It’s too early to say what 3-0 start means

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE - Mike.pre­ston@balt­sun.com twit­ter.com/MikePre­stonSun

Ravens beat lowly Jack­sonville, which should have fired coach Gus Bradley on Mon­day af­ter the team’s dis­mal per­for­mance.

Col­lec­tively, those three teams have a record of 1-8. So what does that make the Ravens? Un­de­feated. That’s it. If you want to call them one of the NFL’s best right now, go ahead. Make their day. As for me, I still see a slightly-be­low-av­er­age team that hasn’t found an of­fen­sive iden­tity or played a good op­po­nent yet.

That’s good enough for now, in a league filled with sorry teams such as Cleve­land, Mi­ami, Chicago, San Fran­cisco, Jack­sonville, In­di­anapo­lis, Detroit and Ten­nessee.

If it weren’t for fan­tasy foot­ball leagues, a lot of fans might lose in­ter­est in the NFL.

But with three wins to open the sea­son — along with an un­beaten pre­sea­son — the Ravens are gain­ing con­fi­dence.

That’s good for the nu­cleus of young play­ers on de­fense such as line­men Bran­don Wil­liams, Michael Pierce and Timmy Jerni­gan, lineback­ers C.J. Mosley, Zachary Orr and Za’Dar­ius Smith and cor­ner­back Tavon Young.

Imag­ine if the Ravens had started los­ing early this sea­son? In­side, there might have been some doubt, and these young play­ers might have started think­ing, “Uh-oh, here we go again.”

In­stead, win­ning has been like a shot of adren­a­line. You can see it in the de­fense as it gets bet­ter ev­ery week. But all that rah-rah mo­men­tum stuff will only take a team so far.

Even­tu­ally, the Ravens are go­ing to have to play at a higher level against qual­ity teams. Vet­er­ans Ter­rell Suggs, Eric Wed­dle and Joe Flacco know that.

They know if they con­tinue to play the way they have in the first three games, they might not make the play­offs, and even if they do, they won’t go far. Flacco, who doesn’t shy away from the truth, said as much Sun­day af­ter the Ravens barely got by the Jaguars.

“You’re not go­ing to be able to get away with this when you’re play­ing re­ally, re­ally good teams in Jan­uary,” Flacco said af­ter the 19-17 win.

Coach John Har­baugh knows that, too. That’s why he keeps press­ing his of­fen­sive staff to find a run­ning game, be­cause it is hard to win in this league with­out one un­less you’re play­ing the league’s worst ev­ery week.

The Ravens can’t count on Flacco to throw 40 times a game. They tried that last year in the 10 games Flacco played and were 3-7. Flacco is a win­ner, but too er­ratic at times to carry an of­fense.

The prob­lem is the Ravens don’t have an ob­vi­ous an­swer to cure the run­ning game. Start­ing run­ning back Justin Forsett no longer beats de­fend­ers one on one. Backup Ter­rance West shakes as if he is au­di­tion­ing for “Danc­ing with the Stars.” Rookie Ken­neth Dixon, in­jured so far, has tal­ent, but he is no Ja­mal Lewis in his first sea­son.

The of­fen­sive line hasn’t been able to get much move­ment at the line of scrim­mage, and even right guard Mar­shal Yanda has strug­gled this sea­son by his stan­dards. The most con­sis­tent line­man has been right tackle Rick Wag­ner. The Ravens have ad­e­quate skill-po­si­tion play­ers, but there is con­cern about the health of tight end Den­nis Pitta and wide re­ceiver Steve Smith Sr. Then there is sec­ond-year re­ceiver Bre­shad Per­ri­man. Ravens of­fen­sive line­men Ron­nie Stan­ley, right, and Ryan Jensen block for quar­ter­back Joe Flacco dur­ing the fi­nal drive of Sun­day’s 19-17 vic­tory over the Jaguars.

Com­ing out of col­lege there were scout­ing re­ports crit­i­ciz­ing him for drop­ping passes, and that was ev­i­dent Sun­day when he failed to hold on to two easy ones.

De­fen­sively, there is only one con­cern, and that’s the play of the sec­ondary. That group still scares me, but there is more con­fi­dence with Wed­dle at safety.

Around town Mon­day, there was glee and sar­casm about the Ravens’ record. Some of the op­ti­mists were com­par­ing this present de­fense to the record-set­ting group in 2000, and com­par­ing place­kicker Justin Tucker to Matt Stover.

Ap­par­ently, some­one had spiked their pur­ple Kool-Aid. The 2016 guys are still ba­bies com­pared to the Su­per Bowl de­fense, which had long­time vet­er­ans Tony Si­ra­gusa and Rob Bur­nett on the de­fen­sive line, one of the top trios of lineback­ers ever to play the game in Jamie Sharper, Ray Lewis and Peter Boul­ware, and two solid cor­ner­backs in Chris McAlis­ter and Duane Starks.

Also, that team had Ja­mal Lewis at run­ning back, who dished out as much pun­ish­ment as Ray Lewis did on the other side of the ball.

To win a ti­tle the way the Ravens did in 2000 was an aber­ra­tion, and might never be done again. These Ravens have their own strengths and weak­nesses and, if they can find a niche and de­velop an iden­tity on of­fense, they might be able to do some­thing.

At least for now, they have an un­beaten record and time on their side.

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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