In a span of nine months, the Baltimore Ravens have gone from atop the football world to third place in the AFC North. The defending Super Bowl champions have lost four of their past five games and dropped to 3-5, their worst record at the midway point since the 2007 season.
The Ravens are two games behind the Cincinnati Bengals (6-3) and play the AFC North leaders twice in the second half of the season. In order to make any major move forward, the Ravens have to find a way to start faster on offense and finish stronger on defense.
So far, the Ravens have earned a first-half grade of C-minus. Their past four losses have been decided by a total of 14 points. But all three of their wins have come against teams with losing records and against two quarterbacks (Brandon Weeden and Matt Schaub) who are no longer starters.
Here's the first-half assessment of the Ravens:
GRADING THE BALTIMORE RAVENS
|Quarterbacks||Joe Flacco hasn't had any help from his supporting cast, from a struggling running game to a lackluster offensive line. But he hasn't helped make the people around him better either. Flacco has had problems with accuracy, and his 59.4 percent completion rate ranks 24th in the league. His nine interceptions are tied for the sixth most in the NFL. It's admirable how Flacco has hung in a consistently collapsing pocket, but he hasn't been able to carry over a strong playoff run into the 2013 regular season.|
|Running Backs||Ray Rice hasn't seen many open holes. But when he's had running room, Rice hasn't been able to produce big plays. Rice's biggest problem is letting one guy bring him down. He's being brought to the ground too often on first contact. His 37 yards rushing per game rank 35th in the NFL. But Rice isn't the only Ravens running back who has disappointed. There are three running backs who have been held under 3 yards per carry (with at least 50 carries), and two of them are with the Ravens: Rice and backup Bernard Pierce.|
|Wide Receivers||Torrey Smith has taken over the Ravens' No. 1 role, although teams have been able to slow him down the past three games. He is tied for the NFL lead with 15 catches of at least 20 yards and he has 36 catches, which is 10 more than any other player on the roster. Undrafted rookie Marlon Brown has been one of the biggest surprises of the year. He has stepped up to fill Anquan Boldin's void in the red zone, scoring a team-high five touchdowns. No rookie has more this season. Tandon Doss has had one catch of at least 20 yards in his past five games. Jacoby Jones, Deonte Thompson and Brandon Stokley have been slowed by injuries.|
|Tight Ends||The Ravens are missing Dennis Pitta terribly. Pitta, who is on the injured reserve designated for return list with a hip injury, would be among the Ravens' top two leaders in catches. Instead, the Ravens are trying to make do with an inconsistent Dallas Clark and an undependable Ed Dickson. They have totaled 32 catches for 375 yards and two touchdowns. Nine tight ends have more catches than Clark and Dickson combined. The Ravens can only hope Pitta will be ready to return this month.|
|Offensive Line||The run blocking has been embarrassingly bad, and the pass protection hasn't been much better. The disappointing play in the offensive line is a major reason why the Ravens rank 29th in running the ball and why Flacco has been sacked 25 times (seventh most in the NFL). Left tackle Bryant McKinnie was playing so poorly that the Ravens traded for Eugene Monroe to replace him. But the problems go beyond one player. Some of the blame can be attributed to the line's health. Left guard Kelechi Osemele is probably done for the season with a back injury. Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda hasn't looked the same after having offseason shoulder surgery. And right tackle Michael Oher has been dealing with an ankle injury since the season opener. Center Gino Gradkowski has also been overmatched in his first year as a starter.|
|Defensive Line||The best player on the line has surprisingly been Art Jones, who has three sacks. He's played so well that he likely has priced himself out of re-signing with Baltimore. Haloti Ngata has not been a difference-maker at nose tackle. It's the second straight underwhelming season for the Pro Bowl lineman. Chris Canty, the top pickup on the defensive line this offseason, has been banged up and inconsistent this season. Veteran end Marcus Spears was being outplayed by rookie third-round pick Brandon Williams and was released after the bye.|
|Linebackers||The Ravens haven't felt the absence of Ray Lewis on the field because of Daryl Smith. He's one of two players -- Buffalo's Kiko Alonso is the other -- to have at least 70 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble this season. Terrell Suggs has bounced back strong from last year's injuries (Achilles and biceps). He has nine sacks this season and has recorded a sack in all but one game this season. The play of Elvis Dumervil has been hit or miss. He's been a game-wrecker some weeks and has disappeared in other games. The Ravens have received adequate play from Jameel McClain and Josh Bynes. Courtney Upshaw is the blue-collar worker of the group.|
|Secondary||Lardarius Webb isn't the same cornerback he was before he tore his anterior cruciate ligament 13 months ago. Teams have picked on him this season, and receivers have faked him out in the open field. Jimmy Smith has held his own and makes plays when he looks back for the ball. You can make the case that he's been the team's best corner. Corey Graham was benched from the starting lineup after giving up three touchdowns in the season opener. Rookie safety Matt Elam is learning on the job. There have been times when he's looked confused and tentative. Safety James Ihedigbo is better when moving forward than backpedaling in coverage. The Ravens are lucky to have Ihedigbo, considering Michael Huff never panned out. He went from being a starter in the season opener to being cut eight weeks later.|
|Special Teams||Punter Sam Koch is struggling in his eighth season with the Ravens. He is netting a career-worst 37.6 yards. The coverage teams have been a weak area, ranking in the bottom third of the league in punts and kickoffs. Justin Tucker has converted 14 straight field goals after missing two in Week 2. Tandon Doss has been one of the NFL's top punt returners after filling in for the injured Jacoby Jones. But Doss let a punt go right through his hands deep in his own territory Sunday, which was the costliest mistake in the loss at Cleveland. There have been too many penalties on special teams, which has affected the Ravens' field position.|
|Coaching||Most of John Harbaugh's aggressive calls (like going for it on fourth-and-goal and the onside kick) have backfired on him. The Ravens have had the same problems all season -- slow starts, bad running game, poor pass protection and lapses in coverage -- and it reflects poorly on the staff that few have been fixed. The brunt of the criticism falls on the Ravens' new blocking scheme in the run game, which has thrown everything out of whack. This is the first time the Ravens have had a run game coordinator (Juan Castillo), and they are averaging under 3 yards per carry at the midway point of the season for the first time in team history. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has put the Ravens in the right position to stop teams on third downs and in the red zone. But he has to find a way to get teams off the field late in the fourth quarter.|