2-0 start is a clear con­trast with 2015

‘This year we made the plays’ to win, Har­baugh says

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Jeff Zre­biec

Ravens coach John Har­baugh and his play­ers have dis­tanced them­selves from last sea­son. They aren’t in­ter­ested in an­swer­ing ques­tions about it or dis­cussing the lessons learned from a try­ing year. But as they cel­e­brated Sun­day’s 25-20 come­back vic­tory over the Cleve­land Browns, the con­trast with 12 months ago was un­avoid­able.

When the 2015 Ravens flew home from Oak­land af­ter Week 2 last year, they were 0-2, hav­ing lost two games by a to­tal of 10 points. Top pass rusher Ter­rell Suggs’ sea­son had al­ready ended with a torn Achilles tendon, and start­ing left tackle Eu­gene Mon­roe was deal­ing with a con­cus­sion. The next two games on their sched­ule were tough divi­sional matchups against the Cincin­nati Sun­day, 1 p.m. TV: Ch. 13 Ra­dio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM Line: Ravens by 1

Ben­gals and Pitts­burgh Steel­ers.

When this year’s Ravens landed back in Bal­ti­more late Sun­day night, the team had no un­wanted bag­gage. The Ravens would have liked to play more con­sis­tently against the Buf­falo Bills and the Browns, but they were good enough when it counted, win­ning two games by 11 to­tal points. They’ve achieved the team’s first 2-0 start since 2009, and the next three teams on their sched­ule, start­ing Sun­day on the road against the win­less Jack­sonville Jaguars, are a com­bined 1-5.

“How­ever you want to com­pare it, any way you want, this year we made the plays that won the two games,” Har­baugh said Mon­day. “We feel a lot bet­ter about win­ning the two games, but re­ally, in the end, the task at hand does not change. You have to get ready to play the next game. You have to get bet­ter. You’re not done, and you can’t play the way you played in this [ last] game, whether you won or lost t his game, and have any chance to win next week or four weeks f rom now. Ev­ery­body gets bet­ter as the sea­son goes along. You have to con­tinue to get bet­ter. We have to get bet­ter this week. If we’re not get­ting bet­ter, we’re get­ting worse.”

Ravens play­ers are off Mon­days, but Har­baugh said that 28 of them were in the weight room by 10 a.m., and ev­ery one of those play­ers had al­ready re­viewed tape of the Browns game at least once. Many had met with their po­si­tion coaches as well.

The ar­eas where the Ravens need to im­prove are ob­vi­ous. De­spite an off­sea­son fo­cus on fix­ing their run­ning game, the Ravens are av­er­ag­ing just 81.5 yards per game on the ground through the first two weeks. That ranks 23rd in the NFL, and their 3.0 yards-per-carry av­er­age ranks 29th. Their of­fense has had ex­tended dry spells in each of its first two games.

De­fen­sively, the Ravens were dom­i­nant in the sea­son-open­ing vic­tory against the Bills, but gave up three touch­downs in just more than five min­utes of the first quar­ter against the Browns. The in­con­sis­tency has re­sulted in two un­even, yet ul­ti­mately ef­fec­tive, per­for­mances.

“We’d like to be pretty. Ev­ery­body wants to be pretty, but maybe we’re just not that pretty,” Har­baugh said Mon­day. “We never re­ally have been. That’s re­ally never been our call­ing card. But I don’t re­ally care. We have to get bet­ter. That’s the bot­tom line. It’s not about be­ing pretty or ugly. It’s about just get­ting bet­ter and be­ing ef­fi­cient and ex­e­cut­ing. That’s what we’re chas­ing.”

The Ravens un­der­stand there is some skep­ti­cism about their 2-0 start. The Bills are win­less and have al­ready fired their of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, Greg Ro­man. The Browns started their backup quar­ter­back and have a ros­ter lit­tered with rook­ies, and they ex­pe­ri­enced three more sig­nif­i­cant in­juries dur­ing Sun­day’s game. Awinthis week likely won’t im­press pun­dits ei­ther, given the Jaguars trailed the San Diego Charg­ers 35-0 head­ing into the fourth quar­ter of a 38-14 road loss Sun­day.

But the play­ers be­lieve there is some­thing to be said for the way the team has flipped the script from early last sea­son.

“We fought our way through it, and that’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween us last year and this year,” mid­dle line­backer C.J. Mosley said af­ter his in­ter­cep­tion of Josh McCown helped seal Sun­day’s vic­tory, in which the vis­it­ing Ravens came back from 20 points down. “We couldn’t pull those close games out at the end.”

In last year’s road opener against the even­tual Su­per Bowl cham­pion Den­ver Bron­cos, the win­ning points came on Aqib Talib’s 51-yard in­ter­cep­tion re­turn for a touch­down. Ravens quar­ter­back Joe Flacco drove his team down the field in the wan­ing sec­onds, but he threw an in­ter­cep­tion in the end zone that sealed a 19-13 loss.

A week later against the Oak­land Raiders, the Ravens took a three-point lead on a field goal by Justin Tucker with just over two min­utes to play. But the de­fense al­lowed the Raiders to drive the length of the field and score the go-ahead touch­down with 26 sec­onds re­main­ing. One play be­fore Derek Carr’s game-win­ning touch­down pass to Seth Roberts, Ravens safety Will Hill was thought to have The Ravens’ Mike Wal­lace beats the Browns’ Joe Haden for one of his two touch­down re­cep­tions Sun­day. made the game-se­cur­ing in­ter­cep­tion, but he was flagged for de­fen­sive hold­ing.

“We­have seen progress,” Har­baugh said. “I feel like we’ve im­proved all through the off­sea­son pro­gram, the pre­sea­son, from game to game, prac­tice to prac­tice we’ve got­ten bet­ter. They’ve worked re­ally hard and most im­por­tantly, they’ve found a way to win games. Part of that is not los­ing games ei­ther. We haven’t made mis­takes down the stretch that have cost us. That’s re­ally im­por­tant.”

Asked fol­low­ing Sun­day’s game what the dif­fer­ence has been in the team’s abil­ity to win close games, Ravens wide re­ceiver Steve Smith Sr. said, “We­don’t have 21guys on[in­jured re­serve]. That re­ally helps. It’s a lot of com­po­nents to it. It’s hav­ing the right in­gre­di­ents. You don’t al­ways know how it’s go­ing to turn out, and this year it’s turn­ing out well for us.”

Not only have the Ravens not sus­tained any sig­nif­i­cant in­juries through two games, they should get run­ning back Ken­neth Dixon (knee) and pass rusher Elvis Dumervil (foot) back rel­a­tively soon, and tight end Dar­ren Waller is two games away from re­turn­ing from a sus­pen­sion. The team’s health sit­u­a­tion has only added to the im­proved out­look.

“We’re go­ing to go to work and im­prove the things that we have to im­prove on, learn from the things that don’t go right,” Har­baugh said. “It’s all about get­ting ready for the next chal­lenge.”

“We fought our way through it and that’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween us last year and this year.”

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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