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The Ravens are entering their Week 8 bye on a positive note.
At 5-2, it’s the best record in franchise history at this point. And, the Ravens seem to be getting healthier as the season presses on.
Even though it’s not literally the mid-point on the year, the open date marks a good place to take the Ravens’ temperature going forward.
With that being said, here are five questions to ponder before play resumes next week with the Miami Dolphins.
With Donte’ Stallworth possibly coming back from a broken foot after the bye, how does he fit in to this team?
Stallworth showed he was a promising addition to the Ravens with his offseason performance, but the broken foot suffered in preseason action derailed his debut and prompted Baltimore to sign T.J. Houshmandzadeh. With Stallworth finally entering the fold amongst a crowded receiving corps, expect the Ravens to use him sparingly on offense off the bat, but work him in as he gets his legs under him.
Where Stallworth could immediately provide a spark is in the return game, where he caught punts during training camp. And many Ravens teammates have praised Stallworth’s speed, so when he does get his chances in the passing game, he’ll offer a different look than Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason and "Housh" have yet.
Will all the weapons truly be happy?
Cam Cameron had a dilemma coming into the season with a lot of hungry mouths to feed, and with only one football, it’s been tough. But as Boldin said on Tuesday, the Ravens welcome that problem. They will have four reliable wideouts, a proven three-headed rushing attack and a few tight ends at their disposal.
Thus far, the Ravens have done a good job of spreading the ball around. In each game, it seems that the Ravens showcase another target, which should continue. In fact, over the last five contests, Joe Flacco has completed passes to at least seven different players. Last week against the Buffalo Bills, he targeted eight guys. For a team with so many talented playmakers, the mentality of wanting to contribute is a positive. Don’t call it "unhappy." More like "competitive."
Can the pass rush make a difference?
Head Coach John Harbaugh said he was happy with the pressure in the Bills matchup. But the Ravens remain 18th in the NFL with only 12 sacks. And much of the pressure is up the middle with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker Ray Lewis doing the most damage.
The Ravens made the pass rush an offseason focus, as did top pass-rusher Terrell Suggs in a bid to erase a self-proclaimed pedestrian 2009 performance. The numbers haven’t been there yet, especially off the edge. The key is that players must win their one-on-one battles, because the Ravens – like all teams in this pass-oriented league – are often forced to drop more in coverage rather than bring pressure.
Who will step up in the return game?
This is one of those things that should be monitored on a week-to-week basis, because there are a lot of guys that can run back both kickoffs and punts.
At this point, Josh Wilson made the bad mistake of fumbling on a kickoff last week against the Buffalo Bills, which could mean that either Jalen Parmele, rookie David Reed, or maybe even Lardarius Webb – who returned kickoffs in 2009 – is back there in Week 9 versus Miami.
For punts, we saw Webb and Ed Reed catching them in the Buffalo game, but Chris Carr has fielded punts, and Tom Zbikowski , the Ravens’ opening-day punt returner, should recover from a bruised heel soon. Stallworth has a good chance be a catalyst on punt returns, as well.
Have the Ravens played their best football yet?
Probably not. As said previously, the Ravens are getting healthier, notwithstanding Jared Gaither’s recent placement on Injured Reserve with a back injury. Stallworth is on track to return, as is linebacker Tavares Gooden (shoulder). Reed, who just came off the physically unable to perform list last week (hip), is still working back into the defense. Tight end Todd Heap (shoulder) and "Zibby" are using the bye week to get back to near 100 percent.
In addition to the health situation, the Ravens welcomed back playmaking safety Ed Reed at a time when they need to create more turnovers. Terrence Cody is maturing, which should help bolster the league’s 17th-best run defense. And the offense is still evolving around Flacco and his many "competitive" targets. Having the bye this late definitely helps the Ravens. Not that they couldn’t deal if it was earlier, but a late open date certainly primes teams for the home stretch. With a mix of rest and self-scouting, the Ravens can use it as a way to ensure all three phases of the game peak at the same time.