To help preview this week's game, I reached out to Jason Butt from Baltimore Beatdown and exchanged five questions with him. Enjoy!
Chris: "We know that Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce are both good based on their track records, but they are each only averaging 2.8 yards per carry. I'd have to attribute the lack of production on the ground to the offensive line. Have the Ravens made any personnel changes recently on their line to fix the issues they've been having?"
Jason: "There's an old saying, a cliche, that applies to this year's offensive line: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The line came together at the right time during the 2012 postseason, which helped propel the team to a Super Bowl title. But the Ravens hired former Eagles offensive line coach and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo to be the team's run-game coordinator, which was a bit perplexing considering that wasn't exactly something other NFL teams were doing.
Anyhow, as now-former Ravens tackle Bryant McKinnie said last week, Castillo came in and wanted to change every lineman's technique to the point where it began confusing everyone. Guys like Marshal Yanda were all of a sudden missing assignments. The tackles weren't protecting well. Rice and Pierce look like they have no idea which direction to run. It's a big mess there. With McKinnie's transgressions an off-the-field distraction, he became a brief scapegoat with the Ravens bringing in Eugene Monroe via trade, with McKinnie later being shipped off to Miami in a separate deal.
The left tackle switch hasn't helped yet and Rice and Pierce still struggled to gain yards against Pittsburgh two weeks ago.
John Harbaugh mentioned that changes would come. Sure, going back to the old scheme sounds like a great plan. But when you've worked and trained to learn a new scheme since OTAs, you then have to re-learn old methods and get used to them. Doing so will take time, though it shouldn't take as much time as it has for the unit to grasp the concepts Castillo apparently brought in. But that would appear to be the only way the Ravens' running game gets back on track."
Chris: "Jacoby Jones returned just before the Ravens' bye week. Will he be utilized a lot, or is Baltimore still going to try to slowly work him back in?"
Jason: "Jones is good to go and is ready for a full workload. The only thing that could keep him from being a sure No. 2 receiver is the emergence of undrafted rookie receiver Marlon Brown, who's had plenty of moments this year. He has three receiving touchdowns, which leads the Ravens thus far.
Jones is a threat to blow the top off of any defense, though, which is why he's valuable to Baltimore's offense. He should be ready to go without any problems this week. He hasn't been listed on the injury report in a while either."
Chris: "All things considered, the Ravens' defense hasn't played too bad after getting trounced by the Broncos. If you could have one defender back from the Ravens' 2012 team and plug him in to your starting lineup right now, who would it be?"
Jason: "It would probably be Dannell Ellerbe, who's having a solid season down with the Dolphins (highlighted by the interception off a Mohamad Sanu dropped pass in Thursday's upset win over Cincinnati.) The Ravens do have Jameel McClain back from his scary spinal cord contusion, sustained in Week 12 against Washington last year, but Ellerbe added a versatile element as a coverage linebacker that's missing from this year's team.
Daryl Smith has been able to fill Ray Lewis' role better than expected. But Josh Bynes and rookie Arthur Brown have tried to compensate for the void at Will linebacker. Bynes is a solid run defender but struggles in coverage. The opposite is true about the high-ceiling player Brown is. McClain is a veteran on the defense, but was subbed in for by Ellerbe against pass-happy teams. Ellerbe has a nice blend of being able to cover and stop the run, and was one of Baltimore's best defenders a year ago.
The Ravens weren't able to afford him, considering Miami wound up shelling out a contract worth almost $35 million. Ellerbe recently said he thought he would return to Baltimore. But hey, it's hard to turn down that kind of money. "
Chris: "As a Browns fan, I view this as a must-win game for Cleveland -- if they lose, a 3-6 record puts them out of contention and would put everyone in a sour mood heading into a bye week. What is the mentality of Ravens fans heading into this week's game? While every game is important, is there a view that this is a "must-win game" for Baltimore?"
Jason: "Given the Ravens are coming off of a Super Bowl title and supposedly upgraded the defense, I think many fans expected this team to be in the 5-2 or better range at this point. With Cincinnati's start (granted the Bengals did lose Thursday night), that's only added some worry about the division race. Thing is, the Ravens should be thankful they're 3-4. They could've easily lost to Miami and be in a worse position.
Like the Browns, this has a must-win feel for the Ravens. A loss puts the Browns a half-game ahead of the Ravens in the AFC North race and keeps them 2.5 games behind Cincinnati. The beauty of the NFL is that each week holds a higher level of importance than in other professional sports. It's almost like a 16-week playoff decides who enters another playoff. You don't get that kind of pressure week in and week out like you do in basketball, baseball or hockey, where the regular season carries on until there's a late-season push to decide which final teams get in.
In my opinion, the Ravens will only have a shot at the Wild Card spot if they lose this week. And even that will be difficult given the remaining schedule. Both teams should be feeling a sense of urgency this week."
Chris: "Has Sam Koch been struggling this year in the punting game, or has Baltimore's coverage units been less-than-stellar?"
Jason: "Both Koch and the coverage units have struggled. Thing is, when Koch has shanked or misfired a punt, it's been of the short and out-of-bounds variety. Those can happen, though Koch has been able to limit those to a very low minimum over the years. However, the special teams coverage unit has struggled all year with staying in their lanes and missing tackles.
Football Outsiders has given the Ravens a -4.1 mark on the punt coverage unit this year, which is below average for the NFL. What was a strength a year ago is now somehow a weakness. It remains to be seen if that facet of Baltimore's game improves over the second half of the season. "
Thanks again to Jason for taking the time to answer my questions.