Q: Prior to week one, you and I discussed Joe Flacco's impressive run through the 2012 playoffs, followed by his disappointing 2013 campaign. Flacco is off to a great start in 2014 and on pace for his best season as a pro in terms of touchdowns, yards, completion percentage and quarterback rating. Is the difference attributable to Steve Smith alone? Or has something else changed in 2014?
A: Most people look at his 2013 season as an indicator, which you really can't. He had an injured offensive line and was second in the league in sacks as well as injuries at tight end and a missing possession receiver in Anquan Boldin. This all to go with an offensive scheme that apparently was more related to a NASA mission to launch a satellite with the way we were tossing the ball down the field.
Now that he has an offensive line that puts him in the bottom five in sacks on the year, a wide receiver in Steve Smith that catches nearly everything thrown at him, a run game that is seventh in the league in yards per game as well as an offensive coordinator that knows how to utilize all of that. Simply put, Flacco isn't having to put the entire game on his shoulders alone while being harassed all day long and that is the difference.
Q: Speaking of Steve Smith, he is having a huge year. Why has Smith been so successful in this offense?
A: Well it really is as simple as him catching a majority of his passes and being able to get open, something the other receivers on this team still have difficulty with. Because of that, he has gained Flacco's trust in the more important situations and Smith has been taking advantage of that. I also had to argue that the old man wasn't nearly as old as a lot of outsiders expected him to look, and you saw that last week as he was able to turn on the afterburners and gain a lot more yards after the catch.
Not to bash Cam Newton, but I think Smith's stories about his leadership and ability aren't exaggerations and there is more than a sliver of truth there. While Newton is having a great year this year, he just isn't as accurate as Flacco is or as calm under pressure. Not to mention that last year, Carolina seemed to want to do everything possible to get rid of Steve Smith, so he just wasn't incorporated into the gameplan like he could have been.
Q: As impressive as Steve Smith has been, the other Smith (Torrey Smith), is on pace for his worst season - statistically. Why the drastic decrease in Torrey Smith's numbers?
A: Really, it is the complete opposite as Steve Smith. Torrey has been a fantastic player for the Ravens in the past when he was the featured threat and the Ravens bombed the ball down the field. Take away the ridiculous number of 40+ yard throws and it requires Torrey Smith to get open using more than his straight line speed, which he just doesn't have the capability to do regularly. Then you have the factor that his hands just aren't as solid as Steve Smith's, with him dropping the odd target here and there that should be an easy catch.
I think most Ravens fans are understanding quickly this season that Torrey Smith isn't a No. 1 receiver and he might just be a fast guy who can take the top off the defense for you. While that can be major for this offense, he ends up being more of a compliment to other receivers than the main guy.
Q: The Ravens struggled running the ball in 2013, but that has not been the case in 2014. Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro are having big years and the Ravens rank seventh in rushing yards per game. What do you see as the difference in the Ravens 2014 running attack?
A: Really, that goes back to the offensive line. The Ravens are finally healthy, outside of the last few weeks, and they have offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak refining the zone blocking scheme installed last year. Last year the Ravens had injuries all along the offensive line, a second year center that was undersized and overmatched as well as having to trade and switch left guards mid season to go with an underperforming Michael Oher. The change is night and day as we have the entire offensive line running for first downs at times. When you have an offensive line performing like that, it makes life a lot easier for the running backs behind them. Needless to say, Justin Forsett owes a bunch of guys dinner at the end of the season for sure.
Q: The Ravens are currently one of the most balanced teams in the league and rank in the top ten in almost every offensive and defensive category - including 1st in points allowed per game. What are the Ravens' biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses?
A: This is a much tougher question to answer just because the weakness answer is going to seem like a copout. Truly, the Ravens' biggest weakness is just themselves. We've seen what they can do the past two weeks now if they play even remotely well. But add in some turnovers and penalties and those games can go the opposite direction quickly. Outside of the coach speak, the Ravens do have a dinged up secondary still with Lardarius Webb trying to knock the rust off. However, that is improving as guys get more playing time and especially now with Will Hill getting off suspension.
One of the biggest strengths for the Ravens has to be their depth in almost every spot. Pitta goes down, Owen Daniels is there. Offensive lineman goes down, rookie has stepped in and done pretty darn well. Offensively, the depth has allowed the Ravens to create matchups in the passing game and by Flacco spreading the ball around to a number of different receivers, it keeps defenses guessing where the ball will be going, giving them a major advantage.
Q: At 5-2, the Ravens lead the AFC North. The Ravens two losses have come at the hands of two teams (Bengals and Colts) with a combined 8-4-1 record (.615) while their 5 wins have come against teams with a combined 13-19-1 record (.394). How good are the Ravens?
A: While we are playing the Bengals and this whole thing is going on the Bengals blog, I have to say that the Ravens did a wonderful job of beating themselves in the first matchup. Concentration issues at nearly every spot mixed with a secondary and offensive line still trying to gel and coaches that were figuring out how to use everyone properly. Steve Smith alone seemed to drop everything coming his way and yet the game wasn't terribly far out of reach for the Ravens. I think the Ravens in Week 8 are better than the Ravens of Week 1 and I think they would have won that game. The Colts are looking like a top three team in the league as they go out and perform week in and week out after a tough start to the season.
Unfortunately, this is football and that can be unpredictable and the Ravens have just as likely a chance to win out as they do to lose every game by a wide margin, so it is tough to really know what will happen in the future for them. However, I think the Ravens are ultimately an 11-12 win team this season and are getting better every week. I think this team has something going on and I wouldn't be surprised if they got into the playoffs and kicked it into overdrive like the 2012 season.
Q: On Sunday, the Ravens win if...
A: If they can get pressure on Dalton, stop the run and run effectively themselves. While not the sexiest answer, look for the Ravens offensive and defensive lines to dictate if the Ravens win or lose.
Q: On Sunday, the Ravens lose if...
A: The Ravens lose if they aren't disciplined or if they allow pressure on quarterback Joe Flacco creating mistakes.
Q: What is your prediction for Sunday's AFC North showdown?
A: I think the Ravens continue on their good play while the Bengals continue to slide backwards. I expect the Ravens to win, 24-14 by getting to Dalton and making him make mistakes while capitalizing on good field position to score quickly and then run well to drown out the time of possession.