Crumbling AFC North gives Ravens new life
Three weeks ago, the prospects for the 2016 Baltimore Ravens appeared all but dead.
They had just dropped a game to the lowly New York Jets — their fourth consecutive loss at that point — pushing the team outside of the AFC playoff picture. To further complicate the matter, the consistently poor play from the offense forced head coach John Harbaugh to relieve coordinator Marc Trestman of his duties. While such a maneuver propelled the Ravens to a Super Bowl in 2012, such a move generally signals desperation and more disappointment to come. And with a showdown looming against the powerhouse Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore’s demise seemed a fait accompli.
Yet as the NFL proves year after year, even some of the most remote of scenarios can come to pass. In the time since that assumed point of reckoning, the Ravens have upset the Steelers, taken care of business against the Cleveland Browns, and dragged themselves back to the top of the division.
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Part of the Ravens return to the top of the AFC North standings relates directly to the sudden regression of the Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, the two teams to represent the division in the playoffs last year. The Steelers suffered during the multi-game absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and haven’t quite reclaimed their early season dominance since his return. Without a high-flying offense to cover up a mightily flawed defense and a nasty stretch of the schedule making matters worse, Pittsburgh hasn’t managed to win a game in six weeks.
Meanwhile in Cincinnati, the Bengals have offensive issues of their own. While Andy Dalton and A.J. Green still form one of the NFL’s elite QB-receiver duos, their offensive line and ground game have betrayed them. Andrew Whitworth, once a stalwart blindside protector, has performed like a player who held on a year too long. At the same time, injuries have ravaged the unit’s interior, with both dealt with nagging issues that have zapped them of their usual blocking acumen.
But slumping divisional rivals doesn’t account for the entirely of the Ravens’ rebound. Their run defense, a source of frustration earlier in the season, has come alive in recent weeks. Anchored by mountainous nose tackle Brandon Williams, the Baltimore defensive front has established itself as one of the premier groups in the league. Opponents have largely abandoned running in the A and B gaps in recent weeks due to the sheer futility of the endeavor. That has allowed the team to keep opponents from grinding down the clock in close games.
Yet their pass defense has impressed in its own right. No team has better defended the shot play — passes traveling 20 or more yards through the air — than Baltimore. The combination of Eric Weddle’s veteran presence and the impact of newcomer Tavon Young have reinvigorated the secondary while Terrell Suggs and Timmy Jernigan have provided a similar wisdom-and-young dichotomy for the pass rush. Even with holes in the linebacking corps and overall depth, the unit ranks sixth in pass defense by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric and second overall behind only the Philadelphia Eagles.
At the same time, the Ravens still carry many concerns as they head into the final stretch of 2016. The offense has not found new life after the coordinator change, and Joe Flacco finds himself on pace for the fewest touchdowns and lowest yards per pass attempt of his career. Worse, the struggling offensive line has endured absences from starters Alex Lewis and Jeremy Zuttah as well as its rock, Marshal Yanda. Even once they return to health, a turnaround for the offense doesn’t seem likely this year.
And the Ravens’ schedule doesn’t let up anytime soon. The team plays mostly on the road the rest of the way, facing off against the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots over the next four weeks and concluding with trips to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to close out the year. Those games along could doom Baltimore to another losing season.
Still, even with those challenges, the Ravens remain in pole position entering Week 11, a concept near unfathomable just a few weeks ago. Any team that controls its own destiny this late in the season has a reasonable shot at postseason football.
Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. He has bylines at SB Nation, Sports on Earth, and other outlets. He also serves as the senior writer and editor for Acme Packing Company, a Green Bay Packers blog.