Even though the Ravens are coming off a disappointing loss in Indianapolis, they're still situated nicely with a 3-2 record, just a half-game behind first-place Cincinnati in the AFC North.
It's shaping up as a season in which a margin of error does exist, a season of extreme parity in the NFL. Every team already has at least one loss. (Only once before, in 2010, has that happened by Week 5.). Shoot, 25 of the 32 teams already have two losses.
The Ravens are far from alone in having issues, in other words.
But of course, the pack will not remain this bunched as the season unfolds. Some teams will win enough to separate themselves as playoff-bound. Others will lose enough to fall out of contention. As always, an elite class will emerge along with a sad group of bottom feeders. In some cases, they're already easy to distinguish. But for the majority of teams, the season will boil down to who improves the most from here, who continues to get better.
Where do the Ravens fit in that puzzle? Although they have lost a pair of close games, they have more going for them than most teams, it would seem. They're ranked in the top 10 in the league in total offense, and they're No. 3 in scoring defense, allowing just 16 points per game. Both stats bode well for the long haul.
But at the same time, there's plenty of room for improvement, ways they could get better and improve their prospects. Here are some that stand out to me:
- Run the ball more consistently.
Only seven teams are averaging more yards per carry than the Ravens, who are gaining 4.7 yards per attempt. Their running game is impressive. Yet if you add up the numbers from their losses, they threw rather than ran at a 3-to-1 rate in those games. The fact that they fell behind had something to do with it, but they weren't so far behind Sunday in Indianapolis that they had to go all-in for passing plays.
It's worth noting that if you add up the numbers from their three wins, their run-pass ratio is quite different, almost exactly 50 percent. The moral of that story seems clear. When they're balanced on offense, they're likelier to win.
- Stabilize the secondary.
This is where improvement really needs to occur. The Ravens are ranked No. 27 in the league in pass defense. Only four teams are giving up more yards per game in the air. Meanwhile, not one member of the secondary has registered an interception.
How can things improve? The return of cornerback Lardarius Webb on Sunday was certainly a step in the right direction. If he can stay healthy and play his way back into form, he and Jimmy Smith would give the secondary a pair of solid veteran starting corners. That would help.
The unit could also receive a boost when safety Will Hill becomes eligible after Sunday's game in Tampa. The safeties have played well at times, leaked big plays at other times. Hill was a starting-caliber player with the New York Giants. "He's a good player, and I think he can help us," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday.
- Get Torrey Smith going.
This one is obvious. The Ravens' passing game is vastly improved under Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak, ranked No. 12 in the league, but Smith is struggling with just 11 catches in five games even though quarterback Joe Flacco has targeted him 30 times, a healthy figure. He has managed to draw some key pass interference penalties with his speed, but he has been a "chunk play" guy throughout his career, a game-breaker, and the Ravens need him in that role.
- Vary Flacco's targets.
As noted, the passing game is much improved. But almost half of Flacco's throws have targeted either Steve Smith Sr. or a tight end. That's how Kubiak rolls, but Smith seemed to get a lot of attention Sunday, and there are other playmakers in the huddle. For what it's worth, Kamar Aiken has caught every ball thrown his way.
- Pop a kick return … or three. The return game has been a key component of the Ravens' success in recent years, providing difference-making plays that help with field position and momentum. Now, Jacoby Jones is under intense scrutiny for his decision-making, understandably so. But look closely. The Ravens are still ranked in the top ten in the league in yards per kick return and yards per punt return. That tells me the big plays are there for the taking.