OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Two games into the season, the Baltimore Ravens allowed only one touchdown and had every reason to believe their improved defense would be enough to get them back into the playoffs.
Then came a 44-7 loss to Jacksonville, a sobering defeat that exposed many of the Ravens' problems. Several of those issues remain in play, which goes a long way toward explaining why Baltimore wobbled into its bye week with a 4-5 record.
Too many injuries, along with inconsistency in the passing game, have proven difficult to overcome. The defense, despite registering two shutouts, isn't entirely without blame in this messy situation.
Unless the Ravens bounce back smartly, a third straight season without a playoff appearance will be the end result.
"We can't dwell on the fact that we're 4-5. We can't go back and change that," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We have to put that out of our mind as best we can."
Following a summer in which he skipped most of training game and all four preseason games with an injured back, Flacco has not come close to approaching the form he displayed in his previous nine NFL seasons. He has thrown 10 interceptions compared to eight touchdown passes and is averaging an NFL-low 5.33 yards per attempt.
Part of the problem is that he's been operating behind a makeshift offensive line and with a banged-up receiving group. The Ravens already lost starting guard Alex Lewis for the season when six-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda sustained a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2.
Though the unit seems to be improving on a weekly basis, Flacco has already been sacked 19 times and been forced to hurry dozens of throws.
"All in all, I'm happy with the offensive line," coach John Harbaugh said. "But they have to be better for the next seven weeks for us to do the things we want to do."
When Flacco does have time to throw, his selection of receivers has been limited. Jeremy Maclin, Mike Wallace and Breshard Perriman each have missed several games because of injury. The leading receivers on the team are running back Javorius Allen and tight end Benjamin Watson, and Flacco has only four completions of more than 30 yards.
Signed as a free agent during the offseason because of his pass-catching prowess, running back Danny Woodhead went out with a hamstring injury in the season opener, but hopes to return for next week's game at Green Bay.
"He can definitely make an impact. When you get him involved, you put more pressure on defenses to do different things," Flacco said.
Perhaps the one positive aspect of the offense has been the running game. Provided additional playing time after an injury to starter Terrance West, Alex Collins ranks 10th in the NFL with 521 yards rushing and is averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
Though the Ravens have the league's eighth-ranked rushing attack, the passing game ranks 31st and the offense is 30th.
That's tough for any defense to overcome. After Baltimore finished 8-8 last season, general manager Ozzie Newsome focused much of his attention trying to shore up the defense. He signed free agents Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr to bolster the backfield and doled out $52.5 million to keep tackle Brandon Williams.
The plan seemed to work after the Ravens opened with a 20-0 win over Cincinnati and followed with a 24-10 domination of Cleveland, forcing five turnovers in each game.
Williams missed the next month with a foot injury, and Baltimore lost three of four. Though he's been back for three weeks, the defense continues to struggle.
"We better get this fixed or we are going to be on the outside looking in again," linebacker Terrell Suggs said.
Flacco believes that if the Ravens play as if there's nothing to lose, they just might win.
"We need to go after it. We can't sit back and just expect not lose football games," he said. "You always look at teams in these positions and say, 'Man, they have nothing to lose.' And we should feel that way. We have to go out there and leave it all out there. That is what we do best as football players - we go do stuff aggressively, and we do not think about it."
The Ravens badly need a winning streak, something that hasn't happened since those first two games in September.
"We still believe in each other," safety Eric Weddle said. "Anyone can make a run. It happens every year. Why can't it be us? We have seven games to go. I feel like we have to win out, and that is the goal. Let the run happen and let the story be about us and the magical run that we had."
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