Ravens man­age to im­press, even in de­feat

Baltimore Sun - - RAVENS INSIDER - Mike Pre­ston mike.pre­ston@balt­sun.com twit­ter.com/MikePre­stonSun

There was more to learn about the Ravens in their first loss of the sea­son Sun­day than in their pre­vi­ous three vic­to­ries.

The Ravens took a step up in class and lost, 28-27, to the Oak­land Raiders, but left a fa­vor­able im­pres­sion. Be­fore the 2016 sea­son is over, they could be a good team — bar­ring ma­jor in­juries.

This is not to say that the Ravens (3-1) are headed to the Su­per Bowl or will even make the play­offs, but they are poised to show ma­jor im­prove­ment from their 5-11 record in 2015. There were ques­tions about this team af­ter open­ing the sea­son with wins against the Buf­falo Bills, Cleve­land Browns and Jack­sonville Jaguars, teams that en­tered Sun­day with a com­bined record of 1-8.

But the Ravens took Oak­land (3-1) to the fi­nal sec­onds, and their de­fense slowed the NFL’s No. 2-ranked of­fense. The Ravens had 412 yards of to­tal of­fense, and they did it with­out two starters on the of­fen­sive line and with quar­ter­back Joe Flacco be­ing smacked around like a pinata.

There were a lot of things to like, but still enough prob­lems that need to be fixed. Good teams don’t com­mit 10 penal­ties for 105 yards or al­low big plays that con­trib­ute to sev­eral touch­downs. If a de­fense wants to be re­ally great, it can’t al­low a six-play, 66-yard drive on its op­po­nent’s last pos­ses­sion of the game.

Play­off-con­tend­ing teams make other teams sweat in the clos­ing min­utes, not vice versa.

“We kept the pres­sure on our­selves too much,” Ravens coach John Har­baugh said. “What we needed to do was put the pres­sure on our op­po­nents more than our­selves.” Quar­ter­back Joe Flacco took a beat­ing Sun­day from the Raiders de­fense, but the Ravens, with­out two starters on the of­fen­sive line, still com­piled 412 yards of of­fense.

They can do that with a few mod­i­fi­ca­tions, one of which took place Sun­day. The Ravens benched start­ing run­ning back Justin Forsett for Terrance West. Good move. Here’s a bet­ter one: Start­ing cor­ner­back Sha­reece Wright has been strug­gling for three straight weeks. Now it’s time to al­low rookie Tavon Young to start.

The Ravens also might want to serve sim­i­lar no­tice to safety Lar­dar­ius Webb. On this team, es­pe­cially in the sec­ondary, few jobs are safe, ex­cept for safety Eric Wed­dle’s and cor­ner­back Jimmy Smith’s.

Har­baugh also might want to sug­gest to of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Marc Trest­man that he loosen his col­lar and go down­field a bit more. Every week, the Ravens come out with a dink-and-dunk pass­ing of­fense, and they don’t open it up un­til it fal­ters. I un­der­stand more teams are play­ing zone against the Ravens, which pro­hibits the long ball, but Trest­man shouldn’t let other teams dic­tate to him.

If the Ravens want to get op­pos­ing de­fenses out of Cover 2, run the foot­ball.

“I think that’s just who we are right now,” Flacco said. “We’ve just got to get jelled up more, so we’re get­ting some more yards af­ter the catch and things like that on some of those short passes.”

The as­sump­tion here is that there will be more in­ter­me­di­ate and deep pass­ing routes in the Ravens of­fense Sun­day against the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins, be­cause by that time, rook­ies Alex Lewis and Ron­nie Stan­ley should be health­ier and back on the left side of the of­fen­sive line.

Can two rook­ies re­ally make that much of a dif­fer­ence? Well, did you watch the game?

The Raiders had just two sacks, but Flacco took one of those Kyle Boller-es­que beat­downs in which Oak­land showed no mercy.

But that’s one of the things that im­pressed me most Sun­day. Of­fen­sively, the Ravens still played well enough to win. There al­ways has been a de­bate in Bal­ti­more about whether Flacco is elite, but that’s ir­rel­e­vant. He’s a win­ner. Re­gard­less of the score, if he’s on the field, the Ravens have a shot at win­ning.

While he couldn’t fin­ish the job Sun­day, there were other pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ments. For the first time since in­jur­ing his Achilles ten­don last sea­son, wide re­ceiver Steve Smith Sr. showed burst and ac­cel­er­a­tion.

I liked the run­ning game as well. The more West touches the ball, the stronger he gets. The Ravens will im­prove even more once rookie Ken­neth Dixon re­turns from a leg in­jury. Cen­ter Jeremy Zut­tah dom­i­nated in the sec­ond half and turned in his best game of the sea­son.

The Ravens fi­nally got full­back Kyle Juszczyk in­volved in the pass­ing game, and that should take some of the pres­sure off Den­nis Pitta in the sec­ond half of the sea­son. Wide re­ceiver Mike Wal­lace con­tin­ues to be a weapon, even though his bone­headed taunt­ing penalty late in the game is un­ac­cept­able for a vet­eran player.

The most im­pres­sive as­pect of the Ravens’ per­for­mance was the play of the de­fense. Take away the turnovers and mis­takes com­mit­ted by the of­fense and spe­cial teams, and the Ravens played well. The front seven is get­ting bet­ter every week, and vet­eran out­side lineback­ers Ter­rell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil look health­ier.

Af­ter the first three weeks, it was hard to get a read on this team. It won, but it played some re­ally bad teams. It’s hard to pre­dict how the Raiders will fin­ish this sea­son, but they have a top quar­ter­back, two good wide re­ceivers and a strong of­fen­sive line.

Af­ter last sea­son, the con­clu­sion was that it would take the Ravens two years to be­come a se­ri­ous con­tender in the AFC again. That feel­ing hasn’t changed, but at least the signs of im­prove­ment are ev­i­dent.

Even in de­feat Sun­day, it was ap­par­ent that they can be a lot bet­ter than they’ve shown in the first quar­ter of the sea­son.


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