Ravens finally reach down cycle in 8th year under Harbaugh

Associated Press

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — On the first day of training camp, Ravens top draft pick Breshad Perriman impressed his coaches and teammates with his speed and pass-catching ability.

A few minutes later, Perriman hurt his knee in a non-contact drill.

Coach John Harbaugh predicted the rookie receiver would be back "as early as tomorrow, or a couple days at the most."

Perriman still hasn't played a down because of a sprained PCL, and his status for the rest of the season is uncertain.

The injury was the first of many for the Ravens (2-6), who reached their bye week with a far better chance of landing a top-10 draft pick than avoiding their first losing season since 2007.

In an era when the salary cap, the draft and unbalanced scheduling have created parity in the NFL, Baltimore was one of the few teams that averted a down cycle — until now. After reaching the postseason in six of the past seven years under Harbaugh, the Ravens are in last place in the AFC North.

Pivotal injuries, an uncharacteristically shoddy defense, close losses and an unforgiving road slate contributed to the worst start in franchise history.

"It's really been tough for us," conceded linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who's got only 2 1/2 sacks after registering a franchise-record 17 last year. The drop-off can be attributed in part to the loss of sack-partner Terrell Suggs, who tore his left Achilles tendon in the season opener.

The lack of a pass rush, along with a soft secondary, has been costly to a defense that once owned a reputation for being fierce, punishing and effective.

Baltimore has gone five straight games without forcing a turnover, ranks 25th in total defense and is 30th against the pass.

Even in victory, the defense has been flawed. In a 29-27 loss on Sunday, San Diego's Philip Rivers threw for 301 yards and three touchdowns.

"Our coverage is dramatically better than it was two weeks ago, three weeks ago, four weeks ago. It's dramatically better," Harbaugh insisted.

"But obviously, it's not where it needs to be yet. We're going to get there no matter how long it takes. But the clock is ticking on the season, so let's go ahead and do it immediately."

Baltimore's only two wins came on field goals by Justin Tucker on the game's final play, including that squeaker against San Diego that sent the Ravens into an eagerly anticipated bye.

"This is a long, tough grind. Obviously, physically, but mentally, too," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "You have to be able to get away and get your mind quiet for at least a little bit so you can come back fresh and ready to go for the next half."

The second half can't possibly be as miserable as the first. The foundation for this disappointing season was laid soon after the Ravens lost to New England in the playoffs last January.

Pressed by a tight salary cap, general manger Ozzie Newsome opted against spending the millions required to re-sign free agent wide receiver Torrey Smith. Newsome hoped to fill the void by drafting Perriman, but the plan went awry during that ill-fated first summer practice.

The shortage of viable wide receivers worsened when veteran Steve Smith tore his right Achilles tendon against San Diego. Smith became the 12th Baltimore player on injured reserve.

"You move on," Harbaugh said. "No excuses."

No NFL team has ever made the playoffs after starting 1-6, but the Ravens haven't lost hope.

"We're trying to make history and just win all of the rest of our games," defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said.

The schedule is favorable. Over the opening eight weeks, Baltimore lost at San Francisco, Denver, Arizona and Oakland. In the final half, the Ravens have five home games, and six of the eight teams they face are currently .500 or worse.

Harbaugh has never been through a tougher season, but there have been enough positives to make it tolerable.

"I'm happy with a lot of things. Obviously, the effort, the fact that they've stuck together the way they have, the fact they they've fought the way they have, the fact that they've worked hard to improve," he said. "We've never flinched, never blinked, never backed down.

"That gives me great hope for where we can go as a football team, and I'm excited about what the second half holds. What we've been through has given us an opportunity to grow into what we're going to be, ultimately. Now it's up to us to go do it."