The Ravens made it to their early bye week (week 4 is the earliest a team could possibly have a bye) boasting a very 3-1 record, with all three victories coming in dominating fashion, and two of those over the squads that faced off in last season’s AFC Championship Game. While having a bye week so early can be both a blessing and a curse, it seems to be coming at the right time for the Ravens, who have a number of players suffering from various bumps and bruises who have missed time lately. John Harbaugh has given the team an extra few days off on top of what they normally get during byes, perhaps realizing that his veteran-laden club could use the extra rest a bit moreso than the extra reps.
Here are the five Ravens that the team most needs to get (and stay) healthy moving forward if they hope to continue on with their gaudy .750 winning percentage:
5. Haruki Nakamura
Nakamura is not only a key cog for the team in its nickel and dime packages, but he is also a big special teams contributor. Think back to the fake punt he busted out on the Steelers (can’t remember if it was 09 or 10) that got called back due to penalty. It’s also not ridiculous to think that Joe McKnight’s kickoff return touchdown never happens Sunday night if ‘ruki is on the field. The guy can cover, he can blitz, and he’s a special teams ace. Nakamura is much more important to the team than you’d ever know if you just listened to how many times the announcers call his name.
4. Chris Carr
Over the summer, the Ravens knew they could either keep Carr or Josh Wilson around. Wilson signed with the Redskins and Carr stayed in Baltimore with a new deal. At the time, I was OK with it, but it’s looking more and more like the Ravens made the wrong decision, if only because Carr can’t stay on the field. He injured his hamstring in training camp, came back to play against Pittsburgh in Week 1, re-aggravated the injury and missed Week 2, came back against St. Louis, and then the hammy flared up AGAIN in practice last week causing him to miss the Jets game. Carr was a solid cornerback in 2010, and he got better as the season went on. While he doesn’t possess ideal size, he plays good technique and isn’t afraid to come up to make stops in the run game. You could do much worse for your #3 (or #4) corner.
3. Lee Evans
Evans was supposed to be the guy that came in and added instant explosiveness to the Ravens’ vertical passing game. We saw shades of what Evans is capable of in preseason games against Kansas City and Washington, but he hasn’t played since Tennessee in Week 2. Even then, he was obviously operating at less than 100%, and he managed just 2 catches for 45 yards after being completely shut out against Pittsburgh. Luckily, rookie Torrey Smith has stepped up and at least given opposing defenses something to think about in Evans’ absence, but if #83 can get back on the field with Smith and Anquan Boldin, the Ravens should truly have a legit Top 10 offense for the first time in recent memory.
2. Jimmy Smith
Smith, the Ravens 2011 first round draft pick, is the prototypical cover corner the team has been missing ever since Chris McAlister left. Unfortunately, he was injured covering a kick just a couple minutes into his first NFL game. The high ankle sprain has kept Smith out the last three weeks, as what was initially a position of great depth for the team has become an early season concern (as evidenced by the team signing second-year free agent CB Bryan McCann today). The good news is that Texans’ wide receiver Andre Johnson will likely miss the October 16th match up at M&T Bank Stadium, where Smith’s skills would have been in high demand. High ankle sprains are a frustrating injury for a player, as they tend to just nag and nag, not completely healing or responding greatly to treatments. While Chuck Pagano’s defense has done well to cover for their deficiencies in the secondary with great pressure and creative personnel groupings through four weeks, Smith’s presence will only make what has been a dominating unit that much better.
1. Ben Grubbs
Grubbs is the team’s most complete lineman, but has been sidelined for the last three games with what is basically “turf toe” – a hyperextension of the ligaments in his toe, eerily similar to the injury that hobbled Jonathan Ogden in the waning hours of his Ravens career. The team initially tried to replace him with Mark LeVoir, a failed experiment that lasted only a single game. Andre Gurode has filled in admirably over the last two games, but the team is obviously limited in what they can do running the ball without Grubbs. The former Auburn Tiger can get out in space and lay the wood like nobody else on the team, and the playbook is unquestionably shrunk without Grubbs holding down his left guard spot.
I’ve had (have) a hyperextended big toe, and I can tell you that it’s no picnic. I hurt it nearly 10 years ago, and it still flares up to this day. And I obviously don’t put nearly the physical demands on my toe that Grubbs, a 310 lb NFL offensive lineman, does. It’s an injury that severely effected the careers of the great Ogden as well as fellow Hall-of-Famer Deion Sanders. Let’s hope the treatments Grubbs has been getting lead to a full and speedy recovery – even with Ray Rice, Torrey Smith, Boldin, Evans, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, this offense won’t be nearly what it can without consistently winning the battle up front. Grubbs is a Four-Star General in that battle.
While it’s a bit discouraging that the Ravens are in such desperate need of a bye week just four weeks into the young season, it’s equally encouraging that they’ve performed so well while missing this many pieces. If they can get these pieces back into the mix and operating at the high level of which they are capable, this will be a very, very good football team for the rest of the regular season and beyond.