The eight-month wait between seasons for any NFL fan, player or coach is, in simple terms, an agonising one.
While the off-season goals set by those associated with the Jacksonville Jaguars might have been centred around their ability to win a game in this 2013/14 season, the question on the lips of the Super Bowl champions, the Baltimore Ravens, was whether they could do it all again.
This weekend the Ravens overcame the Houston Texans 30-9 in a game that was billed by many at the start of the season to be a potential preview of the AFC championship game, which will take place in the New Year.
Such a comfortable victory against arguably the strongest team in the conference seems to suggest that not much has changed one year on: the Ravens are still the team to beat.
However, Baltimore’s current 2-1 record flatters them, and John Harbaugh’s team have been showing some of the predicted frailties in their defense – most likely as a result of losing key defensive leaders in retired linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, who is now in Houston.
The blowout loss to the Denver Broncos on the opening night of the season raised numerous questions as to the capability of this unit to slow teams down, while Peyton Manning eclipsed even his high standards as he threw for over 450 yards and seven touchdowns – the latter a feat that nobody before him had managed for 44 years.
Open-field tackling was a recurring issue throughout the night for the Ravens, as they allowed the Broncos receivers to gain unnecessary extra yardage after the catch.
Denver tight-end Julius Thomas notably thrived as a result, eluding Baltimore safety Michael Huff on two occasions as the third-year Portland State University product ran up an impressive stat line.
The 49 points the Ravens gave up to Manning and co. was the most they have conceded in their history, and it is no coincidence that this was also the first game Baltimore had played without Lewis and Reed since 2005.
The Ravens did manage to rebound in week two, running out 14-6 winners over the Cleveland Browns, but although the defense appeared to be much improved, it was on the offensive side of the ball that Baltimore struggled to create momentum.
Quarterback Joe Flacco’s veteran offensive line, who gave up four sacks in the season opener, started slowly again as Cleveland’s rookie defensive end Barkevious Mingo sacked the Super Bowl MVP winning signal caller on the Ravens’ first drive of the game.
Baltimore recovered in part from a sluggish start, but their inability to pull away from a Browns team that are tipped to finish bottom of the competitive AFC North division was striking.
The dearth of talented offensive weapons in Cleveland perhaps also detracts slightly from the positive performance of the Ravens defense.
Despite allowing only two field goals throughout four quarters, Baltimore were contending with a relatively unthreatening quarterback in Brandon Weeden, who had thrown three interceptions in his week one performance against the Miami Dolphins.
The 49 points the Ravens gave up to Manning and co. was the most they have conceded in their history, and it is no coincidence that this was also the first game Baltimore had played without Lewis and Reed since 2005
Such was the attritional nature of this low-scoring affair, Weeden was compelled to try and spark the contest into life by repeatedly forcing his receivers to attempt extravagant dives in order to reach his wayward passes.
The loss of running back Ray Rice to a hip flexor strain early in the fourth quarter summed up the Ravens’ offense that day. The usually durable back went down without contact on his thirteenth and final carry of the game, leaving the Ravens without one of their key weapons.
With this injury to their star player, it would have seemed improbable that Baltimore would come out the following week and beat Ed Reed and the Texans in such a convincing manner. Having fixed their defensive frailties in the win over Cleveland, at least in the short term, the Ravens offense finally clicked in order for the team to run up 30 points against a stout Houston defensive squad.
It was once again the defense and special teams that came to the Ravens’ rescue however, as a lethargic first-half performance saw them trailing the Texans 6-3 in a match that displayed several parallels to the encounter against Cleveland the week before.
With just under three minutes to go in the first half, veteran linebacker Daryl Smith intercepted Matt Schaub and took the ball to the end zone, while kick returner Tanden Doss followed suit, returning a punt 82 yards for a touchdown barely a minute later, to put the Ravens up 17-6.
Smith, who was signed in the off-season from Jacksonville to attempt the unenviable task of replacing Ray Lewis, could not have made his mark in a more timely fashion: not only because of the closeness of the match, but also to lay down his own marker before Lewis was inducted into the Ravens’ ring of honour at half-time.
The only noticeable offensive threat from Baltimore was from wide receiver Torrey Smith, who hauled in a perfect pass from Joe Flacco to advance the Ravens 50 yards down the field early in the third quarter. The only offensive touchdown of the game came from running back Bernard Pierce, who, filling in for the injured Ray Rice, scored from one yard out to extend the Ravens’ already unassailable lead.
Pierce, who had issues with fumbling the ball in the pre-season, made little else of his opportunity to run the football exclusively, averaging less than three yards per carry throughout the game. His performance was underwhelming for a player considered to be one of the best back-up running backs in the league, and his struggles underline the need for the Baltimore offense to keep up with the playmaking abilities of the teams’ defense.
There are several elite teams in the National Football League performing at the highest level, reaping the rewards of a solid pre-season and setting a high tempo from the outset. The harsh reality is that the Ravens are not one of them
Despite what seemed to have been a convincing win on paper, Harbaugh will not be impressed with his team’s overall efforts in their opening three games of the season. It would appear that the traditionally strong Ravens defense has been performing admirably to compensate for the current dearth of offensive impetus; even when the offense did find some momentum against Denver, their efforts were too little, too late.
Unfortunately for Baltimore, the fixture list for the next few weeks is daunting, and does little to suggest that they can afford to under-perform in key areas again. This applies particularly to the game at home to the Green Bay Packers, who have scored over 28 points in each of their three contests this season.
If the offense is as stagnant as it was against Houston and Cleveland, the Ravens could quickly fall behind rivals Cincinnati in their bid to win the AFC North division.
Wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who was injured in the season opener, is on record talking up the Ravens’ chances of a second Super Bowl in as many seasons. If that dream is to become a reality, one can’t help but feel that this Baltimore squad must improve rapidly to guarantee themselves a playoff berth.
There are several elite teams in the National Football League performing at the highest level, reaping the rewards of a solid pre-season and setting a high tempo from the outset. The harsh reality is that the Ravens are not one of them. The eight-month honeymoon period is over.