Steve Smith - Baltimore Ravens WR

Can you believe a quarter of the season is already over? It still feels like the opener was just last weekend, but here we are heading into week five with the Ravens sitting at 3-1. So what have we learned about the 2014 Ravens so far?

1. Despite the Ray Rice debacle, the Ravens may have depth at running back

If you had told me before Training Camp that Ray Rice would be finished in Baltimore and that Justin Forsett would be seeing the bulk of the playing time at running back, I would have expected the running game to be a complete disaster. Through four games at least, that is far from the case. While they are using a committee approach that kills Fantasy Football owners, the three-headed monster of Forsett, Lorenzo Taliaferro, and Bernard Pierce have posted impressive numbers, combining for 538 yards (good for 8th in the league) and averaging 4.5 yards a carry.

Forsett and Taliaferro have given the team an especially nice boost over the last two weeks, providing the Ravens with a “thunder and lightning” dynamic that has helped lead the team to two victories. Taliaferro, the bruising rookie from Coastal Carolina, burst onto the scene against the Browns in week three with 91 yards and a touchdown on just 18 carries and followed that up with 58 yards and a touchdown against the Panthers in week four. Forsett, meanwhile, has been a steady performer each week, leading the team in carries (44) and yards (255).

Adding to the unexpected developments is how quickly Pierce has seemingly been overtaken for touches. The expected starter following Rice‘s departure, Pierce lead the team in rushing in the week two win over Pittsburgh with 96 yards, but dealt with a thigh injury that kept him out of the Cleveland game. Despite a clean bill of health the next week against Carolina, Pierce didn’t receive a carry, as the Ravens decided to stick with the hot hands of Forsett and Taliaferro.

2. The Offensive Line could be a strength of this team

In 2013, the Baltimore offensive line was one of the worst, if not THE worst, in the NFL. Oh, what a difference a year (and health) can make. The Ravens line has provided good push up front for the running game and (most importantly) kept opposing defenders’ hands off of Joe Flacco with literally zero sacks allowed over the last three games.

Much of the improvement can be credited to Marshall Yanda and Kelechi Osemele returning to full health. After battling through the 2013 season with back and shoulder injuries respectively, Osemele and Yanda have recaptured the form that helped lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl title in 2012.

Not to be outdone, new starters Jeremy Zuttah at center and Rick Wagner at right tackle, have solidified the trouble spots from years past. Zuttah has been a solid veteran presence in the middle and Wagner has been a revelation on the right side.  Through four games, Pro Football Focus actually has Wagner, a second year player out of Wisconsin, rated as one of the top ranked right tackles in all of the NFL.

One area of concern is on the blind side, where starting left tackle Eugene Monroe is currently sidelined after knee surgery. While Monroe is expected to be back before the end of the season, the exact timetable for his return is still in question. Rookie free agent James Hurst handled himself admirably in his first start against Carolina, but will continue to be tested in the weeks ahead.

3. Gary Kubiak and Steve Smith have delivered

New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak came to Baltimore with a reputation for putting together great offenses and, so far, he has lived up to that reputation. Through four games, the Ravens are averaging just over 394 yards per game (6th best in the league) and, since the second half of game one against the Bengals, the Ravens have outscored their opponents 101 to 45.

Helping Kubiak and the offense has been the presence of new Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith. To say Smith has been impressive would be an understatement. Smith is third in the league in receiving (429), adding leadership, toughness, and an attitude to the offense not seen since Anquan Boldin was traded to the 49ers before last season.  In my opinion, Smith has proven to be even more impactful than Boldin was in a Ravens uniform and has quickly developed into Joe Flacco’s number one option.

4. The Secondary has been problematic

It can only get better from here, right? The back end of the defense has played about as well as a horse’s back end. Only Jimmy Smith has been impressive at times and even he has been involved in communications breakdowns that have led to big plays for Baltimore’s opponents. Currently the Ravens rank in the bottom third of the league in pass defense.

Matt Elam, Darian Stewart, and Chykie Brown have been the biggest culprits so far, resulting in the Ravens ranking in the bottom third of the league in pass defense. Moving forward, Baltimore must hope for improved play from Elam, a return to health for cornerback Lardarius Webb, and positive contributions from rookie safety Terrence Brooks and veteran Will Hill, currently finishing up a 6-game suspension for marijuana use.

5. I should stop making predictions

It was fun to make my Ravens predictions prior to week one, but so far I wasn’t very good at it. For a recap (and a good laugh) you can read my six “fearless” predictions for the Ravens season right here.

1. Rice – I should have just steered clear of Rice all together, but I thought he was going to have a huge year in Gary Kubiak’s run-friendly offense. Obviously, I thought wrong.

2. Pitta – Not only will Dennis Pitta not fulfill any of the predictions I set forth for him in my post, but he may have suffered a career-ending and at the very least season-ending hip injury against the Browns. Yes, I jinxed him and I hate myself for it.

3. Juszczyk – In what was likely my boldest prediction, I said fullback Kyle Juszczyk would post a 50-catch season.  While “Juice” came up big with three catches for 54 yards and a TD against Cleveland in week three, he only has two catches for 8 yards in his other three games combined. Pitta’s injury may lead to an increase in production for Juszczyk moving forward, but 50 catches is a steep goal for him to reach at this point.

My fourth, fifth, and sixth predictions are still up for grabs, so I’m crossing my fingers for a .500 record and a little redemption.

Save Update

Another blowout led to a tough choice for the defensive save for this week. While there wasn’t one play that stood out as the most impactful defensive play of the day for me, I’ll award the save for this game to C.J. Mosley who had his best game as a pro. Mosley finished with 11 tackles and was rated far and away as the best middle linebacker of the week by Pro Football Focus.

Save Tally So Far: C.J. Mosley (1 1/2), Asa Jackson (1), Elvis Dumervil (1/2)