Ravens in good position at quarter mark, but still room to improve

Team leads AFC North with 3-1 record despite defensive struggles, problems with penalties

September 28, 2012|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

Right guard Marshal Yanda moved to the middle of the huddle early in training camp and broke practice by delivering a message that served as the Ravens' rallying cry during a brutal season-opening, four-game stretch.

Yanda, who doesn't say a whole lot but is one of the most respected players in the locker room because of his toughness and team-first attitude, borrowed a phrase from fellow Iowa native and famed collegiate and Olympic wrestler and coach Dan Gable.

"Embrace the grind," Yanda said, producing loud howls from his teammates.

The saying, which was eventually put on T-shirts, was mentioned again Friday by coach John Harbaugh less than 24 hours after the Ravens hit the quarter mark of the regular season with a 23-16 victory over the Cleveland Browns at M&T Bank Stadium.

The victory, which was in doubt until Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden sailed a pass out of the end zone as time expired, gave the Ravens a 3-1 record, first place in the AFC North and a full nine days between games. After playing four games in 18 days, including three at night, the Ravens next face the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 7.

"I'm really proud of our coaches and our players for what they accomplished in the last 18 days," Harbaugh said. "To me, what we did in training camp and what we've done through the first four weeks of the season, it was a grind. It was three prime-time games … which are high-intensity games. You have to bounce back, you don't get much rest. You had to bounce back in short weeks twice. Our guys deserve a lot of credit for it."

In matching their same four-game start from the previous three seasons, the Ravens have mixed significant improvements with some concerning flaws.

Their best all-around game was probably the season-opening 44-13 rout of the Cincinnati Bengals in which quarterback Joe Flacco threw for 299 yards and two touchdowns. In the next week, they lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, 24-23, as Flacco had a poor second half, the Ravens went away from Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice in several third- or fourth-and-short situations, and the defense allowed Michael Vick and company to drive the length of the field for a late game-winning score.

The 31-30 victory over the defending AFC champion New England Patriots featured a stirring comeback, an emotional performance from second-year wide receiver Torrey Smith and a game-winning field goal by rookie kicker Justin Tucker, but the Ravens' defense was dissected by Tom Brady for 396 total yards.

On Thursday, the Ravens continued to do some good things on offense and much-maligned cornerback Cary Williams made the game's biggest play with a 63-yard interception return for a touchdown. However, the Ravens allowed Weeden to throw for 320 yards and committed 11 penalties for 100 yards, making the game a lot closer than it needed to be.

"We weren't perfect by any stretch," Harbaugh said. "There are plenty of blemishes that we need to work on in all three phases, lots of stuff that our guys, our players and our coaches would be the first to say that we need to go to school on, which we will. But they're up for a well-deserved rest right now, and we'll start building on Monday."

Harbaugh had his players report to the team facility Friday to go over game film, attend meetings and get treatment. For a team that has played three one-score games in a 12-day span, the Ravens are remarkably healthy. Harbaugh said Flacco and Smith are both dealing with ankle sprains and safety Ed Reed has some hamstring soreness, but all three are expected to be ready for the Chiefs.

Knowing what was ahead of his team, Harbaugh modified practices and meetings. He acknowledged that his staff had more conversations with players in the first four weeks than it normally would to best gauge where the team was mentally and physically. He also credited the team's training and strength and conditioning staffs for staying on top of the players.

"I don't know if it's ever been done, but if there were any men for the job, it was probably us," said Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis. "But coach, I think did a good job. The entire [18] days of really how to practice, really coming to us and asking us how much we needed and how much we needed to take off. There was probably more film room than physical [preparation]. But for us to come out the way we did, any time you come out of the first quarter 4-0 or 3-1, that's huge. Now, we get a 10-day break to get away from it."

The Ravens understand some of the issues they've had through the season's first four weeks will still be there when they return. Those issues are mostly confined to the defense, which entered Thursday night's game ranked 27th in the NFL, allowing 419.3 yards per game.

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