AFC North: Ravens report card

Ravens report card at the Steelers

October, 21, 2013
Grading the Baltimore Ravens in their 19-16 loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers:

Quarterback: It was another slow start for Joe Flacco, who threw for 90 yards in the first half. He came alive in the fourth quarter, going 9-of-10 for 60 yards and a touchdown on the game-tying drive. Flacco did a solid job of moving to avoid the pressure and nearly had a Ben Roethlisberger moment in the red zone early in the fourth quarter. His biggest mistake was underthrowing an open Jacoby Jones on what would've resulted in a go-ahead touchdown. It's also inexcusable to have a delay of game penalty on the play right after a timeout. Grade: C-plus.

Running backs: It seemed like the Ravens running backs were more productive than the numbers indicated. Perhaps it's an indictment of how bad the running game has been this season. Ray Rice was held under 50 yards rushing for the fifth time in six games (45 rushing yards), and Bernard Pierce finished with 13 yards. They combined for 2.7 yards per carry. Rice has to do a better job of cutting in pass protection. LaMarr Woodley went over Rice to sack Flacco, dropping him for a 10-yard loss and taking the Ravens out of field-goal range. But the backs looked closer to breaking bigger runs with the Ravens spreading out defenses. Grade: C-minus.

Wide receivers/tight ends: Tight end Dallas Clark scored a touchdown for the second straight game. He cut off his route to find the open spot in the end zone Sunday in Pittsburgh. Torrey Smith was quiet for most of the game until he caught a 41-yard pass in tight coverage against Ike Taylor. He's too talented to disappear for those long stretches. Tandon Doss showed toughness in hanging onto the ball after taking a hard hit over the middle. Jacoby Jones only had 32 yards receiving but he got behind the defense for what should have been a touchdown and was open in the end zone (but Flacco couldn't find him because he was scrambling). Grade: B-minus.

Offensive line: It was better than the line's usual performance this year but it was still not a solid performance. The biggest problem was too much penetration allowed on run plays. The Ravens couldn't convert third-and-1 in the first quarter because center Gino Gradkowski and right guard Marshal Yanda got pushed back on a stretch play. Baltimore also failed to get into the end zone on a run inside the 3-yard line for a second straight week. The line only gave up one sack, but it didn't give Flacco much time, especially in the first half. Grade: C.

Defensive line: The Steelers showed no fear running up the middle of the Ravens' defense. Haloti Ngata couldn't get off blocks and Pittsburgh's line had success turning him to create lanes. Chris Canty and Art Jones were nonfactors. Marcus Spears got shoved out of the way on the only touchdown allowed by the Ravens, a 3-yard shovel pass to Heath Miller. Grade: D.

Linebackers: Middle linebacker Daryl Smith delivered another big play, forcing Miller to fumble. He also led the Ravens with nine tackles. Elvis Dumervil made two costly penalties, getting flagged for unnecessary roughness and a facemask on a drive that ended with a field goal. Terrell Suggs had a high-effort game and added his eighth sack of the season. But his one miss on Roethlisberger (Miller redirected Suggs on a late block) resulted in a 19-yard scramble on third down. Jameel McClain made five tackles in his first game back since suffering a spinal cord contusion. Grade: C.

Secondary: This was a strong game for the defensive backs until the Steelers' game-winning drive. Corey Graham's missed tackle of Antonio Brown led to a 13-yard gain and put Pittsburgh in field-goal range. Then, Brown beat Jimmy Smith on a slant for 11 yards and made the game-winning kick that much easier. Baltimore did a fine job not allowing a big play. The longest completion for Roethlisberger was 19 yards. Rookie safety Matt Elam came up with the ball after Daryl Smith forced the fumble. Grade: C-plus.

Special teams: The Ravens failed to properly execute the key onside kick in the fourth quarter, and Jeromy Miles' offside penalty would've foiled it even if the Ravens had recovered it. Baltimore lost the field-position battle, allowing the Steelers to average 32.3 yards on kickoff returns and giving up an 18-yard punt return. A 44-yard kickoff return by Emmanuel Sanders jumpstarted the game-winning drive. Sam Koch only netted 29.3 yards on three punts. The return team nearly gave the ball back to the Steelers when Vonta Leach picked up a short kickoff and fumbled it. Chykie Brown was flagged for offside on a field-goal attempt. Justin Tucker made all three field-goal attempts (46, 38 and 32 yards). Grade: D.

Ravens report card vs. Packers

October, 14, 2013
Grading the Baltimore Ravens in their 19-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers:

Quarterback: Joe Flacco was once again put in some bad situations by his struggling offensive line and running game, but he didn't help himself out much either. When the Ravens were shut out for the first 40 minutes, Flacco was 11 of 22 for 141 yards. He often held the ball too long in the pocket and his throws were off target in the first half, which has been a trend in the Ravens' slow starts. And I'm not sure why Flacco threw to Vonta Leach and Billy Bajema (three combined targets) instead of Torrey Smith (four targets). Flacco did nearly orchestrate an improbable comeback, stepping up in the pocket and heaving a 63-yard pass on fourth-and-21. It's just tough to forget the hole he dug himself in. Grade: C-minus.

Running backs: Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce each averaged less than 2.5 yards per carry, which has become a weekly source of embarrassment. The worst moment of the season for these backs came deep in the red zone in the second quarter. The Ravens failed to crack the goal line despite Rice getting three runs inside the 5-yard line and Pierce needing one yard on fourth-and-goal. Yes, the running backs are getting hit too often in the backfield. But they also need to be more aggressive hitting the line and figure out how to break tackles. The poor play was limited to the running game. Rice also had a bad drop in the fourth quarter. Grade: F.

Wide receivers/tight ends: Jacoby Jones had a nice showing in his return with a 31-yard catch-and-run in the open field and an 11-yard touchdown grab. Tight end Dallas Clark displayed surprising acceleration on a 45-yard reception and made a nifty one-handed catch in the end zone. This group delivered big plays against the NFL's 26th-ranked pass defense but not enough consistency (2 of 14 on third downs). Torrey Smith, the AFC's leading receiver, was held to one catch for 12 yards. The Ravens need to find a way to always get the ball in his hands. Ed Dickson wasn't targeted once after making a big play the previous game. Grade: C.

Offensive line: Horrible run blocking, inconsistent pass protection and dumb penalties continued an awful season for the offensive line. There was a lack of push in the ground game, which got 43 yards out of its running backs (second-lowest of the season). The Ravens had trouble handling pressure -- and linebacker A.J. Hawk (three sacks) -- up the middle. It was a shaky effort from center Gino Gradkowski, who got a holding penalty against a three-man rush. New left tackle Eugene Monroe got beat toward the end of the first half, which led to Flacco getting stripped from behind and a short field goal for the Packers. Flacco was sacked a season-high five times. Three offensive linemen were flagged for penalties, including two on Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda. Grade: F.

Defensive line: Art Jones is a more disruptive force than Haloti Ngata these days. He's getting penetration in the middle against the run and the pass. Ngata, who injured his elbow early in the game, has a bad habit of disappearing in the second half. This front got moved around too much in the running game (rookie Eddie Lacy had a career high 120 yards rushing). Chris Canty had one tackle. Grade: C.

Linebackers: This group gets mixed reviews. Elvis Dumervil forced two fumbles on two sacks, but he needs to chase after the loose ball instead of starting his dance. Terrell Suggs recorded 10 sacks but he got caught overpursuing, which allowed too many big runs. And Daryl Smith had 10 tackles but he needs to make that interception deep in his own territory. It was a disruptive performance that could've been much better. Rookie Arthur Brown also missed a sack on Aaron Rodgers, who converted the third down by scrambling past him. Grade: B-minus.

Secondary: The biggest mistake was on a 64-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson. Lardarius Webb was expecting safety help from James Ihedigbo on a costly communication breakdown. Safety Matt Elam stopped a drive in Ravens' territory with a hit on Randall Cobb's knee. But he doesn't have the length or size to bring down tight ends like Jermichael Finley, who sealed the win with a third-down catch in the fourth quarter. Cornerback Jimmy Smith made an excellent play to intercept a pass in the end zone and then missed a tackle which led to a 43-yard play. Ihedigbo finished with 10 tackles and made an impact on blitzes. Grade: C-plus.

Special teams: It's been a rough year for punter Sam Koch. He had his second punt blocked this year and had a touchback on a punt from the Packers' 37-yard line, which netted 17 yards in field position. Tandon Doss made a couple of questionable decisions, fielding a punt at his own three-yard line (which he did return for 38 yards) and letting a punt bounce around midfield when he should've picked it up. Jacoby Jones created a spark with kickoff returns of 35 and 30 yards. The coverage team allowed backup punt returner Micah Hyde to average 13.6 yards. Grade: C.

Ravens report card at Dolphins

October, 7, 2013
Grading the Baltimore Ravens in their 26-23 win at the Miami Dolphins:

Quarterback: Flacco would earn a failing grade based purely on his numbers: 19-of-32 passing for 269 yards and one interception. But Flacco's effort goes beyond the statistics. He took shots throughout the game -- especially from Bryant McKinnie's side -- and kept getting back up. Flacco also hung in the pocket to deliver throws downfield when he knew he was going to take a hit. After he threw an interception for a touchdown (which was more McKinnie's fault), Flacco came back with the key pass on the game-winning drive. Grade: B.

Running backs: Ray Rice scored two touchdowns inside the 5-yard line in the second half, and Bernard Pierce broke a 28-yard run, the longest of the season for the Ravens. There are still some concerns, from another Rice fumble (second in four games this year) to the less-than-stellar 3.3-yard per carry average for the team. But Rice showed power on his first touchdown and elusiveness on his second one. Perhaps the ground game is close to turning a corner. Grade: C-plus.

Wide receivers/tight ends: Torrey Smith is having a Pro Bowl season. He added six catches for 121 yards, or 45 percent of Flacco's passing yards. With only three healthy wide receivers, Tandon Doss stepped up with three catches for 58 yards. Tight end Ed Dickson obviously heard John Harbaugh's critical comments and responded with a 43-yard catch. Grade: B.

Offensive line: If I could put McKinnie in a separate category, he would receive an 'F.' He didn't play with any pride and nearly cost the Ravens the game by letting Dion Jordan hit Flacco from behind, which led to an interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. This should be McKinnie's last extended time at left tackle for the Ravens. I was impressed with A.Q. Shipley, a backup center, stepping in at left guard when Kelechi Osemele left with back spasms. The rest of the line had poor moments in pass protection. But the line did wear down the Dolphins enough so the Ravens could control the clock in the second half. Grade: C.

Defensive line: Haloti Ngata set the tone early by brickwalling the Dolphins ground game. A week after this front got pushed back by the Buffalo Bills, the Ravens were the ones who controlled the line of scrimmage. Baltimore held Miami to 22 yards rushing and didn't allow a run over 9 yards. The Ravens were so dominant that the Dolphins abandoned the run game after halftime. Grade: A-minus.

Linebackers: Terrell Suggs is playing at a level higher than anyone else right now. He took advantage of a soft Dolphins offensive line and recorded all three of his sacks in the fourth quarter. Courtney Upshaw was big on run defense and added a sack. Elvis Dumervil had two tackles for losses. Even rookie Arthur Brown made a nice open-field tackle.Grade: A-minus.

Secondary: Why did the Ravens' safeties let receivers get behind them? Rookie Matt Elam froze and watched Mike Wallace go deep for a 49-yard pass in the second quarter. Then, on fourth-and-10 in the fourth quarter, Ihedigbo was more than a few steps behind Brandon Gibson on a 46-yard completion. Jimmy Smith's up-and-down season continues. He needs to find the ball, which is why he got beat by a 255-pound tight end for a touchdown. Grade: D.

Special teams: Justin Tucker hit his fourth career game-winning kick, nailing a 44-yard field goal with 1:42 remaining. He also added three more, including a 42-yarder and a 50-yarder. The return game provided a lift, with Doss averaging 12.5 yards on punts and Deonte Thompson running back a kickoff 47 yards. But what was going on with the usually reliable Sam Koch? He had two 26-yard punts in the first half. The Ravens also have to stop the penalties (John Simon and Anthony Levine were flagged) that affect field position. And no one should ever grab the facemask to get away from a kicker like Thompson. Ever. Grade: B-minus.

Ravens report card vs. Texans

September, 23, 2013
Grading the Baltimore Ravens in their 30-9 win over the Houston Texans:

Quarterback: It was another sluggish start for Joe Flacco, who seemed to be off the mark early. He was either leading his receivers too much to the inside or throwing high. Flacco looked better in the second half, completing 4 of 5 passes on third downs for 84 yards. His best pass was hitting Torrey Smith in stride on a 48-yard strike. The Ravens don't have a strong supporting cast around Flacco right now, but he needs more of a complete effort going forward. Grade: C-plus.

Running backs: With Ray Rice out of the lineup for the first time since 2008, backup Bernard Pierce wasn't impressive in his first NFL start. He's known for taking one cut and going upfield. But Pierce was indecisive and used a lot of stutter steps at the line. Even though there wasn't much running room, Pierce is a physical back who needs to plow ahead. He averaged 2.7 yards per carry. The one positive was Pierce scoring a touchdown for the second straight week. Grade: C-minus.

Wide receivers/tight ends: Torrey Smith jumpstarted the offense in the second half with a 48-yard catch on third down. It's taken a while for Flacco to connect with Smith deep. He converted another third down with a 24-yard reception on a drag route. Dallas Clark showed that tight ends are still in the game plan, making four receptions for 46 yards. The other wide receivers -- Marlon Brown and Brandon Stokley -- combined for 15 yards, and tight end Ed Dickson went a second straight game without a catch. Tight end Billy Bajema missed a block that stopped the Ravens from converting on third-and-1. Grade: B-minus.

Offensive line: This has been the biggest disappointment of the season for the Ravens. The line once again didn't open holes for the run game and allowed too much pressure on Flacco. What downgraded the line more this week was the penalties. The left side of the line was flagged three times for 40 yards. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie was called for hitting the facemask twice, and left guard Kelechi Osemele had a holding penalty. Grade: C-minus.

Defensive line: On just the numbers alone, it was a great day for the defensive front. The Ravens held the Texans' two-punch attack of Arian Foster and Ben Tate in check. The Texans averaged 4.1 yards per carry and didn't break a run longer than 10 yards. Then factor in that the Ravens did this with just four healthy linemen -- Haloti Ngata, Arthur Jones, Marcus Spears and DeAngelo Tyson -- after Terrence Cody (knee) was injured. This unit didn't wear down. Grade: A.

Linebackers: Daryl Smith made the play of the game when he returned the interception 37 yards for a touchdown. It highlighted his great awareness and anticipation. Smith also led the Ravens in tackles with 10. Terrell Suggs had a sack for a third straight game, and Elvis Dumervil would have done the same if not for right tackle Derek Newton grabbing him by his neck on one play. I continue to be impressed by the progression of Courtney Upshaw, who is starting to stand out more in games. Grade: A-minus.

Secondary: Best performance of the year for the most criticized area on defense. Safety James Ihedigbo has been the biggest surprise on the Ravens. He was everywhere, stopping a drive in the red zone and on fourth down with deflections. You always expect a physical performance from Lardarius Webb, but Jimmy Smith was just as aggressive in making plays on the ball. Grade: A.

Special teams: Tandon Doss has more urgency since coming back to the Ravens and delivered with an 82-yard punt return. It was a great individual performance because he beat three tacklers and then showed amazing balance tiptoeing down the sideline before reaching the end zone. Justin Tucker rebounded from a couple of misses to hit from 28, 45 and 43 yards. The only negative was the penalties. The Ravens were caught with too many men on the field on a field-goal attempt, which gave the Texans a first down, and rookie Brynden Trawick continues to make bone-headed mistakes with a personal foul. Grade: B-plus.

Ravens report card vs. Browns

September, 16, 2013
Grading the Baltimore Ravens in their 14-6 win against the Cleveland Browns:

Quarterback: Joe Flacco played his best in the second half, when he was more decisive on his throws and came up big on third downs. It wasn't a matter of him being distracted by the birth of his second son before the game. He just stopped throwing those jump balls downfield. It wasn't an electric performance. But it was an efficient and winning one. Grade: B.

Running backs: Another tough day for the backs, who didn't get much running room up front. Outside of a 14-yard run early in the second half, Ray Rice didn't show much explosion. He also fumbled before leaving with a hip injury. Backup Bernard Pierce ran hard, leading the team in rushing yards (57) and broken tackles. Grade: C-minus.

Wide receivers/tight ends: Torrey Smith carried the Ravens' offense in the first half with half of the team's catches by working the middle of the field. Rookie Marlon Brown didn't sulk after dropping a touchdown pass in the first half and had a strong second half, which included a five-yard touchdown. The wide receivers, though, still need to get more consistent separation. Even though the Ravens again didn't get much from the tight end position, Ed Dickson was an integral blocker. He drove back Jabaal Sheard on Pierce's five-yard touchdown run. Grade: B-minus.

Offensive line: The line gave Flacco time in the pocket but didn't open up holes for Rice and Pierce. The interior of the line held up much better than the tackles. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie whiffed several times in the run game and got beat by Barkevious Mingo for a sack on the rookie's first defensive play in the NFL. Right tackle Michael Oher couldn't get much push because of an ankle injury, but played far better than anyone the Ravens could have put there. Grade: C.

Defensive line: There were times when the Ravens' front got pushed back more than they would've liked, but this group accomplished its main goal: contain Browns running back Trent Richardson. He averaged 3.2 yards per carry and didn't break a run longer than nine yards. The most impressive player was Arthur Jones, who got a sack and some other pressures with his bull-rush. It was his first game of the season after missing time with an irregular heartbeat. Grade: B.

Linebackers: Terrell Suggs won his matchup with Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, and Elvis Dumervil dominated right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. They combined for two sacks and six quarterback hits. This overshadowed the performance of Daryl Smith, who led the team with 11 tackles and played well in coverage (although he should have held on to a potential interception). Courtney Upshaw came up big on a fourth-down tackle of Jordan Cameron in the fourth quarter. Grade: A.

Secondary: The defensive backs allowed too many receivers to get open once again, and a better quarterback would have made them pay more. Still, Jimmy Smith had a solid showing in the second half and got his hand on two passes. Even though he missed one tackle, Lardarius Webb remains one of the best tackling cornerbacks and finished with nine stops. Rookie safety Matt Elam had trouble with Cameron on the Browns' first play of the game, but he rebounded well and was physical when dropping into the box. Grade: C-plus.

Special teams: There was the good: Tandon Doss surprisingly made plays on punt returns, averaging 14.3 yards. Then there was the bad: Justin Tucker missed two field goals in nearly identical fashion, hitting wide right from 50 and 44 yards. The Ravens' punt coverage team held dangerous returner Travis Benjamin (4.8-yard average) in check. Grade: B-minus.