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Win In The Trenches, Win The Game

January 31, 2013 in Super Bowl XLVII, What to Look For

Super Bowl XLVII is being dubbed as the "Harbowl" because of brothers John and Jim Harbaugh being the head coaches of the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers respectively.  While this is a good storyline, it won't exactly determine who will win this game.  These two teams played last season on Thanksgiving night in Baltimore and the Ravens won 16-6.  Both teams are similar to those teams from 2011 but, there are still many differences.  In this game, the key will be winning the battle of the trenches.

1.  Offensive Line
The biggest reason the Ravens are in the Super Bowl, in my opinion, is the offensive line.  You can argue other things like the defense stepping up, Ray Lewis announcing his retirement, and Joe Flacco but, without the offensive line, Flacco wouldn't be playing as good as he has.  Without Flacco, the Ravens wouldn't have made it this far so, the offensive line is a big deal.

Throughout the postseason, the offensive line has given up only four sacks in three games.  In the regular season, they allowed thirty-eight sacks in sixteen games.  This comes out to 2.38 sacks per game.  Sacks isn't the whole story though, as the line was allowing constant pressure during some games which gave Flacco no chance to complete was pass.  In fact, in the game against the Denver Broncos in week 15, the line allowed eighteen hurries, ten knockdowns, and three sacks (not counted as knockdowns) on forty pass attempts.  In their matchup in the Divisional Playoffs, the Broncos only had one sack and never had much pressure.

The reason for this sudden change was a change in the line itself.  Starting LG Jah Reid was injured for the Wild Card game against the Indianapolis Colts.  This forced a complete reshuffling of the line.  Normal LT Michael Oher went to RT, normal RT Kelechi Osemele went to LG, and backup Bryant McKinnie went to LT.  McKinnie started at LT last season but was forced to the bench when the Ravens drafted Osemele. Before the next game, against the Broncos, the Ravens placed Reid on injured reserve which locked in this lineup for the rest of the playoffs.

On to Super Bowl XLVII, the line will face a tough matchup with the 49ers who finished the regular season 3rd in total yards allowed and 2nd in points per game.  The biggest challenge will be for the left side of the offensive line.  Left tackle McKinnie will go up against Defensive Player of the Year candidate Aldon Smith who has 19.5 sacks this season.  Right guard Marshal Yanda will face All-Pro DE Justin Smith.  One stat in favor of the Ravens is that neither has recorded a sack since week 14 against the Miami Dolphins.  The reason for this is Justin Smith then missed some time with a triceps injury.  This shows that without Justin Smith, Aldon Smith is an "average" pass rusher.  Even in their two playoff games, Aldon Smith has no sacks and Justin Smith has been playing injured in those two games.

Since Yanda is an All-Pro guard, the Ravens will hope he can handle Justin Smith one-on-one.  This then allows more attention to go to Aldon Smith with McKinnie probably getting some help from a tight end or a running back.  If Yanda can handle Justin Smith, it frees up the whole offensive line.  It means on run plays C Matt Birk and LG Kelechi Osemele could double team NT Isaac Sopoaga and lets FB Vonta Leach get to the second level and take out one of the 49ers All-Pro ILBs in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.

The key for the Ravens offensive line is to stop Justin Smith.  If they can do this with just Marshal Yanda then it will free up other lineman to block linebackers and the rest of the defensive line.  Anytime you can get offensive lineman on linebackers in the run game, it is good.  In the passing game, if the line can hold up, Flacco should play similar to how he has so far in the playoffs.

2.  Joe Flacco
Speaking of Flacco, he has big responsibilities in the game.  This is his chance to show the world that he is an elite quarterback like he said before the season.  So far this postseason, he has been elite going 51-of-93 for 853 yards with 8 TDs, 0 INTs, and a QB rating of 114.7.  His passing yards, touchdowns, interceptions, and QB rating are all the best for QBs in this postseason.  

Beyond the stats, he has gone into Denver and beat MVP candidate Peyton Manning and went into New England and beat Tom Brady.  Not only did he beat both, he outperformed them and now he finds himself in New Orleans for the Super Bowl while they watch from home.

The best part of Flacco's game this postseason has been the deep passing game.  On passes to wide receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, Flacco is averaging 16.7 yards per completion.  During the regular season, the 49ers were good at stopping the deep pass but, in the playoffs, they have regressed and quarterbacks are 10-of-15 for 264 yards with 3 TDs, 1 INT, and a QBR of 100.  If you want to see a full chart for this click here.

Expect the Ravens to come out passing against the 49ers.  Against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, they came out running and it didn't work.  In the second half, they started to pass the ball and this second half performance won the game for them.  Don't expect the Ravens to abandon the run game though as they will need it for play-action passes and the Ravens always seem to lose when they don't run the ball.  As always, they will use Smith to take the top off the defense and then use Boldin and TE Dennis Pitta across the middle of the field.

Joe Flacco

The Ravens will need one more good game from QB Joe Flacco to win the Super Bowl.

3.  Stopping the Run
When the 49ers played the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Playoffs, the Packers couldn't stop QB Colin Kaepernick or RB Frank Gore.  In the NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons, the Falcons were able to stop Kaepernick from running but couldn't stop Gore.  If the Ravens want to win, they will have to at least contain both of them.

Coming into this game, the Ravens defense is on fire.  They have given up 14 points per game in the playoffs and have only allowed four touchdowns.  Despite the Ravens not having played a good running teams in the playoffs, they have a few advantages over the Packers and the Falcons in stopping the 49ers run game.

The best defense to run for stopping the option, which the 49ers will run, is the 3-4, which the Packers use but not the Falcons.  However, the Packers defense has consistently been awful over the last few years.  The Ravens run the 3-4 defense and, they have the right personnel to stop the outside runs.

Rookie outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw has been one of the best run defenders at his position all season long.  Therefore, expect him to play a little bit more than usual on Sunday.  When you think of Terrell Suggs, you think of a pass rusher, not a run defender.  However, Suggs has become a good run defender over the last few years and it has become the most evident this year.  Due to all of his injuries limiting his pass rushing ability, Suggs has become a better run defender.  Paul Kruger also will play at OLB for the Ravens but he is mainly a pass rusher so he won't be talked about here.

The outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense are the most important players in stopping outside runs, which is mainly what Kaepernick does.  Since the Ravens have a pair of good outside linebackers, the should be ok in this part of the run game.  They also showed this in their week 14 matchup against the Washington Redskins.  While the Ravens lost, they were able to limit QB Robert Griffin III to 34 yards on 7 rushes before he was hampered by a knee injury.  Therefore, it is Gore that the Ravens will have to really worry about.

The outside linebackers will have to set the edge for runs and probably will be assigned to Kaepernick on the option plays.  This means that the rest of the front seven will be responsible for stopping Gore.  This is what the Falcons couldn't do and the Ravens could fall in the same boat. The nose tackle position has been very inconsistent for the Ravens this year with not very good production.  This allows lineman to get blocks on the linebackers which can spring the running backs free.  This is never good for a run defense as it allows constant runs of five yards or more.

A way to fix this is putting normal DE Haloti Ngata at NT but this all but eliminates him from rushing the passer which he is so good at. Therefore, the Ravens will have to stick with Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody at NT.  Them, along with DEs Ngata, Arthur Jones, and Pernell McPhee will need to get push and take on blockers to disrupt the runs and allow the linebackers to run free and make tackles.

Expect the Ravens to have schemed up a decent way to stop this high powered run game of the 49ers.  However, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman are great offensive minds which means they also will have schemed up something.  This means it will come down to execution and who can make plays.

4.  Pass Rush
Containing Kaepernick isn't the only thing the Ravens outside linebackers will have to do, they will also have to generate a pass rush when the 49ers pass it.  It will be a tough challenge for the Ravens pass rushers as the 49ers line has only given up two sacks this postseason but, they did give up forty-one sacks in the regular season which ranks tied for 23rd best in the NFL.

The Ravens, on the other hand, recorded thirty-seven sacks in the regular season, tied for 15th best, and have six sacks in the postseason.  In the game against the Patriots, they recorded no sacks but were able to have constant pressure.  Rushing the passer isn't all about sacks, most of it is getting enough pressure to force the ball out of the quarterback's hands before he wants to throw it.

Playing the 49ers, the biggest problem with getting pressure is the threat of Kaepernick to scramble and pick up chunks of yards.  Therefore, don't be surprised if the Ravens have either a linebacker in the middle of the field spy Kaepernick or just tell the edge pass rusher to contain on certain plays.  This should limit the scrambling ability of Kaepernick on pass plays.

On to specific players, OLB Paul Kruger had been quite a tear since week ten against the Oakland Raiders.  He had a total of ten sacks in nine games starting with that game.  His streak finished after a 2.5 sack performance against the Colts in their Wild Card game.  He has been shut out in the last two playoff games though.  The Ravens will need Kruger to regain his late season form to get pressure on Kaepernick and disrupt the 49ers passing game.

On the other side of the line will the Terrell Suggs.  Suggs has overcome a torn achilles and a torn biceps to be able to play this season.  In the regular season, Suggs was only able to record two sacks in eight games.  In the postseason, however, Suggs has two sacks, both against the Broncos.  Suggs will need to be in top form as the 49ers have a great offensive line, plus he will have big responsibilities in the run game.

While Kruger and Suggs will rush from the outside, Haloti Ngata, Arthur Jones, and Pernell McPhee will rush Kaepernick from the inside.  Of those three, McPhee has turned his game on recently.  Against the Patriots he batted down two passes including one that resulted for an interception.  In the previous game, he had a strip sack of Peyton Manning.  McPhee had been limited by injuries all year but now, he seems to be back in form.  Jones had 4.5 sacks in weeks 12-14 but has no others on the season.  Ngata, has been a force inside when healthy and, he seems to be in good health right now.

As stated above, who ever wins in the trenches will win the game.  So, it might not be as fun to watch as a high powered passing offense, like the Patriots, but the battle in the trenches will be great to watch as there will be some great matchups and, most importantly, it will determine the game.

Paul Kruger

Ravens OLB Paul Kruger will be a key player in Super Bowl XLVII.

Four Ravens With Super Bowl Experience

January 27, 2013 in Super Bowl XLVII

With the Super Bowl being one week away, we should look at what experience the Ravens will have in New Orleans.  The Ravens have four players who have played in the Super Bowl before and their head coach along with both of their coordinators have been to the Super Bowl.

The first, and most obvious of the Ravens to play in a Super Bowl, is LB Ray Lewis.  He is the only player on the Ravens team with a Super Bowl ring.  Lewis got his ring in Super Bowl XXXV where the Ravens beat the New York Giants 34-7.  This is the only other time the Ravens have made it to a Super Bowl and Lewis is the only player left from this team.

In the game, Lewis only had 3 solo tackles, 2 tackle assists, and 4 pass defensed.  However, Lewis still was able to win the Super Bowl MVP. The reason that Lewis won the MVP was he was the leader of a defense that allowed no points (the Giants returned a kickoff for a touchdown). In fact on ESPNs Super Bowl MVP page, it just says "Led a dominant Ravens defense" under why he received the award.  Every MVP except one, Super Bowl XII, has the players statistics.  During that season, Lewis was also the Defensive Player of the Year and he led arguably the best best defense in history.

Ray Lewis

Ravens LB Ray Lewis was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV.

In his post game press conference, Lewis said "I told Shannon Sharpe [TE] and I told Jamal Lewis [RB]: Give us 10 points and the game is over. That's not boasting. If you give us 10 points, game over.  You go down against our defense, you're in a whole lot of trouble.  We've dominated people like that all year.  And they didn't score on us.  Make sure you quote that.  They didn't score on our defense."  As you can see, Lewis was very proud of his, and the defense's accomplishments.

The next Ravens player who has made a Super Bowl is fellow LB Brendon Ayanbadejo.  Ayanbadejo was part of the Chicago Bears when they made it to Super Bowl XLI.  The Bears lost to the Indianapolis Colts by a score of 29-17.  Ayanbadejo only played special teams for the Bears and recorded 1 tackle during the game.

Starting WR Anquan Boldin was part of one of the most unexpected Super Bowl runs ever.  He played a key part in getting the Arizona Cardinals to Super Bowl XLIII.  In the regular season, the Cardinals went 9-7 and many people believed they didn't belong in the playoffs at all.  The Cardinals run was ended by the Pittsburgh Steelers as they handed the Cardinals a 27-23 loss on an improbable touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds left.  Boldin had 8 catches for 84 yards including a 45 yard catch. For that season, Boldin had 89 catches for 1,038 yards and 11 touchdowns in the regular season.

Last is backup S James Ihedigbo who played for the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI which was last year.  Despite the Patriots losing 21-17 to the New York Giants, who like the Cardinals went 9-7 in the regular season, Ihedigbo played a decent game.  He had 5 tackles as one of the starting safeties.  However, Ihedigbo was covering Giants WR Victor Cruz on his touchdown catch.  At the end of training camp this year, Ihedigbo was cut and the Ravens quickly signed him.  By beating the Patriots twice, including the AFC Championship Game, Ihedigbo has is revenge and now is going for back-to-back Super Bowl victories.

On the coaching side of things, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell was the Colts QB coach/assistant head coach when they beat  Ayanbadejo and the Bears in Super Bowl XLI.  This experience should be helpful during preparation for the Super Bowl over the next week.  Since he was also the assistant head coach, Caldwell would have had more responsibilities than a regular QB coach.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has been to two Super Bowls with the Patriots.  The first was Super Bowl XXXIX where he was the LB coach and the second was Super Bowl XLII as the defensive coordinator.  The Patriots won the first Super Bowl but not the second.  The loss in Super Bowl XLII wasn't exactly on Pees because his defense only gave up 17 points.  They did give up 14 points in the 4th quarter but, coming into the game, the Patriots would have been happy giving up 17 points as their offense was one of the best in history.  However, the Giants were able to stop this high-powered offense.

Head coach John Harbaugh has been to the Super Bowl once when he was the Philadelphia Eagles special teams coordinator.  The Eagles faced the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX and as we already know, the Patriots won.  The Eagles special teams didn't give up any touchdowns and the longest return they allowed was only 26 yards.  It definitely wasn't Harbaugh's fault that the Eagles lost.

Now, what does this mean for the Ravens?  It means that they have some experience in all aspects of the game.  On offense, they have Boldin, a veteran receiver and a key players, and the offensive coordinator in Caldwell.  On defense, they have Lewis, a great leader, and coordinator Dean Pees.  Both Ayanbadejo and Ihedigbo play special teams so they will bring experience to that part of the game.  It is good that the three most important coaches all have been to the Super Bowl as they have already been through this before.

The San Francisco 49ers don't have the same experience at the top of their coach staff as head coach Jim Harbaugh went to Super Bowl XXXVII as the Oakland Raiders QB coach and neither offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio have been to a Super Bowl.  The 49ers do have more players who have played in Super Bowls as they have five players with Super Bowl experience.

It will be interesting to see how experience ends up impacting the game.  It is interesting that the teams combined will only have a  total of nine players with Super Bowl experience which is probably a recent low.

Ed Reed To Return Next Season

January 26, 2013 in News, Super Bowl XLVII

Once Ravens LB Ray Lewis announced his plan to retire at the beginning of the playoffs, many people then looked to S Ed Reed on whether he would retire too.  Now we have an answer.

During a Thursday press conference, Reed announced that he will play next year.  When he was asked if he would retire after the season, Reed said "Nah, it's not my last ride, I just bought a bike."  He then followed up with "I'll be playing next year, if that's what you all are asking.  Next question."

While we now know that Reed will be playing next year, his future with the Ravens is still unknown.  Reed will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.  With the Ravens projected to have low cap room and with Joe Flacco, Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, and Cary Williams also becoming free agents, the Ravens will have some tough choices to make, with the biggest probably being Reed.

The reason that many thought Reed might retire, other than Lewis retiring, was that Super Bowl XLVII is being held in New Orleans.  Reed was born in St. Rose, Louisiana which is about 30 minutes from New Orleans and only 17 miles away from the Superdome (where the game will be held).

When asked about returning to New Orleans for the Super Bowl, Reed said "It's just awesome right now.  A great feeling.  It's amazing to be going back to New Orleans.  I'm so grateful.  To go to the Crescent City, here we come, baby."  He also said "I really don't have any words for it.  I rushed into the locker room to call my mom because I know that my family has been going through some things.  So I'm just thankful to be going home to New Orleans for the whole of New Orleans to see some hometown guys.  Jacoby Jones [another New Orleans native], we talked about it.  We're just grateful."

Reed still has ties to the New Orleans area as his family still lives there.  He also hosts an annual football camp at his old high school.  This will be the first time that Reed has played in New Orleans since October 2006, just one year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.

Ed Reed

Ravens S Ed Reed has announced he will play football next season.

Ravens Advance To Super Bowl XLVII

January 22, 2013 in Observations

In a rematch of last years AFC Championship Game, the Baltimore Ravens outlasted the New England Patriots by a score of 28-13.  At halftime the score was 13-7 to the Patriots.  Once the second half started the Ravens had a new offensive scheme, pass the ball.  This worked as it led to 21 second half points.  The defense rose to the occasion and shut the Patriots out in the second half.  In the first half, the Ravens were out played but, in the second half, the Ravens outplayed the Patriots.  Before this game, the Patriots had won 71 games in a row under head coach Bill Belichick when leading at half, including a 67-0 record when the quarterback is Tom Brady.  Now the Ravens will head to New Orleans to play in Super Bowl XLVII.  They will have the San Francisco 49ers who are coached by the brother of Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, Jim Harbaugh.  The game will take place on February 3rd and kickoff is at 6:29 pm Eastern time.

The Red Zone
The Ravens play in the red zone, on offense and defense, is what won them this game.  On offense, they made it to the red zone four times and, scored four touchdowns.  This offensive efficiency can make an offense almost unstoppable, as long as they can actually get to the red zone. On defense, they allowed the Patriots to make it in to the red zone four times but, they only scored one touchdown.  The Patriots also got to the Ravens 24 and 22-yard line but, the Ravens were able to force interceptions both times.  This red zone defense describes this years Ravens defense.  They are not the best in the league anymore however, once the other team makes it to the red zone, they dig in and stop the offense. It is very hard to lose a game when you have these two stats on your side.

Joe Flacco
For Flacco, it was almost like two different games.  In the first half, he went 6-of-12 for 81 yards with 0 TDs or INTs.  This isn't bad quarterbacking but, it also isn't how an elite one plays.  In the second half though, he went 15-of-24 for 159 yards with 3 TDs and 0 INTs.  For the game, he went 21-of-36 for 240 yards with 3 TDs and 0 INTs.  His QBR was 80.2 and his QB rating was 106.2 compared to Tom Brady's QBR of 45.1 and QB rating of 62.3.  Brady also threw 2 INTs.  So, for the third time in as many games, Flacco has outplayed Tom Brady and, two of these games have been the AFC Championship.

As stated above, the Ravens offensive strategy in the second half changed.  In the first half they had been doing a lot of run plays, especially on first down.  The offense just looked really conservative in the first half.  At halftime, there were some changes as the Ravens came out throwing in the second half.  In fact, Flacco accounted for 70% of the Ravens offense in the second half.  With this change, the offense started to move the ball.  Soon they had taken a 14-13 lead and they never looked back after that.

On to more game specific things, Flacco never really got the deep ball going as his longest completion of the game went for 26 yards to Anquan Boldin.  The lack of a deep passing game can be attributed to the weather as it was very windy on the field with the wind at around 20 mph if I remember correctly.  All of Flacco's touchdown passes were good but the one that stood out to me was the first to Anquan Boldin.  The first was a play action jump ball.  After the fake, Flacco threw the ball up where only Boldin could get it.  Flacco also had one rush attempt where he scrambled and picked up 14 yards and a first down.

Joe Flacco

Ravens QB Joe Flacco celebrates throwing one of his three touchdown passes against the Patriots.

Ray Rice
Starting with his performance in the passing game, Rice had 3 catches for 22 yards on 4 targets.  Of these three catches, two of them went for first downs.  The most memorable was a 15 yard screen pass.  The Patriots originally had the screen covered but, Rice got away and Flacco threw it.  Rice broke three tackles on his way to the first down.  Now to the run game.  While Rice had 19 rushes, he only ran for 48 yards which is an average of 2.5 yards per carry.  Three of these rushes went for first downs.  One was a 5 yard run that put the ball on the Patriots 2-yard line after he ran for eight yards the play before.  Another of his first downs was a short run on a 2nd and 2 which put the ball on the Patriots 3-yard line.  The last of his first downs was a 3rd and 1 run with five minutes left in the game which helped run more time off the clock.  Along with his 48 rush yards, Rice also had a rushing touchdown.  He only went for two yards but, he broke two tackles on the way.  The play called for Rice to run up the middle but, like most of the game, there wasn't running room in the middle.  So, Rice bounced the run outside to the left and scored. The only negative from Rice is he had a false start on a 3rd an 8 from the Ravens own 29-yard line.  This was early in the game so it can probably be accounted to nerves.

Bernard Pierce
While couldn't get much going on the ground, Pierce had much more success.  On 9 carries he had 52 yards.  Three of these carries went for first downs.  One of them was a 2nd and 5 run for nine yards which put the ball on the Patriots 22-yard line and another was a 3rd and 2 draw that he was able to bounce outside for a gain of eleven, the longest rush by any running back in the game.  Pierce also had 1 catch for 8 yards.  This also went for a first down; it was a 2nd and 8 swing pass that just barely was enough for the first.

Torrey Smith
Unlike the Denver game, Smith wasn't able to catch a deep pass but, he still had an impact on the game.  Most of his catches were in the intermediate range due to the wind.  He had 4 catches for 69 yards on 9 targets.  He had three of these go for first downs.  The first was a 25 yard catch on play action on a 2nd and 6 which put the Ravens on the Patriots 15-yard line.  The second was a 2nd and 14 conversion that went for 23 yards.  Lastly, he had a 16 yard catch on a first down.

Anquan Boldin
This was another record setting game for Boldin.  With his two touchdown catches, Boldin became the Ravens all-time postseason receiving touchdown leader.  He had 5 catches for 60 yards with 2 TDs on 8 targets.  All of these catches came in the second half and only one wasn't a first down or touchdown.  One of these first down catches was a 3rd and 9 for 26 yards and the other was on 2nd and 10 that put the ball on the Patriots 10-yard line.  Boldin's first touchdown was on the first play of the fourth quarter.  The other touchdown (the first was discussed with Flacco), was on a 2nd and 4 and was for 12 yards.  Boldin lined up in the slot and ran a seam route, Flacco threw it up and Boldin caught it for another touchdown.

Anquan Boldin

Ravens WR Anquan Boldin celebrates a touchdown with WRs Torrey Smith (left) and Jacoby Jones (right) nearby.

Dennis Pitta
For the second game in a row, Pitta had 55 receiving yards.  This week he did it on 5 catches with 7 targets.  Three of these catches went for first downs, one for a touchdown, and the other was in the red zone.  Starting with his first down catches, Pitta had a 3rd and 4 catch from deep in Ravens territory, a 2nd and 10 catch for a gain of over 20 yards, and a 2nd and 4 catch that put the ball on the Patriots 13-yard line.  His touchdown was on 2nd and goal from the 5-yard line and was a quick pass.  Lastly, his other catch occurred on the play before his touchdown.  It was first and goal from the ten and he went over the middle.  Pitta caught the ball and took a big hit but still was able to hold on to the ball.  On the negative side, Pitta had a diving catch go right through his hands on a 3rd and 8.

Offensive Line
Yet again, the offensive line performed great.  They only gave up two sacks for a combined loss of five yards which is nothing in terms of sack yardage.  The first sack was given up by LT Bryant McKinnie on a 3rd and 6 from inside the Ravens own 10-yard line. The other sack was more of a coverage sack and Flacco was starting to scramble so it wasn't really the fault of the offensive line.  It only went for a loss of one so it was basically a failed run play.  None of the offensive linemen were called for a penalty which is very impressive.  In the run game, they got some movement but for the most past, there never were any big holes to run through.  Of the offensive line can protect Flacco like this for one more game, they could be tough to beat in the Super Bowl.

Haloti Ngata
Ngata may have only had four tackles but, for a defensive lineman in a 3-4 defense, that is good.  One of these tackles was a run stop for no gain.  The part of the game that Ngata was the best at yesterday was rushing the passer.  Ngata finished with three of the Ravens seven QB hits (they didn't record a sack but seemed to have a fair amount of pressure).  On a 4th and 4 play from the Ravens 19-yard line, Ngata had pressure with Terrell Suggs which caused Brady to throw the ball away.  Once the Ravens made this stop, it seemed like the Ravens were going to win and make it to the Super Bowl.  This play is an attribute to Ngata's speed as Brady had an open field in front of him but didn't run because he probably wouldn't have made it.  Ngata also had pressure on another play which caused a throw away.  The last play where Ngata caused a throw away was with two minutes left.  Ngata had pressure which caused Brady to throw the ball away.

Pernell McPhee
So how does a defensive lineman without a tackle make it here?  Simple, deflect two passes (including one that leads to a touchdown) and say that you have discovered Tom Brady's flaw.  First, McPhee batted away a pass in the fourth quarter that Dannell Ellerbe was able to intercept. After this interception, with seven minutes left in the game, it seemed like the game really was over as the Patriots never got the ball back until there were two minutes left.  The other pass deflection came with under two minutes left in game.  On to him discovering Brady's flaw, McPhee says "He throws all of his balls low."  When asked about how Brady has been so successful despite this McPhee said "He just throws it fast and he always gets good pockets.  But I tried to stay in front of him after watching film and knowing where he likes to go and how he likes to do it.  So that was my best advantage, just get my hands up."  This strategy clearly worked for McPhee as he had his two pass deflections at the line.

Pernell McPhee

Ravens DE Pernell McPhee batted down two passes at the line-of-scrimmage.

Ray Lewis
As usual, Lewis recorded double digit tackles with 14 but, according to Pro Football Focus, only two of those were defensive stops (runs for little or no gain).  Lewis was flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit which was the right call even though it was pretty obvious that he didn't mean to do it. Lastly, after the game, Lewis fell to the ground and started saying "Hallelujah."

Dannell Ellerbe
Starting with pass coverage, Ellerbe gave up three catches for one first down.  With about seven minutes left in the game, Ellerbe intercepted Brady off of McPhee's tip.  This came the next play after Wes Welker caught a 56 yard pass.  The last positive for Ellerbe was a pressure on Brady which caused a bad deep pass that ended up going out-of-bounds.  Also on this play, Ellerbe was able to take down Brady.  On the negative side Ellerbe was flagged for an unnecessary roughness penalty after slapping a Patriots offensive lineman when a play was over. Ellerbe was retaliating to a late block but, you can't do that in the NFL and he was flagged, even if his slap barely was anything.

Terrell Suggs
While Suggs is though of as a pass rusher, he is actually quite a good run defender and this was on full display yesterday.  Suggs had two run stops for no gain including one on a 2nd and 1.  In the pass rush department he wasn't able to record a sack (like all of the Ravens) but, still had at least two pressures.  The first was on the 4th and 4 with Haloti Ngata as already discussed.  The other was with under two minutes left where he hit Brady as he threw causing an incompletion.

Walking off the field, Suggs was overheard saying "Tell them to have fun at the Pro Bowl. Arrogant f—ers" and "These are the most arrogant pricks in the world starting with Belichick on down."  He also said "That's funny, ever since SpyGate they haven't been able to win" though I don't know if he said this one to reporters or if he was overheard like the other two.  He did respond to reporters saying "All BS aside they are a hell of a ball club … They have the right to be arrogant."  While he may believe this, there is no reason to say this but, on the positive side, he didn't come out and say it to the media, he was just overheard.  Either way, the Ravens don't need publicity like this, especially after these two controversial things about the Patriots.

Bernard Pollard
It seemed like Pollard was all over the field going full speed all night.  He finished with 9 tackles, 1 pass deflection, and 1 forced fumble.  In the run game, Pollard had a run stop for a gain of two yards.  In pass coverage, he only gave up one pass.  On a blitz he was able to bat down a pass at the line-of-scrimmage.  This batted pass came on 1st and goal from the Ravens two-yard line.  On a 3rd and 4 from the Ravens 19-yard line, he had great coverage and forced an incompletion.  Pollard had a big hit on a receiver but was called for a helmet-to-helmet hit.  However, he led with his shoulder on the play and his shoulder hit the receiver on his head so I am going to call this one a bad call.

Lastly is the play we all remember, his hit and forced fumble on Patriots RB Stevan Ridley.  Pollard hit Ridley hard and they both lowered their heads on the play so it was a helmet-to-helmet hit but since it was a running back it isn't a penalty.  Ridley was unconscious before he hit the ground and on his way down, the ball came out of his hands and was recovered by DT Arthur Jones.  Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said "That [Pollard's hit] was the turning point of the game. A tremendous hit, football at its finest."  This play goes in line with Pollard's history with the Patriots.  In 2008, it was Pollard that hit Brady when he tore his ACL.  In 2009, it was Pollard that Welker was trying to avoid when he tore his ACL.  In 2012, it was Pollard that injured Rob Gronkowski ankle which limited him in the Super Bowl.

Bernard Pollard

Ravens S Bernard Pollard goes in for a tackle.

Cary Williams
Williams had a solid performance last night only giving up four completions and one first down.  He also had a deflection on a 3rd and 2 that went right to Paul Kruger but, since the deflection took a weird bounce off of Williams, Kruger dropped it because he wasn't expecting the ball to come to him.  Lastly, Williams intercepted Brady in the end zone with 1:06 left in the game.  After this interception the Ravens just took a two knees and the game was over.

Corey Graham
Like Williams, Graham gave up four completions, however, three of his went for first downs and the other was for the Patriots only touchdown of the game.  The touchdown was on a 3rd and goal from the one.  After the play, Graham and Chykie Brown were upset because they didn't communicate well after the Patriots motioned a receiver over.  This led to Welker being open for the touchdown.  Graham was also beaten on the first drive on a 3rd and 2 but Welker dropped the pass.  On a pass that Welker didn't drop, Graham was beat deep for 56 yards.  He bit badly on the double move leaving Welker wide open.  Ending on a positive note, Graham had a run stop for a loss of one on a 3rd and 2 which forced a field goal by the Patriots.

Jimmy Smith
This game was the first time in a while that Smith received substantial playing time.  Brown started as the nickel corner and then Smith took it over.  By the end of the game it seemed like they were being rotated.  This could have been part of the game plan to put Graham on Welker instead of Brown doing that.  This would mean that Graham would be in the slot.  Since Smith is better on the outside than Brown, he would come in when in nickel.  This is just a speculation so it will be interesting to see who is the nickel corner in the Super Bowl.

John Harbaugh

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh celebrates the Ravens win in the locker room.

Dannell Ellerbe Questionable

January 19, 2013 in Injury Reports

Ravens

Dannell Ellerbe

Ravens starting ILB Dannell Ellerbe is questionable with ankle and back injuries.

Out
CB Asa Jackson (thigh)

Questionable
LB Dannell Ellerbe (ankle and back)
FB Vonta Leach (knee and ankle)
RB Bernard Pierce (knee)
WR David Reed (thigh)

Probable
RB Anthony Allen (head)
WR Anquan Boldin (shoulder)
CB Chykie Brown (shoulder)
DT Terrence Cody (ankle)
C Gino Gradkowski (head)
DT Arthur Jones (thigh and knee)
LB Ray Lewis (triceps)
LB Albert McClellan (shoulder)
DE Pernell McPhee (thigh)
DT Haloti Ngata (knee)
S Bernard Pollard (chest)
S Ed Reed (shoulder)
CB Jimmy Smith (abdominal)
WR Torrey Smith (back)
LB Terrell Suggs (achilles and biceps)
G Marshal Yanda (shoulder)

Patriots

*Note*  Earlier this week the Patriots placed TE Rob Gronkowski on injured reserve.

Probable
CB Marquice Cole (finger)
DE Chandler Jones (ankle)
OL Nick McDonald (shoulder)
DE Trevor Scott (knee)
RB Danny Woodhead (thumb)

Joe Flacco vs Tom Brady

January 19, 2013 in What to Look For

In what is a rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game, the Ravens will travel to Foxboro to face the New England Patriots.  These two teams played in week three and the Ravens prevailed 31-30.

1.  Quarterback Battle
A few years ago, when the Ravens and Patriots played, the main thing to watch was the Ravens defense going against Patriots QB Tom Brady. Now, with the way Ravens QB Joe Flacco has played, it is Joe Flacco vs Tom Brady.  Over the last few games, Flacco has stepped up to help the Ravens win.

So far in the postseason, Flacco and Brady are the top two quarterbacks based on a few statistics.  In QB rating, Flacco is first and Brady is second.  Out of the quarterbacks who have started a playoff game this season, Flacco and Brady are the only two to throw for zero interceptions. When you look at passing yards per game, Brady is first and Flacco is second and the only other quarterback  who is averaging over 300 yards per game is the Texans Matt Schaub.  Lastly, Flacco has thrown for five TDs which is two more than anyone else as five people, including Brady, have three touchdowns.

Now to the game, it very well could come down to the last drive, just like the last two times they have played.  In the regular season, Flacco led the Ravens down the field for a game winning field goal.  In last years AFC Championship Game, Flacco led the Ravens on a late drive but, Lee Evans dropped the game winning touchdown pass and then Billy Cundiff missed a short field goal to send the game to overtime.  In this sense, Flacco has the advantage but, you never know what Brady would have done if he had the ball on the last drive.  Also in the last two games, Flacco has outplayed Brady.  Flacco has gone 50-of-75 for 688 yards with 5 TDs, 2 INTs, and a QBR of 68.1.  Brady went 50-of-77 for 574 yards with 1 TD, 2 INTs, and a QBR of 78.8.

This game will come down to which quarterback plays the best and, it could come to whether one of these two can lead their team to a game winning drive.  Also, in the last two games against each other, Flacco and Brady each completed 22 passes and then 28 passes.

2.  Passing Game
While I just talked about Flacco vs Brady, we still need to take a look at how Flacco can perform great this week.  The Patriots ranked 29th in total passing yards and passing yards per game.  In their only playoff game this year, the Patriots gave up 343 pass yards.  In the postseason, most of Flacco's good performance has come from the deep passes.  He has averaged 10.75 yards per attempt so far this postseason.  Expect, the Ravens to try and use Torrey Smith to take the top off of the defense and then get the ball underneath to Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta. Smith had 127 yards on 6 catches with 2 TDs in the earlier matchup.  Boldin had 4 catches for 48 yards and Pitta had 5 catches for 50 yards and 1 TD.  Since the Patriots have proved they are susceptible to the passing game, expect the Ravens to attack that way early, and often.

Joe Flacco

Ravens QB Joe Flacco will need to outplay Patriots QB Tom Brady for the Ravens to win this week.

3.  Defense
While this may seem very broad, it is still an important topic.  Despite Brady being an elite quarterback, the Ravens are 2-2 in their last four games against him.  The main reason for this is the defense being able to contain Brady.  Brady hasn't been as effective as usual do to the defensive scheme.  Since the Ravens have played Tom Brady enough, they have been able to figure out something that works against Brady. Simplifying it, there are two ways to attack Brady.  The first is to blitz him and the other is to sit back in coverage.  In theory, blitzing works because Brady will have less time to throw but, if Brady identifies the blitz, he will change the play to get the ball out fast enough.  Dropping back in coverage would work in theory because it would be harder to find an open receiver but, you are only sending three or four rushers after Brady which will usually not be enough to get significant pressure.  This then gives Brady the time to find an open receiver because the secondary can't cover a receiver forever.  Therefore, you have to pick your times to blitz and try and confuse Brady.

4.  Ray Lewis and Ed Reed vs Tom Brady
Tying into confusing Brady is Lewis and Reed as it will be up to them to try and confuse Brady.  Lewis is the defensive leader and it will mainly be his responsibility to get people to line up and confuse Brady.  When Brady does audible, it will be up to Lewis to change the defensive alignment. For Reed, it is his job to switch the secondary assignments.  Combined, Lewis and Reed have enough experience to be able to get the Ravens in a good defense to defend against Brady.

More specifically to Reed, he will be the main player stopping the Patriots from passing deep.  Last week against the Broncos, Peyton Manning never even tested Reed in coverage which is very rare.  Based off this picture, Brady is very aware of what Reed can do but, expect Brady to attack Reed with a few deep passes as Reed no longer has the range he used to have.

Ed Reed

Patriots QB Tom Brady has great respect for Ravens S Ed Reed.

Ravens Stun Broncos in Double OT

January 13, 2013 in Observations

In the first double overtime game since the 2003 divisional playoffs, the 4th seed Baltimore Ravens beat the 1st seed Denver Broncos 38-35 in the 4th longest game in NFL history.  The 35 points given up by the Ravens are the most in franchise playoff history.  On the offensive side, the Ravens had an amazing 479 yards of offense.  Coming into the game, almost nobody gave the Ravens a chance to win but, they came together as a team to win this one.  The Ravens will play in the AFC Championship game on Sunday at 6:30 ET on the road against the winner of the Patriots Texans game today.

Coverage Units
If the Ravens lost this game, most of the blame would have gone to the punt and kickoff coverage units.  On the first punt of the game, they allowed Broncos returner Trindon Holliday to go 90 yards for a touchdown.  On the return, there was one Ravens player on the far side of the field (from a TV perspective), other that P Sam Koch.  Holliday just took the punt down the far side of the field and scored.  Brendon Ayanbadejo missed a tackle and Holliday was gone.  Giving up a punt return for a touchdown is one thing but, having about nine players on the wring side of the field is another.  Some of them should be their for contain but not nine of them.

They weren't done after allowing that punt return either.  To start second half, the Ravens kicked off.  Holliday took the ball out of his endzone and ran it 104 yards for a touchdown.  On this play, Holliday just found a hole and made the most of it.  He touched but, there wasn't a good tackle attempt on the return.  With these two plays, Holliday had the longest punt and kick return touchdowns in NFL postseason history.  After these two plays, Holliday never really had a good opportunity to return a punt or kick because the Ravens did the right thing and kicked away from him.

Referees
I just want to make a quick note about the referees.  Throughout the game there were questionable calls that went against both teams.  They also took a long time to make some decisions and what to call.

Joe Flacco
In the regular season matchup against the Broncos, Flacco had a QBR of 0.4.  This week, Flacco led a late comeback to tie the game in regulation and then played good in overtime.  With this win, he now has five playoff road wins and will play in his 3rd AFC Championship game in only five seasons.  Starting with the stats, he went 18-of-34 for 331 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs, 1 fumble, a QBR of 65.3, and a QB rating of 116.2. Throughout the game, Flacco's snap count was good as he was able to get the Broncos to jump offsides at least three times.  He was also aware enough to snap the ball when the Broncos had twelve men on the field.  Part of the Ravens gameplan was to throw the ball downfield and Flacco was able to do this.  He was able to accomplish this by averaging 18.4 yards per completion.  Early in the game he had a perfect deep pass to Torrey Smith for a 59 yard touchdown.  A little bit later, Flacco overthrew Smith who had a few steps on his man again.  This also would have been a touchdown.  In overtime, he had a great pass to Dennis Pitta on 3rd and 13 for a first down.  On the negative side, he fumbled a snap at midfield and the Broncos were able to recover it.  With four minutes left in OT, he had an interception dropped near midfield.

The play that impressed me the most was the 70 yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds left in regulation.  Not only did this tie the game up, Flacco did a great job on this play.  It was a 3rd and 3 and as soon as the ball was snapped, Flacco was under pressure from the outside.  Due to this pressure, Flacco stepped up in the pocket and threw it about 55 yards in the air.  This was a great play because Flacco rarely steps up into the pocket and makes a pass.  This is the sign of an elite quarterback.  If you watch Peyton Manning, you will notice that he steps up in the pocket most of the time when he feels pressure.  This is a great thing to be able to do as a quarterback.

Overall, Flacco's performance is the sign of an elite quarterback.  He was able to led his team on a game tying drive with about one minute left, on the road, against the number two defense in the NFL, in the playoffs.  He was also able to outperform one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, Peyton Manning, who finished with 2 interceptions and 1 fumble.

Joe Flacco

Ravens QB Joe Flacco celebrates his game tying touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones.

Ray Rice
After fumbling twice last week, Rice turned in a great performance.  On 30 carries, Rice was able to gain 131 yards and 1 touchdown.  It seemed like most of his carries came in the second half and overtime.  At one point in overtime, almost every first down play was a run to Rice.  Of his 30 rushes, 3 of them went for first downs (by my count).  The first of these was the Ravens first 3rd down conversion in the game.  The second of these was a 32 yard run that put the Ravens inside the Broncos 5-yard line.  On the ensuing 3rd and goal, Rice was able to run for the touchdown from one yard out.  This touchdown gave Rice his five career postseason touchdowns which is a Ravens team record.

Anquan Boldin
Boldin continues to be a first down machine for the Ravens offense.  He had 6 catches for 71 yards on 11 targets.  Of his 6 catches, 5 went for first downs.  One of these first downs was on the final drive in the 1st half.  Another first down was on the first drive of overtime.  Every time the Ravens needed a first down, Flacco would look for Boldin.

Torrey Smith
While Boldin is a first down machine, Smith is the big play receiver.  He had 3 catches for 98 yards and 2 touchdowns on 6 targets.  Each of his catches was for a touchdown or a first down.  The first touchdown was for 59 yards on 2nd and 2.  Smith went deep and just ran right past Broncos star CB Champ Bailey.  This touchdown was needed because the Broncos had just returned a punt for a touchdown.  This touchdown is the 2nd longest passing play in Ravens postseason history.  The second touchdown was with 36 seconds left in the 1st half.  Smith went deep on Bailey again and again scored on him.  Flacco threw the ball a little behind to try and give Smith a better opportunity.  Smith was able to stop his momentum and catch the ball while Bailey couldn't.  With his second touchdown, Smith became the first Ravens player to have two receiving touchdowns in a playoff game.  In overtime, Smith was able to draw a pass interference on a 3rd and 5 play on the Ravens first drive.  This drive didn't result in points but it helped in the field position battle.  Throughout the game, Smith was beating one of the best cornerbacks in the game, Champ Bailey, on the deep passes.

Jacoby Jones
Before his 70 yard touchdown catch, Jones wasn't having a good game.  On a kickoff, he wasn't able to catch it properly and after he got the ball, he was only able to get the ball to about the 6-yard line.  Even worse than this, was his drop on 3rd and 5 with 3 minutes left.  Flacco put the pass right in hands and Jones dropped it.  After the Ravens couldn't convert the 4th down play, it looked like the game was over.  However, Jones more than made up for his drop with his 70 yard touchdown catch with 31 seconds left.  Before this play happened, the Broncos had a 97.2% chance of winning according to ESPN Stats and Information.  On the play, Jones was able to run past the cornerback and the safety took a bad angle and run under the pass.  Once Jones caught it he had a free run to the endzone.  Other than that play, he had 1 catch for 7 yards on 4 targets.

Jacoby Jones

Ravens WR Jacoby Jones catches his game tying touchdown.

Tight Ends
In the first meeting between these two teams, backup TE Ed Dickson was injured and didn't play.  This meant the Ravens couldn't run many two TE sets.  These week he was healthy and the Ravens ran many two TE sets.  Dickson had 3 catches for 29 yards on 4 targets.  Two of these catches went for first downs.  Starter Dennis Pitta had 3 catches for 55 yards on 5 targets.  He had three first downs including one on the final drive in the 1st half and a 3rd and 13 from their own 3-yard line in overtime.

Offensive Line
There aren't enough good things that I can say about the offensive line after that game.  The biggest key on offense was the offensive line.  The line stood up to the challenge and gave Flacco lots of time to throw all game long.  They allowed 1 sack but that was a coverage sack as Flacco just couldn't find anyone to pass to.  In the running game, they opened up holes all game long.  While the longest run was only 32 yards, there were lots of runs for about 5 yards.  The line was only called for one penalty and that was a false start on LG Kelechi Osemele.  The other guard, Marshal Yanda, was very impressive because of two plays.  The first was Rice's touchdown run.  Yanda pulled and took out his guy, pushing him down into the endzone.  This block allowed Rice to score.  The other play was the last play of the first OT.  Rice ran the ball and was being held up but, Yanda came over and pushed the pile for about 2 yards which was enough to get the first down and, more importantly, put the Ravens in field goal range to win the game.

Pernell McPhee
McPhee's name was only called once yesterday but it was for a great play.  On a 3rd and 11, McPhee, as well as a few others, was able to get pressure on Peyton Manning.  McPhee was able to hit the ball out of Manning's hand.  The Ravens recovered this fumble at the Broncos 37-yard line.  McPhee finished with 2 tackles but, this play was huge for the Ravens as they hadn't been getting any pressure on Manning.  In fact, in the 1st half, the Ravens didn't get any pressure on 22 passes but, in the 2nd half, they had 10 pressures on 24 passes.

Terrell Suggs
Let's continue with the Ravens who had sacks.  Suggs had the Ravens other two sacks.  The first was a complicated sack of Manning.  On the play, Manning fumbled and it looked like the Ravens recovered.  However, it looked like Manning's knee was down on the replays that were shown.  This didn't even end up mattering because both Suggs and Cary Williams were called for illegal use of hands to the face.  The call on Suggs was ticky tack and there never was a replay to show what Williams did.  Despite all this, Suggs still got credit for a sack and a forced fumble.  This was the first time that Suggs ever sacked Manning.  The second sack came on a 3rd and 4 on the Broncos drive after Rice scored his touchdown.  Suggs pushed his lineman back right into Manning.  In pass coverage, Suggs gave up one completion.  Suggs was able to finish with 10 tackles and his two sacks were the first for him since week 12 against the Chargers.

Terrell Suggs

Ravens LB Terrell Suggs celebrates one of his two sacks against the Broncos with teammate DE Pernell McPhee.

Paul Kruger
While Kruger didn't get a sack yesterday, he still had pressure and recorded 2 QB hits.  One of these was on the Broncos first offensive play in overtime and the other was on the play were Manning threw his last interception, which set up the Ravens to win the game.  This second pressure was very important.  Kruger forced Manning to scramble out of the pocket and Manning then tried to throw across his body but, it was intercepted. On McPhee's sack, Kruger had some pressure and was able to recover the fumble.  In the run game, Kruger had a run stop for a loss of one.  In the passing game, he gave up one completion and was able to blow up a WR screen.  He forced Manning to just throw the ball into the ground on this play because Kruger was right in the way.

Dannell Ellerbe
Like the last few weeks, this was another solid game for Ellerbe.  He allowed 4 catches for 1 touchdown.  The touchdown came when he had to lineup at cornerback because of the Broncos formation.  Therefore, you can't exactly blame Ellerbe for this as he never has to play out there.  He was able to breakup a 2nd and 5 slant route which would have been a first down.  In run defense, Ellerbe stopped a 2nd and 1 run play for no gain with 2 minutes left in overtime.  Earlier in the game, he was called for a facemask on a play where his hand just grazed the helmet of the ball carrier.  Ellerbe finished with 9 tackles and 1 pass defense.

Ray Lewis
When you look at the box score, one stat that sticks out is the 17 tackles that Lewis had.  This is an amazing total, especially for a 37 year old linebacker.  Lewis is giving it his all to make it back to the Super Bowl for one last time.  When in pass coverage, Lewis gave up 3 completions for 1 first down.  He was also called for a pass interference call.  However, the pass interference probably was better than what would have happened if the receiver caught the ball as there was an open field behind Lewis.  Lewis made one great play in run defense.  He broke through the line and stopped the running back for a loss of 3 yards after Courtney Upshaw slowed him down a little.  Most importantly, Lewis was able to get the defense to stop the Broncos and not let them run the clock out at the end of the 4th quarter.  Even though they gave up a first down almost right away, they didn't give up another and gave the offense about one minute to score.

Corey Graham
If you had to pick a defensive MVP for this game, it would be Graham.  This is because of his two interception.  First though, lets talk about the other things he did.  He allowed 3 completions for 1 touchdown.  The touchdown was just a great pass by Manning and there really wasn't much that Graham could have done.  Graham blitzed a few times and on one of them, he was able force Manning to throw the ball away.  Now on to the interception.  The first came on a 3rd and 7 and was Manning's second pass of the game.  Chykie Brown had good coverage on the play and was able to deflect the ball right to Graham who then went untouched for a 39 yard touchdown.  This gave the Ravens a 14-7 lead only 5 minutes into the game.  His interception for a touchdown is the fifth in Ravens playoff history.  The second interception was just as important as the first. There was 51 seconds left in the first overtime. Kruger's pressure forced Manning out of the pocket and Graham was able to step in front of Manning's pass.  Since there was no return, the ball was at the Broncos 45-yard line.  With the second interception, Graham became the 6th player to have a two interception game in the past five postseasons.  Interestingly, he becomes the 3rd Raven to do this in the same span along with Ed Reed and Lardarius Webb.

Corey Graham

Ravens CB Corey Graham intercepts a pass and this sets the Ravens up at the Broncos 45-yard line with 51 seconds left in the first overtime.

Cary Williams
All four of the passes that Williams allowed went for first downs.  He also had two penalties that gave first downs to the Broncos.  The first was an illegal hand to the face and the other was a holding call.  The holding was on a 3rd and 3 and negated a good pass breakup by himself.  A positive for Williams was a nice hit that broke up a pass.

Chykie Brown
As said above, Brown had great coverage on Graham's interception return for a touchdown.  In pass coverage, Brown allowed 2 catches for 1 first down.  The only other thing of note was that he was called for a helmet-to-helmet hit when his helmet hit the receiver in the facemask.

Ed Reed
All throughout the game, Reed's name wasn't called much.  However, that was actually a good thing for the Ravens, and not because Reed isn't good.  The reason is that Manning wasn't passing it downfield very much.  Almost all of the Broncos passes were either in the short or intermediate range.  Manning obviously didn't want to test Reed in such an important game.  Other than this, Reed was late coming over on Knowshon Moreno's touchdown run and missed an tackle on Demaryius Thomas's touchdown catch.

Justin Tucker
Now Tucker has his first game winning kick in the playoffs.  He kicked a 47 yard field goal in the second overtime to win the game for the Ravens.  This was the 4th longest overtime field goal in playoff history and was the longest kicked by a rookie.  Tucker said that in warmups, he made a 67 yard field goal.  During the break between the first and second overtime, Tucker went out to take a few practice kicks because the Ravens were close to getting a field goal.  I have never seen this happen before and according Mike Pereira, there is no penalty for this but, referees are told to not allow this to happen.  These practice kicks were important to Tucker because they helped him gauge the wind in the stadium.  After the game, when asked about the game, Tucker said "Nobody wavered, we were all confident in each other."  The decision to keep Tucker over veteran Billy Cundiff looks even better now.  Nobody knows what Cundiff would have done in the same situation but, his miss in the AFC Championship game last year would have had to be in the back of his head.

Justin Tucker

Ravens K Justin Tucker celebrates his game winning 47 yard field goal.

All Ravens Probable

January 11, 2013 in Injury Reports

Ravens

*Note*  Earlier today the Ravens placed G Jah Reid on injured reserve and activated CB Asa Jackson.

Jah Reid

Earlier today the Ravens placed G Jah Reid on injured reserve.

Probable
WR Anquan Boldin (shoulder)
WR Tandon Doss (ankle)
LB Dannell Ellerbe (ankle)
LB Adrian Hamilton (illness)
FB Vonta Leach (knee and ankle)
LB Ray Lewis (triceps)
LB Albert McClellan (shoulder)
DE Pernell McPhee (thigh)
DT Haloti Ngata (knee)
RB Bernard Pierce (knee)
S Bernard Pollard (chest)
S Ed Reed (shoulder)
WR David Reed (thigh)
CB Jimmy Smith (abdomen)
WR Torrey Smith (back)
LB Terrell Suggs (biceps and achilles)
G Marshal Yanda (shoulder)

Broncos

Out
CB Tracy Porter (concussion)

Probable
WR Trindon Holliday (ankle)
OT Ryan Clady (shoulder)
S Jim Leonhard (thigh)
OT Orlando Franklin (knee)
S Mike Adams (knee)
G Chris Kuper (ankle)
WR Matt Willis (knee)

Do The Ravens Really Have A Chance?

January 10, 2013 in What to Look For

After beating the Indianapolis Colts last week, the Ravens will travel to Denver to face the 1st seeded Broncos.  These two teams faced back in week 15 and the Broncos won a blowout in Baltimore.

1.  Do The Ravens Have a Chance?
Ever since the Ravens beat the Colts, everyone has been saying they will lose to the Broncos.  ESPN got into the action early, posting this main headline.  If you don't want to click the link, the headline reads "Thanks for the Memories" … and has a subhead saying, "…because Sunday was your final NFL win, Ray Lewis. Your career will end in Denver."  Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla got into the act next saying "If this Rust Belt town needed a bib to catch all the sentimental tears shed at the last home game of iconic linebacker Ray Lewis, how is Baltimore going to handle the emotional breakdown when the Broncos force him into retirement as a loser?" and "Like Lewis, their very passionate but washed-up warrior, the Ravens now seem better at striking a pose than striking fear in the hearts of a foe."  These are just two of many examples of what most of the media is saying.

Ravens CB Cary Williams offered his opinion on this by saying "You see it everywhere.  Every time you turn on the [darn] TV you see somebody talking about the Broncos and the Patriots in the AFC championship game.  It’s great [sarcastic]."  He added "That’s fine [being an underdog]. We appreciate it. We love that.  People are counting us out.  We like that. We love being the underdog.  You get to go out there and prove people wrong"

The only person I could find who would pick the Ravens is FOX Sports's Peter Schrager.  He said "Yes, I like the Ravens to upset the Broncos in Denver on Saturday afternoon. And it’s not even because I am blown away by Baltimore. Truthfully, I’m just not sold on Denver."  He also said The Ravens are no doubt battle tested. Denver? They’ve been in cruise control since October,” he wrote. “If Saturday’s game is close in the second half, are we certain the Broncos will respond under pressure? I know Baltimore’s been through those wars this year."

Now, for my opinion on this matter.  All of the teams left in the playoffs deserve to be here and, despite what everyone is saying, both the Ravens and the Texans have chances to upset the Broncos and Patriots, respectively.  Oddsmakers don't believe in the Ravens making them a 9.5 point underdog.  I get why everyone is saying the Broncos will cruise to victory but, in all honesty, they aren't looking deep enough.  When these two teams played, yes, the Broncos demolished the Ravens.  However, the Ravens had almost half of their starters on the injury report and many didn't play.  The Ravens are now healthy enough to put up a fight.  Next is the Ray Lewis factor.  I know this doesn't sound like much but, if you give any football team enough bulletin board material they will play way better than expected, especially if Ray Lewis is their leader.  The last reason is the offensive line but we will look closer at this a little later.  I am not saying that the Ravens will win this game but, they will play the Broncos a lot closer than most people think and, in a close game, anything can happen.

2.  Peyton Manning vs Ray Lewis
This isn't a performance matchup, this is an audible matchup.  Manning will change the play at the line all the time based on what he sees in the defense.  Back in week 15, the Ravens had Josh Bynes starting at ILB who started the season injured and then on the practice squad.  Now, the Ravens have Ray Lewis back who can go audible-to-audible with Manning.  Lewis is definitely the player he used to be but, his mind is still just as good, if not better from all his experience.  Manning has won an astounding nine straight times so it will be interesting to see how Manning does against the Ravens when they have Ray Lewis.  This will also be the last time these two will face each other due to the retirement of Lewis.

Peyton Manning (left) and Ray Lewis (right)

Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis will face each other for the last time.

3.  Offensive Line
Last week the Ravens offensive line finally looked good as a unit.  They only allowed one sack and that was on a naked bootleg.  Its not just sacks either, the line didn't allow much pressure.  Last time the Ravens played the Broncos, the Broncos defensive line had a field day getting pressure on almost every play.  Quarterback Joe Flacco never had a chance to throw the ball as he was running for his life.  In the running game, the line had no push all day long against the Broncos.  Against the Colts last week, the line opened up some big holes allowing the backs to run for 170 yards.  If the Ravens offensive line can play like it did last week then they should give Flacco enough time to find the open receiver downfield.  Even if they play like last week, it might not be enough as the Broncos defensive line is better than the Colts' line.  The most important player to contain is LB Von Miller who has 18.5 sacks this year.

4.  Pass Rush
The best way to disrupt Manning is to get pressure on him.  I think everyone knows he isn't a mobile quarterback at all.  If you can get pressure on him, it will force him to make faster decisions and will eventually lead to him making a mistake and throwing the ball to the wrong spot. Manning has been blessed with a great offensive line this year which has only given up 21 sacks, good for 2nd best in the NFL.  The bad news for Manning is the only team that has allowed less sacks is the New York Giants and, the Ravens were able to get 3 sacks on Manning's younger brother, Eli.  Also going for the Ravens, is Paul Kruger.  Kruger now has 10 sacks in his last 9 games.  He is also coming off a 2.5 sack game against the Colts.  Also in this game, Kruger had an amazing 5 QB hits.  If the Ravens can't get pressure on Peyton Manning, they will have a very tough time winning.

Paul Kruger

Ravens OLB Paul Kruger will need to have another great game to try and neutralize Broncos QB Peyton Manning.

 

Ravens Advance To Face Broncos

January 7, 2013 in Observations

In a very emotional Wild Card matchup, the 4th seed Baltimore Ravens defeated the 5th seed Indianapolis Colts by a score of 24-9 in what was Ravens star LB Ray Lewis's last home game.  Lewis will retire at the end of the season.  With this win the Ravens final record at home when Lewis plays is an amazing 81-36-1.  That works out to be a winning percentage of .686, to put this in perspective that is an 11-5 record if it was for one season.  On the offensive side, the Ravens set a single-game playoff team record for total yards with 441.  This win marks the 5th straight year that the Ravens have made it to the divisional playoff round.  Next week the Ravens will travel to Denver to face the 1st seed Broncos on Saturday at 4:30 pm ET.

Joe Flacco
With the way the defense was playing today, Flacco did exactly what he had to do to win this game.  The defense may have allowed 419 yards but, they only allowed 9 points which made Flacco's job way easier.  All he had to do was not lose the game and, he did better than that. Completing 12-of-23 passes, Flacco threw for 282 yards, 2 TDs, a QBR of 89.5, and a QB rating of 125.6.  His 52 completion percentage may not look good but, he was able to throw for 282 yards on his 12 completion which is an average of 23.5 yards per completion.  Flacco did have an interception dropped early in the game but this was his worst play.  On his touchdown pass to Dennis Pitta, Flacco did a good job of escaping the pressure and finding Pitta.  Throughout the game, Flacco was able to throw the deep ball well and was lofting it in very well, especially to Anquan Boldin.

Ray Rice
This was a very uncharacteristic game for Ray Rice.  In the regular season, Rice only had one fumble and that was against the Steelers in week 11.  Against the Colts, Rice fumbled not once, but twice.  Both of these fumbles occurred inside Indianapolis territory, once at the 15 and the other at the 40.  Thankfully for the Ravens, and Rice, neither of the fumbles led to points for the Colts.  These fumbles led to backup Bernard Pierce being used more in the game than the gameplan probably called for.  Rice finished with 15 carries and Pierce had 13.  On Rice's 15 carries, he went for 70 yards.  In the passing game, Rice only had one catch on 4 targets but, it was a very important catch.  It was a screen pass that went for 47 yards and put the Ravens at the Colts 2-yard line with under 1 minute left in the 1st half.  On the next play, FB Vonta Leach ran in for the touchdown.  Overall, Rice will need to hold on to the ball if the Ravens want to make it far in the playoffs.

Ray Rice

Ravens RB Ray Rice fumbles the ball.

Bernard Pierce
Pierce was the beneficiary of Rice's fumbles.  These fumbles allowed Pierce to be in the game and, as usual, he made the most of it.  He ran for 103 yards on 13 carries with a long of 43 yards.  Of his 13 carries, 4 of them went for first downs.  One of these was a nice 18 yard run that put the Ravens inside the Colts 10-yard line.  His other great run was the 43 yarder.  It was a 3rd and 1 run to the right side.  he received a few good blocks and was off to the races.  With his play, Pierce keeps showing that he could be a starting running back in the NFL.

Torrey Smith
If you go by the box score, Smith didn't have much of an impact on the game but, in fact, he did have an impact.  The box score says he had 2 catches for 31 yards on 4 targets which is pretty uneventful.  One of these catches was for a first down and, it was a leaping catch for 22 yards. I still find it hard to see how he was able to jump high enough to catchup the ball.  Smith was able to get another first down by drawing a pass interference at the Colts 15-yard line.  Thats not all, Smith also had some good block, which is rare for a wide receiver.  On Rice's screen pass, Smith was blocking way downfield and had his guy engaged all the time until Rice passed him.  This downfield block allowed Rice to get to the 2-yard line.  The other good block by Smith came on Pitta's touchdown catch.  At around the 5-yard line, Smith blocked his man which allowed Pitta to get into the endzone.

Anquan Boldin
One word to describe Boldin's performance: record-setting.  Ok that may be cheating but, he still had a great game.  Before the game, Boldin felt he was going to have a great game.  He went up to Flacco and said he felt like 200 yards today.  How big of a day did Boldin have?  Well, he set the Ravens single-game receiving playoff record with 145 yards.  This 100 yard game is only the 3rd time a Ravens receiver has gone over 100 yards in the playoff.  The last Ravens receiver to do this?  Anquan Boldin.  All of his 145 yards came in the 2nd half of the game despite having 2 targets in the 1st half.  These 145 yards in the 2nd half are the most in the playoffs since Jerry Rice had 157 in Super Bowl XXIII.  Boldin had 5 catches for those 145 yards which is an average of 29 yards per catch.  Of these 5 catches, 4 went for first downs, and the other went for a touchdown.  One catch was on a 3rd and 19.  Boldin went deep and caught a 50 yard pass.  He ran an out and up on another play for 46 yard where Flacco placed the ball perfectly over Boldin's shoulder.  Boldin's touchdown catch was for 19 yards.  It was a jump ball and the cornerback had his hand on the ball but, Boldin still corralled the ball.

After the game, Boldin said "I just wanted to go out and give everything,” Boldin said. “I think everyone in this locker room wanted to make sure this wasn’t our last game. I think we all have a goal in mind and we’re focused in on that goal. The only way we’re going to get there is if we go out there and give our all on the field."  He also said "I was real motivated [today],” Boldin said. “I’ve said it before, I came to Baltimore to win a championship. That’s my goal."

Anquan Boldin

Ravens WR Anquan Boldin goes up for a pass that he will catch for a touchdown.

Tight Ends
While both tight ends for the Ravens may have combined for 3 catches, all of these catches were important.  Lets start with the starter, Dennis Pitta.  He had 2 catches for 27 yards.  One of his catches was a 7 yard first down.  The other was a 20 yard crossing route that went for a touchdown.  Ed Dickson only had 1 catch for 24 yards.  This catch was the Ravens first, first down of the game and got the Ravens rolling on offense.

Offensive Line
Overall, the offensive line played well, especially when you consider the Ravens never used this line during the regular season.  Due to starting LG Jah Reid being out, the line go shuffled up.  Normal RT Kelechi Osemele went to LG, normal LT Michael Oher went to RT, and Bryant McKinnie came in at LT.  The line only allowed 1 sack for a loss 13 yards.  On this play, the pass rusher was never blocked on a play action pass.

On Pierce's 18 yard run, both C Matt Birk and RG Marshal Yanda had great blocks.  Yanda pushed his man 10 yards downfield and Birk probably blocked his man 7 yards downfield.  Yanda also had a great block on Pierce's 43 yard run.  Pierce ran behind him and Yanda blocked his man down (to his left).  Along with Oher's great block to the outside, this springed Pierce for the big gain.

Speaking of Oher, that play was probably his best of the game, as the rest goes downfield.  He twice allowed pressure which caused Flacco to throw the ball away.  Penalty wise, he was only called for one.  It was a 2nd and 10 on the Colts 15-yard line and Oher was called for a false start.

McKinnie had a great game.  He played good enough to question what the line will look like next week.  Obviously is Reid can't play, it will stay like this.  If Reid can play, it will be interesting to see if the coaches go with this line because it played so good or if they go with the normal line.

Paul Kruger
One word to describe Kruger's performance: domination.  Recently, Kruger has been on fire and the playoffs did nothing to stop that.  With his 2.5 sacks yesterday, Kruger now has 10 sacks in his last 9 games after only getting 1.5 in his first 7 games.  These 2.5 sacks don't give enough credit to Kruger for how he played.  There were two other instances when Kruger failed to bring down Andrew Luck for a sack.  After the first time this happened, Kruger made up for it later in the drive with his first sack.  It was a 3rd and 5 on Ravens territory on the drive after Rice's first fumble.  Kruger was able to knock the ball out of Luck's hands.  Pernell McPhee was then able to recover the fumble.  His next sack was his half sack were he split it with Corey Graham for a loss of 6.  Finally, his last sack was on a 3rd and 10 where he just ran right past the offensive lineman.  This was for a loss of 8.  If this isn't enough, Kruger had pressure on almost every pass play, and finished with an amazing 5 QB hits, exactly half of the Ravens total for the game.  On one of the few plays that Kruger dropped into pass coverage, he was able to knock down a pass.  The only negative note for Kruger was an offsides penalty on a 2nd and 10.  The Ravens will let this slip though due to his amazing performance, whats even more impressive is both of his solo sacks came on 3rd down.

Ray Lewis
I think it was fitting for the Ravens to not give up a touchdown in Lewis's final home game.  He will be remembered for being a great defensive player and for leading one of the greatest defenses ever.  Therefore, giving up no touchdowns is the perfect end.  It is also fitting that Lewis led the team with 13 tackles.  He played all 87 snaps and had one great play that made everyone remember what made him great.  On the snap, Lewis knifed through the offensive line an stopped the running back for a loss of 1.  This is exactly the type of play Lewis would make all the time a few years ago.  In pass coverage, Lewis allowed four first downs on four passes.  He was also helped out by a dropped pass.  One play that he will never live down was his dropped interception.  Haloti Ngata tipped the ball at the line-of-scrimmage and it went right to Lewis.  Somehow, the ball hit Lewis right in the hands but he wasn't able to catch it.  After the game, he blamed his arm brace for the drop.  But, this game wasn't about his performance.  It was about his last game in Baltimore.  To give out one last memory, Lewis went in on the final kneel down of the game.  This marked the first offensive play he has ever taken part of.  Even better, after the snap, Lewis did his introduction dance for one last time in the middle of the field.  You can see his final introduction here and the dance at the end of the game here.

Ray Lewis

Ravens LB Ray Lewis does his pre-game dance for the last time.

Dannell Ellerbe
Over the course of the season, Ellerbe has shown he is a great blitzer, and nothing changed yesterday.  On a 3rd and 7, Ellerbe flushed Luck out of the pocket on a blitz.  Luck had to try and run for the first down and he was stopped well short.  The next example of this was on a 2nd and 10. His pressure forced Luck to try and throw the ball away.  Since the ball didn't make it back to the line-of-scrimmage, Luck was flagged for intentional grounding.  This caused a loss of down, loss of 16 yards, and took 10 seconds off the clock because there was only 22 seconds left in the half.  Lastly, Ellerbe blitzed on a run play and tackled the running back for a loss of 2 yards.

Cary Williams
Williams only gave up 3 catches yesterday but, 2 of them were for first downs.  The first was a 3rd and 4 which put the Colts near midfield.  The other first down completion was much more important.  It was the play after Ellerbe forced the intentional grounding.  The penalty put the Colts out of field goal range.  As they were just on the edge of field goal range before, they needed to get about 25 yards to get a field goal.  This is exactly what Williams allowed setting up a 52 yard field goal which Adam Vinatieri made.  On the positive side, Williams had an interception on a 4th and 1 very late in the game.  Corey Graham tipped the pass and Williams was there to catch it.  However, on the return, Williams was chased down by Luck which has to be embarrassing.

Corey Graham
As stated above, Graham tipped a pass on a 4th and 1 inside the Ravens 20-yard line with time running down.  Other than this, Graham also had a half sack with Kruger for a loss of 6 yards.  Graham allowed 3 passes for 1 first down.  The one first down was for about 20 yards with 30 seconds left in the 1st half.

Ray Lewis (52) Jacoby Jones (12) Torrey Smith (82)

Ravens LB Ray Lewis does his dance for one last time after the game while teammates Jacoby Jones (12) and Torrey Smith (82) look on.

Chykie Brown
The two most memorable plays for Brown were penalties, never a good sign.  He was called for an illegal contact on a 2nd and 10.  The other penalty was on a punt return.  He was called for a hold which lost the Ravens 16 yards.  On defense, he gave up 1 pass for 1 first down.

Ed Reed
Even Ed Reed got into the pass rushing.  He blitzed on a 3rd and 9 and tipped a pass on the Colts first drive.  Just like his good friend Lewis, Reed dropped an interception.  Luck was under pressure and just trying to throw the ball away but he never saw Reed.  Reed jumped in front of the receiver.  He did everything right, except catch the ball, which is kind of important.  He just straight up dropped it.  It was a diving catch but, the Ed Reed of a few years ago makes the play.

Bernard Pollard
Just like Brown, Pollard was called for two penalties but, these two are a little more controversial.  The first was a "blow to the head of a receiver."  On this play, you can clearly see that Pollard led with his shoulder.  Its not like his shoulder hit the receiver either.  His shoulder hit the receiver in the arm and chest.  The only part of Pollard to touch the receiver's head was his facemask and the facemask barely grazed the helmet of the receiver.  This is just another example of the bad helmet-to-helmet calls throughout the NFL right now.  On the next play, Pollard was called for a taunting penalty after the play against the Colts bench.  After the game, Pollard said a Colts assistant cursed at him and then a player shoved him.  While the Colts shouldn't have done this, Pollard shouldn't have reacted.  After each of these two plays, the stadium united with more "bulls***."  Unfortunately, I couldn't find the video this time.  Other than penalties, Pollard broke up two key passes.  The first was a 3rd an 2 play where the Colts receiver already had the first down but was hit right away by Pollard.  The receiver dropped the ball and it was ruled that he never had full possession of it.  The other play stopped another first down.  Pollard also finished with 4 tackles.

Ray Lewis

Ravens LB Ray Lewis takes a victory lap to thank the fans after the game.