HOUSTON – Terrell Suggs was the only Baltimore Raven who smiled as he walked off the field after his team got obliterated by the Texans 43-13. A few hecklers in the front row of Reliant Stadium, hanging a Ravens doll from a string, got his attention and he clapped and nodded and grinned.
"We gonna see you again!" Suggs yelled.
Well, if he says so.
Suggs is a throwback to the old Ravens, the team that hit without mercy, and woofed before and after the fact. At least these new Ravens can still talk, as the commentary after the game was something out of an Aaron Sorkin script.
"Sometimes you get tossed out of the bar," head coach John Harbaugh said.
"They all count the same," said quarterback Joe Flacco, "no matter how you lose."
"When you step into the shower, you're gonna get wet," said Suggs. "And it rained [Sunday]."
But behind the talk is an emerging identity crisis, especially without injured linebacker Ray Lewis, who used to embody the Ravens' moxie just by walking onto the field. It's still Lewis' team, but it sure seems to lack that Lewis spark.
This was supposed to be the season where the torch was finally shared. The powerhouse Ravens' defense of years past was still capable, but now the "vertical" offense behind Flacco would fill the void. It would be the best of both worlds and it would put the Ravens over the top. And it looked doable, as the team started 5-1. Then came injuries to Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb, and then came the most humiliating beatdown of the Harbaugh era.
So who are these new Ravens?
They are not a defensive team. Not when Houston scored a franchise record 43 on them and could have hung 50 with a break or two. The Ravens were 26th in the league in defense coming into this game. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees said he was made "sick" by his team's performance before they even got on the plane to Texas.
Asked what concerned him about getting thrashed Sunday, Harbaugh said: "I'm concerned about everything." The game changed completely in the split-second when Connor Barwin sacked Flacco in the end zone for a safety that closed the Ravens' lead to 3-2 in the opening quarter. By the end of the first half, it was 29-3. That is not the mark of a resilient team. That is not the Ravens football we're used to seeing. But that is the Ravens on the road, where their only win came in a 9-6 squeaker against the hapless Kansas City Chiefs in Week 5.
"It's two different teams," Ravens safety Ed Reed said afterward, looking like a pummeled boxer with his sunglasses on in the bright locker room. "Can't win like that."
Not with Flacco and the offense converting nearly just 25 percent of their third downs. He threw for a meager 147 yards and no more than 15 yards on any one play. There has been plenty of debate about whether Flacco is an elite quarterback, but he looked more like Blaine Gabbert than Eli Manning on Sunday.
The Ravens' "vertical" passing attack was decidedly horizontal against Houston, with either Flacco or his passes wounding up flat on the ground. The Ravens knew coming in that J.J. Watt and friends would be racing in with their arms raised, hoping to bat away throws. They did that seemingly at will.
"We saw it on film," said Ravens receiver Torrey Smith, "and they did a good job."
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Perhaps the most disturbing sequence occurred early in the fourth quarter, when Texans pass rusher Antonio Smith sacked Flacco and then did his patented samurai sword sack dance. On the very next play, Smith bolted in again, sacked Flacco again, and did the same samurai dance. The only thing missing was the hibachi and the flaming onion.
It's not all Ray Lewis' absence. He doesn't block, catch or throw. Baltimore went 4-0 last season without Lewis in the lineup, and eventually made it to the AFC title game. So there's that. And yet the way the Ravens simply fell apart after the first-quarter safety and a pick six by Texans defensive back Johnathan Joseph was jarring. The jolt Lewis always provides was clearly missing. Suggs, coming back bravely from a ruptured Achilles tendon, made the occasional big play, but there were precious few big hits. There was little visible emotion after the first few minutes. It was a veteran team getting "whupped" (Suggs' word) and going home. The old football cliché is "Next up," where an injury gives an opportunity for someone else to come in and own the moment. Next up for the Ravens on Sunday was no one. "If we don't get used to [missing Lewis] …," Reed said, "something's wrong."
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Is something wrong? Hard to say after just one wretched game. And let's be clear: the Texans were incredible on Sunday. They looked like a Super Bowl team, even after getting beat badly by Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers last week. The Ravens marveled at their opponents, almost to a man, and with good reason. The Texans, sad to say for Baltimore fans, look very much like the old Ravens: They run the ball, they control the clock, they hit with anger, they wag their fingers, and they can sustain a significant injury to a key player (Brian Cushing) and still win big. You know you've manhandled a team when the opposing head coach gets up to the podium after a game, grabs the lectern and declares, "I'm not sure what to say about that."
The Ravens are still 5-2. They are still confident. Very confident. The old Ravens are still in there somewhere, they insist.
"Everyone else will hit the panic button," said Suggs, grabbing his suitcase and striding theatrically out of the visitors' locker room. "That's when we'll have 'em right where we want 'em."
Well, if he says so.
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