These aren't your older brother's Baltimore Ravens.
The defense is no longer dominant. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Co. still boast the heart of a champion and can make plays when they absolutely need, like they did in Thursday night's 23-16 win over the Cleveland Browns. But over the remaining 12 games of the regular season, Baltimore (3-1) must find ways to scheme a pass rush and get more speed on the field on all downs. How the Ravens address these issues over the next three months will determine how far they go in the playoffs.
When this season is over, though, the Ravens might look back on this game against the Browns and mark it down as one of their most impressive wins of the 2012 campaign. Impressive in the sense they overcame significant obstacles to achieve a much-needed win.
This game had upset special written all over it. It was Baltimore's fourth contest in just 18 days, with the Ravens still riding high after beating the AFC rival New England Patriots just four nights prior. Not to mention, this was a desperate Cleveland team -- one that had yet to win a game this season and hadn't beaten the division rival Ravens in its past eight tries.
Make that nine. Baltimore showcased toughness -- both mental and physical -- and made just enough plays to win. It might not feel all that special in the moment, but trust me, that was a great win for John Harbaugh's club.
Still, the Ravens have plenty of work to do going forward.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh have long been known for speed on defense, but suddenly these two AFC North archrivals are both too slow and have trouble generating consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. There's just no replacing Terrell Suggs this season. Even if he does become the first player to ever return from an Achilles tendon tear in the same year, he won't be the same guy he was in 2011, when he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The Ravens' cornerbacks are now the strength of this defense; Lardarius Webb, Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith are solid press corners, as well as playmakers. (Williams' pick six near the end of the third quarter ended up being the difference in Thursday night's contest.) But if the Ravens can't produce pressure, they'll be forced to take the Packers/Patriots path of last season, trying to win games with offense. And when that offense doesn't put away teams -- like Thursday night -- the Ravens will be in for a hard-fought contest.
Yes, the 2012 Baltimore Ravens have made a pronounced shift, from a franchise long defined by its defense to one with better overall pieces on offense. So while the defense is figuring things out, Baltimore's offense must find ways to generate more points every time the D comes up with a stop. Forget about establishing Ray Rice on the ground or establishing Joe Flacco through the air -- the Ravens must establish the lead, plain and simple, allowing the imperfect defense to play from out front.
At the quarter pole of the season, teams must undergo a hard self-examination, identify strengths and weakness and adjust according. Being objective, self-critical and willing to change over the course of the season always separates the good teams from the great ones. And usually, the Ravens are the great team. So there's plenty of work to do, starting with the next nine days before Baltimore's Week 5 visit to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Ten thoughts around the NFL
1) Sticking with the Ravens for a second ... With every win, Flacco's contract gets harder and harder for the Ravens to execute. This summer, they appeared close to a deal, with some work left on overall base pay in future years, but that is where the talks broke down. And now, those numbers might not be real. Clearly, Flacco won't hit free agency, as the Ravens will at least franchise him. But with the salary cap not significantly increasing next year, the Ravens will face the challenge of improving the team overall while keeping Flacco at a franchise number. At the end of the day, the Ravens will have to pay Flacco more than they had hoped, but what choice do they really have? Flacco is their future.
2) The one quarterback selected above Flacco in the 2008 NFL Draft, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, is having a huge season. If Ryan continues to play at this level, we might see his contract approach the Peyton Manning/Tom Brady/Drew Brees level. Even though Ryan has not won at the same level of the top-paid players, he will get paid like them. Like the Ravens with Flacco, what choice does Atlanta have?
3) It will be interesting to see how Darrelle Revis approaches the offseason in regard to his contract now that he will be coming off a major ACL injury. Does he demand a new contract now or does he play it out and become an unrestricted free agent after the 2013? The New York Jets will have to operate under the assumption that Revis will return to his old form, but will he be the same player? All tough questions to answer. One thing we know for sure is that Revis is in line to be free after next season, as the Jets won't be allowed to franchise him (per terms of his current contract).
4) Welcome back, regular officials. It was good see all of them on the field and in control of the game Thursday night. The debacles of Week 3 -- particularly Monday night in Seattle -- might have helped get this deal done, but regardless of the how, we now have officials that know the rules and the mechanics of the game. They were still rusty in Browns-Ravens, but it was good to have them back.
5) The Cincinnati Bengals have significant talent at wide receiver. Obviously, it starts with with A.J. Green, but Armon Binns is another guy to watch. The second-year pro who went undrafted in 2011 looks like an explosive, tough, reliable player. It is amazing that Binns was not good enough to make the wideout-needy Jacksonville Jaguars, who signed him as a college free agent but then released him. This weekend, Binns can show the Jags what they missed.
6) Speaking of the Bengals, defensive tackle Geno Atkins single-handedly took over last week's game against Washington Redskins. Cincinnati's front killed the 'Skins overall. There is NO WAY Robert Griffin III will be able to play 13 more games this season if he continues to get hit as much as he has in the season's first three weeks. I know Washington wants to take advantage of his running skills in the offense, but RG3 is taking way too much punishment.
7) I know the New Orleans Saints' defense has been horrible all season, but their wide receivers aren't helping either. These guys have not been able to separate at all, creating huge problems for Drew Brees in terms of finding the open man. This past offseason's five-year, $40 million extension for Marques Colston does not look especially good, as Colston looks sluggish on tape.
8) With San Diego Chargers receiver Malcom Floyd recently signing an extension and Mike Wallace eligible for the Pittsburgh Steelers' franchise tag in 2013, St. Louis Rams wide receiver Danny Amendola suddenly looks like a hot commodity in next offseason's free-agent market. Amendola would be best suited to wait for free agency before he talks a new deal with the Rams. Not a bad position to be in for a player cut by the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles.
9) At what point do the Chargers decide that Ryan Mathews is a liability with the ball in his hands? The running back's durability is a huge concern, but so is his fumbling, which makes him undependable on multiple levels.
10) Kellen Winslow's request to be released is more about him wanting to get his knee healthy than his unhappiness with the New England Patriots. Winslow has a really bad knee, one which cannot pass many physicals around the league and does not allow him to practice. A year off might afford him the time to strengthen the knee. Never question Winslow's toughness, as just walking around with that knee is painful. I hope he can come back because football is truly important to Winslow.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.