1. The Ravens have had trouble scoring points this season. What has been the biggest cause of the offense's struggles?
It all starts up front. The offensive line, after looking like a solid unit during last year's Super Bowl championship run, began the year abysmal and has slowly crept into the below-average range. The running game is non-existent, which is the opposite of what John Harbaugh's teams are known for. A lot of the blame went to run-game coordinator Juan Castillo, who was hired last January. Castillo implemented some new techniques for the linemen that took a lot more time to get used to than expected. As a result, the line has seemed confused and younger than their ages indicate. It's been a disaster, quite frankly.
In addition, Joe Flacco, perhaps with added confidence after being named Super Bowl XLVII MVP, had made some questionable decisions throwing the ball all season. He has a career-high 17 interceptions so far and is good for at least one or two, "What are you doing?" moments per game. That said, he'll look brilliant at times, such as during the last 2:05 against Minnesota a week ago.
2. Defensively, the Ravens have been pretty good as of late. How has Baltimore's defense progressed so far this season?
The Ravens' strength on defense is stopping the run. That's always been a philosophical belief of Harbaugh, that to win games you take that aspect away from a team -- even in an era where teams are throwing the ball much more than they ever have before. The Ravens rank seventh in rush defense, giving up just 101.2 yards on the ground per game. A lot of that has to do with moving Haloti Ngata inside and having Chris Canty an end. In addition, signing Daryl Smith in free agency is probably the best offseason move the franchise made in hindsight, even better than Elvis Dumervil and the 9.5 sacks he's brought this season.
The pass defense has stepped up but struggled late in games. Jimmy Smith is finally living up to his potential as a former first-round pick. Lardarius Webb seems much more comfortable with his knee after having ACL surgery last year. Corey Graham began the year on a bad note against Denver but has put in a solid season. Strong safety James Ihedigbo has had a good year as well. The lone weak spot in the secondary has been rookie safety Matt Elam, who's still learning the defense. He could wind up having a difficult week after putting his foot in his mouth with the Megatron comments.
3. Since falling to 3-5, the Ravens have won four out of their last five games. What has been the biggest reason behind their recent success?
Three of those games came at home, a place the Ravens rarely lose. It's unbelievable how much better the Ravens are at home than they are on the road. I suppose you could make that case with most NFL teams, but the M&T Bank Stadium crowd really does add an advantage for the Ravens. In addition, the wins came against the Jets, Steelers and Vikings, all of which have sub-.500 records. It's not like they were snagging wins against the NFL's elite.
The win over the Bengals to spark the turnaround was the most impressive by far. The defense held the Bengals in check for the most part, though it did allow a fluke Hail Mary to be tipped into A.J. Green's arms. But then the defense held in overtime and the Ravens were able to kick a field goal to win. In fact, four of those five games have been decided by three points or less. The Ravens are 3-1 in those games, with the lone loss being a 23-20 overtime one against the Bears. So you could add that the Ravens are finding ways to win the close games they weren't pulling out earlier in the season.
4. What one matchup will the Ravens have to win on Monday in order to beat the Lions?
I continue to go back and forth with this, though I acknowledge that the particular matchup will be on the defensive side of the ball. The Ravens have two players to concern themselves about -- Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush. Johnson is the NFL's best receiver. Bush is the kind of running back that gives the Ravens problems. The defense is generally good at stopping power backs. It's the shifty ones who can make plays in the passing game that tend to give them trouble. Bengals running back Gio Bernard had 95 total yards and a touchdown against the Ravens earlier this year. Bush is a much better back in a much more dangerous offense. If you take Bush out of the game plan, then perhaps it forces Matthew Stafford into some decisions downfield he'd otherwise not try.
At the same time, Johnson is a threat at any moment on the football field. The Ravens do not want to give up big plays, something they've done plenty of times this year. They lead the league in passing plays of 40 yards or more with 16. With Elam at free safety -- and Johnson receiving some extra motivation from him this week -- this could be a bad matchup waiting to happen.
This is what leads me to believe that defending Bush is the more important matchup. Johnson's going to get his looks, touches and yards no matter what. The Ravens should be able to at least put in a solid scheme against Bush. No scheme will take Johnson out of a game without leaving other receivers uncovered. It will definitely be a game about limiting the Lions' opportunities on offense, not taking them away.
5. After winning the Super Bowl last season and getting off to a rough start this season, how have expectations changed over the course of 2013? Is the expectation now for the Ravens to make the playoffs and try to defend their title?
When the Ravens were 3-5, I'd say the expectations were that the Ravens would not make the playoffs. Not that the fans were giving up on the team, but this is a fairly realistic fan base. The product on the field was so bad through the first half of the season. It didn't look like a playoff-caliber team.
Now that they're 7-6 and playing much better football, the expectation is probably that they should reach the playoffs. Sure, it'll be tough with the Dolphins having a much favorable schedule (not to mention the Chargers are all of a sudden looking like a postseason kind of team). But the Ravens have gone to the postseason in each of Harbaugh's previous five seasons. It's something the city has become used to. With the Ravens in the hunt, it just feels like it could -- and should -- happen.
But of the three games remaining, it's my belief that this one against the Lions is the most important for Baltimore to win. If not, I think it's an uphill climb for the Ravens to reach the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season.