After an embarrassing thrashing by the Houston Texans this past weekend, the Baltimore Ravens enter their bye week mid-way through the season beat-up, bloodied and with plenty to be fixed on both sides of the ball. But it's not all bad. The Ravens are still one of the most talented and complete in the AFC, if not the whole NFL, and are positioning themselves for a fifth consecutive playoff berth and a shot to take home the AFC North title in back-to-back years.
For those of you that prefer your good news first, here it is: the Ravens own a 5-2 record, good enough to be sitting comfortably atop the AFC North with their two biggest divisional threats, the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3) and Cincinnati Bengals (3-4), trailing quite a ways behind the Ravens. On the surface, the Ravens’ lead over these teams seems good enough for now, but if we take a deeper look at these three team's overall records, you can see just how much of a lead the Ravens truly have over the other two threats at a divisional crown.
The Ravens currently have a 2-0 record inside the AFC North thus far and are a solid 4-1 inside the whole of the AFC. Comparatively, the Steelers are 1-0 inside the division but hold an overall 2-3 record inside the AFC. It should also be noted that the Steelers have used up their bye week and are dealing with a rash of injuries on their club much like the Ravens. Cincinnati enters their bye week with a 1-3 record inside the AFC North and an unfortunate overall 2-4 record in AFC play.
Furthermore, there are currently only three AFC teams with an above .500 record: the Houston Texans (6-1), the Ravens (5-2), and the New England Patriots (4-3).
With the good news out of the way, let’s move onto the, well; let’s just say not so good.
As the old adage goes: "all good things must come to an end". Well, is this the beginning of the end of dominant defense in Baltimore? After what seems like a decade of impeccable defensive performances strung together week in and week out, the Ravens through 7 weeks of this season are anything but dominant, particularly against the run where they used to make their mark by shutting down any and every running back they faced.
The Ravens’ defense once went 39 consecutive and 46 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher (separate streaks). To put that into perspective, only 12 teams (including the Ravens) since 1960 have had a streak of 35 games or more of not allowing a 100-yard rusher. This season however, the Ravens are handing out rushing yards like you’ll be handing out candy on Halloween in a couple of weeks.
Through seven weeks, the Ravens’ rushing defense ranks an abysmal 30th overall and is allowing an average of 143 rushing yards per game, a far cry from the stingy defense that the Ravens are used to rolling out each week. Not only is the rushing defense an obvious issue looking at it from our angle every week, opposing teams are seeing the clear weaknesses and exploiting the Ravens’ porous defense as evidenced by the number rushing attempts opponents are throwing the Ravens’ way. So far, teams have executed 250 rushing plays against the Ravens, the most in the NFL with the next closest team being the New York Jets which have had 224 rushing attempts go against their defense.
Now, on paper and on the field as well, it all looks and feels very damning. But, many of the issues causing the Ravens’ current defensive woes are either easily correctable or completely out of the control of the players, the coaches, and the fans. Firstly, the issues that no one can control are injuries; they're just part of the game. Unfortunately, the Ravens have lost two of their best defenders for the remainder of the season in linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb. On top of that, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata has been banged up and has struggled with minor but nagging knee injuries. Those are three premier players at each level of the defense that are either on the sidelines or dealing with an injury that is clearly affecting the level of their play.
While injuries are a definite contributing factor to the Ravens’ defensive struggles, many of the mistakes on the field should be easily fixable. Heading into the bye week, much of the focus for the team should hopefully be on the basics: tackling, maintaining gaps, shedding blockers, and diagnosing an opposing offense's set pre-snap. So many times this season, opposing running backs have been gifted extra yards simply because of missed tackles, and much of the time the Ravens seem content to let a rushing play develop, especially up the middle, instead of attacking downhill in an effort to shut it down. It sometimes feels as though that the Ravens are just conceding a 4-5 yard gain up the middle to whoever they are facing off against.
The Ravens can and should head into their bye week half-way through the season feeling proud about where they stand in the division and in the AFC, but there’s still a lot of football left to be played and the road from here on out won’t be an easy one. With two grudge matches still left with the Steelers, a tough trip out west to face the San Diego Chargers, and a showdown with one of the all-time greats in Peyton Manning, this team needs to buckle up and get back to playing Ravens football.