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Defense and Special Teams Sparks Victory

September 23, 2013 in Observations

On a day where Ray Lewis and Ed Reed returned to M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens defense led the way to a 30-9 victory over the Houston Texans. This victory puts the Ravens at 2-1 and drops the Texans to 2-1. With this win, the Ravens now have a 14 game win streak in home games during the month of September and they are 17-1 in their last 18 home games against non-divsional opponents.

With 15 penalties for 143 yards at halftime, this game had the most first half penalties in one game so far this season and by the end of the game the 24 accepted penalties are the most so far this season.

For the second straight week, the Ravens' defense allowed no touchdowns, just three field goals, all in the first half.

The Texans started out strong grabbing a 6-0 lead and this lead could have been 14-0 if not for strong red zone defense. With the Ravens' offense struggling in the first half (65 total yards), their defense and special teams took over with an interception returned for a touchdown by linebacker Daryl Smith and a punt return for a touchdown by Tandon Doss within a span of two minutes. After these two plays, the Ravens had new life and the Texans were never the same.

Also, the Ravens released S Brynden Trawick today after claiming S Jeromy Miles off of waivers from the Cincinnati Bengals.

Special Teams
Starting with the obvious, Doss returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown with one minute left in the first half. Occurring soon after Smith's interception, this punt return gave the Ravens all the momentum heading into halftime. On the return, Doss fielded the punt and ran up the near side of the field. He went untouched and for the last 45 yards, he was right along the sidelines. His momentum almost carried him out-of-bounds but he was able to fight that and stay in-bounds. Punter Shane Lechler's 58-yard punt outkicked his coverage on the play and Doss made him pay. This is Doss' first career punt return for a touchdown and is the 5th longest in Ravens history. Cut during the final roster cuts before the season, Doss was only re-signed after week one when starting returner Jacoby Jones went down with an injury.

Tandon Doss

Courtesy of ICON SMI

When you take away Doss" return, the Ravens' special teams didn't perform well, getting called for four of the Ravens 10 penalties. The first of which came on the Texans first drive. The Texans had lined up for a field goal on a fourth and four but, the Ravens had 12 men on the field so a penalty was called. This gave the Texans a first down and allowed them to continue their drive. Although the Texans ended up only scoring a field goal on this drive, the penalty greatly shortened the distance of this field goal.

On the ensuing kickoff from the Texans first field goal, the Ravens offense was set up at their own seven-yardline by a holding penalty. This was called on rookie John Simon.

On a Ravens punt, another rookie, Trawick was called for a penalty, this time a personal foul. This penalty gave the Texans the ball at the Ravens 29. With this field position, the Texans were already in field goal range and they ended up kicking one. This is probably the reason that he was released to day as the only reason he made the team was due to special teams contributions and he had a costly penalty and he was the one who ran into Jones week one, injuring him.

The last of these four special teams penalties can on a punt return. Courtney Upshaw was penalized for holding, setting the offense up at their own five.

Overall, when you take away Doss' touchdown, the Ravens' special teams was very poor basically giving the Texans free points and pinning their own offense inside their own 10.

Joe Flacco
For the entire first half, the Ravens offense struggled to move the ball, though they weren't helped by bad field position. Flacco is a big part of that as in the end, the responsibility of the offense will always fall to him.

Throwing for 171 yards, Flacco went 16-of-24 with no touchdowns or interceptions and a QB rating of 87.3. It wasn't a spectacular performance but it got the job done.

In the second half, the offense came out throwing more and was more aggressive with these passes. After not throwing deep at all in the first half, Flacco tried going deep multiple times on the opening drive of the first half and the offense found a rhythm, driving 80 yards in nine plays, capped off by a one-yard touchdown run from Bernard Pierce.

The best part of Flacco's day comes from his snap count. He was constantly confusing the Texans with it, forcing five offsides penalties, giving the Ravens much more manageable down and distances. One time, this hard count caused a false start by fullback Vonta Leach, but by then, the game was already won as there were just two minutes left in the game.

Torrey Smith
Catching five passes for 92 yards, Smith the Ravens in receiving yards for the third straight week. His nine targets on Sunday also led the team.

Two of his catches went for first downs, both on the same drive. First of which came on a third and 13 from the Ravens own 17-yardline. Smith ran a fly route and Flacco hit him for a gain of 48 yards — the longest play from scrimmage for the Ravens so far this season. Later in the drive, he caught a second and seven pass for a gain of 23 yards. However, the Texans challenged this play and it was overturned as Smith didn't have full possession of the ball as he rolled out-of-bounds after his leaping catch. The next play, Smith caught a short crossing route and gained 25 yards, most of it after the catch, setting the Ravens up at the Houston eight-yardline. Four plays later, the Ravens scored a touchdown.

Coming out of halftime, the Ravens made it a clear priority to target Smith more and this led to more success from the offense. He is the Ravens' top receiver so this only make sense.

Offensive Line
Another underwhelming performance by the Ravens' offense line. If you just look at the Texans' defensive stat line, it doesn't look bad as the Texans only had two sack and two other quarterback hits in 26 pass attempts. However, sacks and hits don't tell the whole story as the Texans seemed to get some sort of pressure on most pass attempts.

In the running game, Pierce had no holes to run through, so having a healthy Ray Rice would have made no difference. The offensive line couldn't move the Texans front seven out of the way and it showed. Pierce was constantly having to dodge defenders in the backfield. The Ravens ran 31 times for 75 yards, an average of 2.4 yards per carry. When you take away the 25-yard run that Pierce had when there actually was a hole, the Ravens averaged a putrid 0.6 yards per carry. Let that sink in.

Right tackle Michael Oher gave up a strip-sack on a third and 33 for a loss of two yards. On the first play of the second half, Oher was beaten by J.J. Watt for a sack which resulted in a loss of nine yards.

Right guard Marshal Yanda was able to recover the aforementioned fumble. Other than this, Yanda had a quiet day going back and fourth with Watt.

Center Gino Gradkowski had another quiet day as well. He isn't doing anything awful, but he also isn't doing anything great so far this year.

Left guard Kelechi Osemele was whistled for a holding penalty which set up a first and 20 for the Ravens.

Left tackle Bryant McKinnie had the worst day off all Ravens offensive linemen, being called for two penalties and giving up one sack. The first penalty came on a first and 10 where he was called for a facemask, taking away an 18-yard pass to Ed Dickson. However, this was a questionable call. A few plays later, on third and 18, McKinnie was called for the exact same penalty, only this time is was blatantly obvious. By himself, McKinnie was able to completely kill the Ravens third drive of the game.

Arthur Jones and Haloti Ngata
Since both of these two had extremely similar days, I'll talk about them together.

They had the exact same stat line in the box score: three tackles with one sack. Not only that, but they beat the same offensive linemen for their sack, left guard Wade Smith. Jones beat him on a first and 10 with a bull rush for a loss of seven yards. Ngata beat Smith with a swim move on a second and seven for a loss of nine.

The only difference between these two is that Jones got great penetration on a first and 10 run that blew the play up. Other than that, their play was very similar.

Terrell Suggs
Expected to have a bounce-back year after an injured riddled season led to just two sacks, Suggs is living up to expectations so far, recording sacks in all three games so far.

This week's sack came on a second and nine play where he beat right tackle Derek Newton with a perfect inside spin move causing a loss of eight yards. Making this sack even more impressive was the fact that the Newton was called for holding Suggs on the play. Just a play earlier, Suggs missed a sack as quarterback Matt Schaub was able to step up in the pocket and avoid Suggs.

For the day, Suggs recorded two tackles and his sack. One of these tackles was a run stop for a gain of one, so he made the most out of his plays that made it into the box score.

Daryl Smith
The big play that Smith made was his interception that he returned for a touchdown. This play changed the momentum of the game as it gave the Ravens the lead despite having done absolutely nothing on offense.

Despite having already played two games this season, this was the Ravens first interception of the season. On this interception, Smith jumped a short pass to Owen Daniels on a first and 10. He then went untouched for a 37-yard touchdown. This type of play comes from watching lots of film and reading the eyes of the quarterback. Smith knew that Schaub was going to throw it to Daniels so he was able to jump the route. This is his seventh career interception and his first career touchdown. Since 2003, the Ravens have 30 interceptions returned for touchdowns, the most in this time frame.

Other than his interception, Smith had another good day recording 10 tackles, 1 QB hit, and a pass deflection. He was able to get a run stop for a gain of one and also gave up one pass in coverage on a first down for a gain of nine.

James Ihedigbo
Expected to be replaced by rookie Matt Elam, Ihedigbo has quietly put in a great season so far, including an outstanding game against the Texans.

James Ihedigbo

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Recording nine tackles, with two for a loss, and 2 pass deflections, Ihedigbo had a great statistical day, stats never tell the whole story. In run defense, Ihedigbo had three run stops for short gains. The first came on first and goal on the Texans first drive where he made the tackle for a loss of two. The other two stops were for gains of two and one. In the Ravens' defense, the strong safety needs to be a good run defender and Ihedigbo was exactly that yesterday.

In pass coverage, he was equally as good. I have him down as giving up zero catches on the day. On a running back screen play, he burst through the Texans blockers and was able to stop the play for a loss of two yards. The following play, Doss returns his punt for a touchdown.

The first of his two impressive plays in pass coverage came on third and goal on the Texans first drive. Ihedigbo had tight coverage on his man and was able to break the pass up, forcing the Texans to kick a field goal.

The other play came on a fourth and two with about five minutes left in the game. The Texans ran a screen to running back Arian Foster (lined up as a wide receiver) and Ihedigbo had him in man coverage as the only defender on that side of the field. He was able to disrupt that pass forcing an incompletion. Right away, he diagnosed that is was a screen and he was with Foster step-for-step.

Overall, Ihedigbo had two stops on goal-to-go situations on the Texans first drive and stopped the Texans last important offensive play. Add that tow three other impressive plays and you have yourself a great game.

Matt Elam
Making his second start of his career, Elam had another solid but unspectacular day. After Michael Huff's week one performance, the Ravens won't be complaining about solid but unspectacular for awhile.

Elam made five tackles and had one pass deflection. In coverage he allowed two passes to be caught, both going for first downs. The first was a first and 10 pass that went for 12 yards and the second was a second and four pass that went for four yards. On a third a four play inside the Ravens' 30-yardline, Elam had tight coverage which forced a bad pass, leading to an incompletion. For most of the game, Elam was playing in a deep zone, making sure the Ravens weren't beat deep.

Cornerbacks
In a game where the Texans passed 35 times with 25 competitions, the cornerbacks allowed most of these.

Number one cornerback Lardarius Webb allowed six catches with four of them going for first downs. Of the ones that went for first downs, three of these were on second down and one was on third down. He did allow a third down catch to Andre Johnson for a loss of one as Johnson bobbled the ball on the play. Webb had seven tackles with one pass deflection.

Starting ahead of Corey Graham for the second straight game, Jimmy Smith allowed seven catches with four of them going for first downs. The Texans seemed to target him on first downs as he allowed six of his catches then with the other coming on third down. He was whistled for illegal contact when he was beaten by rookie DeAndre Hopkins on a double move. Smith also had a good pass breakup on a play late in the game. Smith had six tackles and one pass deflection.

Graham only allowed one catch but the Texans didn't target him much at all. The one catch that he did allow was on third and four where he gave up five yards. Graham had a total of three tackles on the day.

The Return of Ed Reed: Ravens vs Texans

September 21, 2013 in What to Look For

Last week the Baltimore Ravens took on a division rival in the Cleveland Browns and they were able to come out on top with a 14-6 victory as the defense carried the team. This week the 1-1 Ravens have a tougher test as they host the 2-0 Houston Texans who have their own Super Bowl aspirations. At halftime, the Ravens will induct linebacker Ray Lewis into their Ring of Honor. The last time that these two teams played, the Texans dismantled the Ravens with a 43-13 victory in Houston.

1.  Ed Reed
Due to their Super Bowl aspirations, the Texans went out and signed former Ravens free safety Ed Reed in free agency to a three-year deal worth $15 million. While Reed wanted to stay in Baltimore, the Ravens weren't willing to match the offer so Reed left.

In his last season with the Ravens, Reed recorded 58 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 1 touchdown while playing in all 16 games. In the postseason, he had 15 tackles and one interception. This interception came in Super Bowl XLVII which the Ravens ended up winning, giving Reed his first Super Bowl championship in his 11th season. Making the victory even sweeter was the game was played in New Orleans, just a short distance from where he grew up.

Now he is with the Texans, Reed will be making his first appearance in Baltimore since leaving in free agency. He hasn't played in the first two games of the season for Houston due to offseason hip surgery. Even though he is listed as questionable, Reed is expected to make his season debut for two reasons. First, he was very close to playing last week and second, it is his return to Baltimore and it is highly unlikely that he would want to miss playing in this one.

It is unknown how much Reed will be able to contribute to the Texans if he returns. Over the last few seasons, it has been clear that his skills are declining but quarterbacks were still hesitant to throw to his side of the field last year. In the run game, he offers very little as his tackling has become quite bad due to various injuries he has suffered during his career.

Assuming that Reed plays, expect the Ravens to test him early to see how he looks. If he performs well, then the Ravens will be throwing away from him all game long. Expect Reed to be playing deep on the side of Torrey Smith to help guard against the big plays that Smith can produce.

2.  Pass Rush
Through two games, the Ravens have a team total of eight sacks which ranked tied for second entering this week. The Texans are tied for eighth best in the league giving up only four sacks so far.

Terrell Suggs

Courtesy of ICON SMI

However, the Texans offensive line suffered a massive blow today when left tackle Duane Brown was ruled out due to a toe injury suffered last week. This loss is very important as Brown is the Texans best offensive lineman and he would have been going up against Ravens star outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had his way with Joe Thomas — another elite left tackle — last week. In place of Brown will be Ryan Harris.

Of these eight sacks for the Ravens, Suggs and Elvis Dumervil have two apiece, Daryl Smith has 1.5, Chris Canty and Arthur Jones each have one, and Arthur Brown has half a sack.

Canty and Brown are doubtful this week with a groin and chest injury respectively. The loss of Canty will effect the Ravens more because Canty is a starter a defensive end and is a high quality pass rusher from this position. Brown is a rookie inside linebacker who hasn't been seeing the field very much. The other four will be fine for the game.

If the Ravens want to disrupt the Texans offense, then they need to get pressure on quarterback Matt Schaub, forcing him to throw before he is ready to. This will help the secondary who have to cover receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins this week.

Expect the Ravens to attack Harris on the Texans' offensive line as he is a backup who will have his hands full with Suggs individually. So far this season, the Texans have kept tight ends or running backs to help pass block. If they continue to do this against the Ravens, their offensive tackles will have problems with Suggs and Dumervil due to their pass rushing ability. Expect both Suggs and Dumervil to have a sack of Schaub on Sunday.

3.  J.J. Watt
Describing how good Watt is in one word is easy: dominant. Describing how he is dominant takes quite a bit more than that.

The 2012 Defensive Player of the Year had 81 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and 16 pass deflections last year playing as a defensive end in the Texans 3-4 defensive scheme. All of this came in just his second season in the NFL and at the age of 23.

The pressure that Watt produces was unheard of from a 3-4 defensive end bore he accomplished it. Not only that, his 16 pass deflections was tied for the ninth most in the NFL. No other defensive linemen reached double digits or finished in the top 60. Elite rushing the passer, Watt doesn't slack off against the run as he is one of the best at his position in run defense as well.

Against the Ravens last year, Watt recorded two tackles, two pass deflections, and one quarterback hit. One of these pass deflections led to an interceptions returned for a touchdown as cornerback Jonathan Joseph was able to catch the tipped pass. In this matchup, he mainly went up against right tackle Kelechi Osemele.

Now, Osemele is the starting left guard so he will see Antonio Smith, not Watt. The responsibility of trying to slow Watt down falls to right guard Marshal Yanda and right tackle Michael Oher. Yanda is considered to be one of the best guards in the league and Oher is an average right tackle whose value to the Ravens offensive line is underrated. When he left the Ravens' week one game against the Denver Broncos, the line was never the same.

Expect the Ravens to try and double team Watt on every run play that they do to his side. The better idea would be to just run away from Watt though. In the passing game, double teams will still be used to try and neutralize Watt. With Yanda, the Ravens have an advantage over many teams trying to stop Watt. There really isn't a way to take Watt completely out of a game. You just have to be able to slow him down to where his impact is minimal.

4.  Running Game
Another position impacted by injuries is the Ravens backfield. Starting running back Ray Rice is doubtful with a hip injury sustained last week. If he doesn't play, his streak of 43 consecutive starts — the longest active streak for running backs — will come to an end.

Assuming that Rice doesn't play, second-year player Bernard Pierce will start at running back. Normally, having a backup running back start will significantly change a team's offensive gameplan but, Pierce is no ordinary backup. In his 18 career games, he has ran the ball 136 times for 611 yards, an average of 4.5 yards per carry. Pierce is a powerful runner who could start for many other teams.

The only area where is significant difference will be seen is in the passing game as Pierce is nowhere near the receiver that Rice is. Therefore, expect him to stay in and block on a majority of passing plays for the Ravens, especially as Pierce is an above-average pass protecter.

Currently, the Ravens rank 23rd in the league with 78.5 rushing yards per game and the Texans rank 17th in run defense allowing 99.5 yards per game.

The key to running against the Texans is to get blockers on Watt and inside linebacker Brian Cushing. If you are able to block these two players, running on the Texans will be much easier.

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.