John Harbaugh faces his toughest coaching challenge yet

December 16, 2012|Mike Preston

John Harbaugh has gone to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons as head coach, but now is his time for greatness.

The Ravens have lost three straight including a humiliating 34-17 loss to Denver on Sunday, and they are on the verge of one of the greatest collapses in NFL history.

It's Harbaugh time.

If he wants to take that next step and move into the top echelon of coaching with a Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin or a Mike Tomlin, he has to find a way to rally the Ravens.

They are fading fast.

Ray Lewis can't help them and neither can outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. Firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron didn't do any good. Free safety Ed Reed tries, but his head is floating somewhere in outer space.

Harbaugh has to be the one to breathe some life back into this team. The Ravens have no swagger. Their body posture shows a lack of confidence and Flacco appears lost as if he is staring into an abyss.

Somebody has got to lead.

"It tests all of us," said Flacco of the three-game losing streak. "It tests our leadership. It tests our toughness. We believe we have a tight locker room. We believe we're pretty stand up guys, tough guys, guys with character."

The Ravens have gone through three-game slides before but never in December under Harbaugh. Until three weeks ago, the Ravens had a double-digit winning streak at home.

Now they've lost back-to-back games at M&T Bank Stadium.

Harbaugh said all the right things after the game. He didn't point fingers at his owner or new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell when he was asked all those idiotic questions about the play calling.

He gave one those Jesse Jackson speeches about keeping hope alive and of winning the AFC North and possibly going to the Super Bowl. He didn't use injuries as an excuse even though he would have been justified and the Ravens weren't in a panic mode even though the Broncos exposed them as pretenders instead of serious contenders.

But Harbaugh has to do more.

For one, he has to swallow that ego and let veteran tackle Bryant McKinnie out of the dog house. McKinnie needs to be inserted at left tackle and Michael Oher moved to right tackle replacing rookie Kelechi Osemele, who should start at left guard.

Enough is enough. Neither Oher or Osemele can handle speed rushers and at least running around McKinnie is like running around the world.

Next, shorten the routs and Flacco's dropback to give him time to throw. Run more hitches, bubble screens and slants because the offensive line can't pass block.

In other words, see the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's not too late to improve.

"The most important thing to understand is that, and our guys understand this, every goal that we have, starting with our first goal which is to win the AFC North, is in front of us," Harbaugh said. "It's still there and every dream that we have, which is the ultimate dream, is still available."

It will only be a dream if Jah Reid continues to start at left guard. It will only be a dream as long as Oher continues to let pass rushers run around him.

Sometimes change is good. Harbaugh could stick with this offensive line when the Ravens were winning, but they're not anymore. Good coaches adapt and adopt.

On the defensive side, there are few options because of the rash of injuries to starters. The Ravens started a group on defense that included linebackers Josh Bynes, Brendon Ayanbadejo, cornerback Chris Johnson and safety James Ihedigbo.

But good coaches find a way to win. They know how to control hotheads like Anquan Boldin and Bernard Pollard, who repeatedly draw unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. They cut down on those stupid holding and procedure penalties which kill offensive drives and keep opposing ones alive. They know when and when not to throw the red flag and improve their clock management.

In recent years, few coaches have gotten teams to peak in December like Coughlin. Whenever the Steelers have gone on slides and everyone counted them out, a tough guy like Tomlin always found a way to keep them in contention.

A year ago, the Patriots had one of the worst defenses in the NFL, and New England eventually played the Giants in the Super Bowl. In Harbaugh's first four seasons in Baltimore, his job was much easier than now. He could come up with the corny college sayings and new T-shirts.

But now he has to be a master motivator and keep his team from unraveling. Years ago, Reed and Lewis were still playing at high levels and Suggs was about to enter his prime. When the team needed someone to deliver the great "boomalacher" it was always Lewis.

But with Lewis out with injury, his voice doesn't carry the same weight. There is no defensive coordinator with the dynamic personality of a Rex Ryan or Chuck Pagano.

Next up for the Ravens is Coughlin and the Giants. The Ravens have already shown that they are no longer a top echelon team, but there was always hope that on any given Sunday they might be able to pull an upset.

That feeling is no longer there, and neither is the thought of being invincible at home.

Everybody has to step up, especially the coach.

Times like these define those guys.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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