With Cleveland preparing to face Baltimore for a second time in 2011, we caught up with PFW Ravens correspondent Jeff Zrebiec, who covers the club for The (Baltimore) Sun. We asked Zrebiec for his take on a number of Ravens-related topics, including the team's greatest strength and weakness as the postseason nears:
PFW: What's the prevailing emotion around the Ravens after losing, then regaining, control of their fate in the AFC North race?
Zrebiec: Relief is probably the emotion that comes to mind first. The Ravens have talked so much about the importance of winning the AFC North and getting at least one home playoff game. After all, they haven't had one since 2006. So I think when they lost to the Chargers, they felt like it had gotten away from them again. But fortunately for them, the 49ers gave them a mulligan by beating the Steelers. RB Ray Rice said it best on Tuesday when he claimed that the Steelers' loss changed the mood of the whole team. Instead of dwelling on what was an incredibly poor performance in San Diego, the Ravens were able to look ahead to Saturday's game against Cleveland, knowing that pretty much everything they want is still out there in front of them.
PFW: What about the loss to San Diego on Sunday night was most troubling relative to the Ravens' chances of competing in January?
Zrebiec: The Ravens' offense obviously didn't play well against the Chargers, but I think the most troubling aspect of the game was the defense's failure to get pressure on Philip Rivers and the secondary's failure to make plays on the back end. The (cornerbacks are) young and (inexperienced) and they are going to have a hard time against quarterbacks who get the ball out quick and have a lot of weapons at their disposal. One way to combat that is by getting to the quarterback and disrupting things. The Ravens have done a great job of that this season and are second in the NFL in sacks. But I think you saw what could happen if they can't get to the quarterback.
PFW: Who's been the MVP of this club this season?
Zrebiec: That's real tough because RB Ray Rice has meant so much to the offense and LB Terrell Suggs has meant so much to the defense. But I'm going to go with Rice, who leads the team and is among the NFL leaders in rushing yards, touchdowns and yards from scrimmage. He also leads the Ravens in receptions. Suggs has had his best season and he's been an absolute game-wrecker at times, but I think the Ravens might be able to get by without him for a little bit because they do have other really good pass rushers. Without Rice, I have no idea how the Ravens would put up any points.
PFW: What's this club's biggest strength at this point of the season?
Zrebiec: It still has to be their defense. They are ranked third in the NFL in total defense, second in rush defense, fifth in pass defense, tied for third in points per game and first in third-down defensive percentage. They are also second in the NFL in sacks. The offense will obviously need to produce, but this team's identity is still its defense.
PFW: What is its greatest weakness?
Zrebiec: This may seem like a copout, but I'm going to go with its inconsistency. They've looked like the best team in the AFC in beating Pittsburgh twice to go along with wins over Houston, the New York Jets, Cincinnati and San Francisco. I don't know if there is a contender in the AFC with a better set of wins than the ones I mentioned. But I also don't know if there is a contender who has played worse than the Ravens did in losses to Tennessee, Jacksonville, Seattle and San Diego. It's just been hard to predict what Ravens team will show up every weekend. And they are simply not good enough to turn it on and off and expect to win in the playoffs.
Jeff Zrebiec's work can be found at www.baltimoresun.com/sports/ravens. He can be followed on Twitter @jeffzrebiecsun.