Now that the running game seems to be on the rise, coach John Harbaugh seems most passionate about fixing the Ravens’ next-biggest problem: turnovers.
Baltimore has a minus-5 turnover differential this season, having committed 18 giveaways compared to just 13 takeaways. The last time the Ravens finished with a minus differential was 2007, the team’s last losing season.
The Ravens entered the year having forced 41 more turnovers than their opponents over Harbaugh’s first five seasons, and in 2012, they set a franchise record-low with just 16 giveaways.
Quarterback Joe Flacco’s 13 interceptions through 10 games are already a career-worst with six weeks remaining to completely shatter his previous record of 12. The Ravens have also lost five fumbles.
Harbaugh said Monday that if Baltimore wants to turn things around from a 4-6 start, it has to stop coughing up the ball.
“What we can’t be doing is turning the ball over in those situations. For whatever reason, we’ve had too much of that this year,” Harbaugh said. “The thing that we talked about today is that we create too many opportunities for our opponent. That’s what we do too much this year. I think that’s the biggest difference in other years when we won these close games. You can’t give your opponent opportunities that they don’t necessarily ... they’re going to make enough plays on their own without creating opportunities for them. We’ve got to do a better job of that starting right now. That’s got to be job one.”
And the defense has contributed to creating opportunities for the opponent as well.
“We haven’t gotten enough turnovers, that’s one thing that would help us,” Harbaugh said. “But yesterday, it was the third-down conversions. They got a couple of crossing routes against us that extended some drives that hurt us. Those things shouldn’t happen. ... They’re going to get a few of those, but if we defend those better, I’m not sure they get a first down in a third-down situation.”
The Ravens held the Bears to 5-for-13 on first down, but let them convert in some key situations, especially in the second half.
That led to Baltimore slipping to 2-4 in games decided by three points or fewer this season. In 2012, the Ravens went 5-3 in such contests.
“In the end, it comes down to winning a tight game, doing the things we have to do to win a game and a tight game in tough conditions - making the plays you need to make and not giving them opportunities that they don’t need to have,” Harbaugh said. “And that’s what we have to continue to work on, doing a better job of because we haven’t done a good enough job in close games of getting the right balance.”
But even with those problems winning close games, the Ravens are right in the thick of the wild card race - well, along with almost everyone else in the AFC, as detailed here this morning.
To recap, the Ravens are one of nine teams within 1 1/2 games of the conference’s second wild card.
“What it goes to show you is how close it is and what a razor-thin margin it is in the National Football League. And that’s what makes the National Football League great,” Harbaugh said. “We would all rather be sitting here talking about being atop the division and chasing home-field advantage or something like that. That’s something that we were shooting for. We wanted to be in that position. We haven’t done the things we needed to do to be in that position.
“But we’re in the hunt. We’re playing two teams the next two weeks at home that are right there in the hunt with us. We’re chasing a division leader that we have in our sights and we play again. We are right there. We can do it, and we’re good enough to do it. We’ve got every tool we need. All we have to do is go get it done. But that’s on us. We believe we have what it takes, but it’s up to us to prove it. We’ve got to go prove it by winning these games.”
As Harbaugh said, Baltimore will have an opportunity to push its way into a more desirable position in the race in the coming weeks.
The New York Jets (5-5) come to town Sunday to start a three-game homestand that also includes games against the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-6) and Minnesota Vikings (2-8).
So is this stretch as critical as it gets?
“I think it’s pretty obvious, that it’s critically important,” Harbaugh said. “We’re playing two teams that are in the wild card chase with us and we’re chasing the Bengals for a division championship, and we’re still involved with that. If we don’t win this game, it’s going to be really tough.
“So that’s what it is. It’s very important. It couldn’t be more important. I can’t think of a situation this year that could be more important than this game. I could go back and say every game is important. There’s no game more important than this game. We win this one, there will be no game more important than the Pittsburgh game. If we win that one, there will be no game more important than the Vikings game. ... So the answer is yes. An obvious yes.”