Commentary

Ravens get reality check in Houston

Injuries, poor road performances could derail Baltimore's Super Bowl aspirations

Originally Published: October 21, 2012
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- These aren't your 2011 Baltimore Ravens.

As several key players noted after getting run out of Reliant Stadium in a 43-13 loss to the Houston Texans on Sunday, this was just one loss for the Ravens. A bad loss, no question, but a loss to a very talented team that played nearly flawless football in their own building coming off an embarrassing loss of their own on national television.

"Sometimes you get tossed out of the bar," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said afterward.

He is right. Sometimes you get tossed out of the bar. Sometimes you can beg for amnesty from the bouncer, or slip back in through a side door. Sometimes, after particularly egregious behavior, you are banned for good.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Smith, JoeFlacco
AP Photo/Patric SchneiderHouston's Antonio Smith records one of four sacks the Texans imposed on Baltimore QB Joe Flacco.

That's where it feels like the Ravens might end up: on the outside looking in. Granted, Sunday's defeat is only one loss. The team is 5-2, with the second-best record in a mediocre AFC, with nine games to play. But this team isn't playing to make the playoffs. It's playing to get to the Super Bowl, and some alarming truths have been uncovered in the first seven weeks of the season that were magnified against a Houston team that was playing to retrieve its reputation.

Baltimore is not a very good football team right now.

The Ravens are lousy on the road. There is a sizeable difference between Joe Flacco at M&T Bank Stadium and Joe Flacco everywhere else. The Ravens' offensive and defensive lines are frequently overmatched. And the defense, even with Terrell Suggs amazingly back on the field just six months after tearing his Achilles, may not be able to overcome the rash of injuries that has occurred this season.

This is a team that entered the season poised to finally get over the hump and get to the Super Bowl, but the way it has played, it looks more like a fraud at 5-2 than a favorite.

"I'm concerned about everything," Harbaugh said. "You can talk about pretty much everything today. … We've got to coach better, and we've got to play better to accomplish what we want to accomplish. It's a good time to have a bye week to work those things out."

There will be plenty to correct after Sunday's loss. The offense gained only 176 yards, including just 55 on the ground, and the defense again got gouged, this time allowing 420 total net yards. Baltimore managed 12 first downs to Houston's 27, and for the third consecutive game the Ravens lost the time of possession battle. They also committed two turnovers and created zero.

It is impossible to win on the road doing all of that.

A series of Baltimore mistakes allowed Houston to establish the tone and tempo of the game. In the first quarter, with the Ravens leading 3-0 but backed up on their own 7-yard line, Texans linebacker Connor Barwin rushed untouched and sacked Flacco from his blind side in the end zone for a safety. On Houston's next possession, Matt Schaub drove the Texans down the field and found wide receiver Kevin Walter behind Ravens safety Bernard Pollard for a touchdown and a 9-3 lead.

On the second play of the Ravens' next possession, Houston defensive end J.J. Watt did what he does better than anyone and batted a Flacco pass intended for Torrey Smith. The ball wiggled in the air before Johnathan Joseph picked it off and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown and a 16-3 Texans lead.

They were devastating, game-changing plays, and trailing by 13 points, the Ravens had no answers. By halftime, they trailed 29-3, had four first downs and 84 yards of offense. Flacco had a 4.2 passer rating at halftime, having thrown a second interception off another pass tipped by the Texans.

Ray Rice finished with 42 rushing yards on nine carries, and the Texans earned their first win in seven tries against a Baltimore team that beat them twice last season, including in the playoffs.

"There's no sugarcoating it," Suggs said. "Call a spade a spade. They whooped our ass."

"It's always frustrating when you lose, period," Flacco said. "When you lose like that, you don't feel good about it. But like we said in the locker room, they all count the same, no matter how you lose. Good thing for us is this is [only] one."

[+] EnlargeBaltimore Ravens
AP Photo/Patric SchneiderRavens defensive linemen Bryan Hall and DeAngelo Tyson glumly endure Baltimore's humbling defeat.

True. But there are growing reasons for concern for the Ravens. Over the past two weeks, the defense has allowed 901 yards. In the past three games, Baltimore has given up 622 rushing yards, an average of 207.3 per game. The Ravens have generated just one turnover in the past two weeks, and they're averaging one sack over the past four games.

Flacco and the offense have been disparate when playing at home versus on the road. In four home games -- all wins -- Flacco has completed 67.1 percent of his passes for an average of 317.8 yards and a passer rating of 106.6 with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. In three road games, including two losses, he has completed 50.0 percent of his passes for an average of 186.7 passing yards and a 55.9 rating with two touchdowns and four interceptions.

At home, the Ravens average 32.3 points per game; on the road, their average falls to 15.0. At home, they average 24 first downs per game; on the road, that average falls to 11.3. At home, they convert 42.9 percent of their third downs; on the road, that average dips to 27.5. And at home, the Ravens have averaged 421.8 net yards of offense; on the road, that average dips to 266.3.

"It's like we're two different teams right now, on the road versus at home," Baltimore safety Ed Reed said. "And like Coach said, we need to look at everything from upstairs to downstairs. Everybody needs to look at themselves and make those corrections that we need to make. Look at how we call plays, what plays we call, what mistakes we made defensively, what mistakes we made offensively, special teams, that put us in a hole."

The Ravens have a bye this week, and as so often happens in the NFL, it comes at the perfect time. They need to find themselves. This is a team with championship aspirations, but if the Ravens don't correct their problems and figure out how to beat good teams on the road, in February they could be a disappointed team on the outside looking in.