The Ravens don't use injuries as an excuse, and nor should their fans. However, it is pretty amazing to look at how hard their defense has been hit this season. It's hardly the only reason, but it has to be considered when discussing why what is normally one of the top-ranked defenses in the NFL has fallen on such hard times. Only four defensive players– linebacker Jameel McClain, cornerback Cary Williams and safeties Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed – have started all 12 games this season, and Pollard missed the final three quarters of the loss to the Philadelphia Eagles and was slowed for multiple weeks with a chest injury, while Reed has a torn labrum in his shoulder. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata has been sidelined for one game but persistent shoulder and knee injuries have made him look ordinary at times. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis will miss his sixth straight game Sunday with a torn triceps. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs sat the first six games, returned even though he was nowhere near full strength and then tore his right biceps, leaving his status in doubt the rest of the way. Top cornerback Lardarius Webb tore his ACL in Week Six and is done for the year, and his replacement, Jimmy Smith, has missed four straight games and could sit a few more after having hernia surgery. Starting defensive end Pernell McPhee sat four games because of a hamstring injury and has never looked comfortable following two different knee procedures. Linebacker Paul Kruger and nose tackles Terrence Cody and Ma'ake Kemoeatu each missed a game with injuries. Lewis' replacement, Dannell Ellerbe, couldn't post last Sunday with a foot/ankle injury and he had been playing for several weeks with one sprained thumb and one broken one. Rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw has had a bad shoulder all year that seemingly once a game forces him to the sidelines. You could also bring up safety Emanuel Cook and defensive tackle Ryan McBean, two players who were expected to occupy reserve roles but sustained season-ending injuries in training camp. Again, every team in the NFL deals with injuries and some – the Pittsburgh Steelers come to mind – probably have had it worse than the Ravens. It's just odd to see the Ravens' health issues confined to the defensive side of the ball.
Speaking of Lewis, we should know more about his status later today, but it is expected that he'll practice in some capacity this week, perhaps as early as this afternoon. Lewis isn't eligible to play until the Ravens' Dec. 16 game against the Denver Broncos and that's the game he's been eyeing for his return. Lewis hasn't spoken to the media since he sustained the injury so I'm not sure of his definitive plans, but the expectation here is that he practices a little this week, he takes on even more practice reps next week and then he's on the field opposite Peyton Manning next Sunday. That would represent a pretty miraculous return from an injury that is normally a season ender. Even Ravens coach John Harbaugh initially called it a season-ending injury before backing off that two days later.
It will also be interesting to see later whether the Ravens have any updates on Suggs. The last we heard, Suggs was still hoping to play through his torn biceps. By now, it would be downright foolish to cast doubt on Suggs after he shocked everyone with his quick recovery from Achilles' surgery. If I'm the Ravens, as gutty as Suggs has been and as much as they need him, I don't know how comfortable I'd be sending my star linebacker out there with one bad arm and an Achilles that was surgically repaired seven months ago. Regardless, you have to admire Suggs' heart, work ethic and desire to be out on the field competing and helping his teammates. Just remarkable.
I watched a replay of the Ravens-Steelers game last night and here are a few things I liked:
1. Ravens fullback Vonta Leach is so much fun to watch. His pancake block on mammoth nose tackle Casey Hampton obviously stood out, but Leach was hitting everything in sight and was also a threat out of the backfield. He may have been the Ravens' best offensive player and you don't often say that about a fullback.
2. When I did a story on cornerback Corey Graham a couple of weeks back, his college coach raved about Graham's intelligence and football IQ. They were on display on his second-quarter interception of wide receiver Antonio Brown. Graham never came close to getting sucked in when Brown got the ball on the reverse. He said later that he had watched Brown throw the ball before on film so he knew the Steelers had that in the playbook. His preparation and attention to detail really paid off.
3. Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger held himself accountable for the unnecessary roughness call he got for hitting quarterback Charlie Batch, which pushed the Steelers further into range for the game-winning field goal. It's a shame that was the play Kruger was remembered for during that game. He fought off a double team to sack Batch in the first half and he also got penetration several other times. Kruger is certainly not a complete linebacker, but he plays really hard.
Now, some things I didn't like:
1. I understand it happens when you're playing inexperienced players, like a Chykie Brown, but there are still too many communication errors in the Ravens' secondary that are leading to opposing wide receivers running free. On the second-quarter play where Batch airmailed a wide-open Mike Wallace in the end zone, Antonio Brown was also standing alone in the middle of the field just begging for the ball. I'm not sure how you can lose track of the other team's two best wide receivers on a key third-down play deep in your own territory.
2. I usually think too much is made out of quarterback Joe Flacco's body language, but there were times Sunday where he clearly looked both confused and frustrated. The Ravens badly need Flacco and the offense to snap out of it and start putting four quality quarters together.
3. One more quick thing on Flacco is that there is no denying his arm strength, but he's now underthrown Torrey Smith several times on the deep ball over the past couple of weeks and it has cost the Ravens points.
4. Every team complains about the calls and I don't necessarily think the Ravens do it much more than others, but it didn't look good Sunday when, after staying downfield for an extended stretch to protest a call, Anquan Boldin was called for a false start on the very next play.