The Baltimore Ravens are doing the Jekyll and Hyde thing like no one else.
It’s been excessively documented, but let’s preface our look at the mysterious Ravens by going over what can’t be disputed:
- After crushing the defending AFC champion Steelers to open the season, they lost to a weak Titans team in Tennessee.
- After dominating the AFC South-leading Texans in Week 6, they lost to the terrible Jaguars in Jacksonville.
- After winning a thriller against Pittsburgh in Week 9, they fell to the mediocre-at-best Seahawks in Seattle.
- Their six wins have come against teams that are 31-26 on the season. Their three losses were against teams that are 11-16.
The somewhat obvious conclusions:
1. They keep losing to bad teams.
2. They keep losing to bad teams after beating good teams.
3. They keep winning at home and losing on the road.
Naturally, that has pundits wondering if the Ravens have a focus problem. After all, they seem to be playing to the level of their competition and overlooking inferior opponents.
In his pursuit to solve the Ravens, Matt Vensel of the Baltimore Sun talked with Dr. Jessica Mohler, a clinical and sports psychologist at the U.S. Naval Academy:
According to Mohler, there is an appraisal process by athletes when facing an opponent and their bodies and minds act appropriately. Teams don’t always play to the level of competition, but it does happen.
“In that appraisal process, there is an emotional and physiological response,” said Mohler, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and is a certified consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “So we feel a certain way and our body responds in a certain way. … Then we see the outcome, which is behavior, performance, decision-making. It really relies on this physiological response that occurs. You will get more pumped up for a competitive team and you will have a more ideal emotional response and physiological response and then you will perform at a higher level.”
ESPN.com’s Jamison Hensley also talked to a psychologist about the potential that this is mental:
“This isn’t to say you don’t take the next opponent seriously,” said Dr. Joel Fish, of the Center of Sport Psychology in Philadelphia. “There’s only so much emotion in the tank. When you come off a game against the Steelers, you’re literally on empty and any football fan can see both teams are on empty. We’re not dealing with machines or robots. You see this a lot with rivals. You don’t have time to fill the emotional tank.”
But I’m not sure I completely buy that. I consider it to be a factor, but not necessarily the factor. I mean, how much gas do these guys really need in the “emotional tank”? They’re only asked to give 100 percent on 16-to-20 Sundays per year. Most of them won’t play more than 50 NFL games in their careers — how hard could it be to get motivated regardless of the opponent?
The only reason I’m a bit worried about Baltimore’s lack of energy against bad teams? The way in which they treat the build-up to games against good teams. Fans love the trash talk that has hijacked NFL headlines in the weeks that lead up to games with the Steelers, but doesn’t some of it strike you as manufactured? Isn’t it odd that guys like Terrell Suggs seem to need extra motivation? And if that’s the case, how do you find it for games against the Titans, Jaguars and Seahawks?
Still, there’s more to this story than that. There has to be something tangible.
Maybe it’s an X’s and O’s thing, too. Sports Illustrated’s Don Banks makes a connection between the good performances and the bad performances and the types of defenses the Ravens are playing:
No one seems to know why it is, but the Ravens consistently struggle to match up on offense against 4-3 teams, but thrive against 3-4 teams. All three of the Ravens’ losses this season have come thanks to subpar offensive showings against 4-3 defenses: at Tennessee, at Jacksonville and at Seattle. The Rams, who were winless at the time, are the only 4-3 team Baltimore has beaten this year. By comparison, the Ravens are 5-0 against 3-4 teams, including two wins against Pittsburgh and one each over the Jets and Houston.
Could this have something to do with an inability to run the ball against 4-3 fronts? Rice has just 98 rushing yards in three losses to 3-4 teams this year, but he was very productive in a win against the Rams and their 4-3 defense, rushing for 81 yards on just nine carries. Besides, they were 6-2 in games against 4-3 defenses last season, and Rice has still averaged over five yards a carry against 4-3 attacks this year.
But rather inexplicably, Rice hasn’t been given a lot of reps in those games. That’s why Hensley points out that it could be a coaching/play calling problem. When faced with adversity, do they simply abandon the run too quickly?
Why do the Ravens abandon the run so early? In the Ravens’ three losses, quarterback Joe Flacco has averaged 40 pass attempts while running back Ray Rice has averaged 8.6 carries. Yes, the Ravens trailed in each game, but the first-half deficits were never daunting ones. It’s puzzling to see the Ravens rely so heavily on Flacco in a year where they added an All-Pro fullback and took away the top two receivers in franchise history. Many have put the blame on offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. But there comes a time when Harbaugh, who has taken a bigger role in the offense this year, has to define the identity of the offense.
“This is John Harbaugh trying make this team something they are not, and make [Joe] Flacco something he is not,” writes Derek Pease of Bloguin’s This Given Sunday blog. “As explosive as Flacco, Torrey Smith and the Baltimore passing game can be, the more Harbaugh fights the running game the more he adds to their identity crisis.”
The good thing about that problem? It’s fixable, assuming Harbaugh and Cameron don’t get stubborn. This team has never properly taken advantage of Rice’s skill set, and it’s biting them in the ass this year. Is this the wake-up call they needed?
And there’s the possibility that it’s as simple as Baltimore being a good home team and a bad road team. After all, the Ravens are 4-0 at M&T Stadium and 2-3 elsewhere.
On top of all that, we shouldn’t totally rule out the theory that the strange start has been somewhat of a fluke. I mean, it’s not like Tennessee and Seattle are easy places to play (those teams are a combined 8-10 this season, which isn’t pathetic). And maybe they just had an off night when they laid an egg in Jacksonville.
Realistically, it’s probably a combination of the above factors. They’ve had the misfortune of having to play on the road after big emotional victories, against 4-3 defenses that they don’t necessarily match-up well with and in cities that don’t always provide visiting opponents with walks in the park.
Good news: This week, they’re at home, not coming off a win against a good team, and not playing a notoriously bad team that they’d be likely to overlook.
Better news: There’s only one such case in which they might again be susceptible to fall into that trap: Week 13, when they play Cleveland and its 4-3 defense on the road after a home game against San Francisco. And coming off a Thanksgiving game, they’ll have extra time to prepare for that one.
Apart from that, they’re in the clear.
Although it is a tiny bit concerning that five of their last seven games come against teams that run 4-3 defenses, you’d have to think that the Ravens are good enough that they’ll be able to make the necessary adjustments against inferior opponents.
“The story of the season is going to be written at the end,” John Harbaugh said this week. “I’m not writing that story now.”
That’s important to note, because while their early stumbles are disturbing, last year’s eventual Super Bowl champion was also 6-3 at this point in the season, with losses to losing teams (Washington and Miami) under their belt. The first few chapters of a Super Bowl story are quite trivial. It’s what you do in December, January and February that matters.
It’s about peaking at the right time. And by all indications, the Ravens have yet to peak.