First-Quarter Ravens Report Card: Mostly Good So Far
POTENT OFFENSE, BETTER SPECIAL TEAMS PACING EFFORT
By Joe Platania
Here's how we feel the 2012 Ravens graded out during the season's first four games:
QUARTERBACK: This year, Joe Flacco has more targets, but the same rocket-like arm he has always had. He's also been given more of a chance to use it, with more designed rollouts evident so far. The piecemeal offensive line has also done a better-than-average job of giving him time. Flacco, on pace for a career-best 28 touchdown passes, has directed seven drives of 85 yards or more and seven drives that have lasted 10 or more plays. Not only that, he has only two fumbles despite nine sacks and a league-best 24 passes of 20 or more yards. The team is also 8-for-12 scoring touchdowns in the red zone, making the Ravens' offense the unit that has been mostly responsible for the team's 3-1 record. Flacco boasted during the offseason that he is the league's best quarterback, and he is certainly playing like it for the first time during his career.
RUNNING BACKS: Ray Rice is on pace to gain 1,268 rushing yards, a figure that would be slightly less than last year's total. But he simply hasn't gotten the touches he's used to, because of the team's increased options at receiver. He still leads the Ravens with 22 receptions and he is still as electric and elusive as he has ever been. Rice is also not afraid to pick up a blitz, and he's surprisingly good at it, despite his size. After being invisible early on, Bernard Pierce is making one-cut slashing runs, which are the kind of weapon that could make Ricky Williams a forgotten man in these parts. Fullback Vonta Leach is the same old hole-opening steamroller, and he's caught eight passes as well.
RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: Although dropped passes have never been a huge problem for this team, as they are in Cleveland, it's even more of a non-issue now. Among receivers, Anquan Boldin has been charged with the only one in 156 Flacco throws (Leach has the only other drop). Boldin has shown, especially against Cleveland, that he is still a reliable target; he is also averaging 13 yards per catch, a high figure for a possession receiver. Jacoby Jones has been the viable option he was supposed to be, averaging nearly 19 per grab, and Torrey Smith's 20.8-yard average and three touchdowns have put him firmly among the league's best deep threats during his second year, although he could do a better job adjusting underneath some long balls. Dennis Pitta has surpassed Ed Dickson as far as production goes, but both have contributed.
OFFENSIVE LINE: On the whole, a reconfigured unit that, after a long offseason of speculation, surprisingly broke out Ramon Harewood at left guard, has played better than expected. But a few nagging pre-snap and holding penalties have popped up the last two weeks, enough to send Michael Oher into a rage (against the regular officials, at that). Even Marshal Yanda was flagged three times during a game, which was previously unthinkable. But there's a reason Flacco is among the league leaders in passing yardage: he has had time to throw. The line has allowed nine sacks, but they were mostly coverage sacks.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Haloti Ngata has regained the power and strength he was lacking during the second half of last season. He has owned the middle of the field against the run, and his two sacks are second on the team. But opponents are averaging 94 rushing yards per game against the Ravens and have already scored six rushing touchdowns while averaging 31 minutes, 12 seconds in possession time per game. Ma'ake Kemoeatu took Terrence Cody's starting job at nose tackle, but he has not been spectacular, and ends Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee aren't winning enough at the point of attack. Plus, there are two defensive linemen (Bryan Hall, DeAngelo Tyson) on the inactive list each week. Maybe they should get a chance.
LINEBACKERS: With Terrell Suggs absent and Jarret Johnson gone, it's been a case of next men up. The plural usage of the word is important here: on pass plays, it's Dannell Ellerbe (team-leading 2.5 sacks) wreaking havoc inside and Paul Kruger outside; on runs, it's Albert McClellan outside and Jameel McClain in the interior. Top draft pick Courtney Upshaw has shown steady signs of improvement as well, and the featherweight fighter known as Ray Lewis is now an every-down terror again. Edge-setting against the run wasn't good during the first game, but has gotten better since. So has the pass rush, but it's not yet as consistent as it could be.
SECONDARY: Last year, the Ravens' defensive backs led the league by allowing the fewest touchdown passes with 11. They are currently on a pace for a full-season yield of eight. But this unit is bending a lot more than it did last year, even though it's not breaking; it has allowed 18 passes of 20 or more yards, almost as many as the offense has produced. Encouraging signs include free safety Ed Reed's renewed aggressiveness on tackles and the continued aggressiveness of partner Bernard Pollard. At corner, Jimmy Smith hasn't been on the field as much as expected, but Lardarius Webb has been his shutdown self and Cary Williams, despite his lack of physicality, can occasionally come up with a big play.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The coverage units were both ranked in the league's bottom third last year; now, both are in the top 10. Punter Sam Koch is gross-averaging what would be a career high (46.8) and rookie kicker Justin Tucker has missed only once in nine kicks, while leading the league with 16 touchbacks. The aggressive Sean Considine and the savvy Corey Graham are doing what they were signed to do, and punt-coverage gunners Graham and Chykie Brown have done well so far. Despite frequent mentions that Jacoby Jones would get both return jobs, Deonte Thompson has been steady with kicks (26-yard average), and Jones has been handling the punts solidly so far.
COACHING: When Ravens wide receivers coach Jim Hostler was the San Francisco offensive coordinator, he came in for a lot of criticism from fans and media. He then came to guide a position unit in Baltimore that had been mostly barren ... until now. His unit has done a stellar job, as have those mentored by linebackers coaches Don Martindale (inside) and Ted Monachino (outside). Jerry Rosburg's special teams are miles ahead of where they were last year as well. John Harbaugh took Marshal Yanda's embrace-the grind mantra and ran with it. The first quarter was indeed a grind -- four games during 17 days, which no team has had to go through since 1936 -- but that's how Harbaugh likes it.
OVERALL: If there's one real concern so far, it's that the Ravens have been flagged for 37 penalties during four games, putting them on pace for 148. That's not likely to happen, but pre-snap flags that force second- and third-and-long situations could derail a promising offensive start. The run defense has been better during the last couple of weeks, but opponents keep getting chunk plays against it. Third-down play, on both sides of the ball, could be better as well, and the pass rush isn't where it needs to be. But this team knows how to dictate tempo and make plays in all phases when needed. It has also taken care of the ball (only one lost fumble, +4 ratio). Despite Terrell Suggs' absence and some inconsistent play from a few young players, the Ravens -- a healthy team so far -- continue to reside among the league's best.
Posted Oct. 1, 2012