BALTIMORE RAVENS 31 SAN DIEGO CHARGERS 26
September 20, 2009
Sure, the Ravens defense was licking its chops with the news Chargers starters at running back, LaDainian Tomlinson, center Nick Hardwick and guard Louis Vasquez were all ruled out prior to game time.
The Ravens had to know that Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers would be asked to carry the load. And the Chargers had to know the Ravens would be looking to tee-off on Rivers.
Anyone who thought the battered Chargers would let the Ravens walk over them had another thing coming. Both teams battled up and down the field all day long, punctuated with dramatic plays that connected like roundhouse right-crosses.
When the Chargers had the ball it was Rivers dancing in the pocket and finding his receivers again and again – twenty-five times on the day. He torched the Ravens secondary for 438 passing yards. Ravens rushers were also a step too slow, often hitting Rivers as he delivered looping passes to receivers who appeared to be a foot too tall for the Ravens’ worn out secondary. The Ravens gave up eight explosive plays of 20 or more yards.
But Baltimore kept themselves in a position to win the game thanks to a balanced offensive attack and tough, timely redzone defensive play that four times limited the Chargers to short field goals from Nick Kaeding, who connected from 22, 23, 25 and 29 yards.
In the end it was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the Ravens defense, Ray Lewis, who delivered the final knockout to seal the win. It came on fourth and two, from the Ravens fifteen, with forty ticks on the clock. Chargers coach Norv Turner had elected to take the ball out of the hands of his red-hot quarterback Rivers, and hand it off to Tomlinson’s diminutive back up, Darren Sproles. It had worked a week ago for the Chargers against the Raiders. But this week the veteran Lewis diagnosed the call, sliced past back-up center Scott Mruczkowski, and dropped Sproles to the mat, five yards behind the line with a decisive thud. Game over.
Any road win against a quality opponent is one you take and don’t look back, especially after sweating out a west coast trip in 90º+ heat. Fifteen weeks from now perhaps the Ravens can look back at this game as the one that sealed home-field advantage in the playoffs. It might even earn them another shot at the Chargers, at home, in decidedly colder playoff conditions.
But that is looking too far ahead. Before we close the books on this one let’s take one more look at the good, bad, and ugly from Week 2 in San Diego.
Joe Flacco stumbled a bit early, including a fumbled snap and an overthrown swing pass to Ray Rice. But he righted himself nicely and continues to be very effective checking down to his backs even in the face of a rush. He is able to loft passes over defenders when needed or thread them between the seams when that is all that is there for the taking. In the first half Flacco was 10 of 14 for 118 yards including one nice touchdown throw to Kelley Washington. With Flacco behind center in the half the Ravens were also 2-for-2 in the red zone while the defense was holding the Chargers to 0-for-3. In the second half, Flacco had just 63 more yards in the air on just one less attempt. He also threw an interception when the Chargers Shawne Merriman lined up in the neutral zone and shot past tackle Jared Gaither to force a bad throw.
Running Backs: A-
With Chargers nose tackle Jamal Williams sidelined, the bigger Willis McGahee received more carries and the Ravens successfully gashed up the middle for seven, eight, nine yards at a time. McGahee was most impressive, averaging 5.3 yards on 15 carries, outpacing Ray Rice, who managed 4.5 yards on 8 carries. McGahee was also able to bounce runs outside, which is normally a problem, but he was effective against a packed front when he did. Rice continues to be an effective pass catcher, and on one catch behind the line managed to scamper for an additional 25 yards. Rice was guilty of failing to look back for the pass on a fake, when end DE Shaun Phillips couldn’t find the ball and Flacco wanted to get it too him sooner. It cost Rice a scoring chance. But he showed toughness blocking for Flacco on a scramble. And it was Rice’s effective draw that gave Steven Hauschka a shorter field goal to help seal the win. Le’Ron McClain continues to do three things very well: make first downs on short yardage runs, make good catch-and-runs out of the backfield, and make openings as a blocker for Rice and McGahee. He needs to work on securing the ball firmly when he carries it.
Wide Receivers: B-
A quiet day for the receivers, who struggled to gain much separation, more accustomed to find seams in zone coverage. Derrick Mason ran perfect routes in the two-minute drill with the Chargers playing on their heels. Washington fooled Antoine Cason to shake himself free for his first TD as a Raven. But the trio of Mason, Washington and Clayton managed just eight catches for a little more than 100 yards on the day. Mark Clayton dropped an easy catch to force third and long and a punting situation late. But he did make a nice throw back to his left to connect with Rice after sweeping right.
Tight Ends: B
Todd Heap was not thrown to in the first quarter. On one notable play he fell down on crossing route, forcing Flacco to throw the ball away. But he made up for it when he took advantage of undersized safety Steve Gregory up the middle, planting a foot and turn toward the pylon to haul in a touchdown catch. It was his only catch after being the target four times on the day. He was interfered with on the goal line to set up a score.
Jared Gaither and Michael Oher were at their best bulldozing straight ahead. Gaither in particular manhandled Larry English, backing him into the end zone while McGahee simply followed him in for the score. He was also too much for linebacker Kevin Burnett allowing Rice to cut behind nice blocking. However, in space Gaither whiffed on a screen pass assignment that could have sprung Washington for a long gain. Oher was up and down. He dominated Luis Castillo on one of McGahee’s two TD runs and was generally steady in protection. But on a couple of plays he was confused on an assignment to allow Castillo to run outside of him and force Flacco to throw the ball away, while also allowing Shaun Phillips to speed rush past him and force a check down by Flacco, which led to a punt.
Interior Line: A
With the Chargers packing the line, this group held up very well, picking up blitzes and communicating. Ben Grubbs showed athleticism pulling right and leaping over a diving end to make an aggressive block at the second level. On McGahee’s first touchdown Matt Birk and Chris Chester demolished Vaughn Martin and the middle of Chargers line. One of the few mistakes was miscommunication on a delayed blitz up the middle to allow a big hit on Flacco.
This was not a pretty day for the corners. With the Chargers backed up on their 19, on third and three, Fabian Washington waived off Dawan Landry at the snap of the ball while Landry was urging him to take the flat; as Washington followed the tight end on an inside slant, it left Darren Sproles unguarded down the right sideline for an 81-yard score. It was a clear communication problem. But the troubles didn’t end there. Washington in particular had trouble covering the tight end Antonio Gates, which is concerning on what should not be a mismatch. After getting hit in the head with a knee Washington left the game in favor of Frank Walker, who played well in limited action. Both Washington and Foxworth were vulnerable to the comeback route and were generally dwarfed by the Chargers receivers. Their tackling was not particularly strong. Foxworth provided better coverage but still gave up plays. Vincent Jackson managed six catches for 141 yards and a touchdown. The normally sure-tackling Chris Carr allowed Jackson to bail out the Chargers at their own goal line on a third and eight call.
Not much help in the pass defense from this crew. As if to typify their struggles, Dawan Landry and Ed Reed collided on pass coverage over the middle, nearly knocking each other out. Later they teamed up more successfully with Landry intercepting a pass and lateralling to Reed. Reed was missing tackles all over the field. Landry had some trouble in coverage too. With Washington covering the tight end, Vincent Jackson teed-off on Landry, who gave too much space or was caught looking into the backfield. Landry was strong in run support. Haruki Nakamura made the most of his time with a strong blitz to force a throw by Rivers.
Ray Lewis’ walk-off tackle on Darren Sproles will go down as one of the more memorable plays in team history. Lewis started the game with statement-making hard tackles and kept it up until he had accumulated ten solo tackles and two assists to lead the Ravens. Credit the veteran with a forced fumble on Gates at the goal line, which the Chargers recovered. He was unblockable on infrequent blitzing up the middle, and forced Rivers to make a bad interception throw into Landry’s arms. His teammate on the interior, Tavares Gooden can still look lost at times, taking poor angles or filling slowly. Jarrett Johnson continues to dominate—even on just two tackles–neutralizing runners at the point of attack, getting hits on the quarterback, or impressively running side-to-side. On one entertaining tackle he literally clubbed Michael Bennett to the ground. In spot duty Antwan Barnes snared a key interception on a deflection. Jameel McClain saw action and made a nice goal line stuff of Sproles that should have been a lesson to Norv Turner about running in the red zone. Brendon Ayanbadejo played extensively and appeared to be into the flow of the game much more this week.
Defensive Line: B
The front four held Sproles and Bennett to 45 yards rushing on 14 carries. But they failed to generate much pressure when the team dropped seven into coverage. Terrell Suggs had a quiet 5-tackle day, but did make some impactful plays. He was credited with 1½ sacks. He also tipped a pass. On the first play of the game he stood-up up fullback Jacob Hester to make a textbook solo tackle. Haloti Ngata continues to impress with quickness, whether running by Chris Dielman for a sack or running down Sproles laterally. Trevor Pryce did not get as much pressure as we have become used to. He did get called for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Rivers. Justin Bannan continues to be the first player off on the snap and that speed netted a holding penalty against the Chargers. Dwan Edwards was noticeably quicker, but he did allow Sproles to run through him on one of his biggest gains by ground.
Special Teams: D+
Sam Koch was stellar, pinning two punts inside the five and forcing Sproles to fair catch another at the seven. Lardarius Webb did a beautiful job downing one of Koch’s punts at the goal line. The team did still show some scatter-brained play on punts and kicks. Poor communication allowed one Charger punt to bounce dangerously among Ravens defenders. Carr fumbled a kick out of bounds. On one of his better returns he was stopped when Jameel McClain was standing around looking for someone to block. Matt Lawrence had a poor day on special teams. He was flagged for jumping on the pile after the whistle and made a poor effort on a kick return, which led to Carr getting decked. The kick-off coverage units also gave up 150 yards on five returns. Steve Hauschka landed another kickoff out of bounds, but putting the Chargers at the 40 to start a drive was a standard practice for the Ravens anyway. Hauschka did drill a 33 yard field goal to put the game just out of reach.
Credit John Harbaugh with excellent game management. The Ravens still had all three timeouts on final drive of the first half. It was quite a contrast to the confused, and often-frantic Chargers sideline. Harbaugh played cat and mouse with Turner when the Chargers went for it on fourth and short by calling timeout with one second on the clock and forcing Turner to change his call. One wonders if Harbaugh could have challenged the Vincent TD however, where he appeared to juggle the ball to his knees before bringing it in as he was crossing the end line. Cam Cameron’s call for a fake wide receiver screen, with a pump and go to Washington for a wide open touchdown was classic. Gregg Mattison employed vanilla pressure on defense and put his undersized secondary in a helpless position against taller receivers. He has some work to do in the near future, as the entire league will see film on this game.
Tony Corrente’s crew did a good job in the first half. They showed restraint by not calling incidental contact fouls and they did a good job sorting out Flacco’s fumble recovery and the delay of game spike by the Chargers. As the game wore on, the officiating turned odd, and then just bad. There was a lot of disagreement among the crew trying to spot the ball at the end of plays, and on three occasions the linesman came in late and gave the Chargers a better spot. They flagged Foxworth for pass interference for bumping the receiver on an uncatchable ball out of bounds. They inexplicably ran up to stop the Ravens from snapping the ball, but didn’t stop the clock, and in the confusion Michael Oher jumped offsides. They called Jacob Hester for a very questionable chop but could not get his number right. Continuing to be flustered, Corrente announced two penalties against the Chargers that were against Baltimore. Shawne Merriman clearly lined up offsides to beat Gaither and force Flacco’s interception throw. The most critical call was the non-interference call on Foxworth that led to Barnes’ interception, and ultimately the Ravens’ decisive score.
The game has passed by Dick Enberg. He was confused on too many occasions. He credited a penalty against the Ravens’ Michael Oher to the Chargers #74, which surely was not appreciated by Jacques Cesaire’s mother up in the stands. On a kick-off that the officials stopped because play had not been whistled to start, Enberg drifted off into a discussion of the K ball. He made a goofy math error when he combined the Ravens wins with at least a +1 turnover margin and at least a +2 turnover margin, not understanding that at least +1 is a subset of at least +2. He also announced no fair catch as Sproles waived for a fair catch. Both Enberg and Dan Fouts questioned a running into the punter call on the Chargers, talking about the player being blocked-in when clearly the call was correct. Guys, the rules are the rules. The ex-Charger Fouts seemed annoyed when he questioned whether Flacco was outside the box on a ball thrown away, but clearly Flacco threw it directly over Mason’s head at the sideline.
They also tried to justify Merriman being offisides by claiming he didn’t move until after the snap, but they failed to show the proper replay of Merriman standing in the neutral zone as the ball was snapped. To his credit, Fouts provides very good insight as an analyst, and on the strength of that this crew escapes with a C+.
The Ravens escaped San Diego with a win, and face a very winnable division game at home versus the Browns. It should go without saying that the crowd will be ready to welcome home their division-leading Ravens.