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Baltimore Ravens 2014 Season Preview

August 31, 2014 in Baltimore Ravens, Coaching Staff, Fanspeak Radio Network, JOE FLACCO, News, NFL SCHEDULE

BALTIMORE RAVENS: 2013 RECORD: 8-8 (3rd, AFC North)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2012, defeated San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII

HEAD COACH (RECORD): John Harbaugh (62-34 in six seasons)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Gary Kubiak (first season with Ravens)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dean Pees (third season with Ravens)

Final Numbers in 2013:

Points Scored 20.0 (25th), Offense: 307.4 (29th), Rushing 83.0 (30th), Passing 224.4 (18th)—-Defense: 335.5 (12th),  Run D 105.4 (11th),

 Pass D 230.1 (12th), Takeaways 24 (19th), TO Diff (-5), Points allowed 22.0 (12th)

KEY ADDITIONS: RB Justin Forest (from Jaguars), WR Steve Smith (from Panthers), TE Owen Daniels (from Texans), TE Crockett Gillmore (third round, Colorado State), C Jeremy Zuttah (from Buccaneers), DT Timmy Jernigan (second round, Florida State), LB C.J. Mosley (first round, Alabama), DB Dominique Franks (from Falcons), FS Terrence Brooks (third round, Florida State), SS Darian Stewart (from Rams)

KEY DEPARTURES: RB Bernard Scott (free agent), RB Shaun Draughn (to Bears), FB Vonta Leach (free agent), WR Tandon Doss (to Jaguars), WR Brandon Stokley (free agent), TE Ed Dickson (to Panthers), TE Dallas Clark (retired), T Michael Oher (to Titans), DE Arthur Jones (to Colts), LB Jameel McClain (to Giants), LB Rolando McClain (to Cowboys), CB Corey Graham (to Bills), SS James Ihedigbo (to Lions)

Recap of 2013 (8-8 second in AFC North, missed playoffs)

Last season, the Baltimore Ravens missed the playoffs for the first since head coach John Harbaugh and QB Joe Flacco arrived in the Charm City in 2008. The 2013 version of the Ravens offense can only be described as offensive to all that watched it each week. Injuries along the O-line wreaked havoc throughout the entire unit, as Flacco was sacked a career high 48 times and tossed more INT’s than TD’s (19-22). The once vaunted rushing attack, led by Ray Rice, finished 30th in the NFL averaging 3.1 yards per attempt. The defense didn't dominate, as it did in years past but it played well enough to keep the club in games considering the fact that it was first season without future HOFers like Ray Lewis & Ed Reed.

Three Reasons The Ravens Return to the Playoffs:

1. New offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak’s scheme:

Gary Kubiak

Courtesy of ICON SMI

The former Texans HC brings his zone based scheme to Baltimore and when looking at the Ravens offensive personnel, it could be a match made if football Heaven. While all eyes will be on Joe Flacco, Kubiak’s offense is a run zone blocking scheme that accentuates the strengths of the quarterback but more importantly, it heavily relies on a powerful running game. If the O-line does its job, the offense can’t help but produce league leading numbers from the men carrying the ball. From 2008-12, Kubiak’s offense was one of only two teams (Denver) to have its total offense, passing offense and rushing offense each rank in the Top 5 at least once during that span. They led the NFL in passing in 2009 and ranked second in rushing in 2011. However, Kubiak’s offense is also predicated on scoring.  His offenses have ranked among the NFL’s Top 10 scoring units 14 times.

 

2. QB Joe Flacco

Many felt that coming off his MVP performance in Super Bowl XLVII Flacco took a step back last season. He finished with a passer rating of 73.1 and a dismal touchdown-to-interception ratio of 19:22. But I’m predicting a nice season for No.5 in 2014. If you know me, then you know this wasn't an easy thing for me to write. Simplifying things for Flacco has become a priority in the new system. Kubiak expects two things of his franchise QB—he wants Flacco to get rid of the ball quicker and improve his completion rate of 59 percent in 2013. The Ravens lived and died on the long ball during the past two seasons. Since 2010, Flacco has thrown 123 passes of 25 or more yards, sixth most in the NFL during that span. The ability to go deep will still be there but Flacco will just take a different approach. They will use more play action and screen passes to set up the long ball. Both will be new concepts to Flacco and the Ravens offense. Despite having limited success with the screen pass at times under Cam Cameron, since 2001, the Ravens have thrown 123 screen passes, fourth fewest during that span.

When looking at his targets following the snap, Joe Cool must work through his progressions quickly to find the open receiver. If he does, he should complete 60 to 65 percent of his throws and finish with a passer rating around the mid-90s. Matt Schaub had a completion percentage of 60 percent or better in all seven of his seasons with the Texans, and a rating of 90-plus in five. Flacco has a better set of skills than did Schaub and an overall better compliment of weapons this season than Schaub ever did in Houston. Flacco finished the preseason with a 64.4 completion percentage, two TD’s, no INT’s and a passer rating of 102.5. The completion percentage and passer rating would be career highs and Baltimore is 35-6 when Flacco produces at least a 95 passer rating and 18-3 when he’s been able to hit 110 or better.

Flacco is a winner, plain and simple. His 62 regular season wins rank second to Drew Brees since 2008 and are the most by a starting QB in his first six seasons in NFL history. There are no more excuses for Flacco; his success will depend on him in 2014 and I’m betting Flacco finally has that breakout year.

3. Ray Rice Returns to Form:

and more of this....

Ray Rice Returns to Form

Rice will serve a two game suspension to start the season for violation of the leagues conduct policy stemming from his February elevator incident in Atlantic City NJ. But once Rice returns—-so should his game. He looked great in limited play during the preseason, which is at least a bit soothing to Ravens fans considering No.27 is coming off his worst season as a pro. Last season, Rice played in 15 games while battling a hip injury and rushed for a mere 660 yards on 214 carries with just four rushing touchdowns.

As a team the Ravens ended with 1,328 yards on the ground, the lowest yardage total in franchise history, while their 83 rushing yards per game was the third-worst in the NFL. Some of this was due to the performance of the offensive line. According to Pro Football Focus, the Ravens offensive line had the sixth-worst run blocking in the league. The play calling was a bit unusual at times as well. Take the game in Buffalo last season when Flacco threw 5 INT’s. Baltimore threw the ball 50 times and ran it a mere nine times. One could also point to the Green Bay Packer game at home and the play calling sequence which led to three unnecessary points for the Packers just before the half. For the record, Baltimore lost both games by a combined five points (3 in Buffalo—2 at home to GB) and winning either of them would have been enough for a sixth straight playoff trip.

As his system will do for Flacco, Kubiak’s scheme will benefit Rice—perhaps even more. As a team during the preseason, the Ravens pounded the ball on the ground. Baltimore finished the preseason as the NFL’s best rushing offense, averaging 171 yards a game. The Ravens averaged 15.2 more yards per game than the second-ranked Eagles. In this system, Rice is likely to return to the back that is a three time Pro-Bowler and owns the NFL’s most total yards from scrimmage (8,487) dating back to the 2009 season, registering 42 games where he’s gained 100-or-more total yards. As he has in the past (see 4th & 29) Rice will play a pivotal role in helping Flacco out of trouble.

Kubiak’s offense will prevent defenses from keying on Rice as a passing option out of the backfield. How critical is it that Rice returns to the duel threat back he was for his first five seasons—-very critical when you consider the following. Rice ranks first in the NFL in catches and second in receiving yards by a RB since 2008, amassing 369 receptions for 3,034 yards. Rice also owns 104 catches for 961 yards on third down during this time, tying Darren Sproles (104 for 1,042) for the most such catches and second-most such yards among NFL RBs.

Three Reasons the Ravens Fail to Make the Playoffs:

The Secondary:

Webb, Smith & Jackson

Smith, Webb & Jackson

Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith proved to be a solid CB duo last season, and both will once again be the starters in 2014. However, there are concerns here. Webb has had an injury-filled career and while he did recover from his most recent ACL tear to play in all 16 games last season, he’s currently dealing with a back injury that kept him out of the preseason. Smith, whose play improved seemingly every down last season, also failed to finish the preseason, and has a tendency to be “nicked up” prone. While both are good players both can inconsistent from one series to the next and take unnecessary penalties, which chew up big chunks of yards.

The top backup at the position, Asa Jackson was also injured in the preseason and missed the final two exhibition games. By the way, it’s worth noting Jackson has never played a down during a regular season game.

As of today (Saturday August 31) all of the Ravens injured CB’s returned to practice and are expected to play in the season opener. If either Webb or Smith miss significant time there isn't much on the depth chart. Corey Graham, who could play outside or in the slot, is in Buffalo. Chykie Brown, who has appeared in 39 games with one start over parts of three seasons in Baltimore, is also listed on the depth chart.

At safety, the Ravens are blessed with young talent but with youth comes inexperience. Matt Elam struggled in his rookie season and was quiet in camp while third round pick Terrence Brooks started to come on. The former FSU star is a ways from starting and sits behind Darian Stewart, whom the Ravens signed from the Rams. However, Brooks may prove to be valuable as he slid down and played some corner in the preseason and didn’t look all that bad.

Technically, the Ravens were below average in the NFL last year generating 40 sacks, if they fail to build on that number in 2014, opposing QB’s may have their way with a secondary that isn't yet ready to shut down any portion of the field. This could have a trickle-down effect. The Ravens want to play a ball control offense with the ability to hit the big play—but if they are forced to play catch up or become involved in shootouts that could spell doom and a second straight year of missing the playoffs.

2 The Youth of the Team Fails to Deliver

During the first 5 years of the John Harbaugh era in Baltimore, veteran leadership keyed the team’s success. Early on, along with Ray Lewis & Ed Reed there was Todd Heap and Derrick Mason. During the Super Bowl season of 2012, Lewis, Reed and players such as Anquan Boldin, Bernard Pollard and Danelle Ellerbe were all key veteran contributors. Due to retirement, free agency or in Boldin’s case, a trade, all are gone. Each, while their contributions considered invaluable were seen as road blocks to this truly being John Harbaugh’s team. With all of them gone in 2013, the Ravens finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs—you could hear the whispers that maybe just maybe Harbaugh couldn't do it without some of them, which is why all of the young talented players GM Ozzie Newsome has drafted in the last four three years must now step up and become play-makers.

Speaking of the draft and excluding this past Mays selections, there have been 47 players drafted by the Ravens since their last Pro Bowl player, running back Ray Rice in 2008.  They have drafted good players but not Pro Bowlers. No one could have predicted the success the Ravens enjoyed by selecting players such as Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Ed Reed, Jamal Lewis and Terrell Suggs. In the franchise's first 13 drafts, the Ravens selected 19 Pro Bowl players, which was tied with the New England Patriots for the most during that period. Now, the Ravens are one of four teams who have failed to select a Pro Bowl player since 2009, and the others (Jaguars, Jets, and Raiders) have all fired their general managers during that time.

It’s not entirely fair to criticize the Ravens but expectations are rising. In 2012, the Ravens won their second Super Bowl with 39 homegrown players on their 53-man roster. In comparison, the Seahawks won the championship three months ago with 29 players who were drafted by the team or signed as undrafted rookies. You can’t’ say that the draft classes since haven’t produced talented players. Being a perennial playoff team means they've been able to add productive starters such as offensive tackle Michael Oher, cornerback Lardarius Webb, tight end Dennis Pitta, defensive lineman Arthur Jones linebacker Courtney Upshaw and wide receiver Torrey Smith . Without any of the above players, the Ravens aren't Super Bowl champions in 2012.

However, if this team is going to return to the playoffs, players such as Bernard Pierce, Matt Elam, Brandon Williams, Arthur Brown and rookies CJ Mosley and Lorenzo Taliaferro must step up and produce when called upon. Teams that consistently make the playoffs in the NFL get solid contributions from their younger players. The Ravens have always been fortunate to have veterans play above their age in this league. While it’s not expected that all become Pro-Bowl caliber players, the Ravens current crop of veteran leadership may not be capable of carrying this team, as their processors once did. You need not look any further than last season for proof of that.

3 The Division:

downloadOne of the biggest reasons the Ravens have experienced so much success during the Harbaugh / Flacco era is because of how the team has done versus its own division, the tough AFC North. Since 2008, the Ravens, Bengals and Steelers have combined to post an amazing 171-116-1 record. The North has been arguably the best division in football during this span. Winning nearly 60 percent of their games, the three teams have combined for 12 playoff appearances, while the Ravens & Steelers have appeared in five AFC Championship games and three Super Bowls, with each team winning one. The Steelers lost to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV in Dallas. The Bengals do not have any post season wins during this time but Baltimore & Pittsburgh combined to post a 14-6 mark in January and February.

Harbaugh’s teams have been able to win twice as many games against the division as they have lost (24-12). The team was just 18-18 vs the division prior to his arrival. Baltimore is 13-11 against the Steelers and Bengals since Harbs took over in 2008.

With that said and according to my calculations, it’s likely the Ravens will need to sweep one of their three divisional foes in order to make the playoffs—and even 4-2 may not be good enough to win the division. The Bengals managed to win the division last year by posting a 3-3 record but that’s the exception and certainly not the rule. Since 2007, the average number of division wins recorded by the division champ has been five. On three occasions, the division winner went undefeated within the rugged AFC North (Baltimore 2011, Cincinnati 2009, & Steelers 2008).

The Ravens will need to continue taking advantage of the Cleveland Browns. Under Harbaugh, the team is 11-1 vs the Brownies but Cleveland does appear poised to be better than their four-win record last year; even at just four wins, one of those was still over the Ravens, the first time that had happened since 2007, a year before Flacco and Harbaugh arrived.

Schedule:

AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC South
Swing Games: San Diego, at Miami
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.1% (28th)

Speaking of winning within the division, the Ravens will have an opportunity to establish what type of team they want to be very early. Baltimore will start with three straight AFC North games before hosting Carolina.

New OC Gary Kubiak will need to have his offense ready to play, as three of the first four teams the Ravens face all finished in the top 10 in defense last season. The other team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, finished No.13 in team defense in 2013 and figures to be much improved in 2014. Starting less than 2-1 in the division would put the purple and black behind the eight ball early.

That may sound like a tough start but even with the fourth easiest schedule; nothing is ever as it seems in the NFL. As they usually do in October, the Ravens will take to the road. Baltimore will play four of five games away from M&T Bank Stadium where they are 39-9 under Harbaugh. It begins with an Oct. 5 trip to AFC South favorite Indianapolis, where the Ravens are 0-5. After a road game in Tampa Bay and a home contest against Atlanta, the Ravens play consecutive road games at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

If the Ravens can survive that stretch— and outside of a trip to New Orleans Thanksgiving week– they have a favorable homestretch. Their final seven opponents combined for a 45-67 record (.401) in 2013. Baltimore should finish strong over the final month, as they face the Dolphins, Jaguars, Texans, and Browns in the final four weeks of the season. Harbaugh’s teams are 34-18 in November & December, so he knows how to prepare his teams for a stretch run.

Prediction:

Not so Fast Joe

Not so Fast Joe

Missing the playoffs was a huge underachievement for the 2013 Ravens. However, if the team returns to the playoffs in 2014, then Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and company will have completed one of the quickest rebuilding-retooling efforts in the last 10 to 15 years. Lost in the expectations of last year’s transition was replacing nine contributing players (seven starters) from the Super Bowl winning team. The two biggest issues were on defense and at wide receiver.

Newsome has spent two drafts taking care of the defense. The Ravens selected eight defensive players with their first nine picks combined in each of the last two drafts. Players such as CJ Mosley, Matt Elam and Timmy Jernigan were drafted to help rebuild the toughness, regain the quickness and recapture the middle of the field—all areas the Ravens dominated or at least controlled during their top ranked defensive days. At WR, the Ravens signed veteran wideout Steve Smith to take over the Anquan Boldin role, re-signed Jacoby Jones, and added TE Owen Daniels from Kubiak’s old team in Houston. They also kept seven WR’s on the final 53 man roster.

John Harbaugh said he wants the defense to be a top 5 unit in 2014—that might be a bit too much to ask but it may not matter if the offense can finally do their part on a consistent basis. Joe Flacco simply must be better than he was last year and the Ravens rushing attack must be the engine that makes the offense go. Flacco is the guy that drives the engine but he must work within the system. If he does, I see Flacco passing for 4,100 yards with 25 TD’s. Despite sitting for the first two games, RB Ray Rice should hit 1,200 all-purpose yards. Anything less than that in 2014 and the Ravens are no better than 8-8 and then the pressure really starts to mount in the charm city.

There will be growing pains on offense with a new system and on defense, where the Ravens have a lot of youth and inexperience at critical areas. They could lose a game or two to start the season that many feel they should have won but it won’t be too late to figure it out once Halloween is has passed. Given the potential for an easy strength of schedule to finish the year, the Ravens should win nine games but I’ll say they win a game late many didn’t expect them to win (New Orleans). I look for a return trip to the playoffs and one more victory on the Harbaugh / Flacco playoff resume.

Final Record: 10-6

Second in AFC North (first Wild Card Team)

Ravens Predicted to Win Eight Games

June 6, 2014 in 2014 NFL DRAFT, Coaching Staff, JOE FLACCO, NFL Draft, Pittsburgh Steelers, Roster, Super Bowl XLVII

Last week, the Las Vegas odds makers came out with their projected win totals for every NFL teams. In the AFC North, the experts and prognosticators have the Bengals projected to win the division for a second straight year followed by Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and then Cleveland. USA TODAY Sports-ArchiveOver the past few seasons, the AFC North has been one of, if not the best division in all of football.

However, last season proved to be a bit of an exception with the division, as only the Cincinnati Bengals made the playoffs. It marked the first time since 2007 that the AFC North division sent only one team to the NFL’s postseason tournament and because of the Bengals knack for being one and done once the regular season ends, last year also marked the first time an AFC North team did not represent the conference in the AFC Championship game during that span. From 2008-to 2012, the division known for its tough defenses and blue collar cities, had at least two teams in the NFL postseason. In 2011, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Cincy all represented the division. Once in the playoffs, the division handles its business quite well posting a 14-10 record during that span of playoff play.

Two teams, the Ravens (3) and Steelers (2) have appeared in five AFC title games and are 2-1 in Super Bowls with the Steel and Charm cities winning their sixth and second Lombardi Trophies respectively during that period of time. The Steelers and Ravens have twice squared off in the playoffs during this time—once in the AFC Championship (2008) and once during the divisional round (2010).  Pittsburgh won them both. Although it has happened, the division doesn't usually back into the playoffs.

Since the 2008 season, the Steelers (3 appearances) Bengals (4 appearances) & Ravens (5 appearances) have combined to post a 130-62 record (.677) during the regular season. This means that in order to win the division, somebody will need to win 11 of 16 games during the regular season and considering these teams face off twice a year, that’s no small feat. I broke down the entire division in another piece you can read right here on Fanspeak– but here is an in-depth look at what the experts and prognosticators predict for the Ravens followed up with what I feel the team needs and where they will finish in 2014.

Baltimore Ravens: Vegas Under / Over Win Total: 8 Super Bowl Odds 40 to 1 Ravens Offense is Offensive in 2013:

Last season, the Ravens became the third team in the past five years to miss the playoffs the season after winning the Super Bowl. A big reason for the Ravens fall was the play of their offense, specifically, their 20 million dollar QB who parlayed a historic playoff performance into a huge contract during last year’s offseason. While Flacco must shoulder much of the responsibility for his teams bad offense in 2013, it wasn't entirely the poor play of No.5 that led to such a below average season. With an average of just 3.1 yards per rush, the Ravens rushing attack was horrible in 2013. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce battled injuries and were never effective in short yardage or goal line situations. They stumbled to holes and never found the rhythm that made them a nice compliment to one and other the year before. Rice finished with just 660 rushing yards and 980 total yards. He failed to hit 1,000 all-purpose yards for the first time since his rookie season in 2008.  Flacco and Ravens backs also played behind one of the worst lines in the NFL last season.

The offensive line allowed 48 QB sacks of Flacco and an additional 90 plus hits. Pro Football Focus’ final grade had the Ravens O-line 23rd out of 32 teams. Baltimore is famous for using the middle of the field in the running and passing game and last season was no exception running nearly 60 percent of all rushing plays between the two guards. The results were simply unacceptable. Pro-Bowl guard Marshall Yanda didn’t have an exceptional year and Kelechi Osemele didn’t finish the season. Osemele injured his bad back and had surgery. But the biggest issue was at center where the team went with second year man Gino Gradkowski over veteran A.Q. Shipley— and it did not go well. Shipley had the misfortune of switching to a guard spot once Osemele went down but he rarely looked comfortable. Gradkowski he may have blown his audition to be the long-term starter, as he finished 35th out of 35 ranked centers. bal-sports-blitz-joe-flacco-nfl-player-poll-20-001 The rushing attack finished 30th, while the passing offense could fare no better than 18. As a whole, the offense finished ranked 29th in the league and with the defense not cracking the top 10 for a second straight year; it’s not hard to see why the Champs finished 8-8.

To correct the problem in 2014, the Ravens acquired Jeremy Zuttah this offseason to replace Gradkowski. RT Michael Oher is now in Tennessee and Rick Wagner is expected to step up and take his place but not without competition from players such as Ryan Jensen. The biggest move was re-signing LT Eugene Monroe at such a bargain price. Osemele has looked very good so far in the offseason organized team activities and should be ready to go once the season starts. The Ravens did not address the RT position in the draft but did select center / guard John Urschel from Penn State. Newsome and Harbaugh feel if they had to, Osemele could move outside to Tackle where he is also comfortable while someone kicks inside to guard. There is also the option of signing a free agent. Eric Winston, who was drafted by the Texans and spent six years in Kubiak's offense is a likely candidate to join the team.

But there is no question, Flacco, as the leader of the offense and now the team, failed to do his part. Sure there were games like Minnesota at home in the snow and at Detroit on Monday night but in the end there is no denying year six was No.5’s worst. Flacco tossed three more picks than TD’s (19-22) and was sacked 48 times. While we established the line was suspect, Flacco did little to help himself at times with his decision making process. For every solid performance there were games like Buffalo when he tossed 5 interceptions. Joe is sometimes to cool and has a propensity to have one or two of those type games every year. For the most part, he’s always played on a team that had a great defense. The Ravens averaged an NFL ranking of 7th during his six years in the league. Flacco has never been to a Pro Bowl, passed for 4,000 yards in a season or 400 yards in a game. He’s never led an offense that ranked higher than 13th. In fact, the Ravens offense has averaged 19th during Flacco’s tenure while the passing attack sits one notch below at No.20. Those are average numbers for a QB that’s making way above average money.

If the Ravens are going to return to the playoffs in 2014, Flacco will need to be a big reason why they did. It’s time for Flacco to win the shootout games with more consistency and takeover contests when the Ravens young defense is getting handled. He has to initiate leadership—on and off the field which so far, he hasn’t done this offseason. The former Super Bowl XLVII MVP failed to organize any type of off campus passing camps, similar to the one Peyton Manning and 21 other signal callers put together this past spring. This is particularly disturbing since Flacco was handed a new play book and hasn’t spent a lot of quality time with his new offensive coordinator.  Flacco was quick to point in an interview on Baltimore Ravens.com that NFLPA rules have strict policies on the amount of time a player can spend with coaches. By his own admission, Flacco admitted to not knowing his new OC to well just yet. Some in the local media have voiced displeasure with Flacco for at the very least not getting together with new TE and former Texan, Owen Daniels, who is as familiar with the new offensive system as Kubiak himself. Daniels has spent his entire career in it.

Speaking of Gary Kubiak, he takes over for Jim Caldwell, who left to become the head coach in Detroit. The former Texans HC brings with him a stretch zone run blocking scheme that he used with a great deal of success in Houston. Under Kubiak, the Texans earned their Top 6 all-time offensive outputs in scoring, total offense, and passing yards from 2007-12. During this time, the Texans also boasted the franchise’s Top 3 rushing outputs, including the NFL’s No. 2 ground attack in 2011 when they posted a franchise-record 153.0 yards per game. From 2008-12, Kubiak’s offense was one of only two (Denver) to have its total offense, passing offense and rushing offense each rank in the Top 5 at least once during that span. There are weapons in Baltimore. The receivers should be better in 2014. Torrey Smith, Marlon Brown, and now veteran wide out Steve Smith, who came over from Carolina, will give Flacco some good looks, as will starting tight ends Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels. Entering his second contract with the Ravens after re-signing this spring, Jacoby Jones adds quality depth, as does seventh round selection Michael Camapanaro, who figures to contribute mightily in the return game and in the slot during certain sets. If Flacco finally hits the 4,000 yard mark this season, it is likely the Ravens will have had a good season and are heading back to the playoffs.

Return to Glory–At Least the Top 10:

imagesThe Ravens defense finished 12th in the NFL last season and missed the top 10 for a second straight year. One weakness the team has been working on is fixing is the middle of the defense. There was a time when teams never ventured there on the Ravens and GM Ozzie Newsome is doing all he can to ensure those days return. Newsome and the Ravens completed the retooling of the once stout unit by drafting ILB CJ Mosley, as well two players from Florida State’s BCS Title team, DT Timmy Jernigan, and Free safety Terrence Brooks. This was the second straight year the Ravens used their first three picks of the draft on nearly identical positions. Last year it was safety Matt Elam, ILB Arthur Brown and DT Brandon Williams that were selected in the first three rounds. The result could mean a return to dominance on the defensive side of the football but with so much youth now in place, the offense may be asked to carry the load to start and that doesn't appear as if that’s likely considering the new play book. Ravens DC Dean Pees needs three things to happen in 2014 if the unit is going to return the top 10 for the first time since 2011. Veterans Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs and Elvis and Dumervil must be productive from week to week and cannot fade down the stretch. Secondly, the young linebacking corps must be aggressive but play smart and come prepared. And lastly, the secondary needs to stay healthy. Even with the inexperience at safety, CB’s LarDarius Webb and Jimmy Smith have the capability to shrink a football field but the depth behind them is lacking in CB's Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson. Each say they are ready to step up and the good news for them is that they will get their chance to prove it. The Ravens young defense must also communicate better on the field– something it has not done well over the past two seasons. Safeties Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks could be a formidable duo fro many years to come but there will be a big learning curve in 2014. The Ravens have always taken pride in having the next man up step up and play well and it appears they have the talent waiting to try. But that philosophy is being tested, as the team hasn’t drafted a Pro-Bowl player since taking Ray Rice in the second round back in 2008 and on defense there hasn't been a Pro Bowler selected since Haloti Ngata in 2006.

Where's the Leadership?

The Ravens have lacked leadership since No.52 played his last game. They tried to correct that this offseason by signing former Panther WR Steve Smith, who may not be as fast as he once was but still plays with a chip on his shoulder similar to the one the Ravens used to possess. Leadership was definitely lacking during this offseason when four Ravens players, including Ray Rice, were arrested and charged with various crimes. Rice was the most publicized as he was seen on TV dragging his unconscious wife out of an Atlantic City casino elevator after allegedly knocking her out while they were inside it. He will likely face an NFL suspension of at least two to three games despite having his case adjudicated somewhat in his favor in the courtroom. Rice was a player that Ray Lewis often mentored in his own home and spent many nights with the former Rutgers star showing the ins and outs of the NFL. While off the field issues happened when Lewis, Ed Reed, and even Anquan Boldin were here, they didn’t happen with this type of regularity and when they did, you better believe Lewis would let the player know personally the effect his actions had on the team. Accountability seems to missing and when you toss in the fact that players like Suggs and Ngata, whom many thought to be leaders, didn’t show up to voluntary OTA’s and one could easily read trouble between the lines. Suggs, who faded badly down the stretch last season and Ngata, who has struggled with injuries and consistency over the past two years, did not attend the voluntary camp but are expected to be at the mandatory minicamp June 17-19. The Ravens 2014 schedule is easier than in years past but keep in mind— this was a .500 team last season. The offense will need to be functioning at a mid-season level to start the 2014 campaign. Baltimore will face three straight AFC North foes before hosting Carolina in the seasons first quarter. Three of the four teams had defenses in the Top 10 last year and Pittsburgh finished 13th. It is possible that the Ravens will have to beat these teams without Ray Rice, who will likely be serving his suspension during this time. In April 2010, Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger was suspended six games to start that season. However, the league reduced it to four games but the Steelers still began the 2010 season with Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch at quarterback. They went 3-1, losing only to the Ravens at home. Ironically, Pittsburgh went on to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl that season, losing to Green Bay. So, just when we think we know all there is to know, the questions are changed in what can only be described, as the wild world of the NFL. Following the first quarter of the year, the Ravens then visit Indianapolis and if they can survive the first month of play and pick up a few wins in the middle portion — at Tampa Bay, Atlanta, at Cincinnati, at Pittsburgh, Tennessee — then they should finish strong over the final month. Baltimore will face the Dolphins, Jaguars, Texans, and Browns in the final four weeks of the season. Is There a

Storm Brewing in Baltimore?

dt.common.streams.StreamServer It is fair to say that storm clouds are swirling around this team. They are walking a fine line and I wouldn't be surprised if they finished 4-12 or 12-4. The defense should be better but with all the youth, will need a little time to gel and get acclimated to the speed of the game while playing together. How fast the offense gels in Kubiak's new system, how many games Ray Rice misses due to a likely suspension and whether or not he can bounce back from his worst year are legitimate concerns. When you couple that with the concerns of whether or not the offensive line can rebound, it seems like there are far more questions than answers for the 2014 version of the Ravens–at least to start. I believe the Ravens are one the league biggest anomalies to start the season but we will know pretty fast if this is a team is capable of getting back to the playoffs after being in them for the first five years of Harbaugh and Flacco’s tenure. What frightens me most is what I don't seem in terms of  the passion for the game or the leadership. I was one of those people that believed losing Ray Lewis' leadership was overrated and the team would be fine without him—-I WAS WRONG about the leadership aspect but it was time for him to vacate the playing field. There are also legitimate concerns of whether the team actually has enough weapons at the skill positions to carry them through the difficult stretches that every team encounters during a season. Joe Flacco must return to the above average / very good form that’s seen him win 62 games to start his career, the most of any quarterback in the history of the league to start a career. While I like the Ravens to win a game or two they may not be favored in, I expect them to lose their share of ones they are. It’s always gets darkest just before the dawn and the 2014 season could start dismally before ending on a high note in Baltimore. Expectations are high and fans won’t react well if they miss the playoffs for a second straight season—so prepare, I know I am. Vegas refunds money on a push bet, which this is likely to be after the Ravens miss the playoffs and win eight games for a second straight year..

Baltimore Ravens projected win total: 8 Games. Preseason schedule (All times p.m. ET; home games in caps)

Preseason schedule (All times p.m. ET; home games in caps)

Aug. 7-10 SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Aug. 14-18 at Dallas Cowboys

Aug. 21-24 WASHINGTON REDSKINS

Aug. 28 at New Orleans Saints

Regular season schedule

Sept. 7 Cincinnati Bengals, 1

Sept. 11 Pittsburgh Steelers (Thu), 8:25

Sept. 21 at Cleveland Browns, 1

Sept. 28 Carolina Panthers, 1

Oct. 5 at Indianapolis Colts, 1

Oct. 12 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1

Oct. 19 Atlanta Falcons, 1

Oct. 26 at Cincinnati Bengals, 1

Nov. 2 at Pittsburgh Steelers, 8:30*

Nov. 9 Tennessee Titans, 1

Nov. 16 BYE

Nov. 24 at New Orleans Saints (Mon), 8:30

Nov. 30 San Diego Chargers, 1

Dec. 7 at Miami Dolphins, 1

Dec. 14 Jacksonville Jaguars, 1

Dec. 21 at Houston Texans, 1

Dec. 28 Cleveland Browns, 1

 

 

Ravens Fail To Make Playoffs

December 30, 2013 in Observations

Just one season removed from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans, the Baltimore Ravens have failed to make the playoffs.

This comes on the heals of a 34-17 loss that dropped the Ravens record to 8-8 for the season. A win in this game would have sent the Ravens to the playoffs as the Miami Dolphins lost to the New York Jets. Since both the Ravens and the Dolphins lost, the sixth seed in the AFC goes to the San Diego Chargers who sneak into the playoffs with a 27-24 win in overtime against the Kansas City Chiefs who rested many starters and will be the fifth seed in the playoffs.

Under head coach John Harbaugh, this is the first time in his six-year tenure that the Ravens have missed the playoffs. The last time they missed the playoffs was back in 2007 when Brian Billick was still the head coach, Steve McNair, Kyle Boller and Troy Smith saw time at quarterback and the New England Patriots were in the midst of their 18-1 season.

Called a Super Bowl hangover, many teams struggle to find success in the season after they win the Super Bowl. The 2006 and 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers along with the 2012 New York Giants didn't make the playoffs the next season after winning the Super Bowl. The last team to repeat as Super Bowl champions were the New England Patriots who won three in four years in the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons.

Trying to avoid the struggles of a defending Super Bowl champion, the Ravens revamped their roster, especially the defense, and lost many players in free agency due to salary cap limitations.

Joe Flacco

Courtesy of ICON SMI

This seemed like the right idea, but it was to no avail as some fatal flaws killed the Ravens' season — and all of these were evident in the Ravens' loss to the Bengals.

First, and most importantly, is the offensive line. After investing $120.6 million into quarterback Joe Flacco, the offense was expected to perform at a level like they did in the playoffs where he threw 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in four games. This was never able to happen however.

Returning four of the five starters from that line in the playoffs (center Matt Birk retired), their performance was expected to be as good as the playoffs, but it wasn't.

The entire run game was switched around by run game coordinator Juan Castillo. It was still a zone-blocking system like before — the changes were just made within the current system. These changes seem to have been for the worse though as the Ravens' run game was the worst in franchise history. Gaining just 1,328 yards on 3.1 yards per carry, the Ravens set new franchise worsts in these two categories by some margin. The previous worsts were 1,589 yards and 3.8 yards per carry, both in 1997. That is a different of 261 yards and 0.7 yards per carry.

In 2012, the Ravens ranked 11th in total rushing yards (1,901) and 12th in yards per attempts (4.3). This year though, they ranked 30th in rushing yards and 32nd (last) in yards per attempt.

There wasn't much change in the personnel though as both Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce returned at running back after successful years and four of the five linemen returned.

Change quickly happened though as Rice injured his hip causing him to miss only one game, but the lingering effects of this injury impacted his performance.

On the offensive line, left guard Kelechi Osemele made it through seven games before being placed on injured reserve due to a back injury that required surgery. He was replaced by backup center A.Q. Shipley. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie — re-signed to a two-year contract in the offseason — struggled and was eventually traded to the Miami Dolphins after a replacement, Eugene Monroe, was acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars. At center, Gino Gradkowski struggled to make a positive impact in his first season as a starter. His play improved a little bit at the end of the season, but he still graded out as one of the worst centers in the league according to Pro Football Focus. Right guard Marshal Yanda had offseason shoulder surgery and this seemed to impact his play in the beginning of the season. He didn't play bad, but it looked like the bad performances around him dragged him down a bit. Right tackle Michael Oher was inconsistent all season and struggled with penalties.

In pass protection, the offensive line struggled the most with blitzes. So many times there was an unblocked defender in Flacco's face right after the snap. This comes down to communication on the line and with Flacco as to who is going to be blitzing and what protection scheme should be used on this particular play.

Against the Bengals yesterday, Flacco was getting absolutely beaten up. Already playing on a sprained MCL in his left knee, the last thing that he needed was to be hit. The Bengals defense registered two sacks and seven quarterback hits, along with numerous other pressures. After one hit, CBS showed a replay that zoomed in on Flacco's face and you could see him screaming in pain and holding his left knee. On another play he slammed his right arm into the ground hard and injured his right shoulder. He never missed a snap, but it got to a point where backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor started to warm up and the announcers where talking about potentially putting him in to replace Flacco.

For the season, the offensive line allowed 48 sacks which is tied for fourth most in the league. Last year, the line allowed 38 sacks in the regular season and six in four playoffs games. Not shown in the sack numbers are the numerous hits, pressures and hurries allowed by the line.

The line also had a league-high 28 false start penalties which are a sign of lack of discipline and are very easy to avoid.

Due to a change in system, injuries and overall poor performance, the Ravens' offensive line failed to create holes for Rice and Pierce to run through and failed to give Flacco sufficient time to throw the ball. The performance off the offensive line was one of the main reasons that the Ravens were able to win the Super Bowl last season, but it is also one of the main reasons why the Ravens won't be making the playoffs this year.

The other problem that plagued the Ravens' offense was, well, a lack of offense. In their last three games (against the Detroit Lions, New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals) the offense scored two touchdowns. Two. In their last 42 drives of the season, the Ravens offense scored two touchdowns.

In these three games, kicker Justin Tucker made nine field goals, but that still only bring the Ravens to 42 points or 14 points per game. That isn't going to cut it in the NFL nowadays.

When your offense is performing as poor as that, the team does't deserve to be in the playoffs and the Ravens know that.

Moving to the defensive side of the ball, the team was up and down all season. At times the pass rush was one of the best in the league and at times it didn't show up (they finished with 40 sacks, tied for 16th in the league). Against the Bengals, the Ravens didn't record a single quarterback hit, let alone a sack.

There were times when the defense couldn't force a turnover if the opposing team wanted to turn it over and then there were times like yesterday when they intercepted four passes.

The defense could perform well the entire game, but when a stop was needed near the end of the game, they couldn't provide one.

Early in the season the defense was one of the best in the league in the red zone, but they struggled over the last few games. For the season they finished eighth in the league in red zone scoring percentage (touchdowns only) at 48.78 percent. Over the last three games though, they allowed a whopping 87.5 percent of red zone trips to end in touchdowns — easily the worst in that time frame.

Some times the defense would be able to wrap up the ball carrier for little or no gain. Other times they would either not get off blocks, over pursue the ball carrier or just straight up miss the tackle.

Overall, the 2013 Baltimore Ravens football team was defined by inconstancy. At times they looked capable of defending their Super Bowl title and making it back to the big game, but at other times they looked like a team that needs serious change in the offseason. When you put that together, you get a team that is just average. The Ravens 8-8 record showcases just than and they have one more chance to be right in the middle of the pack, as pending a coin flip, the Ravens' will pick 16th in the NFL Draft — right in the middle.

Playoff Spots On The Line: Ravens vs Bengals

December 27, 2013 in What to Look For

With playoff spots on the line for each team, the 8-7 Baltimore Ravens take on the 10-5 Cincinnati Bengals in Cincinnati where the Bengals are undefeated this season.

Having already clinched the AFC North, the Bengals are guaranteed a playoff spot, but their positioning is still up for grabs. If the playoffs started today, they would be the third-seed, but there is still a chance that they can earn the second-seed and the first-round bye that comes with that. This would happen is the Bengals beat the Ravens and if the New England Patriots lose to the Buffalo Bills. This would put the Bengals and the Patriots at 11-5 and since the Bengals won the head-to-head matchup, the second-seed would go to the Bengals.

Moving to the Ravens, they are in a four-way battle for the sixth and final seed in the AFC with the Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers. Between these four teams, there are 16 different playoff scenarios and seven of them belong to the Ravens. No team controls their own destiny as everyone needs and win plus help to get in.

In order to make the playoffs, the Ravens need to beat Cincinnati and have either the Dolphins (vs New York Jets) or the Chargers (vs Kansas City Chiefs) lose. Another way to make the playoffs would be if the Dolphins, Chargers and Steelers all lose.

The last time that the Ravens faced the Bengals was in week 10 when the Ravens played host. The Ravens jumped out to a 17-0 halftime lead and seemed to be in charge, but then the Bengals made a late comeback which was capped by a 51-yard Hail Mary pass which was caught by A.J. Green for a touchdown as time expired. This led to overtime and the Ravens won 20-17 on a 46-yard field goal from Justin Tucker.

1.  Joe Flacco
As always for the Ravens, the play of Flacco, the quarterback, will be important if they are to win the game.

Joe Flacco

Courtesy of ICON SMI

After winning the Super Bowl MVP in February and signing $120.6 million contract in March, he has underperformed this season. In fact, he set a new career-high in interceptions with 19 (his previous high was 12 which he had done three times). These 19 interceptions are tied for the most in a single-season in Ravens' franchise history. Vinny Testaverde also threw 19 interceptions in the Ravens' inaugural season in 1996.

Currently, Flacco his playing with a sprained MCL in his left knee. This injury was suffered two weeks ago in Detroit on Monday Night Football when he took a low hit just below his knee. Last week against the New England Patriots he wore a brace to protect the knee and the injury clearly bothered him as he went 22-of-38 for 260 yards, zero interceptions and two interceptions. His accuracy was off all night and he should have thrown more than three interceptions. He was especially unable to accurately throw deep passes as he under and overthrew these passes by significant margins.

He will wear the brace on his knee again this week and will take on the fifth-ranked defense in the NFL. Allowing 211.3 passing yards per game, the Bengals are the sixth-best in pass defense, but have suffered multiple injuries at cornerback this season.

In the week 10 matchup, he went 20-of-36 for 140 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and had a quarterback rating of 60.0 while being sacked five times. This stat line perfectly sums up his season as there have been great moments and bad ones which is shown by the touchdowns and interceptions. He has also been under pressure a lot of the time as the offensive line has give up 46 sacks this season which is tied for fourth-worst in the league and the five sacks from the Bengals' game show this.

If the Ravens are to win this game and advance to the playoffs, then they are going to need a big game from him. With his bad knee, it is unknown how likely this will be. However, he wasn't listed on the injury report this week.

2.  Pressuring Andy Dalton
At quarterback for the Bengals will be Dalton who, like Flacco, has been very inconsistent this season. When Dalton is good, he is very good and when he is bad, he is very bad.

This was evident during the game against the Ravens earlier in the season as he went 24-of-51 for 274 yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions and a quarterback rating of 52.2 while being sacked five times. The Ravens were able to effectively put pressure on him and this caused him trouble.

Expect the Ravens to try and bring the pressure again this week with various looks and alignments to confuse him. The Ravens defense has been at its best when running an aggressive defense. When they shift to a conservative zone defense, opponents have had success. This is what happened when playing the Bengals earlier in the season. In the first half, the defense was blitzing way more than in the second half. Dalton had much more success in the second half when the Ravens were running the conservative style defense.

Two players that have had success blitzing this year for the Ravens have been middle linebacker Daryl Smith and strong safety James Ihedigbo so expect them to come blitzing early in the game.

Getting the five sacks of Dalton in the week 10 matchup were defensive ends Arthur Jones and DeAngelo Tyson (one apiece) and outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil who had three. Jones is questionable with a concussion this week and hasn't practiced all week so it is up in the air if he will play of not. If Jones can't play, then Tyson would be trust into a bigger role and he has impressed this season and is beating out third-round pick Brandon Williams for playing time right now. Dumervil is second on the team with 9.5 sacks this season, but has gone three games without a sack.

Playing opposite of Dumervil is Terrell Suggs who leads the team with ten sacks. Recently though, he has struggled to put pressure on the quarterback as he has one sack in the last seven games. This one sack came last week against the Patriots.

Despite being able to sack him five times in their prior matchup, the Bengals actually have a good offensive line and they have allowed only 29 sacks this season which is tied for fourth-best in the league.

In order to stop the Bengals' offense, the Ravens will need to apply pressure on Dalton to force him to make quick decisions which can lead to turnovers.

3.  Torrey Smith and A.J. Green
The best receivers for their teams (Ravens and Bengals respectively) both Smith and Green could be looking at big games on Sunday to finish off the regular season.

Starting with Smith, he leads the Ravens in all receiving statistics except touchdowns. He has 62 catches for 1,101 yards and four touchdowns on 131 targets. Entering the season he was mainly used as a deep threat, but he has developed into a more rounded receiver this season.

After a hot start to the season where he went over 80 yards in the first five games (92, 85, 92,166 and 121 yards). Since then though, he has topped 80 yards once and that was against the Steelers in week 13. Against the Patriots last week, it took until the third quarter for him to record a catch.

When the Ravens faced the Bengals earlier in the season he had five catches for 46 yards and one touchdown.

With his 1,101 receiving yards, he is just 100 yards away from the franchise record for most receiving yards in a single season. Michael Jackson set this record of 1,201 in 1996 — like Testaverde. If Smith's recent production holds true, he will be held just short of this record. However, expect the Ravens to target Smith often during this game as he is their most explosive receiver.

Switching to Green, he leads the Bengals in all receiving categories and is near the top in these categories for the entire league. He is tied for fifth in catches (94), third in targets (170), fourth in yards (1,365) and tied for eight in touchdowns (10).

Against the Ravens in week 10 he had eight catches for 151 yards and one touchdown. This touchdown came on a Hail Mary as time expired in the fourth quarter and forced overtime. He was able to catch the ball after Ihedigbo tipped the ball up right to Green.

With 97 more targets than the next receiver on the Bengals, he is by far Dalton's favorite target this season. This isn't just a one season thing either as Green averages 9.78 targets per game in 46 career games (him and Dalton came into the league together in 2011) and had 70 more targets than other receivers last season and 12 more in his rookie year.

Covering him for the Ravens will be a combination of Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. Smith has really improved this season and held Calvin Johnson — one of the few, if not the only, wide receiver better than Green — in check two weeks ago. Therefore, expect Smith to align over Green more than Webb. The Ravens don't usually rotate their cornerbacks based on receiver, they usually just keep them on a certain side, but they would be wise to keep Smith on Green.

4.  Ravens' Offensive Line
As mentioned a little earlier, the Ravens' offensive line has had trouble this year with pass protection, but they also have struggled to create holes in the run game.

Michael Oher

Courtesy of ICON SMI

There has been some change throughout the season on the line as starting left tackle Bryant McKinnie was traded away after the Ravens traded for Eugene Monore. Left guard Kelechi Osemele has missed most of the season with a back injury and has been replaced by A.Q. Shipley. Center Gino Gradkowski was the only new starter coming into the year, but the turnover on the left side has changed that. The right side of the line has stayed the same all season with Marshal Yanda at guard and Michael Oher at tackle.

Starting with pass protection, the line has allowed 46 tackles which is tied for fourth-worst in the NFL. The line has struggled the most with blitzes and the Bengals took advantage of this the last time these two played. Backup linebacker Vincent Rey had three of the sacks and defensive end Carlos Dunlap had two. These blitzes usually resulted in unblocked pressure on Flacco and there is not much that he can do when a defensive player has a free run at him.

With 41 sacks on the season (tied for 11th best in the league), the Bengals have a formidable pass rush which the Ravens' line will have their hands full with.

Last time against the Bengals the Ravens averaged 2.8 yards per carry and this falls to 2.25 yards per carry on rushes from running back Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce and fullback Vonta Leach. All game long, these backs had no holes to run though agains the now sixth-best run defense in the league (99.8 yards per game and four yards per carry).

These run game woes are likely to continue for the Ravens in this game as the run game hasn't improved since then. The pass protection has improved over the last few weeks so it will be interesting and very important to see how the Ravens' offensive line holds up — especially with an injured Flacco at the helm of the offense.

AFC Championship Rematch: Ravens vs Patriots

December 21, 2013 in What to Look For

In the last two seasons, the AFC Championship Game has consisted of the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots. Both times the game has been played in New England and each game produced different results.

The first time around, in 2011, the Ravens suffered a heartbreaking defeat 23-20. With under one minute left in the game, wide receiver Lee Evans had the game-winning touchdown catch in his hands, but Patriots' defender Sterling Moore was able to knock it loose at the last second. Two plays later, the Ravens attempted a 32-yard field goal to tie the game and send it to overtime. However, kicker Billy Cundiff missed it wide left and the Patriots won the game. They would face the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI where the Giants won 21-17. This game against the Patriots is still a sore spot for Ravens fans.

Last year, the Ravens headed up to Foxboro looking for revenge. The Ravens had defeated the Patriots 31-30 in the regular season on a 27-yard field goal from new kicker Justin Tucker. Wide receiver Torrey Smith played the game of his life catching six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns just hours after finding out about the death of his younger brother Tevin.

A regular season victory isn't the same though. For the Ravens to come full-circle on the Patriots, they needed to win a playoff game in Foxboro. At halftime in the 2012 AFC Championship Game, the Ravens were down 13-7 and weren't playing great. In the second half, quarterback Joe Flacco came out firing and three three touchdown passes. This spearheaded the Ravens comeback and led them to a 28-13 victory.

This victory sent the Ravens to Super Bowl XLVII where they faced the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans where the Ravens hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after an eventful 34-31 victory.

1.  Joe Flacco
If the Ravens are to defeat the Patriots for a third straight time, they are going to need Flacco to play like he did in last season's two games.

In the regular season matchup, he went 28-of-39 for 382 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a quarterback rating of 117.7. With the Ravens down 30-21 with 7:29 left in the game, they got the ball and he led them on a drive then ended in a touchdown pass to Smith with 4:01 left. After the defense forced a Patriots punt, Flacco and the offense got the ball back with 1:55 left. A few plays later, the Ravens had the ball on the Patriots' nine-yard line and sent in Tucker for the game-winning field goal. With the game on the line, Flacco led the Ravens on two scoring drives late in the game to win.

Joe Flacco

Courtesy of ICON SMI

In the playoff matchup, the Ravens came out with a conservative game plan, but changed it at halftime to let him throw more. This resulted in the Ravens scoring 21 unanswered points in the second half and a trip to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. For the game, he went 21-of-36 for 240 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions and a quarterback rating of 106.2.

The Patriots have been a team that he plays better against due to his familiarity with them. He has played them six times going 3-3 including 2-1 in the playoffs. In these games, he has thrown 12 touchdowns compared to four interceptions and has completed 63.5 percent of his passes.

This year, he seems to be having a down year after winning the Super Bowl. He has thrown for 3,460 yards, 18 touchdowns and completed 58.9 percent of his passes. Along with these stats, he has also thrown a career-high 17 interceptions and has a career-low quarterback rating (76.5). His previous high in interceptions was 12 which he has done three different times.

Part of the reason why he is having a down year is the struggles of the rest of the offense. Anquan Boldin, a key receiver from last year, was traded away and tight end Dennis Pitta dislocated and fractured his hip in training camp. He has only returned recently and the game this week will be his third of the season. The offensive line has struggled in pass protection and run blocking. The lack of an effective run game has pushed more onto the shoulders of Flacco.

One thing that he has done well this season is come through late in games. In the last two game, he has led two game-winning drives and in the first game, he led two touchdown drives in the final few minutes.

Playing in the clutch is one of the most important attributes that a quarterback can have in his arsenal and it is something that can't be taught. You either have it or you don't. And Flacco has it.

If the Ravens can get another good performance from Flacco, then they are going to be tough to beat.

2.  Tom Brady
Speaking of quarterbacks that perform in the clutch, the Patriots have a pretty good one themselves in Brady.

While Brady is a first-ballet Hall-of-Fame quarterback, the Ravens' defense has given him trouble in the past. Since 2008 — when Flacco entered the league — Brady has thrown six touchdowns and nine interceptions against the Ravens while completing 60.2 percent of his passes. In his eight career starts against the Ravens, he has completed only 57.7 percent of his passes and has thrown two more interceptions than touchdowns. These are his worst numbers against an opponent.

One reason that the Ravens have been able to find success against him has been because of the numerous blitzes that the Ravens run. The Ravens' defense has been able to confuse Brady at times with their blitzes.

Directing the Ravens' signals on defense every other year has been Ray Lewis, another first-ballet Hall-of-Fame player. However, he retired in the offseason and left a huge void in the middle of the Ravens' defense. Taking over Lewis' spot has been Daryl Smith, a veteran signed in free agency.

He has exceeded expectations for the Ravens as he has 107 tackles (tied for a career-high), 4.5 sacks (career-high), three interceptions (career-high) and 18 pass deflections (career-high and a Ravens' franchise record for a linebacker). He has also done a good job of calling the signals for the defense.

Brady will be missing many of his top targets in this game. All three of his favorite targets from last year won't play as tight end Rob Gronkowski is out with a torn ACL and MCL, tight end Aaron Hernandez is in jail awaiting trial for murder and wide receiver Wes Welker signed with the Denver Broncos in free agency. On top of that fourth-round pick wide receiver Josh Boyce is out with an injury, second-round pick wide receiver Aaron Dobson is questionable and undrafted free agent wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins is also questionable. His most targeted receiver this year is Julian Edelman who has 89 catches and his previous high was 37. Coming in second is Danny Amendola, a free agent signing to replace Welker, but he has missed four games with injury.

Despite all of these injuries and changes, Brady has still led the Patriots to a 10-4 record.

The Ravens will need to play physical with the receivers on the outside as both Edelman and Amendola are under six foot tall. The defense will also need to pressure Brady with various blitzes to force him to make quick decisions under pressure.

3.  Big Plays
This game has massive playoff implications so there will be a playoff-like atmosphere at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. In games like this, big plays will be the difference.

Big plays can be one of two things: a large gain or a turnover.

Starting with large gains, these can come in many different forms. There could be a big kickoff or punt return, a long pass or catch and run, or even a long run after a handoff.

In the return game, the Ravens have a clear advantage with Jacoby Jones returning for them. The first-team All-Pro kick returner from last season missed a few games at the beginning of the season with a knee injury and then struggled in his first few games back. Now though, he is in full stride and has been busting out big returns in recent games. Against the New York Jets four weeks ago, he returned a punt 37 yards and had 108 punt return yards on five returns. Three weeks ago against the Pittsburgh Steelers he returned a kickoff 73 yards and almost scored a touchdown. Against the Minnesota Vikings two weeks ago he did as he took a kickoff 77 yards with 1:16 left in the game to give the Ravens the lead. Last week against the Detroit Lions he returned a kickoff 36 yards to the Ravens' 33-yard line to set up the Ravens' game-winning drive.

In the passing and rushing game, the Ravens and Patriots are balanced as the Ravens have the advantage passing and the Patriots do rushing the ball.

Moving to the turnover battle, the Patriots have the advantage. They have a turnover differential of plus six compared to the Ravens one of negative two. The Patriots have forced 25 turnovers (14 interceptions and 11 fumbles) while only turning it over 19 times (10 interceptions and nine fumbles). The Ravens have forced 20 turnovers (12 interceptions and eight fumbles) while turning it over 22 times (17 interceptions and five fumbles).

Last week, the Patriots were even in turnover differential as they threw for one interception and forced a fumble. The Ravens were plus three as they intercepted three passes while not turning the ball over.

This game is going to come down to who can make a big play when is comes down to it. Both the Ravens and Patriots have shown this ability and are balanced in this aspect.

4.  Run Game
A battle of bad meets bad when the Ravens have the ball on offense as the Ravens' run game ranks worst in yards per attempt and the Patriots' run defense ranks second-worst in yards per game.

The struggles for the Ravens stem from an ineffective offensive line and running backs that can't break tackles. This is a killer combination (and not in a good way). This has led to 3.0 yards per carry which is worse than all teams in the league and the next worse is at 3.3.

The offensive line has failed to provide any holes to running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. They haven't played well either though as they have failed to break tackles and take advantage of a hole when there has been one.

Injuries have been the main fault behind the Patriots' bad run defense. Starting defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are out for the season with injuries and the same goes for linebacker Jarod Mayo. These three (especially Wilfork and Mayo) were the better run defenders on the Patriots and their losses have really hurt the Patriots.

Rice has run up the middle a lot this season and with the Patriots hurting in that area, expect more of the same. One of the two units has to give way and have success for once. Right?

Tucker Kicks Ravens To Victory

December 17, 2013 in Observations

On the Baltimore Ravens only appearance on Monday Night Football this season, they defeated the Detroit Lion 18-16. The win gives the Ravens a record of 8-6 and drops the Lions to 7-7.

With this win, the Ravens have now won four straight games after starting the season 4-6. At that point in time, it looked like they wouldn't make the playoffs, but now if they win their next two games (home vs New England and at Cincinnati), the Ravens will win the AFC North. They can also clinch a playoff berth next week with a win along with a loss from Miami and a loss or tie from San Diego.

Entering the game, the Ravens had a losing record on Monday Night Football games, but the win makes their all-time record 9-9. Under head coach Johns Harbaugh, the Ravens are 5-3.

In my post previewing key aspects of the game, I said that the game would come down to the fourth quarter and that turnovers would be key. Well, the game did come down to the fourth quarter as the Lions scored a touchdown with 2:21 left and after a two-point conversion failed, they were up 16-15. The Ravens then drove down the field and kicked a game-winning 61-yard field goal with 38 seconds left in the game.

The Ravens also won the turnover battle, forcing three interceptions and never turning the ball over.

Justin Tucker
Carrying the Ravens to victory by kicking the said 61-yard field goal was Tucker, the second-year kicker out of Texas.

Sam Koch and Justin Tucker

Courtesy of ICON SMI

In the game, he did more than just kick a 61-yard field goal though as he scored all 18 of the Ravens points. These 18 points came on field goals from 29, 24, 32, 49, 53 and 61 yards. By kicking six field goals in a game, he set a new franchise record and he became the first kicker in NFL history to make field goals in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s in the same game.

His most important kick of the night almost didn't happen. It was fourth and eight from the Lions' 43-yard line. Originally, the Ravens lined up to go for it on fourth down, but they called a timeout and trotted him out to attempt a 61-yard field goal.

The snap and hold were perfect, and he got just enough of the ball to kick it through the uprights. The ball sailed into the bottom right corner of the goalposts and barely made it over the crossbar.

This field goal is the second-longest on Monday Night Football and is the longest field goal made in an indoor stadium. It is also the longest kick in franchise history — five yards longer than the 56-yard field that was the previous record (set by Wade Richey in 2003 and tied by Tucker last year).

On the ensuing kickoff he blasted the ball well out of the end zone — presumably energized by his kick just minutes prior.

With his six field goals he totaled 248 yards. To put that in comparison, the Ravens passed for 215 yards and the Lions passed for 230.

By kicking six fields, he extended his streak of consecutive field goals made to 33 in a row. This is the longest active streak in the league and is just a few away from the Ravens' team record of 36 which was set by Matt Stover.

Yet again, Tucker was the reason for the Ravens' victory as he bailed out the Ravens' offense that couldn't score touchdowns. He now leads the NFL in field goals made with 35.

Joe Flacco 
Orchestrating the Ravens' game-winning drive for the fourth time this season was Flacco, but this drive was much different than the previous ones.

What was different this time was he led the drive while clearly hurting. Earlier in the fourth quarter, he took an illegal hit just below his knee.

Lions' linebacker DeAndre Levy burst through the line and dove at Flacco. Levy's helmet hit just below Flacco's knee. These are the type of plays where players tear knee ligaments (hence why these hits on quarterbacks are supposed to be flagged). However, there was no flag on the play (just one of many questionable calls throughout the game). Anyways, he stayed down for a little bit, but eventually got up and continued to play.

When he returned to the sidelines, the trainers taped his knee up and he didn't miss a snap. Looking at the play, it seemed like he could have hurt his MCL as he was hit on the outside of the knee. However, the Ravens don't plan on getting a MRI on the knee so it clearly isn't a serious injury. It did effect him for the rest of the game though. You could clearly see that he was throwing off his back foot and trying to not put that much stress on his left knee.

On the game-winning drive, he was 2-of-5 for 27 yards, but was able to get the job done.

Throwing for 222 yards, he went 20-of-38 with no touchdowns or interceptions and had a passer rating of 70.3. From the start of the game, he looked good. He was on target and was throwing a very tight spiral with good velocity.

When the game was on the line, he yet again led the Raven to victory with a game-winning drive. He can look average for an entire game, but when the game is on the line, he has been great.

Jacoby Jones
Another key player on the Ravens' final drive, for two different reasons, was Jones. Along with performing well on the final drive, he also led the Ravens in receiving.

He caught six passes for 90 yards on nine targets and converted three of these catches into first downs. The punt that he returned he gained 24 yards and almost broke free for a touchdown.

On the final drive, he took kickoff from the Lions three yards deep in the end zone ran it back 36 yards to the Ravens' 33-yard line. This set the Ravens up with good field position on their final drive.

After a false start and an incomplete pass, the Ravens faced third and 15 from their own 28-yard line. Enter Jones, who gained 27 yards over the middle and put the ball at the Lions' 45-yard line.

These two plays set up Tucker to kick his 61-yard field goal. Without Jones, the Ravens likely aren't able to score in the final minute and they lose the game.

Torrey Smith
While Smith may not have had a big role in the final drive like Jones (one target and zero catches), he did set a new franchise record and reached a career milestone.

With four catches for 69 yards on 12 targets, he was second on the team in receiving. Three of these catches went for first downs: a gain of 25 on second and 11, a gain of 22 on first and 10 and a gain of 19 on second and nine.

His franchise record came on his first catch of the game — the gain of 25 on second and 11. With that catch, he became the franchise leader in catches of 25-plus yards with 36. Being that he is in his third season and assuming he continues to play with the Ravens after he contract expires next season, he is likely to shatter this record in the years to come.

Moving to his career milestone, he topped the 1,000-yard mark in the first half. Finishing the game with 1,032 yards, this is the first time in his short career that he has broken 1,000 yards in a season. In his rookie year he had 841 yards and followed that up with 855 last year. He seemed set to have a breakout year this season with the departure of Anquan Boldin and the injury to Dennis Pitta.

With two games to play, Smith needs just 170 yards to set a new franchise record for most receiving yards in a season. The current record is 1,201 which was set by Michael Jackson in 1996 — the franchise's inaugural season.

Offensive Line
Facing a tough matchup against the Lions' defensive line, the Ravens' offensive line held their own and were a key reason why the Ravens' offense was able to move the ball.

It wasn't a dominant performance by any means, but it wasn't awful either. The line held steady in the run game and pass protection for the most part. Surprisingly, the Ravens were able to average 4.3 yards per carry in the run game on 21 attempts (90 yards). Early in the game, running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce were hit in the line-of-scrimage too often. This improved in the second half though.

For the most part the pass protection was good bar a few plays. Only one sack was allowed and the line was able to neutralize the Lions' pass rush.

The sack was actually allowed by Rice when he was in pass protection, though center Gino Gradkowski was beaten bad on the play as well by Ndamukong Suh. Flacco fumbled on this play and Gradkowski made the heads up play to recover the ball.

Suh, the star of the Lions' defense, was held in check by the interior linemen with right guard Marshal Yanda doing most of the good work.

Yanda was called for a false start along with left tackle Eugene Monroe with Monroe's came on the final drive. He also was called for holding which was declined due to an incomplete pass. The last bad thing that Monroe did was allow a free rusher to go right past him. Monroe down blocked to double team the defensive tackle despite a defensive end being lined up over him. This defensive end had instant pressure and forced Flacco to throw the ball before he wanted to before he was hit. The play resulted in an incompletion and caused the Ravens to settle for a field goal.

Right tackle Michael Oher allowed a pressure on third and six that saw his man reach out his arm and hit Flacco as he threw — causing an interception.

Haloti Ngata
According to Pro Football Focus, Ngata had his best game since week 12 of the 2011 season and it was definitely his best performance recently.

From his position at nose tackle, he recorded five tackles, two pass deflections and one quarterback hit.

Starting with his run defense, he had four run stops for losses of one, zero, three and one. The first run stop was on the second play of the game, the stop for zero yards came with assistance from outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw and the second stop for one yard came when the Lions had the ball on the Ravens' 15-yard line.

While ESPN is currently only crediting Ngata with one pass deflection, he clearly got his hands on two passes from Matthew Stafford, the Lions' quarterback. The first came at the line-of-scrimmage as Ngata slightly deflected the ball. The ball then bounced off running back Reggie Bush, the target on the play, and was intercepted by DeAngelo Tyson (for more see below). The other pass deflection also came at the line-of-scrimmage as Ngata swatted away a pass on first and 10.

Pass rushing, he had a very quick quarterback hit as he disposed of the Lions' right guard and raced into the backfield. Stafford was still able to complete the pass, but Ngata still made an impressive play.

The only real negatives from the game come in the form of two offsides penalties — the second of which was declined due to a gain of 37 on a pass play.

DeAngelo Tyson
A sight not very often seen in NFL games is a 315-pound defensive lineman dropping into pass coverage. Even rarer yet is seeing this said lineman intercepting a pass. Early in the third quarter, this is exactly what happened.

On the play, a third and one from the Ravens' 31-yard line, the Ravens blitzed and this blitz had Tyson falling back into coverage while others rushed the passer. Stafford's pass was tipped at the line by Ngata and then Bush failed to bring in the pass.

Bush deflected the ball right to Tyson. He then hit the ball back to himself for the interception — his first of his career.

This interception gave the Ravens the ball at their own 27-yard line and likely took three points off the board from the Lions. If the pass fell incomplete, then the Lions would have attempted a field goal from about 48 yards away.

Daryl Smith
Commanding the Ravens' defense from his middle linebacker spot was Smith and he had another good game.

He only had five tackles, but he also added a sack, and an interception.

But first, there was something else that stood out to me about Smith last night. Every time the Lions' went into an empty formation (nobody next to Stafford in the backfield), Smith called an audible to a blitz. This was clearly part of the Ravens' game plan for the game and was very effective as the Lions weren't able to block the blitzes and this forced Stafford to throw before he wanted to. Tyson's interception came on a blitz that Smith had audibled to.

Back to his individual accomplishments in this game, Smith's sack came on a second and 10 when he blitzed between the center and right guard. Unblocked, he came upon Stafford and forced him to stumble. He fell a few yards later for a loss of five. This sack give Smith 4.5 for the season — a new career high.

With his five tackles, he tied a career high for combined tackles in a season with 107.

In pass coverage, he had an interceptions and allowed three pass to be caught against him with two going for first downs and the other going for a touchdown.

On the touchdown, he had good coverage, but it was just a good pass and catch. He was also giving up five inches on the play to Joseph Fauria, the Lions 6'7" red zone specialist.

Smith was the beneficiary of some questionable decision making by Stafford on Smith's interception. It was a third and two and for some reason, Stafford tried to force a sidearm pass into a very tight window. The ball went right to Smith and he returned it three yards the the Lions' 34-yard line, leading to a field goal.

Matt Elam
In an interview in the days before the game, Elam called Lions' star wide receiver Calvin Johnson "pretty old" and this sparked controversy as Johnson is the best receiver in the league and only 28-years old. Letting his play do his talking, he played the best game of his rookie season.

Starting off, he led the Ravens with 10 tackles and added an interception. Three of these tackles came for run stops and he also helped out on another. The run stops came for gains of two, negative three and two with the assist coming for a gain of one.

Matt Elam

Courtesy of ICON SMI

What is impressive about these run stops was that he was playing as a deep safety on these plays. He quickly diagnosed the play and ran up to make the stop. This is where he is at his best as he is a natural strong safety, but he is playing out of position at free safety so that the Ravens can play their best players.

In pass coverage, he only allowed one catch which was a gain of 17 on first and 10. The receiver caught the ball about eight yards downfield, but Elam missed the tackle right away which gave up extra yardage. This play put the ball on the Ravens' 14-line and Bush scored a touchdown on the next play.

Elam's interception came on the Lions' first play after Tucker's 61-yard field goal. Stafford's pass sailed on him and Elam collected the overthrow to seal the victory. He bobbled the ball at first and almost dropped it before securing it and falling down to not risk a fumble. His first career interception couldn't have come at a better time for the Ravens.

He was also called for one penalty. This was unnecessary roughness on the opening drive of the game when he hit Stafford as he was sliding — a clear penalty. This gave the Lions a key first down as it was third down and Stafford was stopped short. Just outside of field goal range, the Lions would have had to punt, but instead they had a second life and were able to score a touchdown.

This performance from Elam was clearly his best of the season and shows his potential.

Cornerbacks
Tasked with trying to cover Johnson, the Ravens' cornerbacks had the toughest assignment possible and they did a good job. Johnson was held to six catches for 98 yards on 14 yards. He also had three costly drops.

Going up against Johnson most of the time was Jimmy Smith. He allowed four of these catches for 43 yards and gave up two first downs while having tight coverage. His tight coverage forced an incompletion on a deep pass and forced Johnson to catch a crucial two-point conversion out-of-bounds. If Johnson caught this, Tucker's field goal would have only tied the game. Overall, it was a great game from Smith as he went toe-to-toe with the best receiver in the league and was able to hold his own.

Lardarius Webb gave up only two catches for five yards and they came on back-to-back plays. The first was a quick slant that he read right away on second and 10. He delivered a big hit, but the receiver was able to hold on to the ball. The following play, the Lions ran a wide receiver screen that he stopped for no gain. Late in the third quarter on a third and nine play from the Ravens' 22-yard line, he had single coverage on a go route into the end zone. He held onto the arm of the receiver while the ball was coming, but no flag was thrown. A flag should have been thrown giving the Lions a first and goal from the one-yard line. Instead, the Lions had to settle for a field goal to cut the Ravens' lead to 12-10. Webb also had a run stop for a gain of two.

Corey Graham had a quiet game. He didn't give up any catches and had two tackles and a quarterback hit. He was in coverage on one of Johnson's drops and was beaten bad. Johnson was wide open and had a chance to score, but dropped an easy catch. The quarterback hit forced Stafford to throw a check-down pass. Graham also had a run stop for a gain of one after Elam slowed the running back down.

The Fourth Quarter Will Be The Key: Ravens vs Lions

December 15, 2013 in What to Look For

In the Baltimore Ravens first Monday Night Football appearance of the season, they will travel to the Motor City to take on the Detroit Lions. Entering the game, the Ravens are 7-6 and have won three straight games and four of their last five. The Lions are also 7-6, enter the game having lost three of their last four.

Both teams are in the midst of playoff races and being week 15, a loss by either team could be devastating to their playoff chances. Currently, the Ravens are the sixth seed in the AFC and they control their own destiny. If they win their final three games, they will make the playoffs. The Lions are the fourth seed in the NFC right now as they lead the NFC North division. This division looks like it will come down to the wire though as the Chicago Bears are also 7-6 and the Green Bay Packers are lurking just behind at 6-6-1.

1.  Fourth Quarter
Last week against the Minnesota Vikings — the fourth team in NFC North — the Ravens played a game for the ages that had one of the craziest finishes in history. The Ravens and Vikings combined to score five touchdowns in the games final 2:07 after entering this point with a low score of 12-7 in favor of the Vikings.

This week the fourth quarter is going to be important yet again — though likely without the craziness. With two playoff contenders facing each other and both knowing that a loss would be devastating for their playoff hopes, there is going to be a playoff-like atmosphere at Ford Field tomorrow night. Games like this are usually close and are decided in the fourth quarter and this one should be no different.

Heading into this game, both teams are going in different directions in terms of fourth quarter performance. (Kind of).

Joe Flacco

Courtesy of ICON SMI

For the Ravens, their defense is reeling after allowing multiple touchdowns in the final few minutes of the game. This has actually been a common theme in Ravens games this season. Despite playing great football all game long, the defense will not be able to get a stop when it matters the most late in games.

My reasoning for this is that the defense gets too conservative in these situations. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will call an aggressive game, but then go conservative with three or four pass rushers and the rest of the defense back in soft zone coverage. The defense just hasn't been effective while running this style of defense at all this season.

On offense for the Ravens, things are the exact opposite. While quarterback Joe Flacco already has set a career high in interceptions (17) and is having an inconsistent year, he has shown up in the fourth quarters of games.

Despite ranking 30th in the NFL in passer rating (77.0) and 20th in QBR (52.7), he has the third highest QBR (82.1) in the fourth quarter this season of quarterbacks who have at least seven starts.

Even more impressive, he has been the best since the start of October with a QBR of 96.9 and passer rating of 132.4 with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter — situations that would be described as clutch. He also has thrown four touchdowns, zero interceptions and has completed 63.3 percent of his passes in these situations.

His performance against the Vikings last week is a perfect example of this as he led the Ravens down the field on two separate occasions to take the lead — including the game winner.

Moving on to the Lions, their entire team is struggling in the fourth quarter right now. Starting with the defense, they have allowed 112 points in the fourth quarter this season (8.6 per game) which is the second most in the league.

Last week against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Lions entered the fourth quarter up 14-6. By the time the game ended, the score was 34-20. The defense allowed four touchdowns in this time period. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers a few weeks ago, the Lions gave up two touchdowns in the final five minutes to go from up four to losing by 10.

While the performance of the defense hasn't been pretty, the offense hasn't provided any help. Over their last three losses the offense has run 48 plays for 95 yards (1.98 yards per play). Adding to this they have five turnovers — three fumbles and two interceptions. Lastly, they have scored just six points in the fourth quarter of these three games.

If this game plays out as expected, it will come down to the fourth quarter. Right now, the Ravens enter playing better in the fourth quarter and are coming off a win where they locked the game up with a touchdown with four seconds left. The Lions enter the game absolutely reeling on both offense and defense.

2.  Containing Calvin Johnson
After facing the best running back in the league last week in Adrian Peterson, the Ravens now have to face the best wide receiver in the league.

The Ravens were able to hold Peterson to 13 yards on seven carries before he left and never returned with a foot injury. This week though, don't expect as much success.

Eighth in the league in catches (75), fourth in targets (138), second in yards (1,351), fourth in yards per catch (18.0), second in touchdowns (12), second in catches of more than 20 yards, third in yards per game (112.6), 10th in yards after the catch (464) and second in first downs (62), Johnson, nicknamed Megatron, is a force to be reckoned with. It is worth noting that he missed one game this season with a knee injury so his stats could be even higher.

How important is he to quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Lions' offense? Combine the receiving yards and touchdowns from the seven other players who have played wide receiver for the Lions this season and they will come up 258 yards and seven touchdowns short of Johnson.

At times, Stafford will just throw the ball up to Johnson hoping he can make the catch and knowing that it is very likely. Standing 6'5" and weighing 236 pounds, he is a physical specimen and is easily the best receiver of this generation.

Like every other team in the league, the Ravens will have trouble stopping him. Many teams have had their best cover cornerback shadow Johnson all over the field, but it is likely that the Ravens won't do this. When going up against other top receivers this season, the Ravens haven't moved their cornerbacks around.

Most of the time, Johnson lines up on the outside so he will see either Lardarius Webb or Jimmy Smith when the Ravens are in their base defense and either Smith or Corey Graham when the Ravens are in nickel.

If the Ravens had to choose a defender to go up against Johnson, they would want it to be Smith. At 6'2", he is the tallest of the bunch and is the most physical. He is also having a breakout season that has seen him step up his game into becoming worthy of a number one cornerback and is living up to the hype that came with being the Ravens' first round pick in 2011. Over the last 10 games, he has given up just 22 catches and for the season, he has allowed 39.

Smith has actually faced Johnson before, albeit in a preseason game back when Smith was a rookie. In the limited time they matched up against each other, Smith allowed an 18-yard touchdown catch and was called for holding.

This time, the matchup will be different as Smith now has experience and is playing the best football of his career.

Earlier in the week, Ravens' free safety Matt Elam called Johnson "pretty old" in an interview. In the same interview, Elam described Johnson as "big, fast, athletic, unstoppable, freak." However, the comment about his age stood out and rightfully so.

"He's pretty old, so I don't know how physical he'll be," Elam said. "He's a big guy, but he's older. I guess when they get older they're not going to be as physical, you know what I'm saying? We're going to have to be physical, make him uncomfortable."

At 28-years old, Johnson is anything but old and is still going very strong in the NFL. He is also a very physical receiver so it is hard to see where Elam is coming from.

Just for reference, the last time a player said something like this about Johnson he had his best game of the season. Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant said he could do anything Johnson could do. In their game against each other, Bryant had three catches for 72 yards and two touchdowns. All Johnson did was catch 14 passes for 329 yards and one touchdown. This was just the fifth time a receiver had more than 300 yards in a game and was the second best all-time, just seven yards behind Flipper Anderson's record of 336 set in 1989.

3.  Ravens' Offensive Line vs Lions' Defensive Line
The strength of the Lions' defense is their defensive line and the weakness of the the Ravens' offense this season has been their offensive line. Therefore, this matchup is going to be very important this week.

The Lions' defensive line is headed by three first round draft picks: defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah. Suh was drafted in 2010, Fairley in 2011 and Ansah was drafted this season. By drafting defensive linemen with three of their last four first round picks, the Lions have made a clear investment into their defensive line and want it to anchor their defense.

So far this season, Suh, the star of the group, has 42 tackles and 5.5 sacks, Fairley has 25 tackles and 3.5 sacks and Ansah has 27 tackles and seven sacks. At the other defensive end position is Willie Young who has 41 tackles and three sacks.

Bernard Pierce

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Ansah is questionable for the game with a shoulder injury and practiced on a limited basis on Friday.

Though improving over the recent weeks, the Ravens' offensive line is still the weak point of the offense. The main improvements have come in the form of pass protection. For the season, the Ravens have allowed 41 sacks which is tied for 28th worst in the league. Recently though, these sacks have been coming in the form of coverage sacks, where the offensive line isn't to blame as there is no open receiver for Flacco to throw to.

When the line has struggled the most in pass protection, it has come against teams that blitz often. The line hasn't been able to pickup these incoming blitzes very well resulting in unblocked pressure on Flacco. The Lions like to rush just their four defensive lineman a lot and this is where the Ravens' offensive line has had more success.

Run blocking has been an entirely different story for the Ravens' line. They have provided very few holes for running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce to go through. When the line does provide good blocking, Rice and Pierce do well — as you would expect. The Lions have the sixth best run defense in terms of total yards and yards per game, so it is unlikely that the Ravens will have success running the ball.

Overall, the key for the Ravens' offense is to neutralize the defensive line of the Lions if they are to win the game.

4.  Turnovers
In close game, turnovers usually are a deciding factor. Since this is expected to be a close game, turnovers, like the fourth quarter, are going to be important.

Both the Ravens and the Lions have struggled with turnovers this season and the reason for both teams has been their quarterback.

The Ravens have turned the ball over 22 times (17 interceptions and five fumbles) while only forcing 17 (nine interceptions and eight fumbles). This puts them at a negative five turnover differential. Flacco has been the main player behind these turnovers as he has already thrown five more interceptions than he has in a season before and there are still three games left to play.

For the Lions, they have turned the ball over 28 times (14 interceptions and 14 fumbles) while forcing 18 (13 interceptions and five fumbles). Their turnover differential is even worse than the Ravens at negative 10, mainly due to the whopping 14 fumbles. Last week against the Eagles, the Lions played in heavy snow and fumbled seven times. They only lost three of these fumbles, but seven still a ton. Stafford alone had five of these fumbles (one lost).

With the game being played indoors in the comfort of Ford Field, the weather won't be a factor tomorrow night which is a good thing for both teams. Along with the Lions, the Ravens also played in snowy weather last week and Flacco threw three interceptions.

However, there will still be turnovers as both teams have been prone to them throughout the season. Whichever team turns the ball over the least, should win this game.

Ravens vs Steelers: The Rematch

November 27, 2013 in What to Look For

Ravens-Steelers. There are few rivalries that can match the intensity and quality of games produced each time these two play. Proof? Ten of the last thirteen games played between the two (including two playoff games) have been decided by three points. Eight of the last nine regular season matchups have been decided by three points.

Earlier this season, these division rivals played in Pittsburgh to a final score of 19-16 with the Steelers victorious. It was a typical Ravens-Steelers game as each team only scored one touchdown, both teams where held under 20 points and the margin of victory was three points.

This week, the rivalry gets a Thanksgiving flavor — turkey to be exact. The Steelers head to Baltimore for the night game on Thanksgiving. Two years ago, the Ravens hosted the San Francisco 49ers on Thanksgiving night and won 16-6.

For the second time this season, the Ravens will wear their black jerseys — just like they did against the 49ers. The Ravens also wore these jerseys earlier in the season against the Green Bay Packers. This time around though, the Ravens will be wearing black pants as well, to go for the all-black look.

1.  Contain Ben Roethlisberger
At quarterback for the Steelers is Roethlisberger, a veteran who has been their starter since early in the 2004 season (his rookie year).

Against the Ravens in week seven, he went 17-of-23 for 160 yards with one touchdown, zero interceptions and a quarterback rating of 107.2. Nothing spectacular, but he led the Steelers to a victory — the most important thing.

The new breed of NFL quarterbacks are dual-threats. They can run the ball or pass the ball. Roethlisberger is not a running quarterback. Entering this season he was averaging 112 rushing yards per season, which is about average for a quarterback. What he can do however, is move around in the pocket and buy time for his receivers to get open down field.

Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata

Courtesy of ICON SMI

At 6'5", 241 lbs, he is a load to bring down. More often then not, he doesn't go down on first contact. When he is at his best, he is moving around in the pocket, avoiding pass rushers and extending the play. Of course, the Steelers would prefer it if this didn't have to happen, but the performance of their offensive line over his career has necessitated it.

At the beginning of the month, he had been sacked 406 times in his career — the most of any quarterback in the last 10 years. This season, the Steelers have allowed 37 sacks (over three per game) which is tied for the fifth most in the NFL.

The Ravens' pass rush is currently tied for first in the NFL for the most sacks (37) with four other teams. In week seven, the Ravens mustered three sacks — one apiece by Terrell Suggs and Brandon Williams and half-a-sack from Haloti Ngata and Elvis Dumervil.

Suggs, who is second on the team with nine sacks (Dumervil has 9.5), hasn't recorded a sack in the last three games. Playing the Steelers now is a probably a good thing for him as he has had success against them during his career. He has sacked Roethlisberger 15.5 times in his career which is one of, if not, the highest sack total by a single player on Roethlisberger.

Over the years, he has burned many teams with this ability to extend plays and the Ravens are no exception. It will be key for the Ravens to take him down right away. The less he is able to scramble around, the more likely a team is to beat the Steelers.

2.  Stop the Run
One of the main reasons that the Steelers were able to win a few weeks ago was because they successfully ran the ball against the Ravens.

As a team, they ran for 141 yards on 29 carries (4.9 yards per carry). Doing most of the carrying was second-round pick Le'Veon Bell. He took 19 handoffs for 93 yards (also 4.9 yards per carry). His longest rush of the game was only 11 yards, so his numbers aren't inflated by one big run. He was constantly gaining small chunks of yardage on the normally stout Ravens' defense.

These numbers from the last game are even worse from the Ravens perspective when the season-long numbers are looked at. The Steelers are one of the few teams that are just as bad as the Ravens this year at running the ball. The Steelers are 30th in the league in rushing yards (850), yards per game (77.3) and yards per carry (3.3). The Ravens' run defense is the 11th, 11th and 5th best is these categories respectively. They shouldn't be getting gashed by the Steelers' run game.

If the Ravens want to win their rematch against the Steelers, they can't let this happen to them again. Good run defenses shouldn't be giving up 141 yards against the third-worst rushing team in the league.

Stopping the Steelers' rushing attack, will make the Steelers' offense one-dimensional. When this occurs, the Ravens can fully commit to defending the pass — something the Steelers are much better at.

3.  Run the Ball
Like the Steelers, the Ravens' offense has struggled to run the ball all season long. However, the Steelers' run defense isn't exactly top-notch.

Normally strong against the run, they are having a down year. They are tied for 23rd in yards allowed (1,307) and yards per game (118.8) and rank 21st in yards per carry (4.2).

Their best defender is middle linebacker Lawrence Timmons who has 90 tackles on the year and had a whopping 17 against the Ravens in week seven. The next best Steeler had eight in week seven and the best Raven (Daryl Smith) had nine.

More from week seven, the Ravens ran the ball 26 times for 82 yards (3.2 yards per carry). Starting running back Ray Rice had 15 carries for 45 yards (3.0 yards per carry) and backup Bernard Pierce had six carries for 13 yards (2.2 yards per carry). The sad thing is that this was one of the more successful games for the Ravens this year running the ball.

An advantage that the Ravens will have this week that they didn't have last time they faced the Steelers will be Steelers' nose tackle Steve McLendon being out with an ankle injury. This is a key blow to the Steelers' run defense.

Last week, the Ravens brought in backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor who is one of the dual-threat quarterbacks talked about earlier. Taking snaps at quarterback and wide receiver, he ran the ball four times for seven yards, caught one pass for six yards and had his only pass attempt dropped. His longest run of the day was for 17 yards, but losses of six and seven brought down his total yards.

This set of plays for Taylor provided the run game with a little spark early, but the New York Jets' defense quickly caught on. Starting quarterback Joe Flacco has made it clear this week that he isn't a fan of the Wildcat formation that brings Taylor in at quarterback. Due to these comments, it will be interesting to see what offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell does. Will he listen to Flacco or not?

While the Ravens may not see success right away running the ball, they need to keep pounding the ball against he Steelers. Eventually, the Ravens will get bigger chunks of yards as the Steelers' defense gets tired.

4.  Turnovers
When games are decided by a few points, turnovers are usually a deciding factor. Especially when you have two historically good defenses facing off.

Naturally, there are exceptions to the rule as the week seven matchup saw the Steelers produce the only turnover (a Heath Miller turnover), yet they still won. However, you can't continually win close game while losing the turnover battle.

This year both the Ravens and the Steelers have negative turnover differentials.

At negative three, the Ravens are slightly above the Steelers who are at negative four. Neither of these numbers are something to be proud of though.

The Ravens have forced 16 turnovers (nine interceptions and seven fumbles) while turning it over 19 times (14 interceptions and five fumbles). Flacco is the cause of this as he has already set a new career-high in interceptions — not what the Ravens envisioned when the signed him to a record-breaking contract extension this offseason.

The Steelers have forced 14 turnovers (seven interceptions and fumbles) and have turned it over 18 times (10 interceptions and eight fumbles). These eight fumbles are the second-worst in the AFC. There isn't one player who has dropped the ball per say; it is a collective failing by the team.

In a what is expected to be a close game, turnovers are going to be one of the main deciding factors in who wins the game. Whoever wins the turnover battle will win this game.

Defense Leads Ravens To Victory

November 25, 2013 in Observations

Led by a dominant defensive performance, the Baltimore Ravens beat the New York Jets 19-3. The result pushes both teams to a 5-6 record.

On a day where it was so windy that the Ravens' pre-game introductions were done without the usual pyrotechnics, the Ravens' defense allowed 220 yards, forced one fumbles, intercepted two passes and had three sacks while giving up only three points — the fewest points allowed by the Ravens since 2009.

The three sacks gave the Ravens 22-consecutive games with at least one sack which ties a franchise record. Also, they have at least two sacks in 19-straight games which ties the Philadelphia Eagles (2003-2004) for the longest such streak since 1990.

At halftime, former Ravens' offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden was presented with his Hall of Fame ring. He is the only Raven in the Hall of Fame.

This win gives the Ravens eight straight wins against the New York Jets and an 8-1 all-time record against them.

Joe Flacco
The aforementioned windy conditions made it hard to pass the ball yesterday, but Flacco was able to go 17-of-26 for 273 yards for one touchdown and one interception.

Starting with the good, he threw two perfect deep passes — one to Torrey Smith and the other to Jacoby Jones. Both passes hit the receiver in stride as he ran a deep route. On the one to Jones, Flacco was able to out throw the double coverage (including Ed Reed) as Jones beat the coverage deep and was able to score.

Earlier in the game, Flacco threw a pass to Jones in the end zone and it looked like he was going to hold on. However, Reed came over and was able to knock the ball out.

Joe Flacco

Courtesy of ICON SMI

On to the bad, Flacco threw one interception, but he also had two more dropped. On his actual interception, there was a miscommunication according to head coach John Harbaugh. Smith ran a curl route as the outside receiver and Marlon Brown started to run an out route, but stopped after making his cut to the outside. Flacco threw the pass between the two and cornerback Antonio Cromartie intercepted it for the Jets.

The first dropped interception came on third and 20 on the Ravens' first drive of the game. Flacco lofted it up deep to Brandon Stokley and the pass hit rookie cornerback in the face mask and then the hands. He had possession of the ball for a split second before dropping it.

Later on, Flacco lobbed another pass up for grabs, this time towards Ed Dickson on a corner route. Because the pass was under thrown, Dickson had to try and stop the Jets' defender from catching the ball — and he was successful.

Flacco was very lucky to walk away with just one interception in the game. More importantly though, the deep passing game made a return to the Ravens' offense this season as Flacco was able to connect with Smith and Jones.

Tyrod Taylor
To try and provide a spark to the run game, the Ravens used Taylor, the backup quarterback, on a variety of plays to try and confuse the Jets' defense.

Taylor has a unique skill set as he is a mobile quarterback. This adds another dimension that the defense has to provide when he enters the game.

Lining up at quarterback and wide receiver, the Ravens used him in a variety of ways.

At wide receiver, the Ravens faked an end around to him and then threw a screen pass to running back Ray Rice. Later in the game, an end around was run to Taylor for a loss of seven. He also caught a screen pass of a gain of six yards on a third and 25.

When lined up at quarterback, Taylor ran the read-option for the most part. A few times he kept the ball and ran, and other times he handed the ball of to the running back. He had two key runs on these plays. The first was a gain of 17 (the Ravens' longest rush of the game) and the second was a gain of three on third and two.

He attempted one pass — on play-action — but Dickson dropped it. The pass was a little low so they can share the blame.

Two big losses on runs (losses of seven and six) brought down Taylor's stats to four carries for seven yards.

I liked that offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell was being innovative trying to give the run game life (especially against the best run defense in the league), but I feel like it got to be too much at the end of the game. It is good to have Taylor in there for a few plays to mix things up, but eventually, the defense is going to be ready for what it coming. The Jets were able to adjust after the first few big plays. Expect him to continue to see time, just not as much as this week.

Torrey Smith
With 74 receiving yards against the Jets, Smith set a new career-high for receiving yards in a season — and he still has five games to play.

Previously, Smith's high was 855 yards which came last year (his second in the league). In his rookie season, he had 841 yards. Both of these numbers came when he was the number two receiver in the offense and in 16 games.

Now — as the number one receiver — he has 859 yards and is on pace to set new career highs in catches, targets, yards per catch and first downs.

Speaking of first downs, both of Smith's catches went for first downs yesterday. The first was a gain of 60 yards when he beat Cromartie deep. This put the ball on the Jets' 22-yard line and set up a field goal for the Ravens. Later on, he caught a slant for a gain of 14 on a second and six.

The only negative from the game was he was flagged for a false start. Something that can't happen to a wide receiver.

Jacoby Jones
While his receiving partner Smith set a new career-high, Jones racked up 249 all-purpose yards and had his first career 100-yard receiving game with the Ravens.

The last — and only other — time that Jones had a 100-yard receiving game was back in 2010 when he played for the Houston Texans.

In that game, he had 115 yards, this time he had 103 yards, which came from four catches. He also added a touchdown and led the team in catches, yards and targets (6).

On his touchdown, Flacco threw a perfect deep pass as Jones ran deep and spilt a double team led by Reed, a former Raven. Jones was able to haul in the pass for a 66-yard touchdown as he left the cornerback behind him and as Reed lost the ball in the air. This was the only touchdown of the game and put the score at 19-3.

Earlier in the game, he had a chance for a touchdown, but Reed was able to break the pass up. Also, Jones converted two of his other three catches for first downs (gains of 11 and 17).

A dangerous returner, he showed this against the Jets as he had returns of 19, 20, 37 and 21 on punt returns (though the 21-yard return was nullified due to a penalty that didn't effect the return). He totaled 108 yards on five punt returns and 38 yards on two kick returns.

Offensive Line
Going up against one of the best defensive lines in the league, the Ravens' offensive line hand their hands full for the entire game. As expected, the Ravens weren't able to get anything going handing the ball off. Rice averaged 1.9 yards per carry and his backup Bernard Pierce was barely better at 2.7.

For the most part, the Jets' defensive line handled the Ravens' offensive line as the Ravens only ran for 67 yards on 31 attempts — an average of 2.2 yards per carry.

In pass protection, the line was good despite giving up four sacks. All of these sacks were coverage sacks. The line provided enough time for Flacco to find an open receiver, but nobody was open. Flacco then tried to run around the pocket and then the pass rush was able to get to him. In these situations, Flacco needs to just throw that ball away and move onto the next play instead of taking a sack.

On an individual level, left guard A.Q. Shipley flagged for an illegal block in the back on a screen pass which set up first and 21 in the first quarter. Later on, he was called for holding when the Ravens had a first and goals from the Jets' 10-yard line. On this play, he also gave up a sack, but the Jets' defender took Flacco down via the face mask — inducing a penalty. These two penalties offset and the down was replayed.

Pernell McPhee
Playing as a situational pass rusher, McPhee was able to make the most of his snaps against the Jets'.

With four tackles, he tied for the third most on the team and two of these tackles were run stops. The first was for no gain and he shared the tackle with Arthur Brown. The other run stop came late in the fourth quarter when he stopped a run for a loss of one.

McPhee's sack, his second of the season, came on the second play of the fourth quarter — a third and nine. On the play, Elvis Dumervil had the initial pressure and forced Jets' quarterback Geno Smith to step up in the pocket. McPhee was there to take hime down for a loss of seven.

A bit of a tweener, McPhee has played both defensive end and outside linebacker for the Ravens in their 3-4 defense. No matter his position, if he continues to make plays, he is going to see his playing time increased.

Terrell Suggs
After a quiet game against the Chicago Bears last week, Suggs bounced back and had a better game — though he has now gone three straight games without a sack.

Although ESPN gave him just two tackles in the box score, I have him down for three run stops (one shared). His solo run stops were for gains of zero and two. His shared run stop was for two yards and shared with Arthur Jones.

On the first play of the Jets first drive of the second quarter, Suggs applied pressure on Smith which forced him to scramble. While scrambling, he passed the ball. However, he had gone past the line-of-scrimmage before throwing the pass which is a penalty. Suggs' pressure created this penalty.

His best play of the game came when he recovered a fumble. On the play, the Jets had a receiver come in motion and Smith was lined up in the shotgun. The ball was snapped and the ball hit the receiver who was coming in motion on this third and 13 play. A Jets player quickly went after the ball, but Suggs quickly pushed this Jet out of the way. Suggs then jumped on the ball and recovered it for the Ravens. This placed the ball at the Jets 19-yard line (though Flacco was intercepted a few plays later so no points were produced off the turnover).

Elvis Dumervil
Like Suggs, Dumervil struggled on the muddy turf at Soldier Field against the Bears last week. Also like Suggs, he was able to have a bounce back game.

An excellent pass rusher, Dumervil usually offers little in the run game though. Yesterday was different as he was able to have two run stops. The first was for a gain of three and the other was for a gain of 2.

He only had one of the Ravens three sacks, but he had pressure on the other two sacks.

His pressure on McPhee's sack has already been talked about above. On Daryl Smith's sack, Dumervil abused the tight end that was trying to block him, achieving instant pressure. He missed the sack as Geno Smith was able to shake him off, but Daryl Smith was there to finish the play.

On his sack, he beat the left tackle to the outside for a loss of eight on a first and 10. This was the last play of the game — a fitting end for a game where the Ravens' defense won the game for them.

Daryl Smith

Daryl Smith

Courtesy of ICON SMI

As usual, Smith was all over the field for the Ravens. The only difference between this week and the other games from this season was that he didn't lead the team in tackles. In fact, he wasn't even second on the team. With only three tackles, he had a season-low.

Despite this, he made the most of his time on the field recording two run stops (gains of three and two), one sack and broke up three passes.

On his sack, he blitzed in one of the A gaps (between the center and guard). Throughout the season, he has had success with these blitzes and that continued yesterday as he picked up the sack after Dumervil missed. He also picked up a pressure that forced an incompletion on a similar blitz.

Outstanding in coverage all season, Smith continued this week as he allowed two catches on six targets according to Pro Football Focus. He also broke up three pass — on three-straight plays.

On first down, he read that the tight end was running an out route and he dove in front of the pass to knock it away. The following play, the tight end ran a seam route and Smith jumped in front of the pass to break it up. On third down, he was covering a receiver on a crossing route and the receiver dropped it. While this is an anticlimactic last pass breakup, he had good coverage so he gets credited with it.

Cornerbacks
With the wind swirling around M&T Bank Stadium, the Jets didn't pass much as they tried to keep the ball on the ground. As a result, the Ravens' cornerbacks only allowed two passes to be completed against them.

Number one cornerback Lardarius Webb led the team in tackles with six and allowed no catches to be completed against him. A great run defender, he was in support all game long and recorded a run stop for a gain of one.

Jimmy Smith allowed the two passes to be completed and both went for first downs. The first was a gain of 18 to Geno Smith on a trick play out of the Wildcat formation. Josh Cribbs, normally a wide receiver, lined up at quarterback, faked a run and passed to Smith. The other pass that he allowed was a gain of 30 on a deep pass. He also had three tackles in an overall good performance.

Nickel cornerback Corey Graham played a great game as he intercepted more passes than allowed. His first interception came on a third and 17 and Smith's pass was under thrown. This placed the ball on the Ravens 12-yard line. A few plays later, Jones scored his 66-yard touchdown. Graham's other interception sealed the Ravens victory with four minutes left in the game. Smith again under threw a pass and Graham left his coverage on the outside receiver and cut in front of the slot receiver when he saw Smith throw the pass. Graham then ran outside the back of the end zone for a touchback. With one minute left in the game, he recorded a pass breakup.

Ravens Fall In Overtime

November 18, 2013 in Observations

For the second game in a row, the Baltimore Ravens had to play into overtime. This week, they lost 23-20 to the Chicago Bears on a 38-yard field goal. The loss drops the Ravens to 4-6 and the Bears improve to 6-4.

Five hours and 16 minutes after the opening kickoff, the game ended. The reason for the length of the game was a delay that lasted one hour and 53 minutes due to lightning in the first quarter.

When the delay started, the Ravens were up 10-0. Once the game resumed, the Ravens were outscored 23-10 and the Ravens needed a 21-yard field goal with seven second left in regulation to send it to overtime. With less than a minute left in the game, the Ravens had first and goal from the Bears' five-yard line but they couldn't convert on two runs and a pass.

After the stoppage, the Ravens didn’t look like the same team — on offense and defense.

Coming into the game, the Ravens had yet to win a game at a NFC North stadium and this loss drops them to 0-8 in these stadiums.

Joe Flacco
Playing in tough weather conditions, Flacco struggled to get the passing game going for the Ravens.

Completing only 55 percent of his passes, Flacco went 17-of-31 for 162 yards, one touchdown and had two interceptions.

On the first interception, he made a horrible read on a play. The play called for Flacco to throw a quick flare route to fullback Vonta Leach who was coming out of the backfield. Running back Ray Rice was supposed to block David Bass, the defensive end on the play-side, but failed to do so. Even though Rice missed his block, the interception is still Flacco's fault. He wasn't under any pressure and he threw the ball right at Bass. Flacco needs to see that Rice missed on his block and either not throw the ball to Leach because the passing lane is filled, or adjust and make a better pass. He did neither and it cost the Ravens seven points as Bass returned the interception for a touchdown which tied the game at 10.

His second interception came late in the second quarter. It was third and 16 and Flacco was trying to hit tight end Dallas Clark on a seam route to pick up the first down. Clark had three defenders in the vicinity and Flacco kept the ball away from two of them — but put the ball right on the other. Bears' linebacker Jon Bostic had great coverage on Clark and was able to intercept the pass.

With these two interceptions, Flacco now has 13 on the season which is a new career-high. His previous high was 12 has occurred three times: 2008, 2009 and 2011. Having only played 10 games this season, Flacco has already thrown his most interceptions in a season — and there are six games left. If he keeps the pace up, he will finish with 21 interceptions (it is actually 20.8 but considering you can't throw and eighth of an interception, I rounded to the nearest whole number).

Recently, he has had success scrambling and running for yardage and this continued against the Bears. On four carries (all scrambles) he ran for 20 yards and picked up two first downs. On a third and seven, he was able to scramble for 11 yards and on a second and three he gained four yards. Importantly, he knows how to slide. On each of his runs, Flacco slid to avoid contact. This is a positive as many quarterbacks don't know how to slide and protect themselves, but he does.

His best pass of the game came on his touchdown pass to Torrey Smith in the second quarter. Smith ran a quick slant and Flacco had to thread the needle between two Bears' defenders to complete the pass.

Ray Rice

Ray Rice

Courtesy of ICON SMI

For the first time all season, the Ravens' run game was effective as they rushed for a season-high 174 yards.

After a dreadful performance against the Bengals last week where Rice rushed for 30 yards on 18 carries and look awful, he bounced back and showed his explosiveness that had been missing all season.

Also for the first time this season, he topped 100 yards rushing as he had 131 yards on 25 carries and added a touchdown. On his first rush of the game, he broke lose for a gain of 47 yards — the longest rush of the season for the Ravens. Previously, backup running back Bernard Pierce had the high at 28 yards and Rice's high was half of that at 14 yards.

Four of Rice's run went for first downs: the 47-yard run on second and one, a gain of two on third and one, a 13 yard gain on first and 10 and a second and six run for nine yards in overtime.

His touchdown was set up by his 47-yard run on the Ravens' first drive of the game. The score came on third and goal from the one and he ran to the right side and ran untouched into the end zone. This score marks the first time the Ravens have scored a touchdown on their opening drive this season.

Catching the ball, Rice was targeted five times, hauling in three of them for 17 yards. His long came on a third and nine where he was able to pickup 12 yards on a check down.

On Flacco's interception that was returned for a touchdown, Rice was supposed to block the defensive end. Rice tried to cut block the defender, but he failed, allowing the defender to be right in the passing lane. This is the only damper on Rice's best performance of the season.

Torrey Smith
While Smith didn't lead the Ravens in receiving yards for the only the second time this season (the other game was against the Green Bay Packers), he did lead the team in receptions.

On a team-high eight targets, he caught five passes for 32 yards and one touchdown. The Bears' secondary did a good job shutting Smith down despite being without starting cornerback Charles Tillman. (An assist goest to the weather as well.)

Smith's touchdown has already been discussed a little, but still some more to it. The play came on a second and three from the Bears' five-yard line. He ran a quick slant from the near side and was between two defenders when Flacco threw the ball. Flacco's pass came within inches of the outstretched hands of these two defenders. Also, the cornerback who was covering Smith was called for pass interference on this play. It took great concentration from Smith to catch the ball with those two defenders there and while getting interfered with.

Other than his touchdown catch, Smith had one catch go for a first down. This came on a first and 10 when he picked up 13 yards on a crossing route. He also drew a pass interference on another slant.

Dallas Clark
Catching only two passes yesterday, Clark didn't put up major stats, but both of these catches were important.

The first of his two catches came on a third and two in the second quarter. Clark gained 17 yards on the play to keep the Ravens' drive alive. A couple plays later, the Ravens kicked a field goal to take a 10-0 lead. With this catch, Clark hit 500 receptions for his career — ninth all-time for a tight end. After the play, you could see Clark send the ball to the sidelines to keep.

His second catch had a much bigger impact on the game. With time winding down, the Ravens had a fourth and four from the Bears' 44-yard line. Running a short crossing route, Clark created little separation, but Flacco threw it anyways. Using one hand, Clark was able to reel in the pass and gain 14 yards. This kept the Ravens' drive alive late in the game; without this play, the game is over and there is no overtime.

Offensive Line
Finally, the Ravens' run game had a break out game — albeit against the second worst run defense in the league — and the offensive line was a big part of this.

On Rice's 47-yard run, all of the lineman had good blocks on the play. It was an outside run to the left side and the line provided Rice with a big hole to run through.

A few plays later on his touchdown, the line had outstanding blocking again as he scored untouched. Left guard A.Q. Shipley combined with Leach to push a Bears' defender about three yards backwards right in the hole.

In pass protection, the line gave up three sacks and two of them can be credited to the line. The one sack that isn't the fault of the line is Flacco's fault as all of the linemen had their guys blocked, but Flacco then started to run around in the pocket which freed up the pass rush.

One potential reason for why the line did a decent job in pass protection this week is that the Bears are not a blitzing team. The Ravens' offensive line has had the most trouble picking up blitzes and the Bears did very little of that throughout the game.

Right guard Marshal Yanda was called for two flags: a holding and a false start.

Center Gino Gradkowski rolled the the snap to Flacco on the Ravens' third and goal attempt from the Bears' three-yard line with less than a minute left in the game. This awful snap made it impossible for Flacco to make a play to try and win the game. Smith was open in the back of the end zone, but Flacco wasn't able to throw it to him because of the snap. By the time, Flacco could throw Smith the ball, it was too late as Smith was covered better and Flacco had to throw the pass out of the end zone.

Allowing the two sacks on the offensive line was left tackle Eugene Monroe. The first sack occurred on a second and 16. Julius Peppers beat Monroe outside with a speed move and he wasn't able to recover as Peppers sacked Flacco for a loss of eight. The second sack came on a fourth and eight (the Ravens went for it due to the swirling winds making for a tough field goal attempt). On this play, Monroe down blocked, but didn't realize that a defender was coming around him on the outside. By the time that Monroe realized this, it was too late and Flacco was sacked and fumbled the ball. (The Ravens recovered but it didn't really matter as it was a turnover on downs.)

Defensive Line
Allowing 104 rushing yards (on four yards per carry) and providing little pass rush, the Ravens' defensive line struggled yesterday.

Starting nose tackle Haloti Ngata (the best player on the line) was inactive due to a knee injury. This forced Terrence Cody to start and he split time with rookie Brandon Williams. The Bears ran the ball to the outside more than the inside though.

At one defensive end in the Ravens' 3-4 alignment was Arthur Jones who had two tackles which were both run stops. His two run stops were for a gain of one and he shared a run stop for a gain of two with Daryl Smith. Jones failed to make a big impact in the game.

The other starting defensive end, Chris Canty, had a much better game with four tackles. Tackles are a very bad indicator of performance though as there are many other things to look at. Canty recorded three run stops — including two in overtime. In regulation, he had a run stop for a gain of three. In overtime, he had a run stop for a gain of one on the Bears' first play and he pushed the Bears back four yards later in their drive. Also, Canty recorded a quarterback hit on a third and seven which forced Bears' quarterback Josh McCown to check down for a gain of one.

Rotating in on the defensive line was DeAngelo Tyson who recorded his second career sack and his second in as many games. On the play, McCown was trying to scramble and Tyson was able to take him down for a loss of one on first down. Also, Tyson had a run stop for a gain of two. Over the last two games, Tyson has seen his most playing time of the season and has made the most of it.

Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil
With a combined 17.5 sacks coming into the game, Suggs and Dumervil are the Ravens' two best pass rushers.

Leaving the game, they still had 17.5 sacks between them. In fact, they only had one tackle in the game (Suggs). Despite favorable match ups with the Bears' offensive tackles, Suggs and Dumervil were held to zero sacks for the first time this season.

Helping the Bears' offensive tackles neutralize Suggs and Dumervil was the weather. When play was resumed after the delay, the field was very wet and muddy — not good conditions for pass rushers. With the field being all chopped up, neither of them could get foot footing and they failed to get after McCown. There were multiple instances where they slipped and fell down while pass rushing.

On the second play of the game, McCown handed off to running back Matt Forte for a gain of 15 yards. Suggs missed a tackle on this run which would have stopped it for little or no gain. The Bears ran two successful end arounds in the game and both times they went to Suggs' side. As an outside linebacker, he is responsible for contain on these plays and he failed both times. On the one occasion he was able to get pressure on McCown, he threw a bad pass for an incompletion.

The only thing that Dumervil accomplished this game was getting flagged for a roughing the passer penalty. While the call was questionable, he should know better than to give the quarterback a two-handed shove after he has thrown the ball. This penalty occurred on a third and nine when the Ravens stopped the play for a one, but the penalty extended the drive. However, the Bears failed to score.

Daryl Smith
Continuing to be all over the field for the Ravens this year, Smith had another day where he did a little bit of everything.

Making six tackles, he was tied for second most on the team. Two of these tackles were run stops. One was for a gain of two which he shared with Jones and the other was for a loss of one when the Bears tried a reverse for the third time in the game.

Also in his stat line is a forced fumble. This came on a pass play in the fourth quarter where he came over to help bring receiver Alshon Jeffery down. Smith was able to rip the ball out, but Jeffery recovered.

In pass coverage, Smith allowed one catch to be completed against him, and this went for a gain of 13 on first down.

His worst play came on Forte's 14-yard touchdown catch on a screen pass. Smith missed a tackle near the line-of-scrimmage on this play. This missed tackle, along with a few others, sprung Forte for a touchdown that gave the Bears a 20-17 lead early in the fourth quarter.

A good blitzer, Smith didn't blitz much (if at all) yesterday. Last week, defensive coordinator Dean Pees called for many blitzes, but this week he was much more conservative. Maybe the weather had something to do with this, but McCown was able to sit back and complete passes with the Ravens in zone coverage and not blitzing.

Cornerbacks
When the Ravens played man coverage in the secondary, their cornerbacks had a lot more success than when they were in zone.

Lardarius Webb

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Lardarius Webb only allowed one catch to be completed against him as the Bears were content to target Jimmy Smith. However, this one completion was an important one. In overtime, Webb allowed a 43-yard pass to tight end Martellus Bennett on a seam route. On the play, Webb had about as good of coverage as possible, but with Bennett being 6'6" and Webb being 5'10", it was a tough assignment. McCown put the ball high into the air where only Bennett could catch it with his eight inch advantage over Webb.

Other than this play, Webb had a good game recording two run stops for gains of three and had one pass defensed. Webb has always been stout in run defense — something most cornerbacks aren't. He was also whistled for a horse collar tackle though.

Despite being targeted often, Smith held his own in coverage for the second straight game. Allowing three catches for 24 yards, he had a tough assignment going up against Brandon Marshall, but Smith more than held his own. On the first play of the game, the Bears ran a quick screen to Marshall as Smith was in off coverage, but he came up and stopped the play for no gain. The only first down that he allowed was a 16 yard catch to Marshall. This was just a great catch by Marshall as he made a tough sideline catch and was able to get both feet down in-bounds.

When the Bears had the ball inside the Ravens' ten-yard line early in the game, they went after Smith and he held his own. On third and goal, he was called for holding which gave the Bears a new life. However, on the ensuing first and third and goal plays, he broke up a slant and pushed Marshall out-of-bounds while catching a fade route, forcing and incompletion. On both of these plays he was in press, man coverage withe Marshall and Smith won both times. Smith is at his best in these situations.

Playing for the Bears for five seasons before coming to Baltimore, Corey Graham led the Ravens with nine tackles in his return to Soldier Field. He allowed three catches to be completed against him for a total of 26 yards and one first down. Like Smith, he broke up a pass in the end zone. This play was a fade to Jeffery and Graham was able to get a hand on it.

Like Daryl Smith, Graham missed a tackle on Forte's touchdown catch.

Early in the game — the Bears' third offensive play — he recorded his first sack of his career. On the play, McCown expected his receiver to be there for a screen, but he wasn't as he blocked like a run play. Because of this, McCown tucked the ball and tried to run. Graham saw this and was able to come in and tackle McCown for no gain. Even though there was no loss on the play, Graham was credited with a sack.

Justin Tucker
In just his second season, Tucker has quickly become one of the NFL's premier kickers and this was on display yesterday in Chicago.

With rain coming down and the wind swirling, he kicked a 52-yard field goal with 4:51 left in the first quarter. Kicks from this length are tough enough in good weather, yet alone this weather, but he was able to get it through the uprights. With this kick, he is now 7-of-7 from 50+ yards on the road. This was the last play before the delay.

After the Ravens failed to score a touchdown from the Bears' five-yard line with a minute left in the game, he had to kick a 21-yard field goal in the same weather, but the field was all muddy and torn up now as well. The weather conditions were not enough to stop him as his field goal went right down the middle of the uprights.