Remember that much-trumpeted storyline about the Ravens possibly undergoing a fundamental shift and having their offense pick up the slack for their defense in 2012?
Well, in the most important game of the season last Sunday night at Heinz Field, it was the defense that showed up and carried the Ravens to a win as the offense coughed, sputtered and pretty much came to a halt.
No fundamental shift had occurred; for better and worse, the Ravens resembled their old, hard-knocking selves in a 13-10 win.
It's pretty amazing when you think about it. The defense, which has dealt with crippling injuries and a major personnel overhaul, faced intense criticism and watched its stats sag to the lower echelons of the league rankings … it played to type, fiercely defending its pedigree against major odds.
Of the 18 guys who played on that side of the ball against Pittsburgh, 12 entered the league either as undrafted free agents or lower-round draft picks, i.e., selected in the fifth, sixth or seventh rounds. A pedigreed lot they aren't. Seven of the 18 weren't on the Ravens' 53-man roster a year ago, and cornerback Chris Johnson had been in Baltimore for about 72 hours when he found himself on the field covering the Steelers' fleet Mike Wallace.
That illustrates how much the Ravens are scrambling on defense, plugging holes in the dyke. Yet the unit is going in the right direction, palpably improving, almost starting to look like its old self. The Ravens are ranked first in the league in red zone defense and tied for second in turnover ratio. Only eight teams have allowed more points.
But the offense, which has added playmakers and raised expectations in recent years, also played to an all-too-familiar type last Sunday night – a throwback to the Matt Stover Era, when other units provided the heavy lifting. Coming off a 55-point win, the Ravens' offense produced just two field goals and generated just four first downs after halftime.
Unlike the defense, which is scrambling to find contributors, the offense has five Pro Bowlers in the huddle, yet it remains stuck in a frustrating cycle of soaring at home and crashing on the road.
Granted, it was going up against a tough Pittsburgh defense last Sunday night, but if you're going to win the Super Bowl, which is the Ravens' goal, you'd better be able to make some headway against tough defenses. You don't get to play Oakland in the playoffs.
It seems that something always goes awry when the Ravens offense goes on the road. Either the pass protection falters or the receivers can't get separation or the run-pass balance gets out of whack or quarterback Joe Flacco can't throw strikes. Sunday night, the running game got stuffed and Flacco looked rattled, either throwing short of the sticks or way past them on third downs, short-circuiting possessions.
The good news was the unit didn't commit a turnover, which was crucial, but let's not dance around the issue here. The defense appears to be rounding into shape for a playoff run, maybe not at its smash-mouth finest but still rugged and formidable, while the offense remains an inconsistent and enigmatic riddle, very much a work in progress.
After all that talk about a tectonic shift, things are still the same.
Is this offense, as it currently stands, good enough for the Ravens to make a deep playoff run? Perhaps … if the team is playing at M&T Bank Stadium. But a road game could mean trouble. That's a precarious scenario.
"We can get so much better," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said after the Pittsburgh win, and while that ordinarily would sound like bragging from the coach of an 8-2 team, it's just the truth this time. The Ravens have issues on both sides of the ball.
But while they slowly, one by one, seem to be solving those issues on defense, their offensive issues remain glaring as December approaches with its deadline for figuring things out. It's time for the quarterback to step up more, and for the line to block better, and for the playmakers to make more plays, and for the calls to attack the sticks. Did I leave anything out?