PRESTON: Ravens must figure out who they are — fast
The Ravens are having an identity crisis. They don't know who they are or what they want to be, they just know they have a couple of more weeks to decide, or the 2015 season is over.
It's not unusual for most teams to go through this phase early in the season, but the proven teams already know what they're about. With the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers, it's about offense and quarterbacks. In Arizona, it's about the Cardinals defense. Even the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills have an identity: it's all about defense.
In Baltimore, the Ravens only identity is winless. So Monday afternoon, after the Ravens' 37-33 loss to the Oakland Raiders, coach John Harbaugh was accurate in his assessment.
"What are we capable of being? What are we, really?" Harbaugh said. "We're going to find out over the course of the next few weeks."
In the first two weeks, the Ravens have been everything but consistent. In a 19-13 season-opening loss to the Denver Broncos, the defense showed up but the offense was missing in action. On Sunday against the Raiders, the offense was productive and the defense horrendous.
Now comes the interesting part because the coaching staff has to sift through the rubble of the past two weeks and find the strengths of this team. The Ravens also have to answer two major questions: Was Denver's offense so erratic at the time that the Broncos made the Ravens defense look good? Was Oakland's defense so bad that the Ravens were actually able to be productive offensively?
In theory, at least on offense, the Ravens wanted to have a dominant running game in 2015 like they did last year when they averaged 126.2 yards per game and starting halfback Justin Forsett finished with 1,266 yards rushing on 235 carries.
But the Ravens had just 73 rushing yards against the Broncos and 109 against Oakland. Against the Raiders, quarterback Joe Flacco threw for 384 yards but had just 117 yards against Denver. Ideally, every team wants to be balanced, but that's not an identity.
Most head coaches and coordinators say they will take what the other team gives them as the game goes along, but you also want to know what your team does best.
At this point, what is the Ravens' strength? Is it the offensive line and Forsett, or Flacco throwing down the field to Steve Smith Sr. and the rest of the boys?
Defensively, the Ravens are at a crossroads, as well. With players like linebackers Ray Lewis, Jamie Sharper, Peter Boulware and Terrell Suggs, former coordinators such as Marvin Lewis, Rex Ryan and Chuck Pagano could blitz linebackers often because they had cornerbacks like Duane Starks and Chris McAlister and safeties like Rod Woodson and Ed Reed.
None of those players are here anymore.
Against Denver in the season opener, the Ravens sacked Peyton Manning four times and hit him five other times. In Oakland Sunday, Derek Carr was sacked once and threw for 351 yards.
At the beginning of the season, the defensive line and linebackers were expected to be strengths, but neither group played well against the Raiders. The secondary was suspect going into 2015 and it still is after giving up several big plays in Oakland.
So, what is the strength here, what gives coordinator Dean Pees something to build around?
"It's always challenging when you don't have any wins," Ravens safety Will Hill said. "The head of the organization is going to come down on the head coach, and the head coach is going to come down on the players. So we all have to be ready for the storm."
Even the special teams, which have been outstanding the past two weeks, are in flux. The Ravens have used three punt returners in two games, but they shouldn't have Smith back there. If he gets hurt, the Ravens have no passing game.
At this point, Harbaugh has to keep everything in perspective. This is his greatest challenge in the eight seasons he has been head coach. In retrospect, the Ravens were only a few plays from being undefeated.
But that's the storyline of most teams in the NFL. Those who make those plays go into the postseason, and those that don't stay home.
The Ravens know where they want to go, just not how they are going to get there.