I don't think the world ended at 6:30 pm last night when the game ended. I don't think their playoff hopes are dead, even though they were soundly beaten by the Patriots. But here's what I do think; the same thing that any fan or pundit thinks when they watch this team: this is not an elite team. While the Ravens have been able to compete with the best of the NFL over the last few years, this squad simply can't. They don't run the ball well, they don't defend consistently enough, and they don't move the ball in the passing game well enough. It's a team that's reaching for an identity. With so many returning explosive players, it shouldn't have been this way.
Whether they win or lose Sunday, Harbaugh & Co. have some serious searching to do. This team doesn't have the firepower to win on the road 3 games to get to the Superbowl right now. They don't have the firepower to win on the road against elite competition period. Playing the Bengals may be their best shot at advancing if they make the playoffs, and only because there's a level of familiarity that should aid them in their preparation and execution. I don't want to sound like doom and gloom, but it's the truth and it's been the truth. The Ravens are going to finish at or slightly better than 0.500 against what has been their weakest overall schedule in the last few years. This year was a missed opportunity, and the Patriots game was a microcosm of their year.
They faced one of the worst running defenses in the league and couldn't complete short yardage downs. They defended well for stretches, but let up big plays to begin and end the game. Flacco made poor decisions, throwing deep when he should have checked down, and missing deep throws to open receivers. Receivers couldn't beat coverage. They were heavily penalized. Despite it all, they were within 2 scores with plenty of time left, but couldn't finish. What else can you say.
The writing is on the wall that some players won't be asked to return. Michael Oher and Ed Dickson are two notable names that come to mind, but there are others that have under-performed that should be put on notice as well: Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce, Gino Gradkowski, and Courtney Upshaw. While I don't think they should be traded, their should be open competitions for their spots this offseason. One of the bright spots for the year is the play of Torrey Smith, who has the first 1,000 yard receiving season for the Ravens since Mason, and with a big game on Sunday could break the all-time mark for the franchise. This comes after the Ravens traded their franchise receiver in Anquan Boldin. Jimmy Smith has improved as a corner, and is starting to be able to go one-on-one with top receivers. Ladarius Webb rounded into form after returning from surgery, Suggs has been downright monstrous at times, and Daryl Smith and Elvis Dumervil have been solid on defense. Matt Elam has filled into the starting safety spot nicely, and with a strong offseason could become an explosive weapon next year. The Ravens should have a top 5 defense next year, and will need to make the necessary improvements on offense to compliment it.
Their need starts at improving up front on the offensive line. They don't get enough push up front, and don't hold their blocks. The Ravens play calling needs to improve as well. Similar to the change the Steelers made by going to Haley as their offensive coordinator, they need to work on getting the ball out quickly and moving the chains in the short passing game. As good as Caldwell was at the end of last season, he's been that bad this season. Caldwell should have changed the playbook this year. Let's face it, he had a mandate to add in new plays from Cam Cameron's vanilla system, and he didn't do it. The play calling needs to be unpredictable to keep defenses on their toes. If I can look at the formation and know a run is coming, I'm sure NFL coordinators and players know it too. With a new playbook comes better route running and more crisp play from their receivers and tight ends. Yes, they have players with speed and good hands, but more consistency is needed across the board to move the chains and make catches in the endzone.
The secondary, while solid, has been scorched for big plays due to confusion and lack of communication. Experienced quarterbacks have used bunch formations and misdirection to put the Ravens safeties and corners out of position. The linebackers get left on an island frequently to defend receivers, which is a recipe for disaster against decent quarterbacks with time. They may need a change in the defensive staff since the team doesn't have the experience in Reed and Lewis to put people in position.
The running game needs a face lift badly. Ray Rice's rushing yards have declined the last few years until they are at abysmal levels, and while in past years it was a reflection on the development of their passing attack, it is now more of a sign of lack of explosiveness. The year began with fans wondering if Pierce would overtake Rice for the starting spot, and I haven't seen anything from either player that showed me that either of them want the job. Rice has had one solid game running, and is on pace for one of the worst franchise rushing performances EVER. The offensive line needs to improve, but the Ravens need a back that can get 4-5 yards per carry and push the pile in short yardage. Neither back is breaking tackles. Drafting a back in the first round and putting Rice and Pierce on notice is a must.
And last but not least, Joe Flacco. He's had a career worst in interceptions, but could potentially reach a career high in passing yards. While his passer rating is likely going to be as low as its been since his rookie year, his overall quarterback rating is better than it was last year. If the Ravens have a big game Sunday, he could surpass his regular season numbers from a year ago. The problem is, the expectations have changed. He is a Superbowl winning quarterback with a top contract. He is expected to be able to take control of the offense, move the ball consistently, read defenses, and score touchdowns. He's been able to do that in short bursts to rattle off fourth quarter scoring drives, but what's needed from him is entire games at that level. Working with a quarterbacks coach full time would be of benefit.
Regardless of the outcome Sunday, the Patriots game has been a reality check for the Ravens. The Ravens controlled the game and had breakout performances against the Patriots at home a year ago. This year they were beaten in a game that was never close. This team has under performed for an entire season, and will finish at or slightly above 0.500 against a schedule that they arguably should have won at least 12 games against. A shakeup is needed on the field, and likely on the coaching staff as well. They have the talent to beat the Bengals, but the question is, will the players show up and execute for four quarters?