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Steve McNair looked poised and in control and very much like the quarterback that we all were accustomed to seeing when he was a proud member of the Tennessee Titans. McNair ran the offense effectively, had a bounce in his step missing from prior games, particularly noticeable when he accelerated towards Jamal Lewis during running plays just prior to the exchange and during waggle plays. His ball handling was solid during play action and he was generally more accurate than in most of his recent outings. He made plays with his feet as well and he showed an uncanny sense of where the first down marker was when he decided to run with the ball.
Luck was also on McNairâ€™s side. The employment of the â€œtuck ruleâ€ certainly benefited McNair midway through the second quarter — a play that should have enabled the Saints to take over on the Ravens 40 down 14-0. The call allowed Sam Koch to pin the Saints at the 10 and three plays later, Ronnie Prude picked off a Drew Brees throw that caromed off the face mask of Aaron Stecker. Prude made it 21-0 and the Ravens really never looked back. McNair should have been picked off in the end zone at the end of the first half. Instead Todd Heap’s magical mitts latched on to a tipped ball to make it 28-7 Ravens. The pass is one that McNair should have never thrown in order to preserve the easy field goal attempt. But on this Sunday, things went the way of the black bird for McNair and his mates.
RUNNING BACK: B
Jamal Lewis was the running game as Brian Billick certainly kept to his word to get the ground attack cranked up. The numbers werenâ€™t stellar but Lewisâ€™ tough sledding was mostly positive with only one of his 31 carries being stopped for a loss, that on the second play from scrimmage when Will Smith blew up an overmatched Daniel Wilcox and knocked the tight end into Lewis to cause a loss of two and the fumble. Lewis ran hard and with a purpose. He still isnâ€™t the back that he once was particularly when you see him going down on seemingly incidental contact. However he did show flashes of the old Lewis more in this game than he has in quite some time. Interestingly Lewis lined up as the fullback in the I formation ahead of Musa Smith early in the second half where he took a handoff to convert a first down.
For the most part the receivers were given the second half off as the Ravens looked to keep the game clock moving. Derrick Mason and McNair rekindled that old connection as the veterans were spot on with each other in key situations. Mason worked well back towards McNair on one designed roll out as he tight roped the sideline to snare a first down catch. Todd Heap demonstrated great hands and reflexes catching the TD pass to close out the first half. Clarence Moore made a TD catch in traffic and Mark Clayton caught a key 17 yard pass on second and 14 in the first quarter to help keep a drive alive that ended with Mooreâ€™s 4 yard score. Daniel Wilcox showed toughness fighting for a first down deep in the red zone on that same scoring drive. Clayton supported the run well with some solid blocking on the edge.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B
The Ravens offensive line was efficient against a tough Saints front four. They provided solid protection for Steve McNair for the most part. On the tuck play, Pashos seemed a bit lost on his assignment allowing Grant to get to McNair unabated. The Saints have a tough interior line with Hollis Thomas and Brian Young who are known to push and collapse a pocket. Jason Brown, Mike Flynn and Keydrick Vincent held up well and silenced the disruptive tandem for most of the game.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B
The defensive front was active and they confused Drew Brees on a few plays peeling back into coverage during some zone blitzing calls from Rex Ryan. While only managing two sacks, they did pressure Drew Brees and Terrell Suggsâ€™ effort in the Saints end zone left the door open for pressure from Adalius Thomas whose hit on Brees led to Dawan Landryâ€™s TD interception. This group did a nice job, particularly the interior line, of creating congestion and allowing LBâ€™s to scrape down from the edges to control Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister. The game situation forced the Saints to abandon the run yet this group was stout before the game got out of control for the Saints. The Saints had only 12 first half rushing yards and a meager 35 for the game.
Adalius Thomas was everywhere, tackling a tight end to prevent a first down and force a punt, sacking Brees, forcing an interception with pressure and delivering a big statement on the Saints first possession, nailing Reggie Bush for a loss of five on a swing pass into the right flat. Bart Scott was up for the challenge of taking on Bush and appeared to get into Bushâ€™ head. The rookie phenom was completely neutralized. Ray Lewis had one of his better games particularly in pass coverage. He showed a burst in support of the run taking down McAllister behind the line of scrimmage for a loss of one on the Saints first second half possession. Overall this group did a very nice job of taking away the passing game to the backs that the Saints like to lean on with McAllister and Bush.
Tough grade to call given the Ravens decision to play prevent most of the second half and allow the Saints receivers to run around in the secondary given the ample time Brees had to throw. That said the fly in the ointment of yesterdayâ€™s win was the play of the secondary. Samari Rolle continues to struggle. His tackling is suspect. A player of his size needs to take down opponents at their legs, not up high. Marques Colston easily shrugged off an attempted tackle by Rolle and went in for a score. Rolle seems to be constantly looking for rollover help (he needs it), heâ€™s making technical mistakes and he was flagged twice yesterday. Chris McAlister needs to curb the gambling and play solid football. This secondary is giving up way too many big plays. Heading into the contest the Ravens had given up 6 TDâ€™s that on average covered 35 yards. Yesterday the Saints scored from of 32, 47 and 25 yards out. This must be an area of concern for the Ravens particularly as they prepare to face the lethal strike force of Carson Palmer and his arsenal of receivers.
On the plus side, despite a breakdown in coverage from Gerome Sapp that led to Joe Hornâ€™s 32 yard score, the former Golden Domer was excellent on interior safety blitzes, once forcing a Bush fumble and on another occasion he pressured Brees and batted down a pass. Dawan Landry continues to improve and is the teamâ€™s most pleasant surprise. Ronnie Prude is making a case for more playing time and if Rolleâ€™s struggles continue, he just might get it. Good to see Ed Reed playing closer to the line of scrimmage.
Carson Palmer must be salivating.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-
Sam Koch continues to impress, dropping two punts inside the 20 (one at the 10 another at the 2). In 7 games as a Raven Koch has 13 punts inside the 20. Last season in 16 games, Dave Zastudil had a total of 11. Interestingly on both the ensuing drives after those punts to pin the Saints, the Ravens scored defensive touchdowns off interceptions. Koch netted a solid 40.8 yards on his 6 punts. B.J. Samsâ€™ homecoming wasnâ€™t very memorable. He looked a bit out of sorts and he lacked patience with his blocking. He averaged only 5.5 yards on his two punt returns and his kick returns averaged 22 yards. The kick coverage team is still a bit lacking, allowing Michael Lewis a 46 yard return.
COACHING: OFFENSE B+/DEFENSE B-
Brian Billick took over the play calling and he implemented some creativity in varied sets and formations and used the running game to set up play action. The Ravens getting off to a commanding lead helped to take the crowd out of the game. The offense looked prepared and focused. Itâ€™s interesting and refreshing to see Billick and Derrick Mason conversing on the side line for the betterment of the offense. On the next offensive play after that little pow wow, Mason caught a 22 yard pass on a crossing route from Steve McNair. Billickâ€™s challenge of the McNair fumble was very key. Arguably his decision to challenge may have affected the game by 14 points. Without the challenge, the Saints have had the ball on the Ravens 40. With it the Ravens punt and pin the Saints, forcing a turnover 3 plays later making it 21-0.
Rex Ryan did a nice job of scheming the Saints and his unit showed patience by disrupting passing lanes with a variety of coverages knowing that Brees has been protected well by the Saints offensive line. They completely neutralized Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister. However, something has to be done with the continual breakdowns in the secondary. Make no mistake about it, they will be tested often by Carson Palmer the best deep ball thrower in the game.
OTHER NOTABLES AND QUOTABLES: Interesting feature that CBS dusted off with that decibel meter. Fortunately it went back into storage when the Ravens successfully eliminated the crowd from the game…The Saints looked more out of synch than the Ravens pre-snap at the line of scrimmage…Props to the Ravens fans that attended the game. The chant of Heap was hard loudly and clearly. You did behave yourself on Bourbon Street afterwards, right?…Props to CBS for queuing up the Tom Brady tuck as a parallel to the Steve McNair fumble that was overturned after Brian Billick’s challenge…Nice to hear the professional sound of Dick Enberg and Randy Cross wasn’t as condescending towards the Ravens as he normally is. By the way Randy, No. 95 for the Ravens is Jarret Johnson not some player named Moore…or less.