Other Side: Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson
Archer: Aside from last week's game at KC, it appears as if the Ravens have an offense that can take pressure off the defense. People always ask this nebulous question about the "next step," but has Joe Flacco taken the next step? If so, why? How?
Wilson: What has changed about Joe Flacco is he's been granted greater command of the offense in terms of ability to audible and they implemented a no-huddle offense and have emphasized the shotgun formation, all things he did more of in college at Delaware. His deep-ball accuracy still isn't excellent, but it's much improved. He still has a tendency to stare down his primary read, which is what's happened on virtually all of his four interceptions. While Flacco has definitely improved overall, he still has a tendency to have inconsistency, on the road particularly, and will get into cold streaks where his fundamentals lapse. In Philadelphia, the pass rush of Trent Cole and Jason Babin affected him to the point where he was throwing off his back foot. Flacco seems to still be in the very good category with all the skills and capability to be great and is knocking on the door of getting to that point. He's just not totally there yet despite better personnel outside than he's had in the past. This isn't on Flacco, but his offensive tackle tandem of Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele are holding back the offense a bit. They gave up a total of four sacks and eight quarterback pressures to Kansas City Chiefs edge rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. That could be a problem obviously against DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer.
TA: Are we seeing a different Ravens defense? The Chiefs ran all over them. Is Ray Lewis slowing down finally? How much do they miss Terrell Suggs?
AW: The defense is much different, and not in a good way. Traditionally stingy against the run, they were gashed by Jamaal Charles for 125 yards in the first half primarily through the use of the zone stretch play. Dean Pees' halftime adjustment of walking up the linebackers and shifting the defensive linemen wider was an effective strategy as Charles had only 15 yards on 10 carries after halftime. However, middle linebacker Ray Lewis looked slow in his reactions and got stuck to blocks. He had one hard hit, but that was in the fourth quarter on Cyrus Gray. Lewis has had some solid games this year, but he's also 37 years old. And it shows. Although he's lighter at 235 pounds, he's not as explosive as he used to be and doesn't get enough depth on his pass drops, which makes him vulnerable to tight ends' patterns. As tough and smart and great a tackler as Lewis is, he's been getting overpowered at times at the point of attack and beaten to the outside by faster runners like Charles and Trent Richardson. Terrell Suggs is definitely missed. The Ravens had no sacks against the Chiefs. Pees creates pressure by blitzing primarily. Other than Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, one of the most disruptive interior forces in the game, hardly anyone is defeating blocks and getting to the quarterback. Ngata is commanding double-team attention regularly and still getting penetration. Without Suggs, this has become a bend-but-don't-break defense that still excels at getting turnovers and being stout in the red zone.
TA: The Cowboys took Felix Jones in 2008. The Ravens took Ray Rice. Clearly the Ravens made out on that one, but just how vital is Rice to that offense?
AW: Ray Rice is the centerpiece of the offense even though the Ravens are transitioning to a passing outfit. Rice is a dynamic open-field runner who plays bigger than 5-foot-8, 212 pounds. He's also a dangerous receiver out of the backfield and has good hands. This guy is tough, durable and fast. The Ravens are trying to preserve him as much as possible and not wear him out, but he rarely takes a hard hit because he's elusive.
TA: Jason Garrett nearly got the Baltimore job a few years ago. Any idea how close he came to getting it over John Harbaugh?
AW: The Ravens offered Garrett the job, showed his wife the local real estate listings and it was his for the taking with a fairly high salary offer. However, he declined the offer and it seemed like his tour of interviews was just him going through the motions and he had an arrangement or understanding all along with owner Jerry Jones to become the Cowboys' new head coach. The sense many got from Garrett during his visit is that he wasn't enthralled with the idea of coming to Baltimore. John Harbaugh wasn't the Ravens' first choice, but he impressed owner Steve Bisciotti and general manager Ozzie Newsome during the interview process and was vouched for by Andy Reid and Bill Belichick. They liked his personality and leadership qualities and unconventional special-teams background. He was unproven then and had never been a head coach before, but he has made the playoffs every year and won at least one playoff game and made two AFC championship game appearances. Harbaugh had to win over a tough locker room at first, too. The Ravens are happy with how things worked out, but they definitely respect Garrett and held a high opinion of him to give him that offer before later hiring Harbaugh.
TA: The Ravens haven't lost at home in a long time. Is it the team? Is it the venue?
AW: It's loud at M&T Bank Stadium, and the Ravens just seem to play with more confidence at home. On the road, they aren't the same team. They use the no-huddle less. The defense seems more vulnerable. At home, Joe Flacco has been markedly more accurate and efficient. Like most good NFL teams, they seem to thrive on a home-field advantage. It's a matter of intangibles, but the numbers don't lie since they've won 15 games in a row at home, including the postseason.
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