1. Streak ends- Quarterback Joe Flacco and Head Coach John Harbaugh came into this matchup with an impressive 11-0 record against the Browns, but that streak was snapped this afternoon. The Ravens once again got off to a slow start and were unable to get off the field when it mattered most. Coming off their bye week, there was a sense of optimism amongst players and coaches, but now the team is even closer to hitting the panic button. The Ravens now sit at 3-5 and have very little wiggle room the rest of the way. With two division losses, they have their backs against the wall and must beat the Bengals both times this season if they want to win the division. There isn’t a lot that a team can do at this point in the season but go out there and execute, and the Ravens are struggling to do that. They will have to turn things around quickly as the first place Bengals come to town next Sunday.
2. Fourth quarter defense struggles- What separated last years championship team and the other four playoff teams under Harbaugh was the fact that the 2012 Ravens made plays in big moments. When they were losing, the defense was able to get a crucial stop and give the offense a chance to win the game. In their last three games the 2013 Ravens defense has been unable to get off the field and give the offense one last opportunity. That is alarming for a team with aspirations of defending their Super Bowl title. It is easier to understand that when Aaron Rodgers or even Ben Roethlisberger is the quarterback of that opposing team, but when it is journeyman Jason Campbell, then there is a reason to be concerned. If this team is going to get back on track then the fourth quarter defense is going to have to start making plays.
3. Secondary issues- As Gary Barnidge stood wide open in the end zone and caught an easy touchdown I couldn’t understand how halfway through the season, and coming off a bye week, that this secondary still is struggling to communicate. Browns players were getting plenty of separation all day and there was little the Ravens could do to stop them. Greg Little tore up the secondary for over a 100 yards. Davone Bess was able to put together a strong performance after coming off one of his worst games as a pro. What was supposed to be a strength for this defense, with Corey Graham and Jimmy Smith coming off strong seasons and Lardarius Webb returning from an injury, has turned into a weakness. Safety James Ihedigbo is the only bright spot out of this group, and rookie Matt Elam has shown glimpses of greatness, but isn’t playing at a consistent level. The pass rush won’t always be there, so this group will have to get on the same page if things are going to change.
4. Wacko Flacco- Number 5 looked a lot like Michael Vick out there today, extending plays with his legs and picking up crucial third downs with his legs. Unfortunately, Flacco isn’t paid to make plays with his feet like Vick was. Flacco didn’t have a choice, however, as he was forced out of the pocket almost every play looking for a way to pick up yards. Flacco still isn’t consistently accurate and forces some passes, but he is doing the most he can with what he has. The line isn’t giving him enough time to make plays, and the receivers aren’t getting enough separation. The one thing that Flacco has really struggled with this season is his deep ball. Known for his big arm, Flacco has been under throwing a lot of deep balls and that was evident with his interception that was intended for Jacoby Jones. Jones had gotten early separation, but by the time the ball got there, three Browns players were there to contest the ball. Flacco is going to have to find his touch again, so defenses fear the big plays like they did last postseason.
5. Leadership will be tested- Since Harbaugh has become the Head Coach of the Ravens they have always made the playoffs. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were also on those teams, and they are two of the greatest leaders of last 20 years. Over the last six years this team has never been in this situation at this point in the season. They are going to be fully tested from here on out. How the leaders respond to this adversity will determine how far they can go. Terrell Suggs and Joe Flacco have become the faces of this team, and they must find a way to get the best out of this team. Veterans Ray Rice, Haloti Ngata, and Marshall Yanda will also have to step up. Accountability is crucial for a team facing adversity and these guys have to be willing to own up to their own mistakes and not be afraid to call out their teammates who need to step up. Not only will the players have to step up, but the coaches, especially Harbaugh, will have to find a way to motivate this team. It is clear that frustration is mounting in this locker room and on the sideline, so whatever problems the players and coaches are having will have to be addressed. I think Harbaugh is a great coach, but we have never seen him in this position before, so it will be interesting to see how the team responds to him in the coming weeks. Flacco has caught a lot of scrutiny for his quite demeanor, but over the past few weeks he has shown a lot more emotion on the field, as he is getting frustrated with himself and the players around him. Maybe he will step out of that shell and address the team the way Lewis used to. Or maybe he will continue to keep to himself and lead by example. Either way, these players will be tested these coming weeks. This is new territory for the Ravens organization and fans, so everyone will have to come together and get on the same page if there is any hope for them to turn things around. They have the players and coaches to do it, but it is time for there to be accountability in this locker room and for the stars of this team to step up and lead by example.