Ravens quarterback Joe flacco is sacked by the Browns'… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
It was inevitable. As soon as the Ravens endured a losing streak without Ray Lewis, there was going to be a barrage of questions about leadership.
But after eight games, the most pressing issue for the Ravens is where are the playmakers?
Questions about the offensive line, secondary, quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice are legitimate, but the Ravens (3-5) have lost four games by 14 total points.
Questions are also pouring in about the team's lack of enthusiasm, focus and intensity, but these wouldn't be areas of concern if the Ravens had some playmakers.
Where are they?
"There's a lot of unseen improvement in there when you study the tape," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I've got a lot of optimism; we do as a team. But, we'd sure like to get it going and build some confidence and see our guys starting to make some plays. We believe we can do that. So, we'll just keep working toward that and we'll be looking for a breakout here."
Instead, the Ravens have had only three playmakers this season in Flacco, wide receiver Torrey Smith and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.
If the Ravens had a playmaker in the middle on defense, maybe he could have caused a turnover when the Pittsburgh Steelers were gutting them in the fourth period. If the Ravens had another playmaker on offense, they wouldn't be ranked No. 13 in red zone offense.
When was the last time a Ravens cornerback or safety read or jumped a route and had a pick 6? They had several opportunities Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, but it was the Browns who made plays, not the Ravens.
Rice has disappeared from the offense. Jacoby Jones hasn't provided a kickoff or punt return for a touchdown. Ray Lewis didn't play last week, but had the same amount of tackles as Elvis Dumervil. Shoot, even punter Sam Koch can't deliver anymore in crunch time.
Where are the playmakers?
"It's always frustrating. You've got to win games," Suggs said. "They're on scholarship, too, so to say — the opposing team — and they're making plays. It's just one of those things. You've just got to get after it and do it."
Leadership and play making ability virtually go hand in hand. Lewis always had leadership ability, but he didn't get respect until he started making plays. No one thought Smith was much of a leader when he was dropping balls during his rookie season, but now he has become a face of the organization.
He makes plays.
The leadership stuff is overrated. You make plays, you basically become a leader. There are different scenarios depending on positions, but the picture is pretty clear. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is a leader. San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis is a leader and so is Indianapolis Colts defensive end Robert Mathis and Cincinnati Bengals defensive lineman Geno Atkins.
They make plays.
So if a team needs excitement, return an interception for a touchdown. If it needs passion, come up with the big hit on a goal line stand in the fourth quarter. If it wants a momentum changer, have a long touchdown off a run, pass or return.
The Ravens had these types of guys a year ago.
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta could deliver big plays, especially inside the red zone. You could just split Smith outside, and put either Boldin or Pitta in the slot and either throw the skinny post or a back shoulder fade.
Go fetch. Touchdown.
Boldin is now in San Francisco, and Pitta is still recovering from a hip injury.
On defense, the Ravens had safety Bernard Pollard and inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe to go with Suggs. Ellerbe simply ate up everything on the inside that Lewis could no longer cover, and Pollard hit anything near him.
Pollard didn't make big plays, but delivered big hits. Ask the New England Patriots. Against Cleveland Sunday, young receivers Josh Gordon and Greg Little wouldn't have been coming across the middle and snatching passes. Pollard would have stopped that nonsense by halftime.
But Ellerbe is now in Miami and Pollard in Tennessee. The Ravens have lost their impact players because of salary cap concerns, injuries or internal matters.
The big plays are gone.
The Ravens are in a three way tie for No. 21 as far as giveaways (13) and takeaways (10). Offensively, they are No. 13 as far as red zone efficiency and are averaging only 2.8 yards per carry. Flacco is the No. 29th rated quarterback as far as third down passing rating and Rice is the No. 42 in the NFL as far as rushing.
"It's the National Football League, and most all the games are going to be close," Harbaugh said. "And the difference is winning the close games. When you look at the teams that have the winning records, they've won the close games. There are exceptions. Denver has had a lot of high-scoring games, but most of the teams are winning close games. We've done that in the past. We have to do that again."
The Ravens can focus on a lot of things. They can change schemes, personnel and formations. They can move coaches around and study film 12 hours a day, but the bottom line for any coach is to have his team in position to win in the final seven minutes of any game.
And then somebody has to make a play.
But….where are the playmakers?