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The Baltimore Ravens head into their bye week sitting comfortably atop the AFC North and with an enviable 5-2 record. It is therefore surprising that the fervent Baltimore faithful, who usually cannot wait for the bye week to be over, are actually enjoying this brief break from football.
Season ending injuries to defensive star Lardarius Webb and emotional leader Ray Lewis, coupled with a heavy defeat to AFC rivals the Houston Texans in their last match, means that the bye week could not have come at a better time for the banged up Ravens.
The week off will allow the likes of Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed, both of whom have been carrying minor injuries, a much needed chance to recover. It will also give Dannell Ellerbe and Jimmy Smith, the most suitable candidates to replace Lewis and Webb as starters, the time to acclimate to their new found roles.
The trademark Baltimore defense has been poor against both the pass and the run this season, something which was exposed dramatically in their 43-13 defeat by the Texans. A non-existent pass rush has been highlighted as perhaps the most decisive factor in the Ravens’ defenses fall from grace, but a seemingly miraculous return from a torn ACL injury for Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs will have Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees hopeful of an upturn in Baltimore’s fortunes.
Although Suggs’ return to fitness brings much needed leadership and experience to an ailing Baltimore defense, the offense has already begun the process of taking over. Quarterback Joe Flacco has had moments of brilliance so far this season, whilst receivers Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta have been able to make big plays at critical times.
Running back Ray Rice has also impressed, showing the explosiveness in both the running and the passing game which earned him a new contract in the offseason. Worries that he may not be as effective in the ‘no-huddle’ offense now favored by the Ravens have been dismissed thus far, and many are even calling for Rice to receive more touches within the system.
The biggest problem faced by the Baltimore offense so far this season has been consistency. They have shown that when the ‘no-huddle’ offense is implemented, they can repeatedly march down the field with explosive plays (they lead the NFL in plays of 20 yards plus), but if they start slowly, they then lack the momentum necessary to run their quick offense.
The evolution of the NFL into a truly passing dominated league over recent seasons has necessitated the offensive reinvention currently ongoing in Baltimore, but it is equally important that they do not neglect the running game which has brought them good levels of success over the years. Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron will be eager to incorporate Rice more, especially at the beginnings of drives, as he looks to consistently give his offense momentum, and the bye week offers the perfect opportunity for this.
Failure to develop more consistency on the offensive side of the ball could end Cameron’s career in Baltimore, with former Indianapolis Colts’ Head Coach Jim Caldwell, the Ravens’ quarterbacks coach, a prime candidate for the coordinator position, especially given his knowledge of the no-huddle offense from his time with the Colts.
If the playoffs began today, the Ravens, as just one of the two teams in the AFC to currently have a winning record, would have a home playoff game in the divisional round awaiting them. As such, it is hard to be too critical of the AFC North champions who, despite their poor defense, have been able to find ways to win games even when they haven’t been at their best.
It will be interesting to see how the Ravens emerge from the bye week in their Week 9 match up against divisional rivals the Cleveland Browns. Many experts are already starting to write the Ravens off this season following the losses of Lewis and Webb, but it’s hard to see Baltimore failing to top their division and earn another trip to the playoffs, especially if the new look offense can become more consistent. It may fly in the face of everything we thought we knew about the Ravens since their founding in 1996, but Baltimore is most certainly relying on their offense if they are to genuinely challenge for the Super Bowl in the second half of this season.
Image Courtesy of Baltimore Ravens