The Baltimore Ravens‘ up-and-down season continued on Sunday, with a tough 19-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers. It was the type of defeat that will creep up on Ravens fans unexpectedly throughout the week, perhaps in their car or maybe at the water cooler, and have them inexplicably cursing, “Just kick the damn field goal!” or, “Take it into halftime!” as passerbys stare at him or her seemingly inexplicable outburst.
Frustrations and what-ifs aside, the Ravens are at a crossroads in their season. With a 3-3 record, they have a desperate Pittsburgh Steelers team that will fight like hell to turn their season around against their biggest rivals ahead of them in Week 7.
Moving forward, there are several aspects for the Ravens that deserve further examination. First and foremost, is the offensive line. The story that has dominated headlines has been the ineffectiveness of former-Pro Bowl left tackle Bryant McKinnie, the trade for Eugene Monroe and the subsequent replacement of McKinnie by Monroe.
Monroe had an alright day, with the the one sack he allowed at the worst moment serving as the big blemish on his report card. It was the new tackle who allowed a blitzing Nick Perry to get around the edge, strip Joe Flacco and set up the Packers for the last-second points heading into halftime. Granted, it is a position he should not have been put in (more on that later), but it still goes on Monroe’s record.
The aspect of the line that has not been under as much scrutiny is the interior, especially in regard to center Gino Gradkowski. He seems like a great teammate; he’s intelligent and has NFL pedigree (his brother is long-time backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski), but like his brother, perhaps he is just better suited as a backup and locker-room guy.
Against the Packers, the interior line exposed itself not only in the run game, but in the passing attack as well, as inside linebacker A.J. Hawk went up the middle for three sacks. The retirement of center Matt Birk was largely overlooked, due to the departure of more-heralded veterans Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin, but his loss has had more impact on this team than perhaps all the others combined. When you lose your leader on the line, the man who calls out which players have who, the fluidity of a unit is at risk to take a hit, and that is what we have seen thus far, as the line has under-performed from both an individual and unit standards. In the classic chicken-or-the-egg scenario, the question is whether it has been the offensive line that has made the running backs look bad or vice versa? The answer, it seems, may be a little bit of both.
As just discussed, the line has not done Ray Rice or Bernard Pierce any favors; the backs have not done much when they have had opportunities. Rice, in particular, has not looked good in space. The 2.8 yards per carry can be pinned on the line to some degree; the 4.4 yards per catch, almost half his career average, however, cannot. Rice has lacked the explosion in his cuts that he built a career off of, and if his dull play continues, the coaches may start to look more to Pierce, especially for runs between the tackles.
Speaking of the coaches, wunderkind John Harbaugh made some questionable decisions on Sunday that have deservedly received their share of “Monday Morning Quarterback” criticisms. Harbaugh came off as desperate as he passed up a field goal for a failed touchdown attempt, as well as with his refusal to run out the clock before halftime. Those choices led to a six-point swing that was enough to cost Baltimore the game. Harbaugh has more than enough credit to warrant his decisions forgettable within a few days time, but offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell needs to figure out a way to get consistent production from his offense. Flacco has looked like a game manager when they need him to be a star, and the line is in shambles.
If these issues do not get straightened out soon, Baltimore will see a short reign as Super Bowl champs as they watch the playoffs from home in January.