Loss of Lewis, Webb speeds up Ravens' shift toward offense
The forecast for Monday in Baltimore called for falling sky, but the forecast was considerably wrong. The Ravens may have lost a Hall of Fame-bound inside linebacker and their premier cover man to season-ending injuries -- a double whammy no team could absorb without flinching -- but that doesn't mean they lost any chance of ending this season in the big confetti shower scheduled for the New Orleans Superdome next February. Far from it.
The Ravens' reputation for being a defensive-driven team is a perception that's at least a year out of date any way, and if nothing else, the loss of Ray Lewis (torn triceps) and Lardarius Webb (torn ACL) only hastens the full and utter transition to an offensive-first mentality. Monday's news wasn't good, but it wasn't the killer blow that losing a Ray Rice, Joe Flacco or even a Torrey Smith would be for the Ravens' Super Bowl hopes. The offense drives the train now in Baltimore, and it's not stopping, even with the subtraction of the team's top cornerback and its longtime on-field leader in Lewis.
"It is an offensive-driven team now, and they were anyway, by design,'' said former Ravens head coach Brian Billick, now an NFL analyst for FOX and the NFL Network. "Give [head coach] John Harbaugh and [general manager] Ozzie Newsome a great deal of credit for recognizing that, No. 1, offense is the way the league is going, so you have to keep up offensively; and No. 2, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis aren't going to be around forever. That's inevitable.
"With Ray down for the year, that's going to accelerate the transition. Are they still good enough to win it all? Yes, but they're going to do it in a way that the league is doing it now for the most part, and that means they're going to do it with a dynamic quarterback and a great offense, and hope to still have a pretty decent defense.''
On defense in Baltimore, things were not quite as dire as that old Dylan song goes -- "When you ain't got nothin', you got nothing to lose'' -- but the Ravens this season have had more of a bend-but-don't-break approach to stopping offenses. The days when Baltimore could consistently dominate on defense appear long over. The Ravens are 5-1 and in first place by two games in the AFC North, but they rank 26th in yards allowed, 23rd in sacks and have been gashed on run defense the past two weeks, allowing 214 yards to Kansas City and a team-record 227 to Dallas.
Once upon a time in Baltimore, those kind of results would have resulted in a three- or four-win season, and probably a coaching change. But now the Ravens are more Flacco's or Rice's team, and the defense is largely along for the ride.
"The story here has switched,'' said Trent Dilfer, the ex-Ravens quarterback and current ESPN analyst. "We won a Super Bowl [in 2000] not being a very good offense. But we were a critical conversion offense. It was about scoring points on a short field, maintaining possession, getting a couple first downs and punting. We were a situational offense, and we knew it.
"Now the script has completely flipped to where they're driven by the offense and need to be a situational defense. If they can come up with critical stops, play good red-zone defense, hold teams to field goals, they know that offense is going to put up points and they're still going to win. It's just the exact opposite way of winning that they've had in Baltimore for so long. But both ways are good.''
In reality, the loss of Webb's pass coverage skills is a much bigger challenge to overcome than losing Lewis in the middle of the defense. As people in the know in Baltimore will admit, Lewis, 37, has been near invisible this season in terms of run defense, and his impact has been minimal in the coverage portion of his responsibilities. The Ravens are optimistic that valuable reserve Dannell Ellerbe can step into Lewis' starting slot and perhaps even improve their athleticism and playmaking, and that 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith is ready for his close-up at cornerback, in place of the gifted Webb.
The twin losses of Webb and Lewis undoubtedly cut into Baltimore's depth. But the Ravens went to camp this year believing cornerback was their deepest position, and they are encouraged by having gone 4-0 without Lewis in the lineup last season, and that reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs will return from his Achilles' tendon tear at some point in November.
But the best defense these days might be a superior offense, one that can score quickly, consistently answer an opponent's touchdowns and field goals, and dictate the flow and pace of the game -- rather than be dictated to. With the exception of Baltimore's 9-6 win at Kansas City in Week 5, the Ravens offense has consistently threatened defenses.
"I think this is [Ravens offensive coordinator] Cam Cameron's finest coaching job to this point, because they're playing this thing like a full-tilt offensive team,'' Dilfer said. "With the different personnel groups they're running in there, the multiplicity in their passing game, and how they're incorporating Ray Rice into their passing game more than just the checkdowns. They've fully got it now.
"When you're a conservative offense, you're a couple personnel groupings, you're reduced formations, you're play-action, you don't drop back a lot, and you don't tend to threaten the whole field -- trust me, I'm an expert at this. But when you're an aggressive offense, you throw the whole book every week. And when I watch the Ravens, they're doing everything. They've embraced that, and I think it started last year.''
Remaking Baltimore into a more explosive offensive unit has been at least a two-year project, but it did bear some fruit in 2011 with the memorable comeback win at Pittsburgh in Week 9, in the game that essentially won the Ravens the AFC North title. And, of course, the Ravens were a Lee Evans dropped pass in the end zone away from beating the high-powered Patriots on the road in the AFC title game.
In Baltimore's 31-29 win over visiting Dallas, the Ravens gave their fans even more of a glimpse of what their quick-strike offense can accomplish. First, Baltimore drove 80 yards in eight plays in just 1:34 to score a touchdown and take a 17-10 lead right before the half, and then it followed that up by marching 73 yards in 10 plays in the latter half of the fourth quarter, using only 3:41 to tally what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown on a 1-yard Rice run.
Those two drives spoke volumes. That's what the Ravens needed to do in those situations, and they made short work of the Cowboys defense both times. But that's a very different vibe for a Baltimore offense that seemed to play with training wheels on for years and years. It's a new era for the Ravens, and not a bad place at all to be in 2012, when winning teams score in bunches. Defenses are quicker fixes these days, and offenses have to be built more methodically. The Ravens, after years of trying, finally have assembled an offense that can carry the load.
Baltimore's bad luck on the injury front might also be at least coming at a fortuitous time, in that the AFC appears to be a down cycle this season, and the AFC North seems there for the taking. The Steelers are 2-3, having lost two out of their last three games, and have their own battles to fight with injuries and age on defense. The Bengals started fast at 3-1, but have lost the past two weeks to Miami and Cleveland, and have blunted their early momentum. With Cincinnati playing host to Pittsburgh this week, somebody's going to come out of that game with a losing record, feeling pretty badly about themselves as midseason looms.
In the AFC, the Ravens are one of only two teams above .500, along with this week's opponent, the Texans (5-1). While Baltimore beat Houston twice last season, including in the AFC divisional playoffs, winning at Reliant Stadium this week could be a difficult task. But even with a loss, Baltimore will enter its Week 8 bye with a 5-2 mark and grip on first place in the division. A tough first-place schedule still must be navigated, but the Ravens will at least have some breathing room as they attempt it. A 10-6 mark could easily win the AFC North this season.
"Will they dominate, will it be a slam dunk, will I bet the mortgage on them winning [the division]?'' Billick said. "No. Because you've still got to believe there are some teams in the AFC who look pretty good. But who can't they beat? That team we just saw in Houston the other night, that just got torn up by the Packers? New England, who can look so good at times and then not as well at others? Is Denver going to continue to pick up steam?
"I'm not going to say they win the division by default, but yeah, this Ravens team is very much alive. And if they do go in and beat Houston in Houston, and wind up getting a [playoff] bye because of it, they're in great position to be just what we all kind of thought they would be. Even without Ray Lewis.''
Or Lardarius Webb. Which is why the sky isn't falling in Baltimore, and no such eventuality should be forecast.