The Ravens hold out hope that they're one game away from a breakout that could turn momentum.
Part of that is centered around their defensive success.
Despite the team's 3-5 record, Baltimore's defense is dramatically better than it was last year at this time. The proof is in the statistics:
|2012||2013||6 Weeks Ago|
|3rd Down Defense||18th||4th||23rd|
|First Downs Allowed||20th||3rd||28th|
|Red Zone Defense||3rd||2nd||20th|
"It's funny, we talked about this last year at this time; after eight games we were 6-2 and statistically terrible. And now we are in the Top 10 in about every category, but we're 3-5," Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees said with a chuckle.
"I'd rather take the 6-2 and be crappy. But not really, I'd like to be 6-2 and good in stats – both."
Now the challenge is taking the next step.
When asked whether the Ravens can be a dominant defense in the second half, defensive tackle Art Jones said, "I honestly do."
The Ravens need to improve in three key categories: finishing games, turnovers and limiting big plays.
The first reared its head in each of the past three losses. The Ravens let the Green Bay Packers march down the field and run out the clock in a 19-17 loss, they let the Steelers drive to kick a game-winning field goal in a 19-16 loss and then allowed the Browns to also milk the clock in a 24-18 defeat.
The Ravens have been relatively solid on third downs (ranked No. 18), but in each of those final drives, they couldn't get off the field in the clutch. It essentially boils down to performing better in the final two minutes, Pees said.
"It's always frustrating," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "You've got to win games."
Another area the Ravens need to improve in is turnovers.
Baltimore ranks 25th in the NFL in team takeaways (10). The Ravens have recovered six fumbles, including one on special teams, and intercepted just four passes. Two of the interceptions are from inside linebacker Daryl Smith and cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Corey Graham have the others.
On Monday, Head Coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens "need to do better with that – absolutely."
"We need to be ball hawks back there," Harbaugh said.
"We said in our room, we're letting our good get in the way of being great," safety James Ihedigbo said. "We're batting away balls, but not picking them off. We have to take that extra step and increase the aggressive nature. Guys are going to do that across the board. We're going to play way more aggressive."
Pees said part of the reason the Ravens aren't getting interceptions is they're not making plays on the ball, but also because they play a lot of man coverage to try to help get more sacks. Zone coverage leads to more interceptions because players can jump routes and are in better position to get their hands on tips and wild throws.
The final area that needs improvement is in not giving up big plays.
Baltimore's defense limited the Browns' biggest threats last week, holding wide receiver Josh Gordon to just three catches for 44 yards and tight end Jordan Cameron to one snag for four yards.
But Greg Little caught seven passes for 122 yards and Davone Bess scored a pair of touchdowns, in part because of missed tackles that led to bigger gains.
The Ravens will have a number of weapons to contend with against Cincinnati. Quarterback Andy Dalton is having his best season yet, wide receiver A.J. Green is a Pro Bowler and rookie running back Giovani Bernard has brought a big-play element to their backfield. "If you want to be a great defense, that can't happen," Ihedigbo said. "You have to eliminate big plays across the board. That's what we want to be on defense and where we want to go as a team. For us to be great as a team, we have to be great on defense."