Should The AFC Be Scared Of The Ravens?

By Rich Manfredi - @PhillyOwl

How afraid should the AFC be of the Baltimore Ravens?

They’ve won five of seven. They have two games left against the Colts and Bengals, who are a combined 8-20. Their quarterback who always heats up in December is heating up in December.

So, how afraid should the AFC be? Very, very afraid.

All football fans know the story of Joe Flacco’s exceptional 2012 postseason, which ended with a Lombardi Trophy. Beyond that, Flacco has won a lot of games, but has essentially been Sam Bradford with a cleaner bill of health and a better deep ball.

The “Is Flacco elite?” debate has always been nonsense to me. He’s far from elite, but that doesn’t need to be an insult. Flacco is just okay, but he’s not bad. He’s the “C’s get degrees” of quarterbacks.

On a run-first team with a great defense, Flacco doesn’t need to be Russell Wilson by putting the team on his back. That very same back was the main factor in his dreadful start to the season, as Flacco participated sparingly in OTAs and training camp. Anyone who has ever tweaked their back knows that carrying groceries can be difficult with back issues, let alone throwing a football and getting hit by 300-pound men.

Since Baltimore’s bye, Flacco’s YPA has gone up considerably, which speaks to his improving health. He’s able to throw the ball further and with more accuracy because he’s doesn’t need to be a statue and favor his tender back. If he can stretch the field and continue to take care of the football, the old, game-managing Joe Flacco will be back just in time for the playoffs.

The Ravens consistently have a solid defense every season, but this year it’s been sneaky elite without anyone really noticing them. Here are a few categories where the Baltimore D currently ranks in the top ten:

  • 10th in yards per game
  • 4th in points per game
  • 2nd in passer rating against
  • 1st in interceptions
  • T-3rd in passing TDs allowed
  • 5th in yards per attempt against
  • T-7th in sacks

In addition, the group is just outside the top ten in yards per carry allowed at 11th.

It wouldn’t be an elite Ravens defense without a vicious middle linebacker holding the unit together, and C.J. Mosley is honoring the legacy left by Ray Lewis. Mosley is not only sixth in the NFL with 121 tackles, but he also has followed in Lewis’ footsteps by being a great pass defender. He has six pass breakups and two interceptions, with three forced fumbles for good measure. In the mix with studs like Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner, the case can be made for Mosley as the best 'Mike' in the game.

Veteran safety Eric Weddle has become a locker room leader in just three seasons in Baltimore, and his on-field impact is large as well. Weddle leads the team with six interceptions and is fourth on the squad in tackles. The Ravens’ secondary entered the season missing promising second-year corner Tavon Young, who tore his ACL back in June, but their depth and knack for drafting special defensive players helped make up the ground.

Rookie Marlon Humphrey, an Alabama product just like Mosley, has played extremely well en route to being tied for the team lead with nine pass breakups. The man he’s tied with, Brandon Carr, brings veteran leadership to the squad along with the team's Swiss Army knife in the secondary, Lardarius Webb. Humphrey will need to keep it up now that #1 cornerback Jimmy Smith has been lost for the season. That loss would cripple most teams, but Baltimore’s depth negates the need to worry (at least a little bit).

Terrell Suggs is still somehow getting it done as an elite pass rusher in his 15th (!!!) season. Suggs has 11 sacks this season, and two more exceptional Ozzie Newsome draft picks, Matthew Judon (2016, 5th round) and Tyus Bowser (2017, 2nd round) are following suit with seven and three sacks, respectively.

Terrell Suggs helps lead an impressive Ravens defense. (Patrick Smith, Getty Images)

Bizarrely cast off by the running back-needy Seattle Seahawks, Alex Collins has become the X-factor of the Baltimore offense. He’s averaging 4.9 YPC and is on pace for just under 1,000 yards. Collins didn’t get involved in the passing game until midseason, catching his first pass in Week 8 (a 40-0 waxing of Miami). Since then, he’s been catching two to three passes weekly, on his way to averaging 90.4 yards from scrimmage over that span.

The “RB by committee” and “bellcow RBs are dead” narratives have largely been put to bed lately by players like Le'Veon Bell, David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott and more. However, the Ravens are proof that the RBBC approach can still bear fruit. All Ravens ball carriers are collectively on pace for 1,767 rushing yards and a total of 2,448 yards from scrimmage. Like Brad Pitt taught us in Moneyball, sometimes recreating the production of one star player is more effective than just replacing that star.

Collins surely gets the lion’s share of the touches, but Buck Allen and Terrance West are mixed in regularly, in addition to the now-healthy and always dangerous Danny Woodhead. It’s no coincidence that the Ravens are 4-1 with Woodhead since his return, as he has 21 catches in just five games.

Following the “running and defense” blueprint to a T, the Ravens have an experienced quarterback who is finding his footing, a great coach, a top-five defense and the ability to control the clock. Likely heading into the playoffs at 10-6, and with key AFC players like Antonio Brown going down, Baltimore is a team that no AFC squad wants to see in January.

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