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Catching up with … the Ravens

11.03.12 at 2:51 pm ET
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This is the latest edition of a semi-regular feature in which we check in with some of the other elite teams in the AFC. In this post, it’s the Ravens.

The 2012 Ravens season is less of a transition year to a more offensive-minded team than it is a social experiment to see what happens when a team’€™s identity for nearly its entire existence is swept out from under them over the course of a week in a cacophony of ligament and muscle tears.

The offense has improved, and, through the first seven games, has become the unit that the team is now relying on. However, the injuries have had as big an impact on this development as any breakthroughs from receiver Torrey Smith, feature back Ray Rice or quarterback Joe Flacco, who is still working to become a top-tier quarterback in the NFL.

Here’€™s the damage report right now for the Ravens: Inside linebacker Ray Lewis, the defense’€™s emotional leader, is out for the season with a torn triceps; top cornerback Lardarius Webb is out for the year with a torn ACL; defensive end Haloti Ngata, one of the league’€™s top defensive linemen, is hobbled with an MCL injur; outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, missed the first seven games of the season with an off season Achilles injury and is working his way back.

Other teams may have more injuries than the Ravens, but not with such vital players on one side of the ball. However, there’€™s been more going on in Baltimore than additions and subtractions of the injury report. Here’€™s what we know about the Ravens.

1. They do, in fact, have other players

A first glance, the Ravens defense appears to be held together by Ed Reed, duct tape and well-timed Bernard Pollard shots at the opposition’€™s knees. At second glance, Baltimore’s defense down the stretch will consist of a group of decent defenders and role players that lack much of the foundation they were built around.

The most notable replacement on the defense will be fourth-year linebacker Dannell Ellerbe taking over for Lewis at inside linebacker. Pats fans may remember Ellerbe during the Ravens’€™ Week 3 matchup when he could be found out of position in coverage against Brady and the Pats‘€™ interior passing game. While Lewis was by no means a stud in coverage at this stage in his career, the biggest loss will come from the absence of Lewis’€™ on-field presence.

In the secondary, the Ravens will rely on the mediocre Cary Williams and second-year player Jimmy Smith at the corners while Pollard and Reed will hold down the safety positions. Williams was not a premiere option at corner, even at the No. 2 spot, while Smith was solid in a nickelback role and improving. However, either Smith or Williams will be exposed when matched up against the opponent’€™s top receiving threat while their depth at the position will be pressured even further.

Ngata is the foremost presence up front in the Ravens’€™ 3-4 defense, and will likely continue that trend as long as he’€™s on the field. Nose tackles Ma’ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody are going to be mistaken for Vince Wilfork, while Arthur Jones has yet to make the impact that his brother Chandler has made on the Patriots. The fact that Ngata won’t be at 100 percent for sometime might allow opposing offense to take some double teams off of him and allow them to exploit other areas of the Ravens front seven.

After a strong showing in his first game and a bye week to keep improving, Suggs will likely return to peak form soon and continue to terrorize defenses down the stretch, a contribution that will be much-needed for the remainder of the season. A big factor in Suggs’€™ success might just come from rookie Courtney Upshaw, who starts opposite Suggs at outside linebacker and whether or not he can take any attention away from him in the pass rush.

2. This offense runs through Flacco

Ray Rice entered the 2012 season as a virtual consensus Top 3 back in the NFL and the lone standout player on what has been an unremarkable Ravens offense. With his standing in the Ravens, it was expected that Rice would continue to be the workhorse that the Baltimore offense would mold itself around. Yet, eight weeks into the season, this hasn’€™t been the case.

Rice currently ranks 20th in the NFL in carries with 106 and is averaging over three carries per game fewer than last year while rushing for 74.9 yards per game, over 10 yards fewer per game than he gained last season. At the same time, Flacco, the man who many expected to spend the whole year handing the ball to Rice, is posting career highs in yards (262 per game) and attempts (36 per game) as the Ravens offense shifts to one more predicated through the passing game.

While it’€™s shaping up to be Flacco’€™s most prolific season, 2012 has not been his most effective. Flacco’€™s current passer rating of 84.0 is his third highest in five seasons in the NFL while his 59.5 percent completion percentage is his second lowest — worse than his rookie season.

3. Don’€™t be fooled by the name, the defense is struggling

Like their rivals in Pittsburgh, the Ravens’€™ days of having an unquestionably good defense are gone. Over the first four seasons of John Harbaugh‘€™s tenure in Baltimore, the Ravens were third in the league in points allowed — each season. In 2012, they’€™re ranked 17th. In terms or yards, the Ravens defense ranked second, third, 10th and second through Harbaugh’€™s first four seasons. This season, they’€™re 28th and are actually looking up at the Patriots, who are ranked 23rd.

The Lewis, Webb and Ngata injuries are partially to blame for the unit’€™s decline. In the past two games against Houston and Dallas, where the three injuries occurred, the Ravens surrendered 901 yards of total offense. Those performances do skew the numbers. However, when taking into account the 482 yards the defense gave up to the Eagles and 30 points it surrendered to the Patriots, it would appear that all the Ravens have done this season is limit the mediocre offenses of the Bengals, Browns and Chiefs to pedestrian performances while getting blown away by the league’€™s premiere offenses.

Looking ahead

The Ravens are still the favorites in the AFC North — by default. Let’€™s take a look at their competition. The Browns: Terrible. The Bengals: 3-4 with a loss to a terrible Browns team. The Steelers: On the upswing, but still inconsistent with losses to the Raiders and Titans.

Meanwhile, Baltimore has a victory over the Patriots, a controversial one-point loss the Eagles and a blowout loss to the Texans, who, let’€™s be honest here, are perfectly capable of blowing out any football team on the planet right now.

Over the next five weeks, Baltimore plays Cleveland, Oakland, San Diego, Washington and Pittsburgh twice. The Ravens could foreseeably go 5-1 in that stretch (assuming they split with the Steelers) and would be sitting in fine playoff position with 10 wins and four weeks remaining in the weak AFC.

Remaining schedule

Week 9 at Browns (2-6)
Week 10 vs. Raiders (3-4)
Week 11 at Steelers (4-3)
Week 12 at Chargers (3-4)
Week 13 vs. Steelers (4-3)
Week 14 at Redskins (3-5)
Week 15 vs. Broncos (4-3)
Week 16 vs. Giants (6-2)
Week 17 at Bengals (3-4)

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