Baltimore, MD (WJZ)- The sigh of relief from Ravens fans was palpable Sunday after the team escaped Heinz Field with a 26-23 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers to move to 3-2 and back above .500 on the season.
Sunday’s game wasn’t the cleanest, but it was a win over a divisional rival, getting the team back to .500 in the AFC North. Still, there were plenty of causes for concern. The offense hasn’t looked quite the same since the first two explosive weeks of the season. And the defense, while better against the Steelers, lost another piece to injury, as safety Tony Jefferson is done for the season with a torn ACL.
Where does that leave this team? Are they the playoff contenders who can push the top teams in the AFC, or are they a Wild Card-round team at best?
“I think the jury is still out on the Ravens. They beat Miami, Arizona and then in overtime a Pittsburgh team that was on to their third quarterback. I don’t really know how good this Ravens team is,” said NFL on CBS lead sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson. “Right away, early on in the season, Lamar Jackson is the MVP candidate along with Patrick Mahomes, and then, all of a sudden, he takes a step back.”
Jackson’s performance has dropped off since the opening weeks, but as Wolfson points out, the offense’s struggles aren’t necessarily all on him.
“Their offensive line also needs to be better. Lamar Jackson was sacked five times, had three interceptions,” said Wolfson. “Obviously he needs to play better, but the offensive line needs to be better as well.”
The Ravens line ranks 23rd this season in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate at 8.2 percent, having given up 15 sacks on the season. That isn’t good enough for a team that wants to be among the top teams in the AFC. Jackson plays a part in that as well, in terms of finding the line between extending plays and getting the ball out quickly. But, overall, the line play will need to continue to improve as the season moves along.
The good news for both the line and the offense as a whole is that the Cincinnati Bengals come to M&T Bank Stadium this Sunday. The Bengals are win-less to this point in the season and are coming off a game in which they allowed Arizona to put up 26 points and over 500 yards of offense. Cincinnati’s defense ranks 31st in the league in Football Outsiders’ overall DVOA metric and in passing DVOA, ahead of only the Dolphins in both categories. We saw Jackson and the offense light up Miami in Week 1, so it’s possible a similar explosion could come this week.
The issue continues to be on the defensive side of the ball, where injuries have piled up in the secondary. In addition to Jefferson, corners Tavon Young and Jimmy Smith remain out due to injury. The Bengals offense has been similarly bottom of the barrel in terms of league rankings, so that should help. But, in terms of fixes moving forward, the biggest one may be finding a pass rush, because as Wolfson says, “that has obviously been an issue for them.”
The Ravens rank 26th in the league in Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate, with a rate of 5.4 percent on the year and nine sacks as a team. Six of those nine have come from Matt Judon and Pernell McPhee. Getting larger contributions from other members of the front seven would go a long way in helping the banged-up secondary. If the pass rush can put more pressure on the quarterback, leaving less time to throw, the secondary has a bit more leeway in how long it’s expected to keep up with receivers.
In that sense, this week can be a “get right” game for the Ravens, as the Bengals have already allowed 20 sacks this season. In the end, the matchup with Cincinnati, while it may not offer much insight into how good the team is moving forward, can be good for confidence if they get the win.
“If you can beat a team like Cincinnati, then you come out feeling a little good about yourself with two straight wins, and you have some confidence,” said Wolfson. “Maybe that carries over into the next few weeks.”
The Ravens host the Bengals Sunday @ 1 ET on CBS.