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Potential Ravens Cap Casualties

January 12, 2014 in Free Agency

With the Baltimore Ravens being projected to have just over $10 million free in cap space this offseason, the Ravens are going to need to free up some room and there are a few prime candidates to be released.

General manager Ozzie Newsome made it known during his end-of-season press conference that the Ravens will not restructure any contracts. This has always been the way that the Ravens have operated over the last few years.

Every season a few players are released to create more cap room and here are the four main candidates this season.

Outside Linebacker Terrell Suggs

2014 Cap Number:  $12.4 million

Cap Room Saved With Release:  $7.8 million

Why He Would Be Released
Also at the press conference, Newsome talked about Suggs, and indicated that he might not return next season. In the last year of a six-year contract, his cap hit is the third-highest cap figure next season and offers the biggest savings if let go of.

At the beginning of the season, the 31-year old looked to be on pace to contend for the Defensive Player of the Year award which he won in 2011. In the first eight games of the season, he had nine sacks, but in the final eight games of the season he had just one. This led to a streak of six-straight games with no sacks for Suggs.

Terrell Suggs

Courtesy of ICON SMI

It wasn't just his performance as a pass-rusher that dipped, as his run defense suffered in the second half of the season as well. Normally a strong run defender, he still played decent, but it was clear he wasn't the same. It has been suggested that he gained weight late in the year and that is a viable reason. He entered the season in the best shape of his life and his performance early on backed that up.

Last season, the Ravens showed that they weren't afraid to get rid of a key player who wasn't willing to take a pay cut in order to improve the team as a whole. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin was traded after an exceptional postseason and he only had a salary of $6 million.

The $7.8 million saved by cutting him would go a long way to being able to re-sign left tackle Eugene Monroe, tight end Dennis Pitta and any other free agents that the front office may like.

Suggs' disappearing act at the end of the season is a main reason why he could be cut. Combine that with one of the highest cap figures on the team, and he may be gone next season.

Why He Would Stay
Being in the last year of a contract, the Ravens could easily sign him to a contract extension that would keep him in Baltimore and reduce his cap hit this season. This is likely what the Ravens will try and do with him.

Also, he has been a Ravens his whole career and has been a key contributor for the entire time. The Ravens may not want to get rid of him as they hope he can regain his early season form. When he was playing well, him and Elvis Dumervil formed one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league. (Though the presence of Dumervil can also be seen as a reason why Suggs could leave as the Ravens will still have one of the better pass-rushers in the league on their defense).

It is likely that the Ravens will try and get him to agree to a new contract. That way the Ravens would be able to keep him one of their defensive leaders on the roster and free up some much needed cap room. If he doesn't agree to a new contract, then the Ravens could let him walk.

Inside Linebacker Jameel McClain

2014 Cap Number:  $4.4 million

Cap Room Saved With Release:  $3.2 million

Why He Would Be Released
Part of a three-man rotation at the second inside linebacker spot next to Daryl Smith this season, McClain played in 10 games this season after starting the season on the Physically Unable to Perform List due to a neck injury suffered at the end of last season.

In these 10 games, he recorded 52 tackles and one forced fumble. These stats seem good, but his performance all season wasn't that good. He would get pushed around in the run game and struggled in pass coverage. He has always been a better run defender than pass defender, but he seemed to take a step back this season in both categories.

This performance doesn't warrant the $4.4 million cap hit that he will earn. Cutting him would save $3.2 million and every single dollar counts in terms of the salary cap.

Why He Would Stay
Like Suggs, McClain is in the last season of his contract so he could be extended at a reduced rate. The Ravens could also offer him a pay cut before cutting him.

Other than a contract extension or a pay cut, it is highly unlikely that he will be back. These two options seem unlikely though. The Ravens drafted Arthur Brown in the second round last year so he is the future of the position. They also have Josh Bynes who can play inside linebacker and both of them performed better than McClain this season.

The only way that I see him sticking around next season is if he agrees to return at a reduced rate.

Punter Sam Koch

2014 Cap Number:  $2.8 million

Cap Room Saved With Release:  $1.6 million

Why He Would Be Released
Drafted by the Ravens in the 2006 NFL Draft, Koch has been the Ravens punter ever since and was signed to a five-year contract in 2011 which keeps him in Baltimore through 2015.

This season, his performance punting the ball wasn't as good as the last few seasons as he ranked 22nd in the league in net punt average (38.9 yard average). He also ranked tied for 13th in punts inside the 20-yard line (27), tied for the fifth-most touchbacks, ranked 13th in yards per punt (46.0) and had the third-most punts in the league this season (90).

These stats show that he was an average punter this season. His contract pays him as an above-average punter, so the Ravens need better performance from him based on his contract.

The Ravens could easily spend a late-round pick on a punter or bring one in as an undrafted free agent to take over for Koch or at the very least compete for the job. I see the latter route as the most likely option for the Ravens. They did this with kickers Billy Cundiff and Justin Tucker a couple years ago.

Why He Would Stay
Throughout his time in Baltimore, Koch has been the definition of a consistent punter and his stats back this up.

While he had a down year this season, a rookie punter could come in and produce worse than Koch did this season. With head coach John Harbaugh being a former special teams coach with the Philadelphia Eagles before joining the Ravens, he is going to want to have the best special teams unit possible.

His contract is a bit of a detriment, so the Ravens will likely bring in an undrafted free agent to compete with him for the starting job. This wouldn't free up the cap space until after free agency is over, but it would give the Ravens more cap flexibility for the rest of the season and for the following season.

Fullback Vonta Leach

2014 Cap Number:  $2.33 million

Cap Room Saved With Release:  $1.75 million

Why He Would Be Released
Actually released by the Ravens after the draft last year because the Ravens drafted another fullback, the Ravens re-signed him to a two-year deal in July after Kyle Juszczyk, the fullback drafted, failed to impress in mini-camps.

This season, Leach's playing time was very limited as the Ravens' offense spread the ball out more with three wide receiver sets for the majority of snaps. Part of the reason why the offenses spread it out more was because the run game failed to produce so they tried to pass the ball more.

A traditional fullback — a dying bread in the NFL — this left him out of the offense for the most part and had him playing only a few snaps each game. Even when he was on the field, he couldn't spark the run game as the problems extended farther him.

Since the Ravens drafted Juszczyk in the fourth round of the draft, it is highly unlikely that Leach will be back next season. He was only brought back because Juszczyk wasn't deemed ready to play this season, but after a full year in the league, he should be ready to play next season. Also he is a less traditional fullback — one who is a good receiver — so he is a better fit in the new offense.

Add that to the fact that the Ravens can save $1.75 million by releasing Leach, it seems very likely that the 32-year old will be gone next season.

Why He Would Stay
The only reason that I can think of for why he would stay with the Ravens is if Juszczyk suffered a season-ending injury and the Ravens needed a new fullback. With that being said, that is highly unlikely to happen so expect Leach to be released soon after the Super Bowl.

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?

Ravens Escape With Thanksgiving Victory

November 29, 2013 in Observations

In a thriller of a game, the Baltimore Ravens defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 22-20 on Thanksgiving night. Entering the game, both teams were 5-6 so the win brings the Ravens to 6-6 and the loss drops the Steelers to 5-7.

A typical Ravens-Steelers game, this was physical throughout and went down to the wire. Nine out of the last ten games have been decided by three points or less now including five straight.

Just 90 seconds into the game, the first fight broke out and there were three total in the first quarter alone. Eventually things settled down, but a few minor scrums still broke out.

The Ravens struck first with a touchdown pass to Torrey Smith six minutes into the game and carried a 10-0 lead into halftime. The Steelers came alive in the second half for three touchdowns including one with one minute left in the game. In order to tie the game, the Steelers needed a two-point conversion, but wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders dropped the pass.

Under head coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens are now 8-1 at home on national television and they are now 12-4 when scoring first against the Steelers.

Joe Flacco
Leading the Ravens to victory was Flacco, the much maligned quarterback. After weeks of sub-par play, Flacco produced arguably his best performance of the season.

He went 24-of-25 for 251 yards, one touchdown, zero interceptions (neither team had a turnover) and had a quarterback rating of 98.6.

Known for having a strong arm, Flacco has excelled at throwing deep passes in his career. These deep passes helped key the Ravens Super Bowl run last season. However, he had struggled with these passes this year.

Against the Steelers, he started off the game with an under thrown deep pass to Jacoby Jones on the first offensive play for the Ravens. After this though, Flacco was on target for the rest of the game and threw his best deep passes of the season.

Later in the Ravens' opening drive, he hit Smith deep for a gain of 54 yards putting the ball at the Steelers' one-yard line. On this pass, Flacco hit Smith right in stride. Three plays later, Flacco threw a perfect pass to Smith in the end zone for a touchdown to give the Ravens a lead that they would never surrender — though the game was close throughout.

Most of the passes that Flacco threw looked sharp and were on target for the most part. This is something that he has struggled with all season.

Earlier this week, he talked about how he didn't like the Wildcat offense where backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor came in that the Ravens ran against the New York Jets last week for a few plays. This sent him out to wide receiver where he just stood there. Unsurprisingly, there was none of this against the Steelers and Flacco performance was enough so that it wasn't needed.

Channelling his inner Taylor, Flacco scrambled for a gain of nine on third and eight. This kept a drive alive and moved the ball to the Steelers' 16-yard line and led to a field goal for the Ravens.

Torrey Smith
Going up against the Steelers' number one cornerback Ike Taylor all game long, Smith was still able to have a good game — though he made a few mistakes.

Totaling 93 yards, Smith caught six passes on 10 targets.

Torrey Smith

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Starting with the good, he got the Ravens going early in the game with a 54-yard catch on the Ravens' opening drive. On this play, Smith ran a post route and split the cornerback and safety to get open. He was tackled at the one-yard line. A few plays later, he caught a slant on third and goal from the seven-yard line and scored the Ravens' only touchdown of the game. Taylor shaded Smith to the outside knowing that he had help to the inside in the form of a defensive lineman. Smith created separation from Taylor at the line-of-srimmage and Flacco's pass was just passed the outstretched arms of the defensive lineman, giving the Ravens a touchdown.

Only one catch (a four yard screen pass) didn't go for a first down or touchdown. The other two first downs both came on third and eight where he ran shallow crossing routes — one for a gain of eight and the other for 10.

He also drew a 26-yard pass interference call on Taylor giving the Ravens the ball at the Steelers' 27-yard line.

On to the bad, Smith dropped two easy passes. The first was an out route that would have gone for a gain of about eight yards. The other drop came on a crossing route inside the Steelers' five-yard line. He tried to make a sliding catch, but couldn't haul it in. Both times, Flacco's pass his Smith right in the hands.

For the second game in a row, he was called for a false start. This can't happen to wide receivers — especially at home. In fact, the Ravens had a total of five false starts.

Jacoby Jones
Now that Jones is fully healthy after spraining his MCL in week one, he is providing a constant big play presence for the Ravens like he did last year.

Early in the game, he left with a knee injury, but he quickly returned.

On offense, he caught four passes for 53 yards on seven targets and two of these catches went for first downs. The first was a gain of 10 on a curl route and the second was a gain of 34 on a crossing route. On the latter play, Flacco had all day to throw the ball as the offensive line provided great protection. Jones started out running a crossing route, but once he reached the middle of the field, he reversed to head back to the sideline to try and get open when he saw that Flacco was still looking to throw the ball.

An excellent return man, Jones' big play came on a kickoff return. The kick was near the far sideline and he took it up this sideline and received good blocking. Importantly, this kickoff was from the Steelers' first touchdown so he made sure the Ravens — not the Steelers — have the momentum. He was caught from behind at the Steelers' 27-yard line and this field position led to a 38-yard field goal.

Right before he was caught from behind, Steelers' head coach Mike Tomlin stepped in the way of Jones on the field. This subtle  step from Tomlin caused Jones to move a little to the inside of the field (he was running right down the sideline) and he was then caught. (The play can be viewed here.)

An official was right there, yet he didn't flag Tomlin for interfering with the play — which he clearly did. This should be a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Also, the officials can award a touchdown to the team that was interfered with if they feel the interference from the sideline stopped a touchdown from occurring. The NFL has already announced that they will investigate the play. It is likely that Tomlin will be fined for his actions as he looks like he intentionally did this.

Offensive Line
Allowing two sacks, the Ravens' offensive line looked good (with one exception) last night in pass protection. Running the ball, the Ravens suffered the same problem as they gained 74 yards and averaged three yards per carry.

The one exception was right tackle Michael Oher who allowed one sack and had three false starts. His sack came on a second and nine where the Steeler beat him to the outside and slapped Oher's hands away. The hit on Flacco forced a fumble which right guard Marshal Yanda was able to recover. A few plays later the Ravens kicked a field goal so this recovery from Yanda saved three points.

Oher's three false starts at home are inexcusable. The crowd is quiet at home so the snap count is audible, yet he jumped three times. Each of these false starts came in key situations. The first was with less than a minute left in the first half. After the penalty, the Ravens ran the clock out to halftime after looking like they would try and get some points. The second game in the red zone and the third came inside the Steelers' 25-yard line.

An impending free agent, Oher isn't making a case to stay in Baltimore. Left tackle Eugene Monroe is also a free agent and the Ravens likely won't be able to pay both of them. Monroe had another solid game last night and play a more important position than Oher. Right now, it looks like the Ravens will attempt to re-sign Monroe and not Oher.

Left guard A.Q. Shipley was also called for a false start.

Terrell Suggs
Going up against the Steelers backup left tackle for most of the game, you would have expected Suggs to have a big game. Especially as it was against the Steelers, a team he historically plays well against.

Heading into each game against the Steelers, he is the player who hypes the game up the most, yet he was invisible for most of the game. In the box score, he recorded one tackle and one quarterback hit. I can't remember the tackle, though I do remember the quarterback hit and it didn't force Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to throw before he wanted to.

With 15.5 career sacks of Roethlisberger, Suggs has the most of any player on Roethlisberger, but he wasn't able to take him down last night. I had him down for one pressure all night long. It did look like he was held a couple times that weren't called though.

Still, as the Ravens best pass rusher, Suggs needs to show up in these games. He should feast off a patchwork offensive line like the Steelers had last night. He now has gone four straight game without a sack.

Elvis Dumervil
Playing across from Suggs at the other outside linebacker position (during mostly passing downs) is Dumervil.

While he didn't play as good as he should have, he played better than Suggs — though that isn't saying much.

He had three tackles and one of these was a run stop for no gain that he shared with defensive end Arthur Jones.

Rushing the passer, Dumervil had two pressures based on my count. One of these pressures forced a bad pass from Roethlisberger which went for an incompletion.

On a third and seven, Dumervil jumped offsides which gave the Steelers a new attempt which they converted. The Steelers' drive kept going, but they were eventually forced to punt.

Going up against a weakened offensive line, he, like Suggs, should have had a better night then he did.

Daryl Smith
Part of the Steelers' game plan must have been to attack the Ravens' middle linebackers in coverage as Smith allowed four catches, Josh Bynes allowed five and Jameel McClain allowed one.

Of the four passes that Smith allowed to be completed against him, one went for a first down and one went for a touchdown. On the touchdown, the Ravens were in zone coverage and Roethlisberger scrambled out of the pocket to the far sideline. Smith shifted to that side in his zone, without knowing that Sanders was behind him running the other way trying to get open. Roethlisberger saw Sanders open was threw it to him for a touchdown.

Late in the third quarter, Smith had man-coverage on Steelers' running back Le'Veon Bell who ran a wheel route from the slot while the outside receiver went inside to try and get Bell open. Smith stuck with Bell the whole way and his tight coverage forced Roethlisberger to throw to far in front of Bell for an incomplete pass.

Smith's coverage has been his best attribute this season as he is one of the best middle linebackers in pass coverage according to Pro Football Focus.

In run defense, Smith hasn't been as good and he got blocked out of the way on two important runs last night. The first was a 43-yard run by Bell, the longest run the Ravens have allowed all season. Smith got caught up in the middle and was on the wrong side of the hole when Bell ran though it. On Bell's one yard touchdown run, Smith got blocked out of the way, allowing Bell to get in untouched.

Finishing with six tackles, Smith had a decent game with a few bad plays and some good ones.

James Ihedigbo
Leading the Ravens with 10 tackles was Ihedigbo, the starting strong safety who has enjoyed a great season (seventh best safety according to Pro Football Focus) after not starting at all last season.

Early in the game, he was blitzing often to as the Ravens played a more aggressive style of defense. In the second half of the game though, Dean Pees, the Ravens' defensive coordinator, called a much more conservative game. Most plays saw just a four man pass rush (that generated no pressure) and had the other seven defenders drop back into zone coverage. This has happened many times this season and the defense has always had more success when playing aggressive.

In pass coverage, Ihedigbo had a great game. He allowed one catch to be completed against him (a gain of four on second and two) and broke up two passes.

The first of which came on a second and 10 from the Ravens 27-yard line. Roethlisberger threw to his receiver who was open running a corner route to the near sideline. He lofted a pass up and Ihedigbo made a leaping pass deflection as Roethlisberger just under threw the pass. If Ihedigbo doesn't make that play, the Steelers' receiver walks into the end zone for a touchdown.

With the game on the line and the Steelers on the Ravens' one-yard line with a third and goal down eight points, Ihedigbo made a great play to force fourth and goal (which the Steelers scored on). The Steelers ran a short pass play to the near sideline and Ihedigbo had the fullback in coverage. Roethlisberger threw to the fullback, Will Johnson, on a quick out route and Ihedigbo hit Johnson as soon as he caught the pass, forcing an incompletion.

This performance against the Steelers by Ihedigbo is another example of the great season that he is having.

Cornerbacks
An overall good performance by the Ravens' cornerback helped slow the Steelers' offensive. The Steelers did seem to try and target the middle of the field more where the cornerbacks weren't.

Lardarius Webb allowed three catches for 23 yards and one first down. The first down that he allowed was a gain of eight on third and five.

On the play, he missed a tackle that would have brought down the receiver short of the first-down marker. Later in the game he was flagged for defensive holding in pass coverage on a play where the pass didn't go to his receiver.

As always, he was active in the run game. He recorded a run stop for a loss of two on the Steelers' second offensive play. He also had a run stop for no gain when the Steelers had first and goal from the Ravens' one-yard line with the game on the line.

Jimmy Smith

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Over the last few weeks, Jimmy Smith has really stepped his game up and has had great coverage and this game was no different. He allowed one pass to be completed against him and that was a wide receiver screen which he stopped for a two-yard gain.

His one pass breakup came on a back-shoulder fade — a pass that is very difficult for a cornerback to defend. Wide receiver Antonio Brown had the ball for a split-second but Smith ripped the ball out of Brown's hands as they was falling to the ground.

On the second and goal play after Webb's tackle, Smith came up in run support and tackled Bell for no gain. This play was initially ruled a touchdown, but was overturned as Bell's helmet came off before the ball was in the end zone. Both Bell and Smith left with likely concussions after this play and never returned.

Allowing the touchdown pass on fourth and goal was Corey Graham. For the game, he gave up three catches for 25 yards. Two of the catches went for first downs and the other was the aforementioned touchdown.

On the touchdown, Graham lined up against the outside receiver and Webb had the slot receiver. At the snap, the outside receiver ran a slant and the inside receiver ran a quick out the try and clear space for the slant. Seeing the route combination, Graham switched to the outside receiver and expected Webb to do the same to the inside receiver. However, Webb stuck with the inside receiver. I don't know who was to blame, but a miscommunication like his can't happen on the most important play of the game.

Other than this play, Graham had a good game. He had a nice pass breakup on a deep pass and had good coverage on another that forced an incompletion. Like Webb and Smith, Graham got involved in run defense and stopped a run for a loss of one.

Seeing a couple of snaps due to injury was the fourth cornerback, Chykie Brown. When Graham went out for a play due to a likely stinger, Roethlisberger targeted Brown on a deep pass. Brown tried to press the wide receiver at the line-of-scrimmage, but he completely whiffed and the receiver was open and picked up 19 yards.

With Smith out after the second and goal play, Brown came in to replace him. He wasn't targeted on the third and fourth down passes, but he was on the two-point conversion. Roethlisberger threw a quick fade to Sanders in the corner of the end zone and Brown had tight coverage. Sanders had the pass hit him, but he dropped the ball giving the Ravens the victory.

Justin Tucker
Already named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for November before the game, Tucker continued to shine as he scored 16 points for the Ravens.

Connecting on five field goals and one extra point, Tucker was perfect on the night. Adding the four field goals he had last week, he has nine field goals in this last two games.

By making five field goals, he tied a Ravens record for most field goals made in a game. Matt Stover did this four times and Billy Cundiff did it twice.

Tucker's five field goals came from 43, 34, 38, 45 and 48 yards out. His first field goal gave him 23-straight field goals made which gave him sole possession of the second longest streak in Ravens history. Stover has the record at 36-straight.

Currently he has 27-straight field goals made which is the longest such active steak in the league.

The only negative on the night for Tucker was a kickoff out-of-bounds that helped lead to the Steelers' second touchdown.

In a game that was decided by two points, Tucker was huge for the Ravens.

Joe Flacco vs Tom Brady

January 19, 2013 in What to Look For

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Flacco

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

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

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

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

Ed Reed

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

Ravens Stun Broncos in Double OT

January 13, 2013 in Observations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Flacco

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

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

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

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

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

Jacoby Jones

Ravens WR Jacoby Jones catches his game tying touchdown.

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

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

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

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

Terrell Suggs

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

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

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

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

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

Corey Graham

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

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

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

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

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

Justin Tucker

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