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Ravens Free Agency Recap: Week 1 Ends with "A" Grade

March 19, 2014 in Baltimore Ravens, Free Agency

For Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome and the rest of Ravens front office, the 2014 off season is the polar opposite of what their 2013 off season campaign produced. Having just beaten the San Francisco 49ers, 34-31, in Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens watched, as no less than nine contributing starters from that team left via free agency, trade or was cut by the team. Two key contributors, Ray Lewis and Matt Birk retired. All of the losses would add up to a very different looking team than the one that had just captured the franchises second Lombardi Trophy in franchise history. images (20)

The Ravens were forced to re-sign QB Joe Flacco, who parlayed a remarkable championship run into a then NFL record $120.6 million dollar contract. Not able to reach a deal the prior off season, Flacco entered the final year of his rookie deal literally having to stay healthy and play for his next big pay day—he hit the jackpot. Because of Flacco’s deal, the Ravens chances of being able to bring back some of those key players from the 2013 squad became an impossible feat. WR Anquan Boldin refused to restructure his contract and was dealt the team he had a very big part in beating in the Super Bowl. Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, the heir apparent to Ray Lewis and coming off a stellar playoff run himself, took his talents to South Beach and signed with the Dolphins when the Ravens could not enter the same ballpark at the negotiating table.

However, Newsome refused to throw money away on players that contributed to a Super Bowl title but were not exactly stars—but because they were coming off a championship, those players, as Flacco did in Baltimore and Ellerbe in Miami, cashed in elsewhere with other NFL teams. We see it every off season. Teams overpay for the right to bring in a player that appeared more valuable to their team than they actually were during a title run. Newsome did not throw away money at players like Paul Kruger and for that, he was able to bring in other free agents for less money. He managed to sign players such as Elvis Dumervil, Darryl Smith, and Chris Canty and although they did not finish the year, Michael Huff and Marcus Spears were considered value signings at positions of need when they were originally signed.

With the retirement of Lewis (37) and Birk (36), the trading of Boldin (32) and allowing Ed Reed (34) to sign elsewhere, the Ravens were able to get younger, which was another goal of Newsome and Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti. The off season value signings failed to produce a winner on the field, as the Ravens battled injuries, a poor rushing attack and bad offensive line and became the second straight Super Bowl champion to miss the playoffs, finishing with an 8-8 record.

With Boldin gone and one of those major injuries to his favorite target TE Dennis Pitta, Joe Flacco threw as many interceptions (22) last season as he did in the previous two seasons (12 & 10) combined. He produced only 19 touchdown passes and never did find the long ball in an offense that produced so many big plays for the team the year before. The Ravens really seemed to miss the leadership of Ray Lewis and from Head Coach John Harbaugh all the way down, the Super Bowl champs never seemed to be on the same page. The Ravens still managed to remain in the playoff hunt, as the AFC’s sixth seed, up until 4:00 p.m. on the last Sunday of the regular season but the goal was clear, after five straight playoff appearances and  Super Bowl title, missing the playoffs wasn’t going to be tolerated or accepted in the organization. It was understood that making the playoffs had to the norm and missing the exception to the rule for this franchise.

Entering this offseason the plan was simple —fix what ailed the team in 2013. During the final press conference of the 2013 season, in what team officials call “The State of  the Ravens,  every important member of the Ravens organization off the field attended and answers questions about what went wrong in 2013. Promises were made and lines, albeit soft one, drawn in the sand.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti summed up the Ravens approach best by saying, “I have to be patient to let people fail, but I don't have to be patient enough to let people repeat failure. I'll be more apt to get my way next year if their solutions don't change the problems. That's fair, that's where I am as owner”.

Bisciotti would go on to say, "They know they've failed, they know they need to change, and to make improvements. If it's not the way I think it should be and then it fails again, then obviously it comes down to owner-head coach relationship."  Bisciotti knows the No. 1 priority this offseason was to build the offense. Head coach John Harbaugh has usually had offenses that finished in the middle of the rankings, but the Ravens were No. 29 last season. They averaged only 83 rushing yards per game.

With the goal clear, the Ravens have entered this off season to this point having done the exact opposite of what occurred last year. Instead of watching their free agents sign elsewhere, the Ravens locked their biggest ones up early in the process and stayed patient with the remaining ones, re-signing them at deals considered good values.

It began in mid-February when the Ravens and LB Terrell Suggs agreed on a new contract. The 31-year-old Suggs was entering the last year of a long-term contract that would have put his cap number at $12.4 million next season, but the new deal lowered that number to $7.8 million, which gave the Ravens much needed salary cap space. GM Ozzie Newsome hinted during the January state of the Ravens press conference that the Ravens would look to restructure his contract after he failed to produce much during the second half of last season. Suggs had nine sacks through the first eight games of the 2013 season. He finished with 10 sacks.

That deal allowed the Ravens to get started on contract talks with TE Dennis Pitta and 11 days before Joe Flacco’s favorite was set to hit the FA market, he agreed to a five-year $32 million deal, which makes him one of the top 10 paid tight ends in the league in terms of annual average salary.

The biggest priority this off season was to make sure the Ravens did not lose both offensive tackles. Eugene Monroe and Michael Oher were set to become free agents when the market opened and all signs pointed to losing the pair just days before the March 11 4:00 p.m. deadline. Baltimore was willing to part with Oher but Monroe was a different story. Acquired for a fourth round draft pick in October from the Jacksonville Jaguars, Monroe was listed as high as the No.3 free agent this off season on NFL.com. The two sides appeared to be far away as the deadline approached but as he always seems to do, Ozzie Newsome got his guy and at his price.

The Ravens agreed to terms with Monroe, whom the Ravens did not franchise and would have been forced to pay $11 million if they had. Instead, Newsome signed one of the better tackles in the game to a five-year $37.5 million deal, which has turned to be not just one of the best values in free agency for the Ravens but one of the best in all of free agency. Newsome and the Ravens got a little bit lucky in signing Monroe as quickly as they did. The market seemed to dry up a bit for Monroe when several other highly sought after tackles took advantage of one of the NFL’s newer policies in that players are free to negotiate with teams two days prior to the actual start of free agency. Once 4:00 p.m. Tuesday rolled around, Jared Veldheer and Branden Albert were signing on the dotted line with Arizona and Miami respectively.

The Raiders chose to replace Veldheer with the Rams Roger Saffold but after failing his physical, owner Mark Davis killed the deal sending Saffold back to the Rams. Luckily, for the Ravens, Monroe had already agreed to terms. Oakland entered the free agency period with nearly $66 million in salary cap room and would have offered him a deal likely for what Albert got from Miami. The Dolphins gave the former Cardinal Tackle nearly nine million more than Monroe and before he failed the physical, Saffold’s deal in Oakland would have paid him five million more than Monroe and Saffold isn’t nearly the tackle Monroe is.  While they say it’s better to be lucky than good—the saying timing is everything applies just as well in this case for the Ravens and when it comes to issues such as this—it always seems to.

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Dick Cass, John Harbaugh, Ozzie Newsome and Steve Bisciotti

Baltimore also re-signed WR / KR Jacoby Jones and inside linebacker Darryl Smith—both key contributors to last year’s squad and both salary cap friendly value based deals. Jones was considered a luxury as the primary kick returner and likely third or fourth wide receiver but after visiting the NY Giants, signed for a maximum value of $14 million if he hits all of his incentive clauses, sources said. He's guaranteed $4.5 million and he has a $2 million incentive clause based on catches.

Last Friday the Ravens re-signed ILB Darryl Smith, who started every game at middle linebacker last year and led the Ravens in tackles. His deal was for four years and could be worth up to $16.1 million.  Losing Smith would have been costly. Starting all 16 games in the same position that Ray Lewis occupied for the Ravens for the previous 17 seasons, Smith finished first on the team in tackles (125), third in sacks (five), tied for second in interceptions (three), second in passes defended (19) and tied for first in forced fumbles (two). Even more was the value in the deal. Former Browns LB D'Qwell Jackson signed for four years and $22 million with Indy while Karlos Dansby replaced Jackson in Cleveland by inking a four-year, $24 million with Cleveland. Both more than Smith. ProFootballFocus.com ranked Smith 16th among all inside linebackers in 2013, while Dansby was fifth and Jackson 42nd.

The Ravens did not attempt to re-sign CB Corey Graham (Bills) WR Tandon Doss (Jaguars), OT Michael Oher (Titans), ILB Jameel McClain (Giants) and DE / DT Arthur Jones, who hit the jackpot with his old defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis. They did bring back Safety Jeromy Miles as well as ILB Albert McClellan.

The Ravens went outside the organization last Friday afternoon for the first time in free agency when they signed former Carolina Panthers WR Steve Smith. The move was puzzling in that back in 2011, the Ravens cut a player similar to Smith in Derrick Mason and is Smith really the type of receiver the Ravens need? He is not really the Anquan Boldin type and said so himself. Smith’s best days are well behind him, as he turns 35 in May. However, last season in Carolina, he still managed to haul in 64 passes for 765 yards and 4 TD’s. His receptions and yards would have placed him second on the Ravens in 2012 behind Torrey Smith, which is where Steve Smith will play.

In 2012, No.89 caught 73 passes for 1,174 yards and four scores. In 2011, he logged 79 catches for 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns, earning his fifth Pro Bowl selection. Smith passion for the game will be good in a mundane Ravens huddle. He is not likely to allow Flacco off the hook so easy when he isn’t playing at his best, which is similar to how Anquan Boldin handled Joe Cool.

To Smith’s credit, he knows what his role will be and will likely do it well. He has acknowledged that he is no longer a No. 1 receiver at this stage, and he admitted that one of the draws to signing with the Ravens was that they have several established players on offense – he specifically mentioned Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Ray Rice – so there is not as much pressure on him. Smith also spoke highly about new OC Gary Kubiak’s offense with the Houston Texans.  He said he saw himself not in the role of perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson, but in the role of Kevin Walter, who never caught more than 65 passes in a season.

Smith got a three-year contract with the Ravens,  worth $11.5 million with a $3.5 million signing bonus  and only time will tell if he’s a good fit for the Ravens offense, and if what he has to offer on the field and in the locker room is what the Ravens need. He could be a nice complementary piece and should help quarterback Joe Flacco. But the success of the Ravens’ passing game in 2014 will still depend on Flacco improving his accuracy and decision-making and the offense line doing a better job of protecting him. The other issue is how fast Flacco and Smith make a connection. Flacco has a tendency to avoid throwing to new receivers in the Ravens system and tends to stick to his “favorites”. Smith won’t tolerate that if he’s open and he won’t keep quiet about it. He also said one of the reasons he elected to sign with Baltimore was because HC John Harbaugh said he wanted him to be himself.  That also seems opposite of what the Ravens have wanted over the last few off seasons. Harbaugh seemed very content to allow the more vocal players—players with Steve Smith’s type of personality to sign elsewhere or the Ravens cut them.

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Dennis Pitta..Photo credit Baltimore Ravens

Derrick Mason, Bernard Pollard, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin were all jettisoned. But it is possible that Harbaugh realizes leadership can be too quiet at times and rattling a few cages by employing a few alpha males may not be such a bad idea after all.  Re-signing Jacoby Jones and signing Steve Smith are a good indication of that. If for no other reason, the Smith signing may wake up a few players.

The Ravens front office is steadfast in its basic philosophy and has showed so far this offseason why they are one of the top front offices in all of sports. They refuse to overpay players who are past their prime, as they showed in giving Terrell Suggs a new contract. Suggs would surely have been cut had he not agreed to a lesser number in 2014. The Ravens also stay patient—very patient in free agency.

That was also on full display with players such as Darryl Smith who was allowed to watch, as two other players set the market for his position. They also know when to pounce as they did with Steve Smith. As soon as the Panthers cut the 13-year veteran, the Ravens scheduled his visit and never let him leave town without a deal. Smith had options, plenty of them. The Chargers had a deal on the table for him and he was on the phone with Patriots HC Bill Belichick, as he prepared to board a plane but the weather last Friday along the east coast delayed his visit until Monday to New England. That visit was obviously not necessary, as Smith signed that day with the Ravens.

The Ravens also pounced without overpaying, as they demonstrated with Dennis Pitta and Eugene Monroe. Signing Pitta 11 days before the open of free agency and getting Monroe on day one at a great value has been the highlight of the free agency period for them.

They also showed their versatility in thinking. There is a lot of irony in re-signing many of your own players following a season when you finished .500 and missed the playoffs, as opposed to allowing seven available starters to leave in any fashion from a Super Bowl winning team. This versatility and adaptability is also, what makes The Wizard of Oz and company so special. Nate Davis of the USA Today handed out first free agency week grades and the Ravens are one of just three teams to receive an A grade thus far.

The Ravens still have plenty of work to do. They have roughly $12.3 million in cap space to use, this according to spotrac.com. GM Ozzie Newsome said during the State of the Ravens press conference that they would get the receiver that seemed to be missing last season. It is hard to imagine Steve Smith is that guy but as I noted earlier—his numbers would have been second best on the team last season.

Aside from the big-bodied receiver the Ravens still need, they must address the Tight end position and the offensive line at center and right tackle. On defense, Baltimore needs help at safety and could use another defensive tackle. Linebacker and cornerback could also use some depth.

On the offensive line, the Ravens will probably wait until after the draft to fill the guard or tackle position if they choose the free agency route. Center could be a different story. Cleveland's Alex Mack got the transition tag, and Evan Dietrich-Smith (the top unrestricted free-agent center) signed with the Buccaneers. This leaves the New York Giants' David Baas, Cincinnati's Kyle Cook and New Orleans' Brian de la Puente as the top options.

At tight end, the Ravens have Dennis Pitta and two practice squad players, Matt Furstenburg and Nathan Overbay. Tight end and safety are the Ravens' thinnest group, in terms of experience. There had been talk of the Ravens showing interest in Owen Daniels but the Ravens may elect to draft one or sign a cheaper option. Carolina's Ben Hartsock, Seattle's Kellen Davis and the New York Giants' Bear Pascoe are still available if the Ravens decide they want a blocking option to compliment Pitta.

Steve Smith

Courtesy of ICON SMI

At safety, the Ravens want someone whose strength is coverage. This would complement strong safety Matt Elam. But the Ravens elected to not throw their hat in the ring as many of the best safeties were signed on the first day of free agency. Their remaining options are Miami's Chris Clemons, Atlanta's Thomas DeCoud and Denver's Champ Bailey. Bailey is a 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback who is open to switching to safety. There are also rumors tying Ryan Clark to the Ravens—-yes that Ryan Clark of the Steelers—the same Ryan Clark who said the Ravens would never win a Super Bowl with Joe Flacco at quarterback. The Ravens continue to monitor safety James Ihedigbo.

Ihedigbo had a career-high 101 tackles and three interceptions last season while starting every game for the Ravens. The team has not ruled out bringing back Ihedigbo, who visited the Detroit Lions last week and left without a deal.

Newsome will continue to add to a roster that less than two years removed from its Super Bowl win, is vastly different. There are still the familiar faces of Joe Flacco, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs but the Ravens' 2014 team has just 22 of the 46 players who dressed for SB 47.  If history tells us anything it’s that Ozzie Newsome will fill the Ravens positions of need with the best available players and he will do it at the price the Ravens want to pay.

Ravens Re-Sign Daryl Smith

March 14, 2014 in Free Agency, News

The Baltimore Ravens continue to keep their own players in free agency by re-signing inside linebacker Daryl Smith.

It is a four-year deal worth a total of $16.1 million. The guaranteed money and signing bonus are currently unknown. Once all the contract information is known, I will post a contract breakdown as always.

Last year was the only season that he had played with the Ravens during his career. Late in free agency, the Ravens signed him to a one-year deal worth just over $1 million.

Daryl Smith

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Prior to playing for the Ravens, he spent his entire career with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Drafted by them in the second round of the 2004 NFL Draft, he spent nine seasons in Jacksonville starting a total of 124 games.

His best statistical season with the Jaguars came in 2011. He recorded 107 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception.

The reason the Ravens were able to get him so cheap last offseason was because he only played two games the year before. A nagging groin injury limited him to just two games all season. This injury––combined with his age, now 32––scared some teams away.

This signing turned out to be a steal for the Ravens. He stepped into the starting lineup right away and filled the void left by the legendary Ray Lewis who had just retied.

For the season, he had 123 tackles, five sacks, two forced fumbles, three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and 18 passes defensed. Of these, his tackles, sacks, interceptions and passes defensed were all career highs. His interception return for a touchdown was his first touchdown of his career. This occurred in week three at home against the Houston Texans.

In the Ravens' aggressive 3-4 defense, he excelled at blitzing. At least twice a game he would blitz through the "A" gap––between the guard and center. He also was great in pass coverage last season.

According to Pro Football Focus, he graded as the 16th best inside linebacker in the league out of 55. He had the fifth highest pass coverage grade and the third highest pass rushing grade. However, his run defense grade was the sixth worst in the league.

Last season, he provided key leadership and production at the inside linebacker position. Statistically he had a career year and even set a Ravens' franchise record for most passes defensed by a linebacker in one season. His performance last season earned him this new contract which pays him just over $4 million per season. This average value per year is reasonable for a player of his caliber at his position. It will be interesting to see how much guaranteed money that he received.

For Smith, this is a fair contract and a very impressive birthday present. He turned 32 today and I can't think of a better present than a new contract worth $16.1 million.

Overall, this is another solid signing for the Ravens this offseason. All they have done is re-sign their own players so far, but they have kept their most important free agents so far––something their couldn't do last offseason.

Suggs Signs Contract Extension

February 17, 2014 in Free Agency, News

Today, the Baltimore Ravens and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs agreed to a contract extension that will likely make him a Raven for life.

It was announced last night that the 31-year old Suggs and the Ravens had agreed to terms on a new contract and today they made it official at a noon Eastern time press conference.

A four-year extension on top of this season (so really a five-year deal), the total value of the contract is around $30 million. There is $16 million in guaranteed money and an $11 million signing bonus. The other $5 million in guaranteed money comes from the base salaries for this season ($1 million) and next season ($4 million). For this season, his cap hit is reduced from $12.4 million to $7.8 million which creates $4.6 million in cap space for the Ravens. In terms of actual money that he makes this season, he receives an increase as he will earn $12.4 million.

Terrell Suggs

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Entering the final year of his six-year $62.5 million deal, he was set to count as $12.4 million against the salary cap. This was the third-highest cap number on the team behind defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and quarterback Joe Flacco. Cutting or trading Suggs would have saved the Ravens $7.8 million in much needed cap space. Due to this high savings number––the largest on the team––it was widely reported that the Ravens would either cut him or renegotiate his contract to create a lower cap hit.

Drafted by the Ravens with the 10th pick in the 2003 NFL Draft, he has been with the Ravens his entire career and now seems set to finish his career in Baltimore.

Despite starting only one game as a rookie, he recorded 12 sacks (a Ravens' rookie record) and earned the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.

An electrifying pass rusher, he has five seasons with over 10 sacks (2003, 2004, 2010, 2011 and 2013).

In the 2011 season, he performed at his best setting career-highs in sacks (14.0) and forced fumbles (7). He all tied a career-high with two interceptions. With this dominant performance, he was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, making him the third Ravens' defender to earn with award along with linebacker Ray Lewis (2000 and 2003) and safety Ed Reed (2004).

The following season––2012––wasn't so kind to Suggs as he tore his Achilles' tendon during the offseason. A significant injury that causes many players to miss entire seasons, Suggs returned in late October about five and a half months after surgery. In his first game back, he recorded four tackles and one sack against the Houston Texans.

Late in the season though, he tore his biceps muscle against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Missing only one game, he came back and played in the final two regular season games.

As the Ravens started their postseason run to Super Bowl XLVII, he was clearly at less than 100 percent, but that didn't stop him from recording 10 tackles and two sacks against the Denver Broncos in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. This two-sack performance helped the Ravens' upset the heavily favored Broncos.

In Super Bowl XLVII against the San Francisco 49ers, he had two tackles in the Ravens 34-31 victory.

Despite being injured for most of the season, he battled his way through it, and his reward was a Super Bowl ring.

This season, he entered the season in the best shape of his life and it showed early in the season. Through the first eight games of the season, he had nine sacks and seemed on pace to be named defensive player of the year again. However, over the second half of the season, his performance faded as he had only one sack over the last eight games of the season. He also had only 20 of his 80 tackles during the final eight games.

Not only is he a good pass rusher, he is also stout against the run. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the best run defending 3-4 outside linebacker this season. The worst he has finished as a run defender since they started grading in 2008 was 13th during his injury riddled 2012 season. Take that season away, and the worst he has finished is third.

The impact of this deal on the Ravens is massive. By reducing his cap number this sea on by $4.6 million, they free up much needed cap room. Left tackle Eugene Monroe and tight end Dennis Pitta are two key free agents that the Ravens had who are set to hit the open market. This $4.6 million can now be used to help sign either of them. It is enough money to take up the entire 2014 cap hit of one of these two.

Before, the Ravens could have easily been outbid for one of these two, but now with Suggs' new contract, they have a much higher likelihood of being able to re-sign both of them.

For Suggs, this deal makes sense as well because he now has a contract through the 2018 season. At the end of this season, he will be 36-years old and his football future will likely be in question. This deal lets him stay in Baltimore for what is likely to be the rest of his career and gives him more money this season.

Overall, this deal is a win-win. Both sides get what they wanted as the Ravens receive cap room this season and lock up one of their veteran leaders for a few more years. Suggs gets the security of a new contract, earns more money this season and gives him the opportunity to do something he saw Lewis do just one season ago––retire as a Baltimore Raven.

Baltimore Ravens Season Awards

December 31, 2013 in News

With the Baltimore Ravens season now over after losing to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, it is time to hand out awards for the season.

Most Valuable Player

Kicker Justin Tucker
Having a kicker as the most valuable player for a team sounds strange, but that is the 2013 Baltimore Ravens. Entering the season, it looked like quarterback Joe Flacco would be the most valuable player, but he, like the entire offense, underperformed which thrust Tucker into the spotlight.

Justin Tucker

Courtesy of ICON SMI

The spotlight was never brighter than in week 15 against the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football. Due to offensive struggles, he kicked six field goals (29, 24, 32, 49, 53 and 61 yards) which was all of the Ravens points in their 18-16 victory. This was the first time in NFL history that a kicker make field goals in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s in the same game. His 61-yard field goal came with 0:38 seconds left in the game and he made it by inches. Six field goals in one game and a 61-yard field goal were both franchise records. Earlier in the season he made five field goals against the Pittsburgh Steelers (a 22-20 win) and tied the record. Two other franchise records that he set this season were most field goals made in a season (38) and most points in a season (140).

A record that he came close to breaking this season was the consecutive field goals streak. He got to 33 in a row before missing in week 16. The record is 36 which was set by Matt Stover.

For the season, Tucker went 38-of-41 on field goals including seven over 50 yards. His only misses were from 37, 44 and 50 yards. He was also a perfect 26-of-26 on extra points. Simply put, without his excellent kicking — which earned him a Pro Bowl spot — the Ravens wouldn't be 8-8 as he carried the team in certain games, and that is what a most valuable player is supposed to do.

Offensive Player of the Year

Wide Receiver Torrey Smith
With an offense that ranked fourth-worst in total yards this season, there aren't many options to choose for this award, but I settled on Smith.

Forced into the number one receiver spot in the offseason due to the trade of Anquan Boldin, Smith was given more responsibilities in the offense and he rewarded the Ravens. When tight end Dennis Pitta went down with a dislocated and fractured hip in training camp, Smith became the only target that Flacco had spent significant time with and this showed throughout the season as Smith's receiving stats where well above all other Ravens.

Setting career-highs in four different categories (catches, targets, yards and first downs), he had the best season of his three-year career with 65 catches for 1,128 yards with four touchdowns and 48 first downs on 138 targets. While a wasn't able to set the franchise record for receiving yards (1,201), he did come close and with his talent, he is sure to challenge this record in the coming seasons. He came a long way this season as he became a much more developed and balanced receiver compared to last season.

Defensive Player of the Year

Middle Linebacker Daryl Smith
Charged with the almost impossible task of replacing the legendary Ray Lewis in the middle of the Ravens' defense, Smith did everything that he was asked to do and exceeded expectations.

Signed to a one-year deal in free agency in June — well after all of the major signing that occurs in March — the Ravens picked him up for cheap with hopes that he could lead the defense and he did exactly that.  He recorded 123 tackles, five sacks, two forced fumbles, three interceptions, 19 passes defended and he returned one of his interceptions for a touchdown. A 10-year veteran, he set career-highs in tackles, sacks, interceptions, passes defended and his touchdown was the first of his career. The 19 passes defended was something that Lewis was never able to do as the most he ever mustered was 13 and Smith set a franchise record for linebackers with these 19.

Along with great performance, he provided the defense with veteran leadership — something it was lacking after the departures of Lewis and safety Ed Reed. Smith commanded the Ravens' defense with great acumen and it showed as the Ravens' defense ranked 12th in total defense and points per game.

Special Teams Player of the Year (not named Justin Tucker)

Kick/Punt Returner Jacoby Jones
The best special teams player for the Ravens this season was Tucker, but I disqualified him because I gave him the MVP and he was head and shoulders above the rest. With that being said, this award goes to Jones for his returning ability.

Last season, this ability was on full display as he scored three times on kickoffs (including one in the Super Bowl) and scored once on a punt return). This year he was slowed down by a knee injury that he suffered in week one. This knocked him out for four games and he didn't seem to be fully recovered for a few weeks after that. Once he was though, he was back to his explosive self. He returned 19 punts for 237 yards (12.5 yard average) and a long of 37 yards. On kickoffs he had 892 yards on 31 returns (28.8 average, fourth-best in the NFL) with one touchdown and a long of 77 yards. He always saved his best returns for the most important times and this was best shown from his lone touchdown of the season which gave the Ravens a 22-19 lead with 1:16 left in the game against the Minnesota Vikings. He came close to another touchdown (this time against he Pittsburgh Steelers), but Steelers' head coach Mike Tomlin stepped onto the field and this caused Jones to alter course slightly and he was caught from behind. While he very well could have been caught anyways, this play stands out from his season due to the controversy surrounding it.

Looking at his stats, he had a down year, but his season last year was shear dominance from a returner and is very tough to match. Despite an injury, he was able to have another successful season returning kicks and punts for the Ravens. His good returns set up numerous scoring drives for the Ravens all season long.

Offensive Rookie of the Year

Wide Receiver Marlon Brown
In the 2013 NFL Draft, the Ravens ended up selecting 10 players and only four of them played offense: fullback Kyle Juszczyk (fourth round), offensive tackle Ricky Wagner (fifth round), center Ryan Jensen (sixth round) and wide receiver Aaron Mellette (seventh round). Juszczyk saw few offensive snaps, Wagner played part of the first game of the season due to an injury and saw a couple of snaps each game as a sixth offensive lineman, Jensen broke his foot and never saw game action when he returned and Mellette was placed on injured reserve before the regular season started. With that being said, the Ravens did get production from Brown, an undrafted free agent.

Marlon Brown

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Due to a torn ACL last November which ended his senior season at the University of Georgia, he went undrafted. He then was going to sign with the Houston Texans, but they wanted to wait a little bit due to his knee injury, so he instead signed with the Ravens who would take him right away. This turned out to be great for the Ravens as he ended up being second on the team in the major receiving categories and actually led the team in receiving touchdowns. He had 49 catches for 524 yards with seven touchdowns (tied for a Ravens' rookie record with Torrey Smith) and 29 first downs on 82 targets in 14 games. Brown's size (6'4") proved to be an excellent asset as he has developed into a great red zone target over the course of the season. This was showcased against the Vikings as he caught a touchdown pass in the back of the end zone with four second left in the game.

While the Ravens' receiving corps will likely see an overhaul this offseason, they have a keeper in Brown who did most of his damage out of the slot this season. He may have been undrafted, but that didn't stop him from contributing to the Ravens this season, and without him stepping up, the Ravens passing game would have struggled even more — and that is hard to imagine.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Safety Matt Elam
Last on the list of awards is the Defensive Rookie of the Year, and this goes to the Ravens' first-round pick out of the University of Florida who started 15 games and played in all 16.

Entering the season-opener in Denver, Elam was a backup safety, but poor performance from free safety Michael Huff (who was actually cut a few weeks later) sent Elam into the game in the fourth quarter and gave him the job for the rest of the season. For the season, he recorded 77 tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception and three passes defended. His interception clinched the Ravens' game against the Lions as it came with less than a minute left in the game. A natural strong safety, he was more comfortable in run defense and his pass coverage struggled at times as he was beaten bad a few times. He was playing free safety as the Ravens played their two best safeties and Elam was the best free safety on the roster despite being better at strong safety where James Ihedigbo played. Elam was expected to start at strong safety, but Huff's bad play and Ihedigbo's surprisingly good performance put Elam at free safety.

While he needs to work on his pass coverage, he was clearly the best rookie on the defensive side of the ball for the Ravens this season. With Ihedigbo being a free agent, Elam could move over to strong safety next season if Ihedigbo isn't retained.

AFC Championship Rematch: Ravens vs Patriots

December 21, 2013 in What to Look For

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Flacco

Courtesy of ICON SMI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ravens Win In Crazy Finish

December 9, 2013 in Observations

With snow pouring down on M&T Bank Stadium for most of the afternoon, the Baltimore Ravens beat the Minnesota Vikings 29-26. The win pushes the Ravens record to 7-6 and keeps them as the sixth seed in the AFC. The loss for the Vikings makes their record 3-9-1.

Entering the fourth quarter, the Ravens were nursing a 7-6 lead, but the Vikings quickly scored a touchdown on an eight-yard pass to Jerome Simpson. All was quiet after this for a while.

The next score came with 2:05 left in the game where Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco hit tight end Dennis Pitta for a one-yard touchdown catch on fourth and goal. At this point, it looked like the game could be over and the Ravens would be victorious with a 15-12 lead after they converted a two-point conversion. But that was far from true.

It took the Vikings all of two plays to answer the Ravens' score. A 27-yard pass to Cordarrelle Patterson set up a 41-yard run by Toby Gerhart on a draw that caught the Ravens' defense by surprise. This gave the Vikings a 19-15 lead.

Not to be outdone, the Ravens replied without even giving the ball to their offense. Jacoby Jones took an intentionally short kickoff 77 yards for a touchdown to give the Ravens a 22-19 lead and sent the home crowd into bedlam as they assumed this would be the game winner.

This time, it took the Vikings three plays to score as Patterson caught a screen pass and went 79 yards for a touchdown to put the Vikings up 26-22 — stunning the previously jubilant Ravens' crowd.

With 45 seconds and two timeouts, Flacco and the Ravens got the ball back at their own 20-yard line. A 35-yard catch, 18-yard penalty and an 18-yard catch later, the Ravens had the ball at the Vikings nine-yard line with just 10 seconds left and were out of timeouts.

Dropping back to pass, Flacco looked to the back of the end zone where he saw wide receiver Marlon Brown open. Dragging his right foot and with his left foot firmly on the ground, Brown reeled in the game-winning pass with four seconds left in the game giving the Ravens the 29-26 victory.

To recap: there were 42 points scored in the fourth quarter (36 in the final few minutes) and only 13 points in the first three quarters. It didn't matter if you missed the first 57 minutes of the game as long as you caught the final three.

Two NFL firsts were set with this crazy fourth quarter. It was the first time in NFL history that there were six lead changes in the fourth quarter (and five of them were in the final 2:07). Second, it was the first time that there were five touchdowns scored in the last 2:07 of a game. In fact, it was the fastest that five touchdowns have been scored in a game — more than halving the previous record off five minutes and 40 seconds.

Joe Flacco
By leading the Ravens to victory on the final drive of the game, Flacco had his 18th career game-winng drive in the fourth quarter or overtime.

With this win, he is now has 61 wins in his first six NFL seasons — a new record. He entered the game tied with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Joe Flacco

Courtesy of ICON SMI

For the game, Flacco went 28-of-50 for 245 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions and had a quarterback rating of 64.2. He also ran one time for 22 yards on a scramble that led to a touchdown a few plays later.

On his first interception, the offensive line provided him with all day to throw the ball and he tried to hit running back Bernard Pierce on a wheel route. Simply put, Flacco under threw Pierce — who had a step on the defender — and the Vikings now had the Ball at their own 18-yard line. At this time in the game (very early on), the snow was still coming down heavily so this could explain the under throw from Flacco.

The next interception came when he was trying to do too much. He had scrambled out of the pocket, but instead of throwing the ball away, he tried to force it to tight end Ed Dickson on the sideline. A Vikings' defender jumped in front of Dickson and made a diving catch. This turnover led to the Vikings first touchdown. Many times this season, Flacco hasn't thrown the ball away when he should and it has hurt the Ravens.

While the responsibility of the first two interceptions rests solely on Flacco, he holds little to no responsibility for his third one. Trying to hit Jones on a deep pass, Flacco got the ball on target, but Jones dropped it and it bounced to a Vikings' defender who made a juggling catch.

Coming into the game, Flacco had only thrown three interceptions at home this season and he doubled that this week. For the season, he now has 17 interceptions — tied for third worst in the league.

On the plus side for he, as the weather cleared up, he performed better. By the time the second half came around, it was snowing less and he started to heat up.

When the game was on the line, he was at his best. On the Ravens final two drive, he went 7-of-10 for 62 yards, two touchdowns and had a passer rating of 125.8.

Yes he threw three interceptions, but he came through when it mattered the most and got the Ravens a much needed win.

Ray Rice
Going up against the 23rd-best run defense in the league, Rice struggled to get going in the first half, but found success in the second.

A tale of two halves, he ran for 18 yards on eight carries in the first and broke lose for 49 yards on nine carries in the second. A possible reason for this was the field conditions improved after halftime and this would have given him better footing for cuts.

Speaking of the weather, while running out of the tunnel onto the field before the game, he slipped and fell — thankfully, there was none of this from him during the game.

At the end of the game, he had 17 carries for 67 yards (an average of 3.9 yards). He also caught five passes for 42 yards. Three of his runs went for first downs: a gain of three on second and two, a gain of 12 on first and 10 and a gain of 12 on second and 10. He also took two passes for first downs: a gain of 13 on first and 10 and a gain of nine on third and seven.

Overall, it was a good day for nice despite the snowy conditions. A bad first half marred his total stats, but his second half was very impressive.

Dennis Pitta
After missing most of training camp, all of the pre season and 12 regular season games, Pitta made his return to the football field.

Early on in training camp, he dislocated and fractured his hip. At the time he feared his football career was over and never would have thought he would be playing this season. Head coach John Harbaugh initially ruled Pitta out for the season, but there he was on the snowy tundra making diving catches and having a major impact on the game.

Playing 41 percent of the Ravens snaps (just two of them run plays), he played a limited amount of snaps as expected. This snap count didn't stop him from being the Ravens second leading receiver though as he caught six passes for 48 yards and one touchdown on 11 targets.

Early in the game, he struggled as it was his first game since the Super Bowl in February, but he was able to find his groove later on and make an impact.

Three of his catches went for first downs including two on third downs. The first of which was a fully-extended diving catch where he body was parallel to the ground — talk about coming back with no fears.

When the game was on the line, he, like Flacco, performed his best. Scoring the first of the five touchdowns late in the game, Pitta ran a quick out route on the goal line. It was a fourth and goal situation from the one-yard line and if the Ravens didn't score, the game was likely over.

On the Ravens final drive of the game — the actual game winner — he drew a pass interference penalty which gave the Ravens 18 yards and moved the ball to the Vikings 27-yard line. While it was a questionable call, the penalty negated a Vikings interception. The ensuing play, he caught an 18-yard pass over the middle of the field which set the Ravens up with first and goal from the Vikings' nine-yard line. By now, you know what happened next…

Marlon Brown
What happened next of course was Brown making a leaping catch in the back of the end zone on a perfectly thrown pass by Flacco to give the Ravens the victory with just four seconds left.

With this touchdown, Brown, an undrafted free agent, tied Jamal Lewis for the second most touchdowns (six) by a Ravens' rookie. Torrey Smith — who was held to one catch for 11 yards yesterday — holds the record with seven.

There was more to Brown's game then his spectacular catch at the end of the game though. He edged out Pitta to lead the Ravens in receiver with seven catches for 92 yards on 11 targets. Four of these catches went for first downs including a gain of 35 on the first play of the Ravens' game-winning drive. Earlier in the game, Brown drew a pass interference call for a gain of 37 which put the ball on the Vikings 17-yard line.

On the negative side, he had one drop.

Back to the touchdown catch, the play was very reminiscent of Anquan Boldin last year. Flacco would basically throw a jump ball into the end zone where only Boldin could catch it and more often than not, he would come down with it.

Jacoby Jones
Death, taxes and explosive plays from Jones.

This week, it was another kickoff return. Only this time, he was able to finish the job and take it all the way back for a touchdown.

With everyone in the stadium stunned at the touchdown run from Gerhart, Jones made sure to change that. Taking a pooch kickoff 77 yards up the near sideline for a touchdown. Receiving the short kickoff close to that sideline, he ran along it nearly stepping out-of-bounds and, unlike last week, there was no coach on the sidelines to get in his way.

Earlier in the game, he almost broke a punt return loose as well, but he had to settle for a gain of 22 that set the Ravens offense up at the Vikings 48-yard line — though it resulted in no points.

On offense, he caught four passes for 37 yards on seven targets and three of these catches went for first downs. Trying to mix things up, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell gave Jones an end around, but the Vikings read it all the way and stopped the play for a loss of four. As already talked about, he dropped a pass that resulted in an interception for the Vikings.

Chris Canty
Moving over to the defense, they played great for the first 58 minutes, but came apart in the final two and almost lost the game for the Ravens.

At defensive end, Canty didn't lead the line with five tackles like fellow end Arthur Jones did, but Canty did make three good plays.

The first of which was a run stop of a gain of one. With he only had two tackles, he made one of them count. The other two good plays that came from him were two passes batted down at the line-of-scrimmage.

The second one was the typical pass deflection for a defensive lineman. He read where Matt Cassel, the Vikings' quarterback, was throwing to, jumped and swatted the pass away. This play was also important as it came with one minute left in the game and was the play before Patterson burnt the Ravens' defense.

While Canty's second pass breakup was normal for a defensive lineman, his first was a much more impressive play. Seeing Cassel rolling out of the pocket, Canty moved with him, and then saw the fullback going out for a pass in the flats. Canty followed the fullback and broke up the pass.

Terrell Suggs
For the second straight game, the Ravens' pass rush failed to get a sack (though they were without Elvis Dumervil who leads the team in sacks) and it is now the fifth straight game without a sack for Suggs.

While he wasn't able to record a sack, he still made his presence felt as he was third on the team with six tackles and had a team high four run stops. These run stops were for gains of one, one, zero and negative one. The stop for negative one came on a second and goal play. Also, the second run stop of a gain of one came where Cassel was scrambling out of the pocket and Suggs chased him down just past the line-of-scrimmage — so he came close to getting that sack.

Also in pass rushing, he had a pressure on a play that forced Cassel to roll out of the pocket and this resulted in an incompletion.

Lastly, Suggs missed a tackle on Petterson's 79-yard screen pass that he took all the way for a touchdown.

Daryl Smith
Continuing his excellence in pass coverage this season, Smith now has a Ravens' record to display this.

With 17 pass deflections this season, he owns the Ravens' single-season record for most pass deflections by a linebacker. Previously, this record was held by Ray Lewis (did you really think it was going to be someone else?).

This week saw Smith add two more pass deflections. The first came on a screen pass on third and 11 where he read it all the way. The second was actually a dropped interception, but it goes down as a pass deflection. He jumped in front of the route and had the pass hit his hands, but it bounced right off of them. If he was able to reel in the pass, he had plenty of room in front of him for a return.

Blitzing, another part of the game that he has performed well at this year, he had a pressure that forced an incompletion with just over one minute left in the game on first and 10.

Two plays later though, he over pursed Patterson on his screen pass. This allowed Patterson to get free and into the open field.

Smith finished second on the Ravens with seven tackles.

James Ihedigbo
All game long, Ihedigbo's play stood out for the Ravens and the grading from Pro Football Focus backs this up. They had him as the Ravens' highest graded player and the second highest graded of the game.

James Ihedigbo

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Leading the Ravens in tackles with with 12, he also had a forced fumble, a quarterback hit and a pass deflection.

Starting with his run defense, he had two run stops, each for no gain. He received help from defensive lineman DeAngelo Tyson  on the second one though as Tyson hit running back Adrian Peterson about three yards behind the line. On the negative side, he badly missed a tackle on Gerhart's touchdown.

Ihedigbo's forced fumble was a controversial one as it appeared that Gerhart's knee was on the ground when Ihedigbo ripped the ball out. The play was reviewed after being ruled a fumble on the field, but the referee didn't overturn the call. A telling sign that the play should have been overturned was that the Ravens had their defense on the field when the referee came back on the field. Rookie free safety Matt Elam, who also badly missed on Gerhart's touchdown run, recovered the fumble and celebrated by sliding in the snow.

As the strong safety in the Ravens' defense, Ihedigbo blitzes often and this game was no different. Via these blitzes he had pressure three times and was able to convert one of these pressures into a quarterback hit. The two pressures that didn't result in a quarterback hit forced incompletions. On the play that he got his quarterback hit, he hit Cassel in the arm as he was throwing the ball. This caused the pass to go up in the air near outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw who had dropped back into coverage. Upshaw proceeded to knock this pass to the ground.

Moving to pass coverage, Ihedigbo's pass breakup came on a deep pass when he was by himself in man coverage. On the Vikings only touchdown before the craziness at the end occurred, he was playing a middle zone in the end zone and wasn't quite deep enough in coverage. Simpson beat cornerback Jimmy Smith to the inside (who was clearly expecting more help from Ihedigbo) and got behind Ihedigbo for the touchdown.

Overall, this was a great performance from him as he continues to perform well this year for the Ravens.

Cornerbacks
With snow coming down all game long, the conditions weren't ideal for Flacco and Cassel to throw the ball and both of them saw struggles. The conditions also made it tough for the cornerbacks to backpedal and move around.

Cassel and the Vikings targeted Lardarius Webb for most of the game and most of their completions against cornerbacks came against him. Allowing a whopping eight passes to be completed against him, he allowed six first downs and one touchdown. The touchdown was to Patterson but it is tough to blame a cornerback for allowing a screen. What you can grade them on is how they stop this screen, and Webb failed that. With these eight completions, he gave up 159 yards (80 yards when you take away the screen to Patterson).

Webb also had five tackles and a team high four pass breakups (the next closest was two). One of these pass breakups came in the red zone and two of them came on third downs.

Smith continued his recent excellence with his performance and is now the 12th rated cornerback by Pro Football Focus. He gave up two passes, one tackle, one forced fumble and one pass deflection. The two passes he gave up were the touchdown to Simpson when Smith was in coverage with Ihedigbo and a gain of 20 on a third and six. On this play, there was extra yardage added to the end which got it to 20 yards as Smith forced a fumble which the Vikings recovered downfield. His pass deflection came on a deep pass right at the goal line.

Nickel cornerback Corey Graham didn't give up a completion based on my count, but he had two tackles and two pass breakups. The first came on a deep pass on third and five and the other was a great play just outside the red zone. The Vikings had the ball at the Ravens' 21-yard line and ran a screen pass. Reading this right away, he sprinted up and hit the receiver hard to force an incompletion. This big hit that forced the incompletion made the play stand out more, but even if the receiver held onto the ball, it was a great play.

Baltimore-Pittsburgh Rivalry is More Than Just Ravens-Steelers

October 20, 2013 in Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers

I could sit here and write an article about what the Baltimore Ravens need to do today to win their fourth straight game at Heinz Field against their most hated rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. I could point out that the Ravens need to get their 27th ranked rushing attack on track, protect their Super Bowl MVP QB against the blitzing defense of the ageless coordinator Dick Lebeau, and of course— do not turn the ball over on the road.

I could also tell you that the Ravens need to prevent Steelers QB, Ben Roethlisberger from beating them outside the pocket. Big Ben is 9-4 vs. the Ravens (incl. playoffs) and did not play in the series last season, as he recovered from a rib injury. He never seems to beat the Ravens standing behind his line, if you know what I mean.

I could tell you all of this but none of it matters—absolutely none of it. The Ravens and the Steelers will not be able to run the ball and it is likely that the QB with the ball in his hand last will win the game. That is almost a certainty.

When Baltimore and Pittsburgh battle, it’s likely to be a close game. Dating back to 2008, when John Harbaugh became head coach, the Ravens and Steelers have each won five regular season series games. Incredibly, 3 points, including seven of the last eight games, have decided eight of the last 10 contests between these teams. Three points have decided all the last five regular season games played in Pittsburgh, with the Ravens outscoring the Steelers 93-90. Finally, the Ravens have won three-straight games at Heinz Field, all by a 3-point margin.

ESPN’s Mike Golic said Friday on his radio show, Mike & Mike in the Morning, that this is probably the best rivalry in sports because it’s a rivalry played on the field—meaning the players have a genuine dislike at times for one another and it’s not just all about the fans. Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger echoed those sentiments as call in guests. However, in my humble opinion—what makes this rivalry so special is the fact that teams, cities and fan bases are so much alike, it’s almost scary. The hatred and yes it is a fair word in a respectful sense when talking football, is genuine.

It is the most physical rivalry in the NFL with both teams’ defenses leading the way, especially since John Harbaugh arrived in 2008. Since the 08 season, the Steelers and Ravens are first and third respectively in total yards allowed during that span, they are one and two in fewest points allowed, as well.

If you think this rivalry loses a little bit of explosiveness today because the Steelers are 1-4 and the Ravens are a struggling 3-3, you are wrong. If you think, the rivalry will weaken because No.52 and No.20 are no longer lining up across the line of scrimmage looking to break Ben Roethlisberger—–you would once again be wrong.

The rivalry will always exist even with players like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed now gone. It will exist when Big Ben and Joe Flacco retire. It did before their arrival and will remain long after every player that takes the field today is collecting an NFL pension. Despite the similarities in the cities and their fans, there is a genuine respected hatred between both the players and the fans. Please do not leave comments saying you do not understand how hate is involved. Please do not tell me it is just sports. If you are a true sports fan from either city, then you get where this column is going.

Have you ever heard the expression, we are too much alike, and that is why we do not get along? Well, truer words have never been spoken when it comes to the Ravens, Steelers and the great fans of each team and both cities.

Whether you admit it or not, and despite the respected hatred, the cities of Baltimore and Pittsburgh are very much alike, and so are the people. Both cities sit on the water, rose to economic prominence through the industrial age and almost died with its decline. Each utilized the waterfront to revitalize the downtown areas, and added tourism as a measure of replacement for the loss of industrial income.

Both cities even have distinct ways of speaking with hard dialects about their teams.

Bawlmerese would sound like this from the front stoop on the white marble steps, "How 'bout dem O's hon" and “kmoin FlakO beet da terble tals fer once.” And Pittsburgheese is alive and well and "Yins see the Stiller’s lose to Baldeemore," or “Dwana go dahn da karner bahr and ketch da BucOs game”, are very popular in the Steele city.

To match that dialect, each city has its very own fancy beer, and even though both are no longer brewed there, both are forever linked with the cities sports franchises. In Baltimore, it is National Bohemian, but you would be wise to ask for a "Natty Boh" while out on the town.

In old Memorial Stadium, Natty Boh signs could be seen everywhere throughout the park, and for a period, appeared as the main advertisement on the big scoreboard in centerfield.

In Pittsburgh–, it’s what else, Iron City Beer. Now brewed in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, unopened Iron City cans appear on EBay with Steelers Super Bowl Champion teams from the 70's quite frequently up for bid. Both beers, if consumed in large quantities, will make you wish you did not the next day.

A major part of both cities' revival was the building of four new stadiums. All four were built in similar fashion. The O’s (Camden Yards) and Bucs (PNC Park) used the classic baseball stadium looks, while the Ravens (M&T Bank Stadium) and Steelers (Heinz Field) built stadiums that were perfect fits for their cities, and architecturally, looked outstanding, as stadiums go.

While all this makes these cities very much alike, what sets them apart and creates the dislike are the sports. The fact that Pittsburgh sports teams are responsible for preventing or eliminating the Colts, Ravens, Orioles, and Washington Capitals (Baltimore hockey fans follow the Capitals for the most part) a combined 15 times from their sports post season, drives me to hatred. A respectful hatred, but make no mistake, it is a pure red-blooded hatred for all things black and yellow.

I know the sports history of Pittsburgh, as I know mine. I remember worrying about my father, who was there when the Baltimore Colts took a beating in one of two playoffs games in the mid 1970’s, while a small airplane crashed in the upper deck of Memorial Stadium at the end of one of them.

For the fans of those seats, it was probably a good thing that Terry Bradshaw and company were thumping Bert Jones and the Colts. Otherwise, those seats may have been filled with fans, causing many people to be killed.

Thank God, I was not there when the great Roberto Clemente led the Pirates back from a 2-0 deficit to beat my Baltimore Orioles in seven games during the 1971 World Series.

However, I was in attendance for all four games at Memorial Stadium when the Pirates defeated my O’s again in seven games, this time, coming back from a three games to one deficit, to win the 1979 Fall Classic.

I remember as if it was yesterday when Pops, aka, Willie Stargell, took a Scott McGregor pitch just barely over the right field wall in Game 7 to give the Pirates a 2-1 lead. For the record, Sister Sledge and their hit, “We Are Family,” does not make me want to get up and dance.

Speaking of being down three games to one, and another reason the Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry is so deep, is the involvement of hockey. I was there on more than one occasion when Mario Lemieux and his Pittsburgh Penguins completed numerous comebacks in the Stanley Cup Playoffs to eliminate my Washington Capitals. Now there is the whole Sid the Kid vs. Ovie thing.

Most sports fans in Charm City are huge hockey fans, and many support the Capitals. In fact, when Baltimore had an American Hockey League franchise (The NHL’s top minor league), they were affiliated with the Penguins from 1981-88 and then the Capitals the following five seasons.

Let’s not kid ourselves here; football is the fuel that feeds this rivalry between the two cities as both Pittsburgh and Baltimore have a storied and historic football past, both well documented. The Steelers of the 70's and The Baltimore Colts of the 50's, 60's and 70's have contributed numerous Hall of Fame players. Both organizations had a big hand in making the NFL what it has become today.

The Charm city will always be grateful to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization. If they did not cut a certain quarterback, who knows how history would have played out at that position in Baltimore during the late 1950’s, 60’s and very early 70’s– As the story goes, in the ninth round of the 1955 NFL Draft, the Steelers drafted some lanky signal caller from Louisville named Johnny Unitas.

As the odd man out among four quarterbacks trying to fill three spots, Unitas was released before the season began. Steelers Head Coach Walt Kiesling did not think Johnny U was smart enough to quarterback an NFL team. And the rest is well-documented great Baltimore Hall of Fame Football history. By the way from 1955 until Unitas left Baltimore in 1972, the Steelers made the playoffs just once (1972) and finished above .500 just five times. All Unitas did was become known, as one of the greatest field generals in the history of the game, winning two World Championships (58 & 59) and one Super Bowl (1970).

Ironically, the year after Unitas departed for one last season in San Diego, the Steelers won the Super Bowl. In fact, they have won and NFL record six Lombardi Trophies and made the postseason 25 times in 41 years. Along with the Patriots and maybe one or two other franchises, the Ravens and the Steelers are model NFL organizations. They stick to a philosophy and do not deviate. Sometimes and as fans from both teams are experiencing at its fullest this season, to a fault.

Today’s version of the Steelers and Ravens are almost identical in their build. Both believe in front office stability and possess solid ownership. The Ravens are on their third coach in franchise history, and the Steelers are on just their third coach in 30 plus years. Both were built on stout defenses that featured All-Pro linebackers and all-world safeties. Both have a quarterback that came from a small college, both are similar in size and build, and have played much better than fans thought they would the day they were drafted.

Both teams have tried during the past few seasons to add a little finesse to their offense and become more of what the NFL is today—a pass happy sexy game, void of hard hitting and the rushing attack. But if you look at the teams this year, they are failing more than succeeding because they cannot execute the aspects of the game plan that made each team what it has become. Do not kid yourself, yes Joe Flacco was great in the playoffs but the Ravens Defense got healthy and played Ravens football in January to get to February last season.

This year is a different story. Pittsburgh recorded their first turnover of the season last week vs. the Jets and the Ravens are averaging 2.7 yards per carry this season. Uncharacteristic of both teams.

Even the players from both teams, who come from different parts of the country, are not bashful when it comes to the rivalry. While both teams have a ton of respect for one another, they are also quick to do a little trash talking. Remember when Steelers safety Ryan Clark said the Ravens would never win a Super Bowl with Joe Flacco playing quarterback? I do and you had better believe Clark does.

Growing up in "Bawlmer" I know what a rivalry is all about, and for me it is anything involving Pittsburgh. Making this rivalry even more heated is the fact that many from Pittsburgh migrated to Baltimore during the industrial downturn. Looking on the web, there are still six Steelers fan club bars in Maryland.

Today’s matchup with the Steelers is no different from any other. It is life or death for me, and many in Baltimore and Pittsburgh as well. I live in Florida now, and see the black and gold everywhere. I guess six Super Bowls tend to attract a few “extra fans on the wagon”.  It is a strange thing this rivalry, Baltimore & Pittsburgh— I was actually pulling for the Pirates this year when they made the playoffs for the first time since 1992 and many Pirates fans did the same last year when the Orioles did it and it is tough to truly “hate” a guy like Troy Polamalu. I never miss a Mike Tomlin Press conference but you can have Sidney Crosby.

The good news is that the team that wins gets bragging rights and the team that loses does not have to wait long for redemption. The Ravens and Steelers will play in a few short weeks on Thanksgiving night in Baltimore. The Ravens have won 13 of their last 15 games against AFC North foes—want to take a guess at which team has those two victories?

For the record, the last time the Ravens won the Super Bowl, the Steelers beat them twice the following season, including the playoffs. It is not just what happens on the field today that creates this rivalry, the players are a big part of it but the cities and the fans wearing purple and yellow are what truly keeps it going. In this rivalry, the players must simply do their part, which is to play hard-nosed blue-collar football—just like the cities.

Speaking of being similar, did you happen to catch my last name? Know any Polish people in Pittsburgh?

For Matt Pearce's latest injury article on today's game, please click here

Ravens Continue to Shine in September With Win Over Texans: Fact & Opinion

September 24, 2013 in Baltimore Ravens, Observations

The more things change, the more they stay the same. How appropriate that on a day when Ed Reed returned to play against his former team and the Ravens honored arguably the greatest middle linebacker to ever wear a football uniform—much less a purple one, the defense led the hometown Ravens to a convincing 21 point victory over the Houston Texans.

It was not quite the beating the Texans delivered to the Ravens last October in Houston but the 30-9 victory sent a message to the rest of the National Football League that the demise of the Super Bowl Champs might have been greatly exaggerated.

Here are a few facts and opinions about the Baltimore Ravens victory at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday.

Fact: The Houston Texans ran 61-plays for 264 yards in Sundays contest. They converted just three of 12 third downs, were held to just 94 yards rushing. Texans QB Matt Schaub was 25-35 for 194-yards and one interception. He was sacked three times, losing 24-yards. His rating was a paltry 72.8.

Meanwhile, Arian Foster and Ben Tate combined to carry the football 21-times for 90-yards. For the second consecutive week, rookie DeAndre Hopkins led all Texans receivers in receptions (6) and yards (60). Andre Johnson was hobbled with a leg injury and no factor while TE Owen Daniels was also no factor with five catches for 29-yards.

Opinion: The Ravens Defense was good on Sunday but they must continue to get better. This unit has the potential to be special, as they simply imposed their will on a Texans offense that has quality talent. They are not the Denver Broncos but they have weapons. The Ravens Defense bent but did not break on the Texans two drives that resulted in field goals. In fact, Houston gained 26 percent of their total yardage for the day on their opening drive when they marched 69-yards in 16-plays. On their third drive, Houston only had to go 18-yards to make the score 6-0.  On three separate drives, the Texans gained a total of minus one yard.

Led by Daryl Smith, who had 10-tackles and an interception returned for a touchdown, the first of his NFL career, the Ravens Defense was consistent and dominating on Sunday. How appropriate that the player of the game was Smith on a day when the franchise honored the best ever MLB to play the game. The Ravens are now 30-2 since 2000 when they record a pick 6.

Haloti Ngata, whom Greg Gumbel referred to as the Rock of Gibraltar continues to play well inside. He, along with Terrell Suggs and Arthur Jones each registered a sack of Schaub. Jones and Suggs have now combined for five sacks this season for the Ravens. The biggest difference in the game was perhaps the speedy play of the safeties. This was critical in taking away the short middle of the field, preventing TE Owen Daniels from killing the team as other TE’s of Daniels skill set has done. James Ihedigbo and Matt Elam played quick and showed phenomenal closing speed. Both combined to make 14-tackles while breaking up three passes.

The first pick 6 of Smith's career

The first pick 6 of Smith's career

In fact, according to Profootballfocus.com, Ihedigbo registered six defensive stops against the Texans, only one less than he registered in 294 snaps in last year’s regular season. The biggest noticeable difference to this fans eye was the speed of the Ravens Defense vs. the zone-blocking scheme of the Texans offensive line. Arian Foster is a very patient back and at times found the hole but on most occasions, the speed of the Ravens Defense did not allow for the Texans running game to develop, as the secondary closed fast and the linebackers tracked well all day. The defensive line clogged running lanes and consumed blockers allowing the Ravens back seven or eight to make plays and stops.

It was easy to sit back and flash back to the early part of the 2000’s when the Ravens Defense dominated and special teams made big plays, especially after Tandon Doss, who did not make the final roster cuts but was brought back after the Jacoby Jones injury, returned a Shane Lechler punt 82-yards for a TD.

Doss, who showed flashes of breaking one, last week vs. Cleveland, did on Sunday against Houston. The Doss punt return TD came just 1:54 following Smith’s pick 6. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, over the last 12 seasons, 15 teams have scored a pair of defensive or special-team TDs within a 2-minute span and those teams have a 15-0 record.

FACT: Through three games, the Ravens rushing attacks has just 232-yards on 88 attempts and is averaging just 2.6 yards per carry. Bernard Pierce had 24-carries for 65 yards on Sunday, while newcomer Shaun Draughn saw his first action as a Raven with four carries for just two yards.

Opinion: Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell is showing no signs of abandoning the running game and I’m not so sure his predecessor (Cam Cameron) would be doing the same at the moment. The Ravens had just 24 yards on the ground at halftime but utilized the running game to kill clock and make a few plays in the second half. The biggest play came with the Ravens once again pinned down deep late in the third quarter. From their own four-yard line, Bernard Pierce took a Flacco handoff and scooted up the right sideline for 25-yards getting the Raves out of trouble.

The drive was huge in that it consumed 13 plays for 69 yards and led to three more points, essentially ending the contest for Houston who would now have to score three times to win. The Ravens rushed six times on the drive totaling just 27-yards. Therefore, that means after Pierce’s 25-yard scamper, the Ravens gained just two yards on five carries—But they stayed with it, killing valuable clock time. The yards will come but they will not if the Ravens give up on running the ball, which is a big part of Flacco being able to go down the field.

FACT: Speaking of Flacco, he was 16-for-24 for 171 yards, was sacked twice and posted an 87.3 rating. He targeted WR Torrey Smith only three times in the first half but after the Ravens' defense and special teams put them on the board, Flacco and Smith, who finished with five catches for 92-yards, seem to find a rhythm. Two plays between Flacco and Torrey Smith changed the way the Texans were forced to play defense in the second half.

The first was when Flacco beat his nemesis in Texans cornerback Jonathan Joseph, who has four career pickoffs against Flacco, for a 48-yard pitch and catch to the Houston 35-yard line. Not long after, Flacco went after Kareem Jackson, who committed two pass defense penalties on the day, as Smith made a spectacular catch but replay overturned the catch because Smith did not have complete control all the way to the ground.

The plays backed up the Houston secondary and forced them to play the speedy Ravens receivers more aggressively. On the same drive but a later sequence, Flacco found Smith running a left-to-right crossing route, beating Brice McCain to the sideline and getting the ball to the Texans' 8-yard line. Kareem Jackson was then flagged for interfering with Tandon Doss in the end zone, which gave the Ravens first and goal at the one. Flacco was 3-5 on the drive for 77-yards with Smith hauling in two of them for 75.

Opinion: I was worried if Smith could improve his game enough this season to be the go to guy the Ravens would have to have in the receiving corp. This drive proves he has become just that. Smith seemed to put the offense on his back during this drive and simply made plays, even if they did not count. Yes, Flacco made some nice throws with nice touch, as he stood in the pocket under constant pressure but this was shades of Flacco to Boldin in the playoffs. Without Smith making those plays, the Ravens offense likely falters again and is forced to punt. Bernard Pierce scored form the one to give the Ravens a 24-9 lead to cap off the nine play 80-yard 3:55 drive– but if the Ravens do not get this touchdown, the game likely remains 16-9 and well within reach of a Houston team that won its first two games in come from behind fashion.

Fact: The Ravens offensive line was offensive at times in the game on Sunday. According to Pro-Football Focus, JJ Watt had one of his best games as a pro. His +7.0 run defense grade from this game is highest single game run defense grade of his career. During their ReFo segment yesterday, PFF said, “Through three games Watt is already at a +20.8 overall grade, only marginally behind the +23.8 he sat on at the same stage last season. What makes this performance all the more astonishing is who he did it against, doing what very few defensive players can do and making an All-Pro guard like Marshal Yanda (-1.7 overall) look ordinary. Watt did a lot, more than any other player, of his good work against Michael Oher more so than Yanda but his work against the Ravens ground game (+7.0) was astonishing and the seven stops he recorded this week is a mark he only topped once last season, when he recorded 10 against the Colts in Week 15. His base stats may be down on last season, but don’t for a second think he isn’t playing just as well as he did all of last season.”

Opinion: Just like last year’s game in Houston, the Ravens were unable to stop Watt but unlike like last year’s game in Houston, the Ravens did not let Watt beat them. He made his plays but the Ravens were able to minimize the damage Watt was able to do. The team's perennial leading tackler, inside linebacker Brian Cushing and his partner Joe Mays were dominating against the Ravens rushing attack but Flacco stayed cool unlike last year, when he posted the lowest total ESPN QBR in five seasons. While this was not the Ravens best offensive line performance, getting a win vs. a defense like the one the Texans have is always a step in the right direction.

JUST THE FACTS PLEASE—JUST THE FACTS

Joe Flacco is now 11-0 at home in September starts in his NFL career, the best record for a quarterback in the Super Bowl era (minimum 10 attempts per start). The Ravens are now 6-1 vs. Houston all-time and the Texans remain one of four AFC teams that have yet to win in the Charm City. San Diego, Miami and Oakland are the others. (Press Box On Line)

Following the Ravens Week 1 debacle in Denver, in which they were the last ranked defense in the NFL, Baltimore is now ranked 15 and climbing the charts, allowing an average of 344.3 yards per game. The Seahawks, Texans, Jets, Saints & Steelers are 1-5.

Staying with the statistical theme, the Ravens are sixth in the NFL with 11 sacks this season. They are ranked No. 12 at stopping the pass and fourth against the run, allowing just 74.7 yards per game on the ground. The offense is heading in the opposite direction, as they are ranked No. 30 overall in the NFL after three weeks. They are No.20 in passing and No.25 rushing the ball with just 77.3 yards per game. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars rank lower in the league in terms of yards per carry.

The Ravens are much better on third down on both offense and defense this season than they were last year at this time. On offense, the Ravens are 24 for 54 on third down and are ranked eighth in the NFL with a 44.4 percent conversion rate. On defense, they are ranked 13, holding opponents to a 35.7 conversion rate. The Ravens have held the Texans and Browns to 7-for-27 on third down (25.9) the previous two weeks after allowing the Broncos to convert on 8-of-15 attempts.

The Ravens ran the ball 31 times and threw it 24 times, including two sacks allowed. The team's total run-pass ratio through three games is now minus-39 (88 runs, 119 passes, including eight sacks allowed).

The Texans' defense allowed 236 total yards in Sunday's loss, the first time Houston allowed an opposing team less than 250 yards and lost the game since Week 8 of 2007. The team was 15-0 in those games from 2008-13 before Sunday's loss.

The Ravens have posted a record of been 2-1 or better through the first three weeks for 10 of the last 11 seasons. The team has lost only three of its last 29 at home and has not lost two of its first three during any season since 2005. The last defeat I can find in September, at home for the Ravens, occurred when the Indianapolis Colts beat them 24-7 back on Sept 11 2005. The Ravens are now 37-23 in September, their most successful month.

The Ravens have not been shut out at home since eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, beat them 25-0 in the Ravens 2002 home opener. That was the game in which the Ravens honored Johnny Unitas, who passed away earlier in the week. They have now gone 177 consecutive regular-season games without being shut out and have scored in 293 of its 295 games.

The Bills and Two Memorable Contests:key_art_buffalo_bills

The Ravens will travel to Ralph Wilson Stadium to play the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. The Ravens last and only visit there resulted in a 19-14 loss, which was the first of a club-record nine straight defeats, following a 4-2 start. Baltimore is 3-2 all-time vs. Buffalo. They beat them the last time the two teams played in Baltimore on October 24, 2010 but it was not easy for the Ravens.

The Bills jumped out to a 24-10 lead before the Ravens stormed back to take a 27-24 lead. Following a Willis McGahee two-yard plunge, the Ravens would lead by 10 points but Buffalo did not quit and scored 10 fourth quarter points to tie the game at 34-34. Billy Cundiff would win the game for the Ravens with a 38-yard field goal in overtime.

The Bills once beat the Ravens way back in 1999 on a memorable Halloween afternoon in Baltimore. In a game in which both teams combined for just 449 total yards of offense, the Ravens led the Bills all afternoon. The only offense the Ravens could produce was a Tony Banks to Justin Armour TD pass and a Matt Stover field goal.

However, with a 10-6 lead, Banks fumbled the ball with just 3:48 to play giving Bills QB Doug Flutie one more shot. After pressuring the former Heisman Trophy winner all afternoon, forcing three interceptions and sacking him three additional times, Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis elected to play a prevent scheme and Flutie took full advantage. Flutie needed just 1:50 to drive the Bills 45-yards on nine plays completing four of eight passes. The completion was a five-yard TD pass to Jonathan Linton to give the Bills their first lead of the game and the eventual 13-10 win. The prevent defense had once again done its job by preventing the team using it from wining the game.

The Ravens would get one more shot with 1:50 to play but Banks could not recover from the fumble and was sacked by ESPN’s Marcellus Wiley to start the final drive. He would complete just one pass of the five he threw, as the Bills took over downs to run out the clock. The Ravens dropped to 2-5 on the 1999 season with the loss but did rebound to finish 8-8 before winning the Super Bowl the next season.

** fact stats courtesy of  ESPN Stats & info, Elias Sports Bureau, and Ravens Media Press Guide.

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.