Maybe not Ravens of old, struggling team still has high hopes

Browns cornerback Joe Haden created a bit of a stir Thursday when hurling a dig at the Ravens.

“The Ravens aren’t the Ravens of old,” Haden told reporters, according to The Plain Dealer.

Haden backtracked from his original point, one which isn’t necessarily wrong. The makeup of this Baltimore team is far different from those of the recent past.

The Ravens have turned over 10 starting spots from last year’s Super Bowl team with Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Matt Birk, Dannell Ellerbe, Anquan Boldin and Cary Williams among those gone. On top of that, Kelechi Osemele is likely done for the season and Dennis Pitta isn’t ready to return from a gruesome hip injury.

This is the first year of the Ravens’ reloading effort. The team is building a new identity with the likes of Elvis Dumervil, Daryl Smith, Chris Canty and Matt Elam augmenting the defense while the offense has several newcomers (Eugene Monroe, Marlon Brown and Dallas Clark) and youngsters playing bigger roles (Tandon Doss, Gino Gradkowski, Torrey Smith and Deonte Thompson).

So, certainly not the Ravens of old.

But despite three losses in four games to sink to 3-4 heading into the bye, Baltimore visits Cleveland with plenty of optimism as it looks to turn around its season.

“I have really high hopes for this team, and I’ve told the players that,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I really believe this team is going to catch fire.”

Harbaugh indicated the team could looking at the remainder of the schedule as a new start in some ways.

“You could, I guess, but the record is still there. Those games still count,” Harbaugh said. “But it’s the second half of the season and it’s our opportunity to become what we’re going to become as a football team. So we’re always chasing that. We’re not going to be perfect on Sunday, but we need to be our best right now and hope that will be good enough. But I really believe that we can be a great football team. We’ve just got to go get it done.”

One reason the team is optimistic is improved health. Yes, Osemele just learned he’ll likely sit for the rest of 2013. But otherwise, Baltimore is as healthy as it has been all year.

Jacoby Jones and Brown are back at receiver. Tailbacks Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce had time to heal up during the week off. Josh Bynes and Jameel McClain are healthy at linebacker, as are Chris Canty and Haloti Ngata on the defensive line.

“It’s good for this team. It’s great to see everybody back, including myself, to make an impact on this team,” Bynes said. “You want all your guys back, so you can go ahead and get to work because that’s what we need to get done and get off this bye week and get that stink off our foot from the Steelers game and go forward from here because we know the rest of the season’s on us now. We’ve got to make an impact and turn this thing around from this 3-4 start to going ahead and start winning some games in a row and we’ll start with Cleveland.”

The Ravens will be looking to extend the NFL’s longest winning streak against one opponent to 12 consecutive victories over the Browns, who enter Sunday having lost three in a row. Baltimore hasn’t lost to Cleveland in quarterback Joe Flacco’s career. But Flacco still views the Browns as a formidable foe.

“Of course,” he said. “Look at the last game. We didn’t score a point until the second half, and we had to play a really tough game to pull one out. It’s always a really good game. We haven’t won 11 straight on accident, and we haven’t planned on winning 11 straight. We’ve taken them one game at a time, and it just so happened that it’s worked out this way.

“I think that shows you that we’ve had a good mindset and we’ve been able to take it one at a time. We know that they’re a good opponent, so we don’t take them lightly in any way. They’re a physical front. They’re a good secondary that hasn’t let up a lot of yards at all this year. We have a lot of challenges ahead of us, and that’s kind of how we look at it. We’re just excited to get back out there and go put it to the test.”

Even though the Ravens suffered their second straight defeat two weeks ago against the Steelers, their offense appears to be making progress. Baltimore scored on four of seven possessions in the contest. However, Flacco is far from satisfied.

“We’ve got a long ways to go,” he said. “We haven’t been operating the way we want to, but we’re heading in the right direction. I think we are starting to create an identity and go after something. We’re just excited about doing that.”

The running game is still looking to regain its reputation as one of the best in the league. The Ravens have run for at least 100 yards just once and rank 28th in the NFL in rushing yards per game.

However, Rice doesn’t feel the pressure that the offense’s success depends on his performance.

“It definitely is a team game. I think collectively, as an offensive unit, if we do our part, we score points, we score touchdowns, and I’m able to play at the level I know I’m capable of playing at, obviously, we’ll do a lot of good things going forward,” Rice said. “But to solely point out one guy, I definitely don’t feel that kind of pressure. ...

“The overall goal is to win. We’ve won a lot of football games around here. That’s what I’m used to, and obviously, I’m used to contributing. So, that’s what I’ll look forward to continue going forward. Being that I am getting back healthy, obviously, I can put my best foot forward out there and just try to put my team in a position where we can win games. With that being said, I’ll just need to be Ray Rice on Sunday. I don’t need to do anything more, anything less. An opportunity comes, I’ve got to make the play. And obviously, if it comes in a situation - situational football - that’s what we all get paid to do.”

The Ravens go into the contest with a chance to cut the Bengals’ division lead to 1 1/2 games and create the same separation with the Browns (3-5) for second place in the AFC North.

Baltimore still has nine games remaining to make up the ground ahead of them after a rough start.

“Every game is a must-win if I’m being honest,” Rice said Wednesday. “The Bengals are playing good football; we’ll leave them where they’re at. Obviously, we’ve been down this road before, but it just happened a little bit later in the year. We were always a little bit above .500, but we’ve been down this road even last year. So we’ve just got to channel our emotions as a team and not hit the panic button and go out there and just play football. We’re a resilient bunch. We can’t say we’re not working hard. Hard work is not something we worry about, but we do have to go out there on Sundays, go out and execute and play the game at a high level. Even with the changes, we’ve showed glimpses and things that we can be a good football team. We’ve just got to put it all together. ...

“I just firmly believe we know what’s at stake. We know what time of year it is. I think coach Harbaugh will tell you we’ve built this team on November and December football to obviously have a chance to play in January, and then you know what happens after that. That’s where we’re at these next couple of weeks. If you want a chance to play in January, you’ve got to take care of your business in November and December. And it just so happens the first of the month is coming up, and we start our new chapter right now.”