For the last few NFL seasons, the Baltimore Ravens have groomed quarterback Joe Flacco to be a dominating force under center. The team has never really had an adequate quarterback since their Super Bowl days under Trent Dilfer. Dilfer himself was never in the class of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, or Drew Brees anyhow.
When the team traded up to the 18th slot in the 2008 draft, the team put a lot of faith in Flacco, as they selected him from Delaware to be their quarterback of the future. In his first two years in the league, Flacco has been steadily improving, culminating with what is considered his best season in 2009. Last year, he threw for 3,613 yards with 21 touchdowns against 12 interceptions for a passer rating of 88.9.
Coming into the 2010 offseason, the Ravens were looking to expand Flacco’s prevalence in the passing game as they searched for that true #1 wide receiver. Derrick Mason has admirably filled that role for Flacco in his first two years, but he never had an explosive quality to him in his waning days in the league. On March 5, the Ravens found their explosive wide receiver in Anquan Boldin. Boldin was acquired from Arizona along with a 2010 fifth round pick for Baltimore’s 2010 third and fourth round picks. Following the trade, Boldin signed a three-year, $25 million deal that will be tacked onto his existing 2010 contract worth $3 million. With Boldin in tow, the team was expecting to expand their passing game to go along with an explosive running game led by Ray Rice and their perennial stonewalling defense led by Ray Lewis.
With the bye week upon the Ravens, it is important to look back at their season thus far and look ahead and their remaining schedule. Sitting at 5-2 on the season, the Ravens have positioned themselves to be one of the favorites in the playoffs going into the second half of the season.
SEASON IN REVIEW
The team opened up in Prime Time on Monday Night against the much-hyped New York Jets. The Ravens struggled initially on offense, as their first two possessions results in fumbles by Joe Flacco and Willis McGahee. The Jets took advantage of the turnovers and ineffectiveness from the Ravens offense to lead 6-0 near the end of the first half. With 11 seconds remaining, however, Willis McGahee punched it in from three yards out to give the Ravens the 7-6 lead going into the break. In the second half, the Ravens extended their lead early with a 25-yard field goal from Billy Cundiff on their second possession of the quarter. The Jets pulled within one point with another Folk field goal, but ultimately fell short as a late position ended with a defensive stop by the Ravens.
Week Two – Cincinnati 15, Baltimore 10
The Ravens traveled to division rival Cincinnati for week two and looked to shake off the rust that was on display against the Jets. The Ravens, however, failed to impress as their offense never got in sync against the Bengals secondary. The Ravens were shut out in the first half as Joe Flacco failed to ignite the offense as the Ravens began with two three-and-outs and an interception by Pacman Jones on the first possession of the second quarter. The Ravens would go into halftime down 6-0. After the half, the Ravens seemed to put together their best drive of the day, culminating with a 31-yard touchdown to Derrick Mason for a 7-6 lead. Unfortunately, Flacco reverted back to his poor performance, throwing three more picks on the day that led to a 15-10 loss to the Bengals.
Week Three – Baltimore 24, Cleveland 17
The Ravens finally came home to play another division rival in Cleveland looking to recover from a shaky start to the season. In this game, wide receiver Anquan Boldin would finally show his prowess as a top receiver, ending the day with eight receptions for 142 yards and three touchdowns. The Browns actually scored first on a field goal from Phil Dawson before Boldin found the end zone twice to make it 14-3. The Browns closed the gap to end the first half on a 1-yard run from Peyton Hillis to make it 14-10 going to the break. The scoring resumed in the fourth quarter when the Browns actually went on top following a 1 yard pass to tight end Benjamin Watson from Seneca Wallace to give Cleveland the lead, 17-14. The Ravens responded with Boldin’s third TD reception from 27-yards out and a Billy Cundiff 49-yard field goal to make it 24-17.
Week Four – Baltimore 17, Pittsburgh 14
In what was billed as the biggest match-up of the weekend, the Ravens came out on top in Pittsburgh with a late touchdown. The Steelers took the initial lead in the first quarter when Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall ran the ball in from the one for a score. The Ravens came back with 10 points in the second quarter on a Willis McGahee nine-yard run and a 33-yard field goal from Billy Cundiff. Mendenhall would give the lead back to Pittsburgh with a seven-yard run into the end zone, 14-10. With just 32 seconds on the clock, however, Joe Flacco found wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the back of the end zone from 18 yards out to give the Ravens the lead and ultimately the victory, 17-14.
Week Five – Baltimore 31, Denver 17
The Ravens running game took over for the afternoon to lead Baltimore to a victory, 31-17, over Denver in week five. Ray Rice had 133 yards on 27 carries and two one-yard touchdowns, while Willis McGahee added 67 yards on 10 carries with a 30-yard scamper to the end zone. The passing game was very conservative, as Flacco just mustered 196 yards in the air to seven different receivers on 14-of-25 passing. For Denver, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd continued this career resurgence with 135 yards on five receptions – two of which were in the end zone for six.
Week Six – New England 23, Baltimore 20 (OT)
In another “heavyweight battle”, the Patriots kicked a field goal with 3:23 left in overtime to give New England a victory over Baltimore, 23-20, in week six. The Ravens opened the scoring with a field goal by Cundiff from2 6-yards out. The Patriots answered as newly anointed starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis punched in a touchdown from two yards out. Flacco would find tight end Todd Heap from 16-yards out for a six through the air to give the Ravens the lead going into halftime, 10-7. In the third, Flacco found Boldin from 25-yards out for six to extend the lead to 17-7; Gostkowski pulled the Patriots to within 17-10 to close the scoring for the quarter. In the fourth, the Ravens and made it a ten point game with a 38-yard field goal early in the quarter to make it 20-10. From that point forward, the Patriots would finish out the scoring. Tom Brady found Deion Branch for a 5-yard touchdown and Gostkowski pulled the Patriots even with 1:51 left in regulation. In overtime, the teams traded possessions for a good 12 minutes before Gostkowski ended the game from 35 yards out for the game winning field goal.
The Ravens came into this game with the hope of a slaughter, but it almost turned into a laughable loss at the hands of the winless Buffalo Bills. Baltimore opened the scoring with a 41-yard field goal from Billy Cundiff seven minutes into the game to give the Ravens a short-lived lead, 3-0. The Bills responded with a touchdown pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Lee Evans for 33-yards and Rian Lindell followed shortly after with a field goal to give the Bills the lead, 10-3, at the end of the first quarter. In the second, the teams combined for 31 points in the quarter. The Bills scored twice through the air with Steve Johnson catching a 33-yard pass for a score and Evans following up with his second touchdown reception from 20-yards out. The Ravens scored two touchdowns, both hauled in from Todd Heap (26-yards and 14-yards) with Cundiff adding a 48-yard field goal as the Bills led at the half, 24-20. In the third, the Ravens found the end zone two more times to take the lead 34-24 with a touchdown reception from 34-yards out by Anquan Boldin and a run into the end zone from 2 yards out by Willis McGahee. In the fourth, the Bills came back with another touchdown reception from Lee Evans from 17-yards and a game-tying field as time expired from 50-yards out from Lindell to send the game into overtime. In the extra frame, the Ravens went three and out to start the quarter. On the second down of Buffalo’s possession, tight end Shawn Nelson fumbled a reception and linebacker Ray Lewis quickly pounced on it to give the Ravens the ball. Cundiff kicked the ball through the upright from 38-yards to give the Ravens the victory.
• Quarterback – Through the first seven games, Joe Flacco has had his roller coaster moments in what was supposed to be a breakthrough season. At best, Flacco has been adequate behind center as he adjusts to either new players or old teammates with new roles. Ultimately, he ends up with good numbers overall, having passed for 1,651 yards with 10 touchdowns against 6 interceptions. He has completed 140 of 236 pass attempts, good for a 59.3 completion percentage. His passer rating sits at 20th in the league at 84.2.
• Running Backs – Ray Rice has dealt with some lingering injuries in the early going and should use this bye week to heal completely and come back strong in the second half. Rice suffered a knee injury against Cleveland that limited him to just eight carries and 20 yards against Pittsburgh. He came back from limited action in week four to dominate the Denver Broncos for 133 yards and two touchdowns. On the season, he has carried the ball 131 times for 523 yards and two touchdowns. Rice also remains a receiving threat from the backfield, with 24 receptions for 139 yards. Veteran backup Willis McGahee has continued to be a small threat to Rice’s touchdown numbers, carrying the ball 51 times for 207 yards and four touchdowns.
• Wide Receivers – The Ravens receiving corps is led by newcomer Anquan Boldin, who has lived up to his big-play repertoire. In seven games, Boldin has 38 receptions for 518 yards and five touchdowns, which work out to seven catches and 74 yards a game. He has had a couple of 100+ receiving days, with 110 yards in week one against the Jets and 142 yards in week three against the Browns (with three of his five touchdowns). Veteran Derrick Mason is next in line with 26 receptions for 357 yards and a touchdown. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, signed late in the preseason, has hauled in just nine catches for 128 yards; he did however catch the important game winning touchdown against Pittsburgh in week four. Tight end Todd Heap has been a favorite target for Flacco recently, hauling in touchdowns in his past two games. On the season, Heap has 24 receptions for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Rookie tight ends Ed Dickson (4 rec, 87 yards) and Dennis Pitta (1 rec, 1 yard) have had minimal impact despite their draft hype.
• Ravens Passing Defense – The defense against the pass ranks 8th thus far, giving up 204.6 yards per game and eight touchdowns through the air with five interceptions. Ed Reed leads the team with two interceptions, both of which happened in his first game of the season against Buffalo in week six. Defensive backs Chris Carr and Ken Hamlin and linebacker Ray Lewis each have one interception a piece.
• Ravens Rushing Defense – The run defense, perennially a force that dominates the opposition, ranks in the middle thus far at 17th, giving up and average of 109.3 yards per game and four touchdowns on the ground. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata leads the team with four sacks, with Terrell Suggs next with three and a half sacks and Ray Lewis with two sacks.
• November – vs. Miami (11/7), @ Atlanta (11/11), vs. Carolina (11/21), vs. Tampa Bay (11/28)
The Ravens play Miami to open up November at home and follow with three straight against NFC South opponents. The team will look to tackle a difficult run defense against the Dolphins, who rank 12th in the league with 100.8 yards on the ground. Flacco and Boldin should be able to take advantage of the mediocre secondary in Miami. Against the NFC South, the Ravens will face Atlanta in the Georgia Dome on Veterans Day. The Falcons could be a handful for the Ravens, as Atlanta is making a surprise run in the NFC. After Atlanta, the Ravens return home to face the lowly Carolina Panthers. The Panthers have had injuries hit their backfield with DeAngelo Williams out.
Also, the Panthers have seemingly missed the consistency (albeit consistently bad) presence of Jake Delhomme under center as they have swapped Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen on a week-to-week basis. The team finishes up November against Tampa Bay at home. The Buccaneers do not have a resemblance of a running game because of the lack of explosiveness from Carnell Williams and the ineffectiveness of backups Kareem Huggins and LaGarrett Blount. The Bucs do have a surprise in quarterback Josh Freeman, who has an adequate passer rating of 82.8. Month prediction: 3-1 (loss to Atlanta).
• December/January – vs. Pittsburgh (12/5), @ Houston (12/14), vs. New Orleans (12/19), @ Cleveland (12/26), vs. Cincinnati (1/2)
After a seemingly “easy” November, the Ravens play the grit of their schedule as they finish out with three divisional games, the dangerous Houston Texans, and the defending champion Saints. The team opens up December at home against the Steelers. The Steelers will be different this time, as Ben Roethlisberger has reclaimed his starting role (as expected) now that he has returned from suspension since week five. The Steelers and Roethlisberger should be back in sync by this game and present a challenge to the Ravens. They should come out angry as well due to their last-second loss to Baltimore in Pittsburgh.
After the Steelers, the Ravens travel to Houston for a Monday night game against the Texans. The Texans are a dangerous team that features the explosive combination of Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson and a new weapon on the ground in Arian Foster. On the short week, the Ravens travel back home to face the Saints. New Orleans is a shell of its former Super Bowl self, as they have dealt with injuries to running back Pierre Thomas and surprising ineffective quarterback play from the usually accurate Drew Brees. The Ravens, however, should not sleep on the Saints.
The Browns are next on the schedule as the Ravens travel to Cleveland. The Ravens should be more prepared for Peyton Hillis in round two, as Hillis has become the focal point of the Browns’ running game. Quarterback Colt McCoy has been efficient at best in two weeks, but if healthy, expect either Seneca Wallace or Jake Delhomme under center for this rematch. The Ravens finish up at home against Cincinnati and will look to avenge their loss. Flacco also has something to prove in the effort to make his four interception performance against the Bengals in week two a distant memory. Month Prediction: 3-2 (losses to Pittsburgh, New Orleans).
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