The Ravens went into the bye week on the heels of a 30-point loss to the Houston Texans, which amplified some of the concerns that had become evident during the early part of the season.
The coaching staff is using the week to do some self-scouting and hopes to address the concerns of the first seven games, before returning for what Head Coach John Harbaugh called a "must-win game" against Cleveland.
Here's a look at some of the key questions heading into the bye weekend:
Can the offense perform better on the road?There's no doubt that the Ravens have been a different team when they're away from M&T Bank Stadium. Quarterback Joe Flacco has averaged 317.8 passing yards per game at home with a 106.6 quarterback rating, while averaging 186.7 yards with 55.9 rating on the road. The Ravens have scored one touchdown in the last 10 quarters on the road. The offense has been great at home, but they need to improve their success away from Baltimore in order to compete for a playoff spot and division title down the stretch.
Will getting Ray Rice the ball be a priority?Rice is the Ravens' franchise running back, and getting him the ball has to be a priority for the offense. He had only 14 total touches against the Texans, and the Ravens want to do a better job of getting the ball in his hands. Harbaugh said Monday that a goal will be to get the ball to the team's playmakers, and Rice is likely the biggest threat the Ravens have on offense. Rice is second in the NFL with 769 yards from scrimmage, and finding ways to get him the football more often will be key for the offense in the second half of the season.
What's wrong with the defense?The defense has struggled no matter where the Ravens have played. The group currently ranks 26th in average yards allowed, and it has shown to be susceptible both through the air and on the ground. The Ravens aren't getting a good push up front, which has opened up lanes in the running game, and Harbaugh indicated they might look at using young linemen like Bryan Hall or DeAngelo Tyson as different options. The defense is banged up, as defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was clearly hobbled against the Texans, which could be part of the problem. But the Ravens were giving up big yards before he got hurt against Dallas, so getting him healthy isn't the only solution.
Will the O-line continue to change?The offensive line has gone through some changes throughout the season, and Harbaugh said that will likely continueafter the bye. The Ravens may try some young pieces like Jah Reid or Gino Gradkoski at left guard, or they could stick with veteran Bobbie Williams or third-year lineman Ramon Harewood. Veteran left tackle Bryant McKinnie is also an option off the bench, and the Ravens could give him another shot if they wanted Michael Oher to play right tackle and rookie Kelechi Osemele to play left guard. Also, all the above players could see action, as Harbaugh said he might rotate more players in through out the course of the game. Whatever rotation they end up going with, the Ravens need to improve up front, as the line has allowed 18 sacks on the year, tied for fifth-most in the NFL.
How healthy can the Ravens get?Injuries have been a problem for the Ravens, especially on defense. Cornerback Lardarius Webb (torn ACL) is done for the year and linebacker Ray Lewis (torn triceps) is out for at least the foreseeable future. Ngata is dealing with a knee problem, safety Ed Reed has a torn labrum and rib contusion and Terrell Suggs is just one game back from a torn Achilles tendon [add] in the offseason. The Ravens need to get Ngata, Reed and Suggs as healthy as possible, which could provide a big boost to the defense that is in need of some energy.
Will Suggs return to form?He has just one game under his belt, but Suggs showed that he still has the skills that earned him the Defensive Player of the Year award last season. Against the Texans, Suggs had a good burst off the line and still had the speed and power to get pressure on the quarterback. Perhaps most impressive was that Suggs played more than half of the defensive snaps in his first game back, and showed he could build the stamina needed to last the entire game. From this point, Suggs will continue to get in better football shape and should be able to bring some much-needed reinforcements to the pass rush.
Can the Ravens move on without Lewis and Webb?The injuries to Lewis and Webb hit the Ravens hard, and they didn't have much time to adjust. Dannell Ellerbe and Jameel McClain both have plenty of experience and have done well stepping in for Lewis in the past. Webb's injury puts a serious strain on the secondary, as Jimmy Smith has struggled in his second season and Cary Williams has been up-and-down this year. Both Smith and Williams have to play better in the second half of the season to tighten up the secondary.
What nobody can replace is the leadership Lewis brings to the meeting rooms, practice field and sideline. The Ravens have good veteran leadership with Reed, Ngata and Suggs, but Lewis is a different breed and the clear "general" of the locker room.
Bonus question for down the road … Can Ray Lewis return this season?When the Ravens first learned of the torn triceps diagnosis for Lewis, the thought was that he would definitely miss the rest of the season. But after talking with him and further evaluating the recovery time, the Ravens decided to leave open possibility for him to return by placing him on injured reserve – designated to return. He will have to miss at least six weeks, but he could potentially be back by the end of the season or the playoffs. Lewis had surgery last week, so it's far too soon to tell whether he could make a recovery this season, but the simple possibility for a return gives the Ravens an extra incentive while Lewis is gone. If anyone could make the return, it's Ray Lewis, and the Ravens want to put themselves in good position if that happens.