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Thursday, December 31, 2009
Are the Ravens one and done?

By James Walker

Last year, the Baltimore Ravens were the ultimate party crashers.

As the sixth and final seed in the AFC playoffs, Baltimore knocked off two division champions in the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans before falling short in its bid for the Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This season, the Ravens find themselves in a similar position. With a win Sunday over the Oakland Raiders (5-10), Baltimore (8-7) once again will be a wild card looking to take down the AFC's elite.

But with this year's team not playing at the same level as last season, will the Ravens get into the postseason and make another deep run?

The AFC North blog checked in with Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson to examine six reasons why a repeat of 2008 is no slam dunk for Baltimore.

Issue No. 1: Penalties

Why it's a problem: The Ravens are the second-most penalized team in the NFL behind the Raiders. Last week, Baltimore had 11 penalties for 113 yards in a loss to Pittsburgh, and two infractions negated touchdowns. As we noted Wednesday, most of Baltimore's recent errors are physical mistakes. The Ravens play a hard-nosed brand of football. But it won't help if going too far too often costs the team crucial yards in a postseason game.

Matt Williamson: "I definitely think that's a weakness of this team. It showed last week, and I thought it showed against the Green Bay Packers -- that was a hard game to watch on both sides of the football. One of the reasons I think penalties are a problem is Baltimore’s secondary is not very good. They get a lot of penalties clutching and grabbing downfield with pass interference calls, because they're outmanned on the outside."

Scale of concern (1 to 10): 8

Ed Reed
Not having safety Ed Reed at 100 percent could hurt the Ravens if they reach the postseason.
Issue No. 2: Thin secondary

Why it's a problem: Williamson brings us to the next topic, which is a thin secondary. Quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer all are waiting for the Ravens in the AFC playoffs. We've already seen what Palmer can do against Baltimore, as the Cincinnati Bengals swept the Ravens in two games. Brady and Manning also led the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, respectively, to wins over Baltimore in the regular season. Despite a slow start, Baltimore's defense has been very good down the stretch and is ranked third in the NFL. But expect top quarterbacks to test the Ravens through the air at every opportunity.

Williamson: "To me, their corners and safeties, if Ed Reed is not playing, are massive liabilities. If I were to rank [their issues], that would be my No. 1 concern, especially considering some of the firepower they're going to have to face."

Scale of concern: 10

Issue No. 3: Injuries

Why it's a problem: For the most part, the Ravens have done well fighting through injuries. That's a testament to the team's depth and talented roster. But Reed (groin, foot) is the team's most dynamic player, and he will not be 100 percent the rest of the way. A year ago heading into the playoffs, he was much healthier and playing at an extremely high level. Recently, left tackle Jared Gaither (foot) has been banged-up. That's another concern. With season-ending injuries to cornerbacks Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb, the Ravens need to keep the rest of their roster healthy.

Williamson: "I would say it's a medium issue compared to the others we've talked about. Reed is obviously a great player and he's vastly missed. He makes a lot of problems go away with his range and ability to make up for the players around him on the back end. If he's out, I don’t like their [playoff] chances at all. Gaither, I thought, was a massive loss against Pittsburgh, too, because Oniel Cousins got killed by LaMarr Woodley."

Scale of concern: 6

Issue No. 4: Lack of a pass rush

Why it's a problem: To beat some of the aforementioned quarterbacks in the playoffs, the Ravens will need to pressure them. The Ravens are ranked No. 22 in the NFL with 29 sacks in 15 games. Struggling teams such as the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and Raiders all have registered more sacks than Baltimore.

Williamson: "I would say this is a moderate issue, right in the middle of the road. I think the Ravens generate a little more pressure than their sack numbers indicate. They don’t always get home. But they are nowhere near the pass-rushing team they were with [former defensive coordinator] Rex Ryan or in recent memory, and that's a big problem."

Ray Rice
Running back Ray Rice is a threat every time he touches the ball.
Scale of concern: 7

Issue No. 5: Offensive identity

Why it's a problem: All year the Ravens have gone through an identity crisis offensively. Last year they were a running team. This year Baltimore has gone back and forth in trying to become a pass-oriented team with quarterback Joe Flacco or run-oriented team with tailback Ray Rice. It appears the Ravens are sticking to the ground game for now, which is smart to do this time of year.

Williamson: "Because they drafted so well, it made the Ravens change their identity. Flacco far exceeded expectations, and their second-round pick in 2008, Ray Rice, they quickly realized was a stud. He's best when you incorporate him in the passing game and out of the shotgun. They used a lot of shotgun when Rice was at Rutgers. He can do everything, but he's best when he’s used as a Maurice Jones-Drew, do-it-all type of guy. So, in turn, their offensive identity changed and there's always going to be growing pains with that."

Scale of concern: 5

Issue No. 6: Road record

Why it’s a problem: When clicking, Baltimore is a team that can go on the road, punish the home team and quiet any stadium in the NFL. This year, that usually hasn't been the case. The Ravens are 2-5 on the road, and playoff-bound teams such as the Bengals and Packers pounded the Ravens physically at home. Baltimore probably will not host a game for the rest of the season. So if the team does make the playoffs, the Ravens need to re-establish that rugged road mentality.

Williamson: "I know why they're good at home. That’s one of the hardest stadiums to play in the league. But I don’t know why they’re not excelling on the road. My first thought is the Ravens have really young offensive tackles and a young running back and quarterback. Maybe they aren't adjusted to the road life so much."

Scale of concern: 8