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Can The Ravens Bounce Back: Ravens vs Browns

September 14, 2013 in What to Look For

Week one was definitely a week to forget for the Baltimore Ravens as the Denver Broncos embarrassed them on national television 49-27. The Ravens need to bounce back this week against the 0-1 Cleveland Browns. There couldn't have been a better time for the Ravens to play the Browns as the Ravens have won their last 10 games against the the Browns, which is tied with the Broncos against the Browns for the longest active win streak against a single team.

1.  Secondary

Torched for seven touchdowns and 462 yards by Peyton Manning last week, the secondary needs to regroup, fast. While Brandon Weeden isn't exactly Manning, if the secondary plays like last week, even Weeden will have a game to remember.

Last week Weeden went 26-of-53 for 289 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions against the Miami Dolphins. This is what the Ravens will be looking to replicate this week.

One advantage that the Ravens will have is Browns top wide receiver, Josh Gordon, is suspended for this game, like last week. Gordon is Weeden's favorite target and looks ready to make the next step as a receiver. His suspension is huge as Greg Little has major drop issues and Davone Bess is just a slot receiver.

Tight end Jordan Cameron is the most threatening target now. His nine catches for 108 yards paced the Browns pass catchers last week. The Ravens didn't exactly have success covering tight ends against the Broncos, as Julius Thomas caught five passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns. Look for the Browns to try and use Cameron like the Broncos used Thomas last week. If they do, Cameron could cause major problems in the Ravens backend.

The only secondary player that had a good game last week was Lardarius Webb, who played outside and in the slot. Expect his consistent play to continue as he has the skill set to be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, the only thing holding him back is injuries.

Three players need to greatly improve their play for the Ravens to succeed against the Browns: Michael Huff, Corey Graham, and Jimmy Smith. Anyone who watched the game against the Broncos knows that Huff's play was awful. Eventually, he was benched in favor of first-round pick Matt Elam. The position is called safety for a reason, and Huff was anything but a safety net for the Ravens last week. Graham had problems in coverage all night, from the slot and on the outside. During the Ravens' Super Bowl run, he played well so the Ravens will be hoping last game was an abnormality. Smith's play has always been up-and-down and the Broncos game was definitely a down.

Despite the Browns' passing game being a significant downgrade from the Broncos', the Ravens secondary will need to step up if they want to win this game.

2.  Torrey Smith vs Joe Haden

As the Ravens number one receiving target, Smith will be covered by Haden all game long. Haden is the Browns best cover cornerback and is one of the better ones in the league.

Torrey Smith and Joe Haden

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Against the Broncos, Smith caught four passes for 92 yards despite the Broncos focusing heavily on defending Smith. Haden covered Mike Wallace last week, who has similar game-breaking ability to Smith, and held Wallace to one catch for 15 yards.

With the Ravens offense lacking weapons, quarterback Joe Flacco will be looking for Smith more than ever. Him and Rice are the top two targets in the passing game now with Dennis Pitta injured and Anquan Boldin traded away.

Over the last two seasons, Smith has been used as a deep threat and mainly ran deep routes. This season the Ravens will be having him run a full route tree with many more short and intermediate routes. Smith's speed can still be used a weapon with these routes as once he gets the ball, he can get yards after the catch.

Expect the Ravens to try and get the ball to Smith early, despite coverage from Haden. Haden should show he great coverage skills which means that Smith could be in for a long day. Considering the state of the other Browns cornerbacks, the Ravens would be better off just targeting the other cornerbacks, even if it means Smith has a quite day. The Ravens will try and get Smith lined up against someone other than Haden, but the Browns should have Haden on him all day long.

3.  Run Game

The Ravens' offense is based off of the run game and this run game wasn't able to get started against the Broncos last week as they rushed the ball 21 times for 58 yards. Of these 21 rushes, 12 went to starter Ray Rice and nine went to backup Bernard Pierce.

Part of the problem with the run game was a sprained ankle for right tackle Michael Oher, which caused him to leave the game and not return. With Oher out, rookie Ricky Wagner came in and there was a visible step down. Also, the fact they were getting blown out for all of the forth quarter and part of the third didn't help.

This week, Oher will return but, the Browns defense only gave up 20 rushing yards last week. They upgraded their front seven through free agency and the draft and this showed against the Dolphins. So, rushing the ball could be a challenge again this week.

Nevertheless, the Ravens must attack this defensive front as the Ravens aren't the same team when they can't run the ball.

To do this, the Ravens will need better push from the offensive line to create holes for Rice and Pierce to run through. If they are given a decently sized hole, Rice and Pierce can do damage with their running ability. Look for offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell to put an emphasis on the run game this week in order to create a better and more balanced offensive attack.

4.  Run Defense

While the pass defense was terrible last week, the run defense actually did its job, holding the Broncos to an average of 2.8 yards per rush.

For the game, the Ravens gave up 65 rushing yards on 23 rushing attempts, with a long of nine yards. The Browns struggled to run the ball last week, rushing the ball 13 times for 47 yards, an average of 3.6 yards per rush.

This lack of rushing success from the Browns is surprising as they have a good offensive line and a top running back in Trent Richardson, the third overall pick in last year's draft. All 13 of the Browns rushing attempts went to Richardson and he also added two catches for 30 yards.

If the Ravens can stop the Browns' rushing game, like the Dolphins did, then the Browns will become a one-dimensional team. Any time that you can do this to an offense, your chances of winning increase greatly. The Dolphins forced Weeden to throw the ball and made him pay, forcing three interceptions.

This is exactly what the Ravens want to do on defense. Weeden hasn't shown the ability to carry a team passing the ball so far in his short career. In fact, in his 16 career games he has seven games where he has thrown multiple interceptions and the Browns are 1-6 in these games.

By stopping the run, the Ravens can put the Browns' offense in the hands of Weeden and this will probably lead to interceptions, which will most likely lead to a Ravens victory based on that stat. The key to stopping the Browns offense is stopping the run.

Ravens New Defense Fails

September 7, 2013 in Observations

By now, everyone knows that Peyton Manning threw seven touchdowns on Thursday night against the Baltimore Ravens.  The Ravens new-look defense was supposed to be improved this year, but they definitely didn't look improved.

Looking at the final score of the game, you can tell that the defense struggled badly as the Ravens lost 49-27 and all 49 of these points were allowed by the defense.  The 49 points allowed is a new franchise record, not something you want to be doing on opening day of the NFL season.

Another franchise record that was set last night for the Ravens was touchdown passes allowed in a game as Manning threw seven and the previous record was five.  Going along with the passing touchdowns, last season, the Ravens allowed their seventh touchdown pass in week ten, against the Oakland Raiders.  That is quite a difference.

The main weakness of the Ravens' defense this week was the secondary.

Lardarius Webb

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Starting with the only positive, cornerback Lardarius Webb made his return from a torn ACL and played great.  For the 27th straight game, Webb didn't allow a touchdown in coverage.  Playing outside and inside due to his coverage abilities and the struggles of the other cornerbacks, Webb ended up with one tackle and one pass deflection.  The low tackle number is a good sign for cornerbacks as it usually means they didn't give up many catches, which was the case in this game.  When Jacoby Jones left with a knee injury, Webb took over punt return duties. Since Jones is out 4-6 weeks, expect Webb to continue this duty.

After a great game with two interceptions against the Broncos in the playoffs last season, Corey Graham had a day to forget.  He gave up touchdowns and was constantly beaten by Wes Welker from the slot and Demaryius Thomas on the outside.  Graham's struggles from the slot against Welker led to Webb moving to the slot.

Jimmy Smith, who was expected to step up this season, gave up six catches for 114 yards according to Pro Football Focus.  Of these 114 yards, 28 of them came on a touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell where Smith was beat on a deep pass.  Another notable play in coverage from Smith was over pursuing a Thomas after a catch, turning a short gain into a 34-yard gain.  This occurred two plays before he gave up his touchdown.  On special teams, Smith was called for unnecessary roughness on a punt return in the third quarter.

At safety, new acquisition Michael Huff struggled throughout the night and you can partially attribute three touchdowns to him, both of Julius Thomas' and one of Demaryius Thomas'.  Huff was eventually benched for rookie Matt Elam who came in and recorded one tackle.  Overall, Huff just looked lost on the field.

James Ihedigbo, the other safety, recorded five tackles while playing every snap.  His night wasn't very noteworthy though as Manning picked on others over him.  Ihedigbo did miss a tackle on a touchdown for Demaryius Thomas.

Onto the linebackers now, Daryl Smith, as expected, was the play caller on defense, making audibles that were needed.  He only had four tackles but contributed two pass deflections in coverage and almost intercepted a pass in the second quarter.

Next to Smith, Josh Bynes played most of the game, leading the Ravens with eight tackles.  In run defense, he looked fine, which is expected. However, in pass coverage, Bynes looked lost and gave up multiple catches.  Rookie Arthur Brown was expected to come in for passing downs but he instead, Bynes stayed in, leaving Brown with just five snaps all game.  Brown was a good pass defender in college at Kansas State and in preseason he was a starter when the defense lined up in nickel.  Given how Bynes played in pass coverage, it is surprising that Brown only got in for five snaps, especially when you consider that he played with the first team defense in nickel during the preseason.

While the secondary was torched all night long, the pass rush and run defense were both positives to take from the game.

Three Ravens were able to get consistent pressure on Manning: Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Chris Canty.  The Ravens rushed four players on a majority of plays and Suggs, Dumervil, and Canty were rushing most of the time.

Starting with Suggs, he finished with six tackles, one sack, and two more QB hits and hurries.  He also played well in run defense, setting the edge well.  Expected to have a big season, Suggs started the year off right.  Given that he is now the new leader of the defense, Suggs will have to get this group back together after this poor performance.

Dumervil had extra motivation for this game as he played for the Broncos last season and the split between the two wasn't exactly amicable. This extra motivation led to two tackles, one sack, and three other hurries.  On his sack, Dumervil dominated tight end Julius Thomas and by the time right tackle Orlando Franklin came over to help, it was to late.  This sack, along with Sugg's, came when the Ravens were still in the game.

Canty's one sack came when the Ravens were down 35-17 and all the momentum was with the Broncos and the game looked over by then. Along with his sack, Canty had two tackle and two other QB hits.  Coming over in free agency this offseason, Canty was expected to excel in the Ravens' 3-4 defense and he has started off well.

As I said in my game preview, stopping the pass and the new players were key for the Ravens.  Well, they didn't exactly stop the pass and only two of the new players really played well.  The Ravens also failed on special teams and the offensive line, which were my two other points, but that is a whole other discussion.

Anyways, the Ravens' defense needed to play well to win this game and they failed spectacularly.  The secondary showed why they were considered to be the weak point of the defense, and having only four cornerbacks on the roster isn't helping the cause.

Despite the play of the defense, there are positives to build on (Webb, Suggs, Dumervil, Canty, and the run defense).  Playing the Cleveland Browns next week, the defense will get a lesser test where they can hopefully come together and improve as a unit.

The Return Of Football: Ravens vs Broncos

September 4, 2013 in What to Look For

While it may not seem like it, the NFL season will start in two days with the Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens heading to Denver to face the Broncos in a rematch of one of the best games, if not the best game, from last season where the Ravens stunned the heavily favored Broncos 38-35 in double overtime.

1.  New Players

By now, everyone knows the story of the Ravens offseason.  They lost many key players on both offense and defense and have since replaced them, but nobody knows how they will play in-game for the Ravens.  We have seen them in limited preseason time but considering the Detroit Lions team that went 0-16 in the regular season went 4-0 in the preseason, it wouldn't be smart to judge anyone off of their preseason play.

The most roster turnover is on defense where there will be seven different starters from the starting lineup from Super Bowl XLVII.  On the defensive line, Chris Canty comes in and will start at defensive end and the 6'7" Canty is a great fit for the position.  There will be three new starters at linebackers where Elvis Dumervil comes in on the outside and Daryl Smith and Josh Bynes will play on the inside.  The secondary has three new starters as well in cornerback Lardarius Webb who is coming of a torn ACL and Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo at safety.

Out of these seven, the main player to watch is Dumervil as he will be going up against his former team.  The split between these two was very publicized and became known as "Faxgate."  Paired with Terrell Suggs, Dumervil should make an impact with his pass rushing ability.

On the offense, everyone is looking at the receiver position and who can replace the production of Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta.  Brandon Stokley will contribute as a slot receiver but someone else is needed as well.  The candidates are Deonte Thompson, Aaron Mellette, and Marlon Brown.  Thompson is injured and probably won't play, which leaves Mellette and Brown.  Brown showed the best connection with Flacco in preseason, but that needs to be shown in a real game.  After this game, we should get a better look at who else will be a key contributor in the passing game.

This game is going to be won or lost depending on how these new players play.

2.  Offensive Line

During the Ravens playoff run last season, the most important thing for their success was the offensive line.  The line was moved around for the playoffs and played the best it had all season.  Quarterback Joe Flacco had plenty of time to find receivers behind the revamped line and running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce found plenty of running lanes.

Elvis Dumervil

Courtesy of ICON SMI

This play needs to continue into this season for Flacco and the Ravens to be successful.  There has been one change on the offensive line as Gino Gradkowski takes over for the retired Matt Birk at center.  While there might be some growing pains, the transition from Birk to Gradkowski should go over well.

Last year when the Ravens faced off against the Broncos, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil were playing for the Broncos and giving offensive lines fits.  Now, they have neither as Miller is suspended for the first six games of the season and Dumervil is now a Raven.  In two games against the Ravens last year, Miller and Dumervil combined for 2 sacks and 7 QB hits.

Replacing that pass rush will be Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers who combined for 11.5 sacks compared to the 29.5 sacks from Miller and Dumervil.  Those 29.5 sacks accounted for 56.7 percent of the Broncos 52 sacks from last season.

Offensive tackles Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher will have a much easier time trying to block Phillips and Ayers instead of Miller and Dumervil.  This will allow Flacco more time to find open receivers and he showed during last year's playoffs that he can be a dangerous quarterback when he has time to throw.

3.  Stopping the Pass

The Broncos passing game has the potential to be lights outs.  With future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, you don't need to have a top receiving corps, but the Broncos do with Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker.  This combination can give defensive coordinators nightmares.

These three receivers form arguably the best receiving corps in the league.  Thomas is the deep threat, Decker is a sure-handed receiver, and Welker is the perfect slot receiver.  Welker sprained his ankle in the preseason but is expected to be fine for the season opener.

Stopping the passing game will be a tough assignment.  In order to do this, the Ravens defense will have to confuse Manning at the line-of-scrimmage with different looks, trying to make him think the defense is doing one thing when they are doing another.  If the defense can do this, they will have won half of the battle.  However, Manning is one of the best at diagnosing defenses and audibling to a play that works good against the defense.  Former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was great at changing the defense's calls when Manning changed his, but Lewis has retired, and Daryl Smith now has his job.

The Ravens secondary will have their hands full no matter what.  Lardarius Webb, the Ravens' number one cornerback, missed both match-ups with the Broncos last year due to a torn ACL.  Corey Graham intercepted Manning twice in the playoffs, including one that was returned for a touchdown.  The nickel cornerback will be Jimmy Smith who has been up-and-down throughout his NFL career.  Forth cornerback Chykie Brown will see some time in sub-packages as well.  When this happens, Webb and Graham will move inside to cover the slot receivers and Smith and Brown will take the outside ones.  Webb has shutdown Welker from the slot before, when Welker was with the New England Patriots.

With all the new players on the Ravens' defense, communication is going to be a huge factor.  They haven't played a full game together yet so nobody knows how well they will communicate.  Manning is a big test for this due to his audibles.  The defense will have to be communicating before every play to make sure everyone is doing what they are supposed to.  The lack of playing time together for the defense could become an issue.

The main reason that the stopping the pass will be important is that the Broncos running game is anything but stable right now.  Ronnie Hillman is having fumbling issues and wasn't very effective in spot time last season, Montee Ball is a rookie and it is unknown what he will offer, and Knowshon Moreno keeps getting relegated to the backups but then becomes a starter after the other backs fail.

With the running game being uncertain, the Broncos will rely on their passing game to try and win the game.  If the Ravens can slow this passing game down, they can probably stop the Broncos entire offense.

4.  Special Teams

Often overlooked, special teams played a big role in both the Ravens' 2012 season and the playoff matchup against the Broncos.

After not giving up a return touchdown at all in the regular season, the Ravens' coverage teams suffered a meltdown in the divisional playoffs against the Broncos where they allowed Trindon Holliday to return a punt 90 yards for a touchdown and a kickoff 104 yards for a touchdown.

Broncos kicker Matt Prater missed a 52-yard field goal in the second quarter.  This miss turned out to be crucial as the Ravens used the good field position they received from the miss to drive for a quick touchdown right before the half ended.

Ravens kicker Justin Tucker won the game with a 47-yard field goal in the second overtime.  Just in this one game, special teams had a big impact.

For the Ravens regular season, special teams were key throughout.  Returner Jacoby Jones had two kickoff returns and one punt return for a touchdown in the regular season.  Adding to that, he returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the Super Bowl.  Without Jones' returns, the Ravens season would have looked very different.  The punt return for touchdown was crucial as it was the only touchdown that the Ravens scored in a win over the Steelers.

As a rookie kicker, Tucker more than exceeded expectations as he went 30-of-33 for the season in the regular season and 4-of-4 in the postseason.

In this game, special teams will be important for a few reasons.  If either team gets a return touchdown, they will probably end up winning as this should be a very close game.  Since it should be a close game, field position will be huge, so punting will be important in setting up field position for each team.  Lastly, a field goal very well could decide this game, like before, so both kickers will need to be on top of their game.

Win In The Trenches, Win The Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Flacco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Kruger

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

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.

Do The Ravens Really Have A Chance?

January 10, 2013 in What to Look For

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peyton Manning (left) and Ray Lewis (right)

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

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

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

Paul Kruger

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

 

Ravens Clinch Playoff Berth Despite Loss

December 18, 2012 in Observations

Baltimore Homepage

The 9-5 Baltimore Ravens lost their third straight game to the 11-3 Denver Broncos by a score of 34-17.  This loss marked the most lopsided home loss for the Ravens under head coach John Harbaugh and is their first 3 game losing streak since October of 2009.  It also makes 9 straight games that QB Peyton Manning has beaten the Ravens (including playoffs).  However, they were able to clinch a playoff berth since the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the Dallas Cowboys.

Joe Flacco
Flacco made history yesterday against the Broncos but not in the right way.  His QBR from the game was 0.4, the only performance that has been worse this season was his week 7 game against the Houston Texans.  He also became the first QB to have two games in a season with a QBR under 1 since Jets QB Mark Sanchez, who did this in 2009.  Since this is Flacco's contract year, he needs to be playing his best game, not a record setting bad performance.  If you want a big, new contract, then you don't need your name to come up with Mark Sanchez's in terms of stats.  There were two plays that were absolutely atrocious.  The first came on the Ravens first drive.  It was a 3rd and 1 and Flacco ran a QB sneak.  He had the first down but, on his way to the ground he fumbled the ball and the Broncos recovered.  This not only allowed the Broncos to set the tone defensively, but Flacco gave Peyton Manning the ball at midfield.  Even if the Ravens had all their defensive players healthy, it wouldn't be good, let alone when 4 of your top 5 tackles are out and your top CB is out.  The second play occurred when the Ravens were inside the Broncos 5 yardline.  Flacco tried to throw a quick out route to WR Anquan Boldin but Broncos CB Chris Harris jumped the route and returned the ball for a touchdown.  This happened with 15 seconds left in the half and the Ravens were about to go into half with the momentum after a good drive.  They had the possibility to go in down 10-7 but instead went to half down 17-0.  A 14 point swing is never good, but it is even worse when you are about to go into halftime and your team will get the ball to start the second half.  The only real credit that Flacco deserves for this game is he was able to chase down Harris on his return.  Flacco dove and tripped Harris up but, Harris was able to dive into the endzone.  For a playoff team, this is not what you need your QB's best play to be.

Joe Flacco

Ravens QB Joe Flacco on the field after giving up a pick 6. It basically sums up the Ravens day.

Ray Rice
While some people may say that new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell called an awful game because Rice only carried the ball 12 times, consider this.  On those 12 carries, Rice only averaged 3.2 yards and when you factor in his 3 catches for 3 yards, he averaged 2.7 yards per touch.  You can't blame Caldwell for trying something else.  In my opinion there was nothing wrong with Caldwell's play calling.  There was, however, a massive problem with execution of these plays.  The offensive line couldn't block anyone and Flacco was, well Joe Flacco this season.  One of Rice's catches did go for a first down but that was his only real impact on the game because the Broncos were able to contain him very well, so credit them.

Bernard Pierce
The Broncos were able to contain Pierce as well as Rice but, Pierce was able to do a little more damage with his few touches.  He had 5 rushes for 20 yards with a long of 14.  This 14 yard run was the Ravens first, first down of the game.  This may not sound like much but, when you consider that it came with 8 minutes left in the 2nd quarter, then it matters.  As I said earlier, there was a massive execution problem and this is why it took so long to get a first down.  Even then, on the next play, Pierce had a similar run but it was taken away by a holding penalty.  Pierce left the game with a concussion and never returned.

Dennis Pitta
If there was one positive on offense, then it was Pitta.  Even he had his faults though, as he uncharacteristically dropped 2 passes including 1 that would have been a first.  The other would have been 16 yards short of a first with defenders around him so it wouldn't have mattered.  To give him credit both were semi-difficult catches but, he got both hands on the ball each time.  On one play he had a diving catch but came up 1 yard short on this 3rd and 10.  Of his 7 catches, only 1 went for a first down but, he had 1 touchdowns.  The first touchdown was a diving catch on a seam route on a 2nd and 25.  The other was a 5 yard out route which was wide open.  The impressive part of this play was that Pitta broke 3 tackles, including one with a spin move, while running down the sideline for the touchdown.  By far, this was the play of the day for the Ravens. In the end, he finished with 7 catches for 125 yards with 2 TDs, on 10 targets.

Dennis Pitta

Ravens TE Dennis Pitta runs after catching a pass.

Jacoby Jones
His impact was felt more in the return game than on offense.  He returned 4 kickoffs for 112 yards and had a long of 50 yards.  This set the Ravens up with good field position multiple times.  His main offensive play was a 43 yard leaping catch which put the Ravens in Broncos territory on the first play after the 2 minute warning in the first half.  Flacco would throw his interception a few plays later but Jones gave the offense hope. In the late 3rd quarter, he left with an injury but came back after missing 2 plays.

Tandon Doss
Due to a concussion to Torrey Smith, Doss was able to get lots of playing time.  Doss had 2 catches for 28 yards on 4 targets.  Both of these catches went for first downs and he was overthrown on a comeback route where he was open which would have been another first down.  Lastly, he had one punt return and made the most of it as he returned it for 40 yards which led to Pitta's first touchdown catch.  Over the last few games, Doss has been going back for returns near the Ravens endzone.  This is probably because the Ravens trust him to catch it more than Jones. The Ravens have previously done this with S Ed Reed and CB Lardarius Webb.

Offensive Line
Your offense starts in the trenches and, if they don't play well, the offense as a whole won't play well.  On almost every pass play, they gave up pressure.  At the end of the 3rd quarter, the had given up 15 QB hurries, 8 knockdowns on 33 pass plays.  Based on my count, they finished with 18 hurries, 10 knockdowns, 3 sacks (not counted as knockdowns), and 1 roughing the passer for a hit to the head.  These stats are completely unacceptable.  If you want Flacco to succeed, then he needs to be protected as he needs to worry about finding the open receiver, not thinking about where the pass rushers will be breaking through this time.  In the running game, the line wasn't much better.  They couldn't get any holes for Rice and Pierce.  They were either getting no push, or they were missing blocks.  Individually, C Matt Birk had 1 holding call and it took back a 15 yard run by Pierce which stalled the drive.  Left guard Jah Reid gave up 1 sack.  Veteran RG Bobbie Williams played for the injured Marshal Yanda and allowed 1 sack and had a holding in Denver territory which stalled that drive.  Overall, their play was downright awful and needs to improve by next week.

Ravens offensive line

The Ravens offensive line was very disappointing yesterday.

Albert McClellan
If Pitta was the bright spot on offense, then McClellan was the bright spot on defense and special teams.  When he was in punt coverage, he had a hard hit which forced a fumble but the returner was down first.  On the Ravens first kickoff in the 2nd half, he forced fumble but, like last week, the ball went out-of-bounds before anyone could recover it.  On defense, he had one of the Ravens two sacks of Manning.  McClellan's sack came on 1st down and went for a loss of 10 yards.  This stopped the Broncos drive after they had gotten multiple first downs already.  He finished with 6 tackles and was playing through a hamstring injury.

Josh Bynes
Making his first start, Bynes played how I expected him to.  He led all defensive players with 13 tackles and has had a QB hit and a pass deflection.  Most of his tackles came more than 5 yards downfield though.  This was predictable as he barely has any experience at the NFL level.  On Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno's TD run, Bynes got blocked to the ground.  His best play came on the Broncos first drive of the game. The Broncos had a 3rd and 11 and Manning threw an underneath pass to a RB.  Bynes was able to stay with the receiver and stopped him 4 yards short of the first down.  If he doesn't make the tackle, the Broncos would have gotten the first down and more.  Overall, Bynes showed some potential but also showed why he started the season on the practice squad.

Ed Reed
In what was supposed to be a big matchup, Reed was burned by Manning multiple times.  I don't have the number of how many times he was beat but it was enough to know that Manning wasn't afraid to go after him like a lot of quarterbacks are.  On Eric Decker's 51 yard TD catch, Reed came up like he was expecting an out route.  After the play he was visibly upset and threw his helmet.  It is unknown if he was upset at himself or at CB Cary Williams who was covering on the play and seemed to give up.  Reed also didn't have a good game in run support as Moreno hurdled him despite Reed being almost vertical.  Reed later had this to say about that play, “I was not expecting him to jump, honestly.  I couldn’t react because I was just dealing with a lot of sickness early in the game.  I just wasn’t all the way into it, honestly.  I was dealing with flu symptoms and everything. I just kind of watched him jump over me. I wasn’t expecting that at all.”

Cary Williams
Like most of the Ravens, Williams had an underwhelming performance.  He allowed 6 catches and 3 of these were for first downs and 1 was for a touchdown.  As stated above, on the touchdown, he seemed to give up once the ball was in the air.  This is not acceptable, especially when you are in your contract year and trying to prove that you are worth a lot of money.  He did have 2 nice pass breakups including one in the endzone. Williams was called for an unnecessary roughness penalty for a late hit.  This was also unacceptable as the receiver was way out-of-bounds.  In run defense, Williams was able to make a tackle for a loss though.

Cary Williams (purple)

Ravens CB Cary Williams (purple) is beat by Broncos WR Eric Decker for a touchdown.

The Return of Ray Lewis?

December 14, 2012 in What to Look For

Baltimore Homepage

The 9-4 Baltimore Ravens head home to face their longtime enemy, Peyton Manning, who is now with the 10-3 Denver Broncos.

1.  Injuries
Over the first few games, the Ravens had very few players on the injury report, and when they were, they were probable.  Now, the entire team, especially the defense, has been ravaged by injuries.  On the offensive side, All-Pro G Marshal Yanda is questionable with a sprained ankle.  If he can't go, then veteran Bobbie Williams is expected to take his place.  Another All-Pro, FB Vonta Leach is questionable with an ankle injury. Backup TE Ed Dickson is doubtful again this week with a knee injury.  The defensive side is much worse.  The top three ILBs either out of questionable.  Star ILB Ray Lewis will be talked about later on, but Dannell Ellerbe is questionable after missing the last two games and Jameel McClain has already been ruled out.  If none of these three can play, the Ravens will be left with a player who started the season on the practice squad, Josh Bynes, a 36 year old career special teamer, Brendon Ayanbadejo, and an OLB in Albert McClellan.  Interestingly, none of these three were drafted, but then again, Ellerbe and McClain are also undrafted.  Reigning defensive player of the year, Terrell Suggs, is questionable, again, after missing last week with a torn bicep.  Starting S Bernard Pollard is questionable with a rib injury and hasn't been able to practice all week. Backup James Ihedigbo will take over if Pollard can't play.  Ihedigbo was cut by the Patriots after training camp this year.  Lastly, CB Jimmy Smith is questionable with a sports hernia that he had surgery for after the November 4th game against the Browns.  Overall, that is more starters who are out or questionable, 7, than the entire Broncos injury report, 5.

2.  Joe Flacco
There are two reasons to watch Flacco on Sunday.  The first is to see how he plays under new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell.  Caldwell has said he won't change much at all.  He also has a better relationship with Flacco than Cam Cameron did.  The second reason to watch Flacco is to see how he plays against Peyton Manning.  With how banged up the Ravens defense is, Flacco will have to bring his "A" game to give the Ravens a chance against the Broncos.  Over the last 7 games, Flacco only has two games with more than 200 passing yards.  To complicate matters more, the Broncos rank 7th in the NFL in pass yards per game allowing only 216 per game.  They also rank 11th in the NFL is opposing QB rating, with 80.5.  I can see Flacco having a big game against the Broncos now that he has Caldwell as his offensive coordinator.  However, I can also see him struggling against this tough Broncos defense.

Joe Flacco

Ravens QB Joe Flacco will need a big game for the Ravens to win.

3.  Offensive Tackles
Another thing that the Broncos defense excels at, is rushing the passer.  They rank tied for 2nd in the NFL with 39 sacks.  A whopping 16 of these come from OLB Von Miller.  That is 41% of their sacks.  The Ravens have allowed 31 sacks this year, which ties them for 18th best in the NFL.  To complicate matters even more, the Ravens offensive tackles have struggled recently.  Rookie RT Kelechi Osemele has given up 1 sack over the last 2 games.  Michael Oher, the LT, has been part of 3 turnovers in the last 2 games.  In the Steelers game, he gave up a strip sack which led to the Steelers tying the game.  He also allowed pressure on an INT that game.  In the Redskins game, he also gave up a strip sack which gave the Redskins the ball around midfield.  They will both have their hands full with Miller.  Miller switches sides a lot so there is no way to say who he will be facing for most of the game.  All we know is that if Miller isn't blocked, the Ravens will have a long day.

Ray Lewis

Ravens star ILB Ray Lewis might return for this week's game against the Broncos.

4.  Ray Lewis
As of right now, nobody knows if Lewis play.  For him to be able to, he must be activated from the IR/Designated the Return List.  Due to this, he isn't listed on the injury report but, if he was, he would be listed as questionable.  Normally, I would say the Ravens shouldn't let him play as they will need him healthy for the playoffs. However, the Ravens have lost their 2 games and have looked awful recently.  The return of Ray could give the team a boost.  Another thing is the depth the Ravens have at ILB.  As stated above, the two player who have started at ILB with Lewis gone, are out and questionable.  Lastly, the Ravens won't want a very inexperienced Josh Bynes to be the person matching up against Peyton Manning in audibles.  This would be a complete mismatch.  While Lewis hasn't beaten Manning much, he has always been able to keep up with Manning's audibles and knows exactly what defense to go to based off of Manning's calls.  In the end, nobody knows if Lewis will play, but he is exactly what the Ravens need right now.

Ravens Blow Late Lead

December 11, 2012 in Observations

The 9-4 Baltimore Ravens lost 31-28 in OT to the 7-6 Washington Redskins on a 34 yard field goal by Kai Forbath.  For the second time in two weeks, the Ravens blew a late lead.  This time it was an 8 point lead with 4:47 left in the game.

Coaching
While the offensive play calling was good this game, there were two situations where I disagree with what the Ravens coaching staff decided. The first was after the Ravens scored their last touchdown with 4:47 left in the game, they kicked the extra point.  This put the Ravens up by 8 points. The Redskins had to go down and score a touchdown and score a two-point conversion to tie the game.  If the Ravens went for a two-point conversion and made it, they would have been up by 9 points which is a two possession game.  Even if they didn't get the two-point conversion, the worst that would happen would be overtime as the Redskins would kick the extra point if they scored.  The other two situations were at the end of each half.  At the end of the first half, the Ravens had the ball with about 45 seconds left.  While the ball was on their own 13 yardline, they only needed about 40 yards to get into range for a 63 yard field goal.  With 45 seconds left, this should be very feasible but instead the Ravens ran it twice and threw 2 short passes and gained a total of 18 yards on 4 plays.  At the end of regulation the Ravens had the ball at their own 20 with about 30 seconds left.  They just took a knee and went into overtime.  This is more understandable as the offense hadn't done good over the last few drives.  These two decisions are rumored to be one of the reasons for offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's firing.

Defense
Just a few general things about the defense before we go player-by-player.  Overall the tackling was atrocious.  You can definitely give some credit to the Redskins ballcarries but you also have to blame the Ravens as there rarely was a play where the Redskins went down on first contact.  Most of the 15 completed passes against the Ravens came when they were in zone defense.  More specifically, they came in-between the linebackers and the safeties.  This is always a weakness in zone defenses but linebackers can usually get deep enough before a receiver gets there.  The Redskins were able to exploit this with play-action passes.  These plays completely confused the linebackers sometimes creating big holes in the middle of the defense.  Even when it wasn't play-action, the linebackers were looking for run more than pass and they were taking a few steps towards the line-of-scrimmage.  This needs to be fixed for next week as Broncos QB Peyton Manning excels at play-action passes.

Cary Williams (29)

Ravens CB Cary Williams (29) tries to tackle Redskins WR Pierre Garcon (88).

Joe Flacco
It was almost like Flacco played two different games against the Redskins.  The first half was almost perfect for Flacco as he threw for 3 touchdowns and each pass was great.  On the first, Anquan Boldin ran an out-and-up.  Flacco pump faked the out and then threw a perfect pass to Boldin in the endzone.  The next one was also to Boldin but was an even better play.  After looking at the Redskins defensive alignment, Flacco audibled to a different play.  On the play, Flacco looked left and pump faked to WR Torrey Smith on a slant.  He then looked right and threw a great pass to Boldin for the touchdown.  The last touchdown pass was an out route to TE Dennis Pitta in the endzone where Flacco placed the ball where only Pitta could get it.  Against the blitz, Flacco really struggled.  Both of his turnovers came against the blitz and he seemed to not recognize some of the blitzes.  His fumble wasn't really his fault but the interception was his fault.  The Redskins had 6 rushers and the Ravens only had 5 blockers.  He either has to bring a blocker into the backfield or get rid of the ball right away.  He finished 16-of-21 for 182 yards with 3 TDs and 1 INT.  His QB rating was 121.4 and QBR was 54.2.

Running Backs
Both Ray Rice and backup Bernard Pierce had outstanding games.  Rice had 121 yards on 20 rushes with a TD.  He also had his longest run this season, 46 yards.  Rice was able to average 6.1 yards per carry and Pierce had 6.8 on 8 carries for 53 yards.  Due to this success in the run game, Flacco only attempted 2 passes in the whole 3rd quarter.  This was also the quarter where Flacco had his two turnovers so the Ravens didn't get any points.  Both Rice and Pierce had an impact in the passing game.  Rice had 3 catches for 15 yards on 4 targets and Pierce had 2 catches for 11 yards on 2 targets.

Dennis Pitta
As I have said before, an easy way to tell if the Ravens offense is doing good is look at Pitta's stat line.  He finished with 5 catches for 46 yards and 1 TD on 6 targets.  What is most revealing to me is he had no first down catches.  Pitta is usually a first down machine.  His touchdown was on a 3rd and 10 though so you can give him a small break.

Anquan Boldin
Despite the Ravens only completing 16 passes, Boldin had a great game.  He caught the ball every time he was targeted and had 3 catches for 78 yards and 2 TDs.  Both of his TD catches were described above and his first one put him over 10,000 career receiving yards.  His other catch was on a 3rd and 4.  He caught it 8 yards downfield and then carried CB DeAngelo Hall for 20 more yards and was finally tackled at the 7 yardline. On the next play, Ray Rice scored on a 7 yard run.  So he scored 2 TDs and set up another.  The only negative for Boldin was he got called for a holdin penalty which negated a 4 yard run.

Anquan Boldin (81) and Jacoby Jones (12)

Ravens WR Anquan Boldin (81) celebrates one of his two touchdowns with WR Jacoby Jones.

Offensive Line
One Rice's long run, the offensive line dominated the Redskins defenders.  They blocked down and pushed the Redskins defensive line way away from the play.  On the touchdown pass to Pitta, Flacco had all day to find a receiver.  They also had great blocks on Rice's TD run.  Now for player specific notes.  Jah Reid had another false start.  Kelechi Osemele had a false start on a 1st and 10 inside the Ravens own 20 which really set back the drive.  Michael Oher had the worst game of all lineman.  He allowed a QB hit on Flacco inside the Redskins 20.  If he had given Flacco an extra second he would have hit WR Jacoby Jones for a TD.  Oher also gave up the strip sack of Flacco which occurred around midfield which is huge in field position terms.

Arthur Jones
Jones continued a trend of making his impact plays in bunches.  Two of his three impact plays came back-to-back and all 3 came at key situations.  After a good Sam Koch punt was downed at the Redskins 14, Jones went to work.  On first down, he stopped a run for a loss of 3 yards.  The next play he came in and sacked Redskins QB Robert Griffin III.  This was the first time that Griffin was visibly injured.  He stayed down for a moment but then got back up.  These two plays helped the Ravens get the ball back at the Washington 47.  However, the offense went 3 and out.  The last impact play made by Jones was a half sack with Paul Kruger.  This sack came on the Redskins final drive in regulation. On 1st and 10 from the Washington 36, Jones and Kruger sacked Griffin for a loss of 9.  This was the play before Griffin had to come out injured. With this performance, Jones now has 4.5 sacks in the last 3 games.

Paul Kruger
Just like Jones, Kruger extended his his sack streak to 5 games and now has 6.5 sacks in that period.  Kruger's sack came on a 1st down. Griffin was slowed down by DE Haloti Ngata on the play and Kruger was able to finish him off for a loss of 8.  This sack stalled the Redskins drive There were also other QB pressures from Kruger throughout the game.  As stated above, his sack that was split with Jones came on the last drive of regulation.  He also was in the right place at the right time as he recovered a fumble for a gain of 9 yards.  This put the Ravens at the Redskins 14 yardline and then three plays later, Dennis Pitta scored his touchdown.

Ed Reed
Unlike normally, Reed could be credited for 2 touchdowns against him.  He also made no impact plays.  The first touchdown came when the Ravens were in zone coverage.  Reed seemed to know the ball was going to WR Joshua Morgan as he followed him all the way across the endzone but wasn't able to stop the pass.  The second touchdown could be credited to either Reed or CB Chris Johnson.  It looked like they were in zone again on this play.  The receiver on the play, Pierre Garcon, ran a corner route and split the zone.  Reed was over the top and Johnson was underneath.  The throw was just over Johnson's outstretched arms and Reed couldn't close the distance in time.  Reed will need to be on his game next week against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos as the last time the Ravens won against Manning was in December of 2001.

Ed Reed

Ravens star S Ed Reed had an underwhelming game against the Redskins.