OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — If they weren’t so successful in the past, the Baltimore Ravens would be seriously concerned about the present.
The defending Super Bowl champions have a losing record after seven games for the first time since 2007. Although they’ve played well at times, the Ravens are still searching for an identity on offense, remain inconsistent on defense, and have been victimized by poor special teams play.
“We have to get better,” coach John Harbaugh acknowledged. “We’ve got a lot to improve on.”
As the Ravens (3-4) entered their bye week, Harbaugh was convinced his team would overcome this grievous stretch — because Baltimore has done it so many times before.
The Ravens have reached the playoffs in each of Harbaugh’s five seasons. In 2008, Baltimore started 2-3. A year later, the Ravens were 3-3 after losing three straight. And last season, of course, they opened December with three successive defeats before rebounding to claim the franchise’s second world championship.
“There is no guarantee this year,” Harbaugh said, “but we have done pretty well over the last five years anytime we’ve hit a tough stretch, going back to work, dealing with the things we need to correct, overcoming adversity.”
Harbaugh held practice Tuesday and Wednesday before allowing the players to enjoy the benefits of the bye. When they return, they’ll work some more on correcting the flaws that put them in this annoying situation.
“We’re right in the middle of the pack right now. So we can either go down, stay the same or get better. We intend to get better,” Harbaugh said. “I’m very confident in our ability to solve problems.”
This team is only a reasonable facsimile of the one that beat the San Francisco 49ers last February in the Super Bowl. Linebacker Ray Lewis and center Matt Birk retired, and several other notable players — including Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard and Anquan Boldin — were traded or left via free agency.
It would be easy to say the addition of newcomers such as Marcus Spears, Chris Canty, Daryl Smith, Michael Huff, Elvis Dumervil and Eugene Monroe made this squad a work in progress. But that’s no excuse for a running game that averages 2.8 yards per carry or explains why the punt team has allowed two blocked kicks.
“At this point, everyone has been playing football for a while,” wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “Once you know what you’re doing, you can go out there and play ball. I don’t think it’s necessarily a chemistry thing. We just got to get it done. It’s just execution. It’s that simple.”
After the Ravens’ 19-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday — Baltimore’s third defeat by three points or fewer — linebacker Terrell Suggs declared the team to be in “a state of emergency.”
Smith laughed at the assertion.
“I think he watches too many movies,” the wide receiver said.
There is, however, reason for concern. Smith held his index finger and thumb a half-inch apart and said, “Our room for error is like this now. When you lose games early, you kind of lose your leverage, your ability to make certain mistakes.”
Baltimore’s offense has struggled. Ray Rice has only 242 yards rushing and Baltimore is averaging just over 70 yards on the ground per game. Quarterback Joe Flacco has tried valiantly to guide this one-dimensional attack, but his eight touchdown passes are offset by 25 sacks and eight interceptions.
“You watch the film and there’s times where we’re looking dominant up front and there’s other times where we’re missing assignments,” Smith said. “Receivers, we’re not running routes the way it’s supposed to look, and the quarterback is missing a throw or the running back is missing a hole. It’s all of us. There’s no one person that we can point the blame to. A lot of people are hard on the offensive line. It’s not all their fault. It’s all of us as a group.”
Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell hoped to correct those shortcomings during the bye week.
“This is the time when you get the chance to reflect on the entire season and look at it as a whole,” Caldwell said. “There are a lot of things that we haven’t been doing well. We haven’t been running the ball very well. That’s going to be our main focus.”
The Ravens signed Flacco to a $120 million contract after he earned Super Bowl MVP honors, but Baltimore’s roots are closer to the ground.
“We’re a physical team,” Caldwell said. “It doesn’t matter if we line up in three wide receivers, two wide receivers or whatever it might be. We want to be able to run the football, and that’s important to us.”
No one would be complaining if the Ravens had scored just 10 more well-placed points in three of their four losses: 23-20 at Buffalo, 19-17 against the Packers and Sunday’s disappointment in Pittsburgh.
“We have to make those plays that determine if you win or lose games,” Spears said. “You don’t want to get too discouraged because you lost three (close) games. It’s not like you have a big problem. We have to figure out a way to execute and make plays at the right time in games so we’re not in that situation.”
A year ago, the Ravens entered their bye coming off a 43-13 loss in Houston. They returned to win four straight before that three-game slide in December. The point is, there’s no telling when a team can get hot.
“I’m hopeful that will be the story line at the end of the year, that we had the losses early,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll see what happens. We’ve got to make that happen right now. We’re capable of winning all these games.”
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)