fact, they’re sometimes running directly into them.
• Ray’s opportunities as a pass catcher have also evaporated. Opposing defenses have learned that whenever Joe Flacco checks down he’s going to Ray and, more often than not, the ball and the defense meet Rice at the same time.
• Joe Flacco has been somewhat inconsistent for most of his Ravens career, but this year he is maddeningly inconsistent. On Sunday his scrambling and smarts made those two touchdown passes to Dallas Clark and Torrey Smith, but then he fumbles once, throws two picks, one into double coverage (and should have had two more) and flat out missed a couple of receivers.
What that Super Bowl run an outlier? Are we back to the old normal with Joe?
• The wide receiver corps is maturing, just not fast enough to help bail out of the offense. Torrey Smith is reliably double-covered and there is no reliable alternative go-to guy. It’s tight end by committee and Jacoby Jones has disappeared. But wait a minute… I know what you’re thinking.
How is the player many fans feel Joe Flacco misses the most doing in his new digs? Since that opening day monster game against the Packers in which he caught 13 passes for 208 yards and one TD, 49er Anquan Boldin has 28 receptions for 368 yards and one TD. Marlon Brown, the undrafted and unheralded Georgia wideout who is quickly earning his stripes, has 27 receptions for 307 yards and 5 TDs. Brown is developing a knack for fighting for the ball, is 11 years younger than Q and is certainly faster. Could Boldin make the difference? I seriously doubt it.
The defense, on the other hand, is quickly developing into a cohesive, opportunistic unit. Is it the 2001 unit? Of course not, but it’s already statistically better than last year’s Super Bowl winning squad. Yes, there are some lingering communication issues in the secondary and the defense tends to give up yardage when it least needs to. The safeties need to talk to the cornerbacks and the linebackers need to work better in pass protection. That said, I thought the secondary had an outstanding game, notwithstanding the Ihedigbo muff on the H.M.
But fans have a sense that things are coming together on defense and even on the special teams, a sense that is sadly missing on the offensive side of the ball. The defensive stats are all trending upward and, barring injuries to key players, should continue to improve as the season goes on. It looks like the Ravens will have to ride this pony until the offense wakes up. If ever.
It will be this defense that gives the Ravens their best chance for post season play. Fans remember the mantra from the XXXV Super Bowl defense that was used on their offensive counterparts; do enough to keep us in the game but don’t screw it up.
If the Ravens are to make the 2013 playoffs it looks like the defense might be saying and doing the same thing.
Statistics courtesy of the Baltimore Sun and NFL.com.