There's been just about half a season of football since the Ravens won their second Super Bowl and so far this year, rooting for the Black Birds has felt like cheering for the Washington Generals. It hasn't been depressing, per se, it's been more of a metaphysical exercise in pointlessness, like Sisyphus pissing into an oscillating fan set to hurricane. Sure, there are nine games left to play, but it looks like the Ravens will be golfing by New Years Day. The strange thing is, I'm kinda OK with it.
Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, and John Harbaugh have been Ravens for five seasons and in that time they've gone to the playoffs every season and topped it off with last season's improbable Super Bowl win. The way I figure it, we're playing with house money. If this were Vegas, I'd be getting myself one last comp drink and moseying on down to the titty bar. (Sidenote: my spellcheck is familiar with the word "mosey," but draws a blank on "titty.") I mean, there'd still be a chance the dealer'll end up holding the Old Maid (Yes, my favorite table game is Old Maid.), but the odds are pretty good it'll be me. Well, this season, the pleasantly drunk and ready for bedtime gambler is the Ravens and the dealer in the AFC North, even after last night's Keystone Kops loss to the Dolphins, is the Cincinnati Bengals.
Of course, the Ravens can't walk away from the table, and they could make a run to make the playoffs, but it's an uphill battle. They'll likely have to go 7-2 for a shot at a spot with tough games against the Bears, Lions, Patriots, and a pair with the Bengals, who they'll probably need to sweep to pass, still ahead. That's a tall order. If they are gonna make that kind of run, there's a laundry list of things that will have to go right.
The Ravens drastically overhauled their defense after the Super Bowl, and I predicted they'd need six games to come together as a unit. So far Terrell Suggs has been a monster. After last year's injury-plagued season, he's playing some of the best ball of his career and has got to be a favorite for Comeback Player of the Year. Behind him, newly acquired Elvis Dumervil has been nearly as great, and Ray Lewis's replacement, middle linebacker Daryl Smith, has been very good. In the secondary, former first round pick Jimmy Smith is finally beginning to play to his potential and strong safety James Ihedigbo, who I thought would be riding pine by now, has been one of the Ravens' best defenders.
Even with those strong performances, as a unit, they've been all over the place. At times they look like a playoff-caliber unit, at others, more like a matador convention. They're ranked 15th against the run, the pass, and overall. In other words, they've been mediocre, and that wont cut it this year. Going forward, Lardarius Webb will need to return to his pre-ACL injury shutdown corner form. He's been targeted of late and looks to have lost half a step. Worse, at times it seems like his head has been in the wrong place. To take some pressure off of Webb and the rest of the secondary, the front seven will need to generate more sacks. I know that's asking a lot from a squad that is second in the NFL at getting to the QB, but the pass rush has faded late in games, and they've paid for it. More importantly, though, will be stopping the run. One player who will need to have a standout second half on both fronts is Haloti Ngata. Ngata looks to be on the decline and is not the force he was early in 2011. He gets pushed off the ball and doesn't seem to be getting low enough. For the Ravens to have a chance at the playoffs, and for Ngata to remain a Raven next year when his salary balloons, he'll need to have a stellar second half.
Of course, it's the offense that has been truly woeful, with wide receiver Torrey Smith being the lone bright spot. A lot of pundits, myself included, wondered if he'd be able to expand his game beyond the deep patterns and become a true number one. The answer has been a resounding yes, but after Smith, there's quite a drop off. Undrafted rookie receiver Marlon Brown has been a gift, and his combination of size (6'4", 205 lbs.), speed, and hands is astounding. If he continues to improve, he could fill Anquan Boldin's shoes. More importantly, though, Jacoby Jones, who was injured for much of the season, will need to have a lights out second half. The Ravens need a second deep threat, especially with Smith having other duties. Jones will have to put up at least 500 yards and a handful of touchdowns if the Ravens are going to win 7. For that to happen, the Ravens will need a credible play-action threat.
Of course for play-action to work Ray Rice, and Bernard Pierce will have to get untracked. Right now, they're running like Forrest Gump with the leg braces on. Hopefully, after the bye, they'll look more like Gump with the braces off. That, however, will require a dramatic improvement from the O-Line. This unit has gotten no push in the running game, giving Rice and Pierce less space than a Japanese Motel 6. If that wasn't bad enough, in pass protection, they've been leakier than a particularly leaky sieve. They've had some nagging injuries and a mid-season personnel change with the trade for left tackle Eugene Monroe, but it's time to face one fact: center Gino Gradkowski can't play. Beyond the problems at center, the unit as a whole has not bought into the teams new zone blocking scheme. Against the Steelers, they returned to their traditional smash-mouth style and it seemed to help, but it may be too little too late.
All of those improvements would be great, but honestly, no team goes 7-2 without a hot hand at QB. Many have criticized Joe Flacco and the Ravens over his huge new contract, I don't. He got the going rate for a top flight NFL passer, which he is, but now it's time for him to take it to eleven. Flacco is on pace for his frist 4,000 yard season, but that won't be enough, he needs to go on a tear like he did in last year's playoffs. If Joe Cool can't get smoking hot, this season is over. Oh, and there's one more thing. If Flacco does catch fire, Harbaugh will have to avoid any more of those early onside kicks. If they can put it together, they've still got a chance. If they do, let me know. I'll be at the titty bar.