The Baltimore Ravens are sitting at 4-1 heading into Monday night’s showdown in Jacksonville because of the league’s best defense and an offense that protects the ball (for the most part) and gets enough points to win. Sounds a lot like the 2000 Ravens 2.0, especially after K Billy Cundiff went 5 for 5 on field goals in Sunday’s win over the Houston Texans.
A closer look at this year’s squad, however, shows that the offense can still be potent, but getting G Ben Grubbs back to full health will greatly improve QB Joe Flacco’s ability to stay in the pocket and pick apart secondaries. So, far, the patchwork offensive line has protected Flacco fairly well, but his completion percentage indicates the O-line needs some fortification fast—get Grubbs back in there ASAP.
The backbone of this team—even in a pass-happy, offensive-minded NFL—remains the stalwart defense. The NFL’s third-ranked defense has given up the fewest points and is second in the turnover battle. Second only to the surprising Buffalo Bills, the Ravens boast a +5 turnover ratio. The same big names—the superstars and a surprise or two—are shining through in this category. S Ed Reed has two interceptions and a forced fumble while LB Ray Lewis has forced two fumbles and picked off one. T Haloti Ngata has two forced fumbles. LB Terrell Suggs has an interception and two forced fumbles. Lardarius Webb has one forced fumble and two interceptions.
Webb, who is also second on the team in tackles behind Lewis, returned one of those picks 73 yards for a touchdown. Ngata turned a fumble recovery into a touchdown. LB Jarret Johnson turned a fumble recovery into points.
This group of stars and emerging stars is also making a big difference in a once anemic pass rush. Led by Suggs (4), this group of Reed, Ngata, Suggs, Lewis, Webb and Johnson has combined for 11 sacks (15 overall) in just five games. That doesn’t take into account Pernell McPhee (2) and Cory Redding (1) getting to the quarterback. When an offensive line has to key on the big names, young guys like McPhee, and steady, solid players like Redding tend to get their shots too. Though he hasn’t been credited with any sacks, LB Paul Kruger’s constant pressure has forced QBs into bad passes or other defenders, so his contribution to the pass rush isn’t going unnoticed or unappreciated.
The combination of an improved pass rush is not only forcing fumbles up front, but also enabling defensive backs to grab some low-hanging fruit in the secondary. What appeared to be the biggest weaknesses of this squad—pass rush and secondary—have emerged as strengths. All this has happened with serious injuries in the defensive backfield: CB Domonique Foxworth (went on IR with knee injury), S Haruki Nakamura (knee); S Tom Zbikowski (concussion); CB Chris Carr (hamstring) and CB Jimmy Smith, who has yet to play a down in the regular season.
What that information indicates is the front seven are getting the necessary pressure up front to force quarterbacks into mistakes. Those mistakes are being taken advantage of by an opportunistic defensive backfield and the offense when it comes on the field. If the offense stalls in the red zone, as it did against Houston, Cundiff’s leg gets at least some points. It sounds a lot like the 2000 Ravens 2.0, but this squad could be better.
This week, the vaunted Ravens defense faces a struggling team in the Jaguars (1-5) with a 22-year-old rookie quarterback in Blaine Gabbert and a really beat-up offensive line that could start an undrafted rookie (Cameron Bradfield) at right tackle and another guy with limited NFL experience (Guy Whimper) at left tackle.
Ngata, Suggs, Lewis and Reed are licking their chops for this showdown on Monday Night Football in front of a national television audience. Defensive Coordinator Chuck Pagano will draw up a bunch of unique angles of attack to rattle the rookie QB into mistaking mistake that lead to picks of low-hanging fruit and another Ravens victory.
After all, to be compared with the 2000 Ravens, this squad has to reach the Super Bowl in Indianapolis in February 2012. But, just like that Super Bowl-winning team, this team knows it has to take care of business on the road against teams it should beat. A valuable lesson learned after the Tennessee game in Week 2.
Different league? Yes. Different formula? Perhaps not.
It’s working so far.