Make-or-break stretch

Ravens Insider

October 07, 2008|By MIKE PRESTON | MIKE PRESTON,mike.preston@baltsun.com

It's only four games into the 2008 season, and the Ravens are at the crossroads.

They are an average team on the brink of becoming good or on the verge of possibly collapsing. We'll know more in the coming weeks when the Ravens play five of six games on the road.

"We have to learn how to take that next step against a good team and win a tight football game at the end," rookie quarterback Joe Flacco said after the team's 13-10 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.

We already know the Ravens can play with any team in the AFC. In the past two weeks, they have outplayed the Pittsburgh Steelers and the unbeaten Titans only to lose in the final minutes of each game.

Overall, the Ravens have played better than anyone expected, especially with two rookies in Flacco and coach John Harbaugh. The Ravens (2-2) are still in the hunt for the AFC North title, but when you lose the way they have the past two games, it can take a lot out of a team.

"We play these games and feel like we leave it all on the field," defensive tackle Justin Bannan said. "We're just not getting it done, and certain things are happening. But no excuses. We've just got to come out and do better."

We'll certainly get more of a glimpse into Harbaugh's coaching style. It's easy to coach when you're winning, because everybody wants to jump onboard. But it's a lot more difficult when the losing starts.

That's when the whining starts and fingers are pointed. That's when players complain about the practices and meetings being too long. Players find injuries instead of wanting to get back onto the field.

A year ago, this team, with a fragile psyche and surly veterans, fell apart when things got tough. All these lessons Harbaugh has been teaching the Ravens about the team concept are about to be tested.

"We are .500, and this isn't going to break us," outside linebacker-defensive end Terrell Suggs said. "We are a very strong team, and we are just going to continue to play football. We got a whole season ahead of us."

After the past two losses, it will be interesting to see whether Harbaugh changes his offensive and defensive styles. The Ravens' approach on offense in the first four games has been understandable and effective.

They have been conservative because of Flacco, and they don't have a deep threat. They wanted to establish a strong work ethic, and there is no better way than playing smash-mouth football.

The strategy worked against Cleveland and Cincinnati in the first two games, but the Browns and Bengals are a combined 1-8. The Ravens had some success running the ball against the Titans on Sunday, but midway through the fourth quarter, Tennessee started crowding the line using run blitzes and daring the Ravens to throw.

The Ravens were content to keep pounding the ball and let their defense try to win the game. The strategy was sound, and the odds were heavily in the Ravens' favor.

But the Titans and quarterback Kerry Collins won out, as Collins directed an 11-play, 80-yard, game-winning drive in the last six minutes. And now after two straight losses, Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron have to be asking themselves: Do they need to be more aggressive against good teams, especially on the road? And when do they turn the rookie loose?

Defensively, the Ravens have too many injuries in the secondary. Again. They just keep shuffling players in and out, and there is no continuity. In the final drive Sunday, the Ravens didn't get any pressure on Collins. So, do they have to constantly blitz to get pressure, or do they just sit back and allow teams to slowly pick them apart?

Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan has done a good job of hiding players such as cornerback Chris McAlister, who is still bothered by his knee injury, and safety Ed Reed (shoulder/neck). But when you're going against a quality coach like Jeff Fisher, he'll eventually zero in on weaknesses such as backup cornerback Frank Walker, and Fisher is going to force those injured secondary players to come up and make tackles by running the ball.

The Ravens have some decisions to make and not enough time to test out theories. Five of their next six games are on the road against the Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, Cleveland, the Houston Texans and New York Giants.

It's not a killer schedule by any stretch of the imagination, but road games reduce your preparation by a day. That also gets a team out of its comfort zone because it changes its daily routine.

Except for a few veterans, the Ravens have bought into Harbaugh. He's like one of them and has no pretense. But in the next couple of weeks, he's going to have to hold this team together whether it wins or loses.

Harbaugh has laid a firm foundation, but this team is at the crossroads, trying to find itself.

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