A Ravens Second-Half Surge Is Very Possible
It's a pretty glum time to be a Ravens fan right now. The team began the year so promisingly, only to see their early good work negated by a three-game losing streak that has taken the Ravens from being at the top of the AFC North to 4-5.
Though times have been bleak in recent weeks, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell thinks the Ravens could be in store for a bounce back second half.
"The Ravens are the most obvious example of a team whose record doesn't match up with their underlying level of play," Barnwell wrote. "Baltimore is 4-5 with the point differential of a 6-3 team. Much of that comes thanks to a 44-point victory over the Bills in Week 1, but again, history suggests that blowing out bad teams is a good indicator of future success."
Indeed, looking at the Ravens' losses, Barnwell believes there's an alternate universe where they have a couple more wins.
Kicker Justin Tucker missed a late extra point in a one-point loss to the Saints, and also had a kick blocked in regulation in an overtime loss to the Cleveland Browns. Quarterback Joe Flacco also threw an interception inside Cleveland's 5-yard line and wide receiver Michael Crabtree dropped a game-winning touchdown pass. Even this past Sunday against the Steelers, five of the team's eight meaningful drives ended in Pittsburgh territory, but resulted in just one touchdown.
There are no excuses: The Ravens are in this position because they've missed opportunities, made mistakes in key moments, and simply haven't been able to pull out wins in recent weeks.
Barnwell believes that could change after the bye, though. More specifically, he thinks a Ravens resurgence will revolve around the team's passing attack. According to DVOA (a statistic that measures a team's effectiveness in a variety of situations), the Ravens have gone up against the 12th-hardest group of defenses this season. As Barnwell noted, "over their next five contests, though, things get quite easy."
"They face defenses that rank 23rd (Bengals), 27th (Chiefs), 30th (Falcons), 31st (Raiders), and 32nd (Buccaneers) in DVOA," Barnwell wrote. "How Flacco performs in that five-game run against weak defenses could end up drastically shifting the future of this franchise."
Another reason Barnwell thinks the Ravens will improve is the defense starting to create more turnovers.
"After recovering 12 of the 22 fumbles it forced on defense last year, Baltimore has picked up only two of nine so far this season," Barnwell wrote. "It would be unfair to expect the Ravens to force 11 takeaways over their next three games, as the 2017 team did after its own Week 10 bye, but this unit is too talented to come up with fewer than one turnover per game."
While playing better and picking up wins is great, what are the chances it results in a postseason berth for the Ravens?
Most pundits don't think it's likely that the Ravens will win the AFC North after losing to the Steelers. Plus, Pittsburgh beat Carolina last night.
However, the Ravens are still very much in the wild card hunt. Baltimore is trying to catch Cincinnati, which currently holds the final spot in the AFC playoffs. A Cincinnati loss to New Orleans this weekend, followed by a loss to the Ravens the next week would put the two teams on even footing.
Still, the Ravens don't have the greatest playoff chances right now. NFL.com's Cynthia Frelund thinks they have a 51-percent chance of qualifying, while ESPN’s Aaron Schatz gave the Ravens a 25-percent chance.
As Baltimore Beatdown’s Frank Platko put it, "It certainly is an uphill battle, and the Ravens should rightly be considered a longshot to be a playoff team come December."
"However, it's certainly possible," he added.
NFL Network's Charlie Casserly Weighs in on Baltimore's Quarterback Situation
There's been a lot of discussion this week about what the Ravens should do at quarterback. With the team falling below .500 and the offense struggling, some pundits feel the Ravens should start rookie Lamar Jackson.
The Ravens have not given any indication that they are considering benching Flacco for Jackson. Head Coach John Harbaugh did say after the Steelers game that he would "like to see [Jackson] out there more and find ways to get him on the field more."
You can count CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora as a part of the camp that thinks Jackson could start against the Bengals. This isn't shocking considering La Canfora wrote before the second Steelers game that the Ravens should have been sellers at the trade deadline, and focus their energies towards rebuilding.
Former Washington Redskins General Manager and current NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly is a member of the other camp though, saying "Here's how I would handle the situation. As long as we are in the playoff hunt, and Joe Flacco is healthy and playing at a good level, I'm not changing quarterbacks."
Jackson has a lot of potential to become a great quarterback in the NFL. Ebony Bird’s Richard Bradshaw even thinks Jackson could one day run the Ravens offense like Madden-users do on easy mode.
To Casserly though, giving the reigns over to Jackson would signal the Ravens are now only thinking about 2019, and that he wouldn't give the team a better chance to win right now.
"To me, I'm going to go with Flacco until he can't go anymore, or we're out of the playoffs," Casserly said.
One area that Casserly disagrees with the Ravens though is how they've used Jackson. He isn't a fan of having another quarterback regularly come in during games and take snaps, saying "it changes the momentum of the game for the starting quarterback."
Jackson's plays have been a mixed bag this year, but there's no doubt he's helped the rushing attack both when he runs, and because he's a threat to take off whenever he's under center. Still, Barnwell would like to see the Ravens add more variety to his package of plays.
"Even if the Ravens don't plan on turning things over to Lamar Jackson this season, adding a deep shot to his run-heavy package could unlock a sorely needed big play," Barnwell wrote.
Even While on the Practice Squad, Darren Waller is 'One of the NFL's Most Inspiring Comeback Stories'
There's never been any doubt about tight end Darren Waller's ability. At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Waller can be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.
However, staying on the field is something Waller has struggled with during his time with the Ravens. He's been suspended twice, including the entire 2017 season, for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
Waller opened up about those experiences with The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec, and said it all started because he wasn't happy with who he was as a person.
"I gave up hope of me ever being happy in a sense…. I would come [to work], put the mask on and act super happy, but I was living two different lives … it carried over into everything. I didn't care about anything anymore. It just got out of control," Waller said. "I was spending so much time trying to fit an image and trying to portray myself as something that wasn't me. I knew I was uncomfortable with it, but in a way, I felt like, this is what I have to do. It collapsed my spirits as time went along."
During his suspension, Waller spent time at a rehab clinic in Maine, where he not only addressed his drug use, but his happiness as well.
Though few professional football players would want to spend a year outside of the NFL, it really benefited Waller. He has been on Baltimore's practice squad this season and, as Zrebiec put it, "One of the NFL's most inspiring comeback stories this year is happening outside the public eye."
"Happiness isn't really a feeling to me anymore," Waller said. "It's something that you create through what you're doing, through your patterns, through what you do on a daily basis."
Pro Football Focus and The Baltimore Sun Name Michael Pierce as Best Raven Thus Far
Pro Football Focus’ Michael Renner highlighted every team's highest-graded player according to their scoring system, which for the Ravens, was defensive tackle Michael Pierce. Pierce has missed two games this year due to injury but has played effectively when he's been on the field, and has a PFF score of 90.2.
He has 14 tackles this season, and is coming off one of his best performances of the season when he registered three tackles against the Steelers. He also had a fumble recovery against the New Orleans Saints, the Ravens' most recent turnover.
Defensive tackle isn't a position that always produces the gaudiest stats, though. Pierce's value is in his continued ability to be a handful for opposing offensive linemen, which gives space for his teammates to go make plays.
"Even with some injuries this season, Pierce is still on pace for the best season of his short career," Renner wrote. "He's always been one of the most dominant run defenders in the league, but he's seen improvement as a pass-rusher this season. His 71.0 pass-rushing grade would be the best of his career."
Overall, PFF lists Pierce as the NFL's fifth-best interior defensive lineman this season, as well as the sixth-best run stuffer.
Pierce has also caught the eye of The Baltimore Sun’s Jonas Shaffer, who gave him the "Most Impressive Player" award in his Ravens superlatives.
"While Pierce has played over 50 percent of the Ravens' defensive snaps in just one game this season, part of an effort to keep him fresh for November and December, his week-to-week excellence gives him the slight edge over other more involved standouts like cornerback Brandon Carr and [right] guard Marshal Yanda," Shaffer wrote.
Jonas Shaffer's Ravens Superlatives
As mentioned above, Shaffer put together a list of superlatives for the Ravens this season. His awards range from "Surest Sign of the Apocalypse" (Tucker's missed extra point against New Orleans), "Best Rookie" (Mark Andrews) and "Most Surprising Loss" (Week 5 defeat to the Cleveland Browns).
Shaffer handed out a few more superlatives, which are highlighted below:
Shaffer went back to Baltimore's Week 4 victory over the Steelers to find the season's best play thus far. He picked safety Tony Jefferson's strip of Steelers tight end Vance McDonald, which helped the Ravens jump out to an early lead.
"While pulling McDonald down, Jefferson ripped the ball away as if it were a Post-it Note and secured it in the very same right arm," Shaffer wrote. "A review overturned his 31-yard return touchdown, but the Ravens scored four plays later. It was only right."
Shaffer didn't go with my favorite quote, which was safety Eric Weddle talking about how Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is similar to a dinosaur. He did pick a very good one however, going back to just before Week 5's matchup against Cleveland. Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale was asked if the Browns have become tougher to prepare for, and he gave a pretty funny answer.
"Without a doubt," Martindale said. "We've watched so much Cleveland film, I think [General Manager] Ozzie [Newsome] has been in a couple of them."
Second-Most Surprising Loss
Yes, Shaffer named another surprising loss, but this one doesn't involve playing football. Shaffer pointed to Weddle majorly trimming down his signature beard ahead of the second Pittsburgh game. His pick should not be surprising though, considering Shaffer wrote an obituary for the beard after Weddle cut it.
- Much was made of rookie right tackle Orlando Brown Jr.’s takedown of Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt. During his film review of last Sunday's game, Baltimore Beatdown’s Logan Levy noticed that another rookie, tight end Hayden Hurst, also had a WWE-type slam on Watt.