Joe Flacco's blind side will be an area of major concern Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals if offensive tackle Eugene Monroe doesn't return for the Ravens.
James Hurst, who has filled in for the injured Monroe, has looked like an undrafted rookie in his four starts. Over the past three weeks, Hurst has given up three sacks, two quarterback hits and five hurries. He's also been flagged for four penalties, including three for holding on Sunday.
The Ravens went with Hurst because he's a hard worker and is intelligent. He's not a liability in terms of missing an assignment. His shortcoming is athleticism, which isn't surprising for a tackle who wasn't drafted. Hurst struggles with speed rushers off the edge because of his footwork. When there is a mismatch like this, Hurst either gets beat or is forced to hold.
There is a chance that the Ravens could get back Monroe, who had surgery on his knee on Sept. 24. Monroe practiced once last week and was listed as doubtful for this past Sunday's game.
The Ravens will need Monroe when they play at Cincinnati, where first place in the AFC North is on the line. Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry, who will line up against the Ravens' left tackle, had 1.5 sacks in the season opener in Baltimore and is tied for the NFL lead with 19 quarterback hurries this season.
A fifth-round pick in 2011, McPhee has not only become one of the most disruptive pass-rushers on the Ravens but the league as well. In addition to his four sacks (all of which have come in his past three games), he has recorded eight quarterback hits and 14 hurries.
The word "special" was used by both Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs when asked to describe McPhee. He separates himself from others because he can rush off the edge or collapse the middle by lining up inside.
“He’s our specialist," Dumervil said. "A guy who’s that size, [with] that quickness, to be able to go inside, outside. I mean, he’s a special player. I’ve never been around a guy like that before.”
McPhee recorded six sacks as a rookie, but he only managed 4.5 sacks over the next three seasons because of injuries. This season, he's second on the team in sacks and forced a critical fumble in the red zone Sunday.
"Whenever you’ve got an outside linebacker than can play all the spots on the front seven, that’s a special thing," Suggs said. "He’s clicking right now."
The Ravens have seen this type of development before. In 2012, Kruger led the team with nine sacks after struggling to get on the field for most of his career and then signed a five-year, $40 million deal with the Cleveland Browns. Last year, Jones set career highs in starts (13) and tackles (53) with the Ravens before going to the Indianapolis Colts for a five-year, $33 million contract.
McPhee is certainly on that same path for a big payday and a significant raise from his $645,000 base salary. Right now, his primary motivation is finishing with more sacks than Dumervil and Suggs in their friendly competition.
"You know how it is with this gig. If you are never selfish, you will never be great," McPhee said. "Right now I’m selfish when it comes to pass rush.”
CINCINNATI -- The battered Bengals, shut out at Indianapolis over the weekend, may get a lift Sunday if the good news they have been receiving of late about A.J. Green's toe injury continues throughout the week.
Coach Marvin Lewis said during his news conference Monday that Green has "made a lot of progress." Those comments stand in stark contrast to ones he made Friday when he said the timing of Green's return was "up in the air."
For now, signs seem favorable that the Pro Bowler could return to action this Sunday when the Bengals host Baltimore.
"He's made significant progress and feels good about everything that he's being told," Lewis said Monday. "What the prognosis is is, I guess, the most important thing. It's been a consistent message he's gotten. As we said earlier, the time [off] will allow things to progress and so forth that way."
Green has been dealing all season with an injury to his right big toe that he considers "something like turf toe." After suffering the injury in the opening quarter of the Bengals' 23-16 win over the Ravens in Week 1, Green ended up playing through that game. He lasted just six plays the week after, removed because of pain from the injury. He has since missed two complete games, including Sunday's 27-0 loss to the Colts.
Before Sunday's game, the Bengals tweeted a short video of Green jogging along their sideline. The video was captioned "A.J. testing out his toe."
The Bengals amassed just 135 yards of total offense in the blowout. Receiver Mohamed Sanu, who slipped into Green's role, caught just three passes for 54 yards, including a 32-yard reception in the fourth quarter. The week before, he caught 10 passes for 120 yards and a touchdown.
Jones muffed his second punt in three weeks when he turned the ball over to the Atlanta Falcons at the Ravens' 37-yard line. The Falcons didn't convert the mistake into points because kicker Matt Bryant's 57-yard field goal attempt hit the crossbar.
Harbaugh said he agreed with Jones that he should've signaled fair catch because the Falcons' gunner was right on top of him.
Asked if he felt OK with Jones as his returner, Harbaugh simply said, "I do."
It's not exactly the strongest vote of confidence for Jones, who is likely on his final chance as the returner. Jones ranks fourth in the NFL on kickoff returns (29.7-yard average) and 13th on punt returns (8.2).
This has been the worst season of Jones' three-year run with the Ravens. He has scored touchdowns on four returns for the Ravens (one punt and three kickoff) and was a strong candidate for Super Bowl MVP two seasons ago.
But Jones has been a non-factor on offense as well as special teams. He has five dropped passes (second most in the NFL), which has decreased his snaps. Jones was on the field for only four plays on offense Sunday. If Jones is seen as a liability as a returner, the Ravens would probably make him inactive. Rookie seventh-round pick Michael Campanaro and practice squad player Deonte Thompson can both return kicks.
Jones re-signed with the Ravens this offseason, agreeing to a four-year, $12 million deal that included $3.5 million guaranteed.
McDermott, 24, was the San Francisco 49ers' long snapper in 2013 before being beaten out by Kyle Nelson this season. So, McDermott goes from one Harbaugh brother as his head coach to another one.
"He's a guy we're very familiar with," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
Cox has been the Ravens' long snapper for the past five seasons (70 out of the last 71 games). This is the second time he has torn an ACL while with the Ravens, but it was his left knee in 2010.
Flacco completed 6 of 8 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown when the Falcons sent five or more pass-rushers Sunday, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That's a passer rating of 156.3 (and the perfect passer rating is 158.3).
"It was a very creative package," coach John Harbaugh said. "And I thought [Flacco] did a really good job of sorting it out, working with [offensive coordinator] Gary [Kubiak] and with [quarterbacks coach] Rick [Dennison], and getting us operating the way we needed to."
It appeared to be a frustrating game for Flacco, who acknowledged that the Falcons were in the right coverages for a lot of the Ravens' pass plays. The Ravens were 4-of-11 on third downs (36 percent), and Flacco threw multiple interceptions for the first time this season.
But how Flacco is able to handle the extra pressure often dictates how the game will unfold for the Ravens.
In the Ravens' five wins, Flacco has completed 66.7 percent of his passes when facing five or more pass-rushers, throwing six touchdowns and one interception. In the two losses, he has connected on less than half of his passes (47.1 percent), throwing no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Quarterback: It was a situation where Joe Flacco pressed too much because of increased pressure in the pocket, and it almost cost him. He threw multiple interceptions for the first time this season, and he nearly threw a third one. There was also a time when he could've been flagged for intentional grounding. Flacco deserves credit for taking advantage of the Falcons' blitzes. He ran to convert a third-and-one in the fourth quarter to keep the ball away from a Falcons' offense that had just scored a touchdown. In the end, he completed 64 percent of his throws (16 of 25), which included a drop in the red zone. Grade: C-plus.
Wide receivers/tight ends: It was like Dennis Pitta was back on the field again as Owen Daniels caught six passes for 58 yards and a touchdown. Four of his receptions went for first downs as the Falcons' linebackers kept losing track of him. Torrey Smith dropped what could've been a touchdown over the middle (did he hear footsteps?), and he didn't fight hard enough to stop an interception in the end zone. Speaking of fights, Steve Smith delivered another big catch, taking a short pass and turning it into a 49-yard gain. But he let his temper get the better of him, which led to a penalty described by referee Carl Cheffers as "unnecessary action upon an opponent." Grade: C-plus.
Offensive line: Undrafted rookie left tackle James Hurst's up-and-down run as a starter hit another dip Sunday, when he was flagged three times for holding. He had trouble cutting off the Falcons' speed on the edge, and he allowed one quarterback hit in addition to his penalties. Rookie left guard John Urschel fared better in pass protection than run blocking. The strength is on the right side, where the Ravens ran for 73 yards behind guard Marshal Yanda and Rick Wagner. Grade: C-plus.
Defensive line: Just like most weeks, teams had trouble moving nose tackle Brandon Williams and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. The Falcons ran for 13 yards up the middle, the third fewest of any team in Week 7. Williams finished with four tackles. Ngata's only tackle was an impressive one. He ran down Devonta Freeman nine yards down the field on a screen pass. Grade: A.
Secondary: Jimmy Smith was in shutdown mode again, breaking up as many passes as catches allowed (two). The only blemish was dropping an interception that Matt Ryan essentially gift-wrapped for him. Lardarius Webb made several strong tackles, stopping Julio Jones short on third down on the opening drive. He did give up eight catches for 83 yards. Dominique Franks, the team's No. 3 corner, allowed the only touchdown when he didn't turn around to make a play on the ball even though he had backed receiver Roddy White into the corner of the end zone. Darian Stewart had a missed tackle for the third straight week. Grade: B.
Special teams: Jacoby Jones muffed his second punt return of the season. It didn't lead to points because Falcons kicker Matt Bryant hit a 57-yard attempt off the cross bar. The Ravens did an excellent job in containing dangerous returner Devin Hester, who averaged 18.3 yards on three kickoff returns. Hester did have an 18-yard punt return but it was negated by a Falcons' penalty. Justin Tucker hit a couple of 38-yard field goals, and Sam Koch placed half of his four punts inside the 16-yard line. Grade: B-plus.
"I mean I guess I don’t care, as long as we keep winning like we’re winning," Pees said. "But I do care."
While the Ravens rank No. 16 in yards allowed, Pees will appreciate that his defense is the NFL's stingiest in terms of points given up. The Ravens are averaging 14.9 points allowed, which is the best in the NFL.
It's been a combination of a stifling run defense and a relentless pass rush. The Ravens have shut down teams with arguably the NFL's best cornerback (Jimmy Smith), pass-rusher (Elvis Dumervil, seven sacks) and rookie (linebacker C.J. Mosley).
If the Ravens can keep up this pace, it would not only be quite an accomplishment, it could be a sign of things to come. In an era of explosive offenses, the cliché about defense winning championships still holds true. Five of the past 14 Super Bowl champions have led the NFL in fewest points allowed, including the Seattle Seahawks last season.
The last time the Ravens led the NFL in fewest points allowed was 2006, when the defense had self-proclaimed "organized chaos" with coordinator Rex Ryan. The Ravens' only other season topping the league in scoring defense was 2000, when they set the record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game schedule (165, an average of 10.3 per game).
This season is quite a turnaround for a Ravens defense that ranked 12th the past two seasons in fewest points given up. Seven weeks into the season, the Ravens are the only team not to allow more than 23 points in a game this season. In fact, the Ravens are just one of three defenses who have held teams to less than 19 points per game. The Detroit Lions (15.0) and San Diego Chargers (16.3) are the others.
Where the Ravens have excelled is in the red zone. The Ravens have allowed eight touchdowns on 22 series inside their own 20-yard line (36.4 percent), which is also best in the league.
In fact, teams have scored on only 13 of those 22 trips. The Ravens have caused four turnovers inside the 20-yard line, which includes Pernell McPhee's forced fumble Sunday.
“I think we have just been building," coach John Harbaugh said. "I think we have been putting one brick on top of the other and going through a process and trying to get better every single day. And when you do that, you can move down the road and improve. And our guys take it seriously. They come to work every day. They bring their lunch box, they bring their blue shirts, and they go to work. And that’s how you become a good football team.”
Over the past five seasons, 70 percent of the teams won their divisions after having sole possession of first place heading into Week 8. That's 26 of 37 teams.
"It’s good to be there at this time," coach John Harbaugh said. "But you have to build on it, you have to keep getting better. We’re not a good enough team to do the things that we want to do right now, so we have to keep improving."
The Ravens (5-2) are tied for the fifth-best record in the NFL. Only the Dallas Cowboys have more wins at 6-1.
In the AFC North, the Ravens hold less a full game lead (a three-quarter one, to be specific) over the Bengals (3-2-1) because of the tie and uneven amount of games played. If the Ravens lose Sunday at Cincinnati, they give first place back to the Bengals. The Ravens are currently 1.5 games ahead of the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers, both of whom are 3-3.
"We know what’s on the line with this game," wide receiver Torrey Smith said of Sunday's game in Cincinnati. "It will be a big one for us. We need this one.”
The Ravens have now opened the season at 5-2 for the fourth time under Harbaugh. In those three previous seasons, the Ravens reached the playoffs each time (2010, 2011 and 2012).
BALTIMORE -- After the Baltimore Ravens recorded a season-high five sacks, their pass rushers weren't greeted with a pat on the back. Instead, they received a dose of tough love.
On Saturday night, linebackers coach Ted Monachino delivered a speech about how great things are expected of this defense and explained the bar has been raised. He asked the players individually if they were just getting started.
Consider the challenge accepted. In the Ravens' 29-7 win -- one that moved them into first place in the AFC North for the first time this season -- their pass rush was the most consistent part of the team's game and negated the penalties on offense, Joe Flacco's turnovers and an ill-timed mistake on special teams. As a result, the Ravens' defense was within seven minutes of shutting out the NFL's No. 5 scoring team and held the Atlanta Falcons offense to a season-low 254 total yards (156 below their average).
The relentlessness of the Ravens' defense was set by their pass rush, which recorded five sacks for a second straight week and hit Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan a total of nine times. The Falcons tried to slow the onslaught with several screen passes and even chipped in a running back to help the pass protection, but there were no solutions for McPhee, Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs.
"There were times when we really didn't have a chance to get the play off, and that's very difficult for a quarterback," Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
This is how much of an impact the pass rush made:
In the first quarter, McPhee sacked Ryan on the Falcons' first trip into the red zone and forced a fumble. The key here was misdirection as McPhee did a stunt inside with blitzing linebacker C.J. Mosley (who drew the attention of the Falcons' center), creating a clear path up the middle.
In the second quarter, Dumervil sacked Ryan immediately after Jacoby Jones muffed a punt and gave the ball to the Falcons at the Ravens' 37-yard line. Dumervil got such a great jump off the edge that he barely got touched, beating both the right tackle and running back.
In the fourth quarter, Suggs recorded a safety to end any momentum that the Falcons had built after they scored on the previous drive. This was set up by defensive tackle Haloti Ngata getting double teamed by the left guard and tackle, allowing Suggs to loop from the edge to the middle and getting an open lane to Ryan.
"It just shows what we can do," Suggs said. "It's on film now and everybody is seeing how our defense can control games. That's going to be the standard from now on."
The Ravens got pressure on quarterbacks earlier this season but they weren't getting sacks. According to defensive coordinator Dean Pees, quarterbacks were getting rid of the ball in 2.1 seconds in the first five games. Over the past two weeks, the Ravens have totaled 10 sacks because quarterbacks have held the ball a half second longer.
What's been the difference? It has as much to do with the secondary as the pass-rushers up front. The defensive backs have played tighter coverage, and the Ravens are causing quarterbacks to think more with different looks. There was a point during Sunday's game in which Jimmy Smith, the Ravens' best cornerback, was lined up at safety.
"I rolled out a few [coverages]," Pees said. "Trust me, I stay up late nights."
Ryan was under duress on a season-high 32 percent of his dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The effectiveness of the Ravens' defense is based on their pass-rushers getting in the face of Ryan.
When the Ravens got pressure on him, Ryan was 4 of 10 for 33 yards. When they didn't, he was 25 of 34 for 194 yards and a touchdown.
"Those dudes are our best friends," Jimmy Smith said of the pass rush. "They get in there and they disrupt things. They cause havoc. They make quarterbacks panic and throw the ball in the air."
The Ravens' defensive backs were angry at themselves for dropping a few interceptions Sunday, but there was something that irked Pees even more. A 4-yard touchdown pass to Roddy White ended the hopes of the Ravens' first shutout since November 2009.
Asked how disappointed he was about that, Pees threw out a "no comment" and headed out of the locker room.
Consider that the next challenge for this defense.
Former Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson was animated in talking with Flacco on the field and pointed in the direction of coach John Harbaugh.
"Well, maybe I have more respect for their team than they do," Harbaugh said after the game. "I mean, it's a 13-point game at that point with plenty of time left on the clock."
The other factor for not punting or kicking a field goal on fourth-and-9 from the Falcons' 39-yard line was the Ravens losing their long-snapper for the year. Morgan Cox tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee with four minutes remaining, which meant defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was handling the long snaps.
"So snapping the ball back there in that situation, that's risking any number of bad things that could happen to us," Harbaugh said. "[To] put them back in the game wouldn't be smart. We certainly weren't expecting a touchdown. But we get all-press man coverage, and that's what we do. That's just football. It was big for us because it sealed the game at that point."
Falcons coach Mike Smith said he didn't have any objections to it.
"They called a play, we didn't stop them and that's the end of it," Smith said. "Our job is to stop the opponent, and we didn't do it. It doesn't matter what the situation is, or what the score. That's what our job is."
Flacco said the objective was getting a first down, but they simply reacted to the Falcons defense.
"They gave us a throw, so we took it," Flacco said.
Torrey Smith, who caught the touchdown, believes the Ravens could've taken the shot downfield earlier.
"They had been playing cover zero on every snap," Smith said. "Honestly, I wanted to do it on first down. But that's probably a sign of disrespect. We really had no choice but to throw the ball and finish with the ball in our hands instead of giving them a shot."
Ravens looking to prove themselves: Shortly after a second consecutive blowout win, coach John Harbaugh said his team's "eyes are on the horizon." The Ravens have turned their focus to playing at the Cincinnati Bengals, who upended the Ravens in the season opener. "We have to come back out there and prove ourselves," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "They're a good football team and they're going to be hungry, and we're there. So it's going to be a tough test. Can't wait for it."
Long snapper out for season: Morgan Cox, the team's long snapper for five seasons, is done for the season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. With 3:52 left in the game, Cox was trying to turn Falcons returner Devin Hester inside, so he planted his right leg before taking on a block. "I just felt it," Cox said. "It felt a lot of pain. Yeah, I pretty much assumed it was serious." Cox tore the ACL in his left knee in Week 16 of the 2010 season.