At midway point of preseason, it's hard to tell whether Ravens have improved

With two games to go before they start to count, team still has a lot of questions

August 18, 2014|Mike Preston

After nearly five weeks of training camp and two preseason games, it's still hard to predict if the Ravens will improve on last year's 8-8 record.

On paper, they should because of certain additions they've made during the offseason. Those improvements are clearly noticeable on offense, but the defense appears to have taken a step or two backward. As for special teams, that's always a toss up even though the Ravens have traditionally played well in that area.

It's only the preseason, of course, but the recurring question right now is will the Ravens win a lot of games, 42-27, or lose a lot of games, 42-27?

Offensively, they are a better team than they were last season. The Ravens have a better coordinator in Gary Kubiak and a more sophisticated scheme as far as both the passing and running games.

With both guards Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda healthy and an improvement at center in Jeremy Zuttah, the running game has been impressive led by Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.

But there are still questions. The Ravens were dominant in their opening drive against the San Francisco 49ers in the first preseason game, but the 49ers were without six starters.

There was hope that the Ravens would be as physical against the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night. But they weren't against the Cowboys' first-team defense, only the second team and other reserves. Quarterback Joe Flacco had a similar performance throwing the football against Dallas.

The national pundits keep talking about how Flacco has been impressive in training camp, but he really hasn't. He has been the average Joe. He has improved in throwing the long ball, but he's still inaccurate on short to intermediate passes, a major staple of the Ravens' new West Coast offense.

There is one major plus for the Ravens: Unlike previous years when he came to the sidelines after a failed series and declined to talk to coordinators Cam Cameron or Jim Caldwell, Flacco is having conversations with Kubiak.

That's why, despite some inconsistencies at this point, this offense will get better as long as the offensive line stays healthy. Strategically, the Ravens are sound, and they have too many weapons in wide receivers Torrey Smith, Steve Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta.

You don't get that feeling of confidence with the defense. Dean Pees has done a lot in two seasons as coordinator, getting as much as possible out of this unit. But the Ravens are struggling and there are no easy answers.

Well, maybe there is an easy solution for the poor tackling, especially by the safeties.

"We've got to work on some technical things," Ravens rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley said.

The defensive line has been solid against the run, but it can't get a consistent pass rush.

Inside linebackers like Mosley, Arthur Brown, and Daryl Smith are good flowing off stunts by the linemen, but they struggle taking on blocks one on one. Defensive end-outside linebacker Pernell McPhee and outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil got pressure, but that was against Dallas' second team.

It's apparent now that the Ravens are going to have to play a lot of games up front to free up players.

"You don't want to show everything in the preseason," Mosley said. "Some things you aren't going to run, and some things you run to get on film to see how it looks. We're keeping it pretty simple right now."

And then there is the back end of the defense. The secondary played poorly throughout training camp, repeatedly giving up big plays. To make matters worse, the unit has been plagued by injuries.

You might feel better about the team if the injuries didn't keep mounting. The Ravens have lost depth on the defensive line with season-ending leg injuries to Kapron Lewis-Moore and Brent Urban.

Also, it's hard to get a grip on the injuries because coach John Harbaugh makes a lot of them seem minor at the time, but then players like tight end Owen Daniels (fatigue), cornerbacks Asa Jackson (ankle) and Lardarius Webb (back) keep missing extensive time.

It's the game inside the game that all coaches like to play.

Within the next seven to 10 days there will be some movement of players in the NFL, either for those waived or traded. In the position that the Ravens need help the most, cornerback, there doesn't seem to be a lot of options because good cornerbacks are hard to find.

The regular season doesn't open until Sept. 7 when the Ravens host the defending AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals. A season ago, the Ravens were just a few plays away from earning a sixth consecutive trip to the playoffs.

In the past six to seven months, it seemed as though they had made up that ground. But it's hard to tell so far in the preseason. On one side, they have improved. On the other, they have fallen.

It's hard to tell where they are headed.

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