OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Two weeks ago, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs admitted his team was in trouble. The defending Super Bowl champions had lost three of their previous four games and had little to feel proud of, even amid the relief of a bye week.
“A state of emergency,” Suggs called his team’s plight after a 19-16 loss to the last-place Pittsburgh Steelers.
The bye came and went. Coach John Harbaugh tinkered with the offense, hoping for a spark. Players hoped they’d rediscover the magic of a season earlier. Instead, another loss followed the bye, this time to the Cleveland Browns — the Ravens’ first loss to their AFC North neighbor since 2007.
So, Suggs stood at his locker stall this past Wednesday and pondered how to describe his team’s 3-5 performance in the first half of the NFL season.
“Defcon-5?” he said. “I think that’s pretty serious.”
Baltimore ended the 2012 season on a postseason tear, shaking off a 1-4 regular-season finish and plowing through the playoffs before lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans. A Super Bowl hangover wasn’t a surprise, but this? The Ravens, with the same coaching staff and much of the same roster — minus a few stars, including one whose departure has perhaps hurt worse than expected — have lost three in a row.
Entering Sunday’s game against the first-place Bengals, Baltimore’s opponents have scored first in six of eight games, and the Ravens have led at halftime only twice. In five games decided by six points or fewer, the champs have four losses.
“We just haven’t played well enough to earn the right to go win the game,” quarterback Joe Flacco said.
One by one, Ravens players insisted last week that they’re still the confident group that stomped Indianapolis, surprised Denver and New England, and held off San Francisco on the way to a second championship. But a flimsy offensive line, a weak rush offense, and a lack of overall answers have defined the 2013 Ravens, leaving little trace of a team that should be strutting through its schedule and showing off its championship rings.
“There’s a lot of unseen improvement in there when you study the tape,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve got a lot of optimism; we do as a team. But boy, we’d sure like to get it going and build some confidence and see our guys starting to make some plays. We believe we can do that.”
The Ravens believe because, in 2012, that much carried them to the top. After an overtime loss to Washington last December, Harbaugh fired offensive coordinator and friend Cam Cameron, replacing him with Jim Caldwell. The new coordinator highlighted Flacco and an up-tempo style, and though it wasn’t always pretty, Baltimore clinched the division championship by beating the New York Giants 33-14.
“We had a goal right there for us. Every week, we had that chance,” Flacco said. “This year is a little bit different, but like I said, we’ve got a bunch of confident guys, and I think if anybody, we’re the locker room to do so.”
That locker room, though, now lacks several of the famous faces that led the turnaround less than a year ago. Ray Lewis is an ESPN commentator after retiring following 17 seasons, and safety Ed Reed is a part-time player with Houston.
Baltimore’s defense has weathered those losses, but the offense has adapted poorly to the retirement of former center Matt Birk. The team is 29th in rush offense, and running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce have each averaged 2.7 yards per carry. Rice’s season-high in rushing is 74 yards, and the team hasn’t scored a rushing touchdown in three games.
Caldwell’s explosive offense is nowhere to be found, and Flacco has his eye on baby steps.
“I’m seeing us not get first downs,” the quarterback said. “We’re just not good enough in converting.”
Ravens guard Marshal Yanda said Wednesday that Birk, a six-time Pro Bowler, offered hints throughout last season that he was considering retirement, telling his fellow linemen that he was eyeing a future without pads.
“Kind of hinting toward it all year long, so you just kind of knew,” Yanda said. “And then obviously after we won the Super Bowl, you knew for sure.”
Birk, who was 36 at the time, announced his decision three weeks after Super Bowl, and Baltimore installed second-year center Gino Gradkowski at center. Yanda said he and his teammates believe in the 25-year-old, but he acknowledged the difficulty in replacing a player with Birk’s experience.
Birk’s departure was the first major shift for the Ravens’ line and therefore their offense. They made an in-season change at left tackle, acquiring former first-round pick Eugene Monroe from Jacksonville and trading veteran Bryant McKinnie to Miami. Second-year left guard Kelechi Osemele injured his back, and Harbaugh indicated last week that surgery would likely end Osemele’s season.
“We’ve been going through the fire this year,” said Yanda, the team’s eldest starting lineman at 29. “You just want to keep your head up.”
When the Ravens practiced Wednesday, Harbaugh said, he told his team that it must start faster, avoid mistakes, become better blockers, become better defenders. The list continued, so many problems on the shoulders of a team expected to again be a contender.
“You look at yourself first,” Harbaugh said.
He added that he and Caldwell have, during the past few weeks, made a few changes — “tweaks,” he called them — but he wouldn’t elaborate on them. He indicated that, like last year, this disappointing start could be good for his team — if it responds the right way.
“We’re kind of in a corner,” he said, “but you’re always in a corner. And how we handle it will be what’s remembered, not the adversity we go through. That’s how life is. We all face circumstances. It’s how you handle it that’s going to be remembered.”
Players offered potential solutions, none of which will be worth much unless the Ravens defeat the Bengals on Sunday. Nose tackle Haloti Ngata said a turnaround in 2013 is as simple as each player doing his own job without overcompensating. Wide receiver Torrey Smith said the team must continue believing, ushering away frustration and doubt. And Flacco said the Ravens must simply be patient and become more consistent.
Suggs, who has now twice sounded the alarm, said he remained confident that his team will improve; that it will be remembered for more than its mistakes.
After all, it has happened before.
“We know any one of these games can be the one, where it finally clicks for us and we start playing like we know we can,” Suggs said. “We’re just holding onto that. Every man involved will do whatever it takes to get this team rolling in the right direction.”