BALTIMORE RAVENS 34 CLEVELAND BROWNS 3
September 27, 2009
Your heart predicted it all week. The Ravens should easily handle the hapless Browns at home. Then your head intervened, whispering doubts to your heart.
This is a trap game, you told yourself. Plus, divisional rivals tend to play each other close, right? The Ravens might overlook a weaker opponent sandwiched between tough, conference road games in San Diego and New England. Their shaky special teams units were facing a dangerous return man in Joshua Cribbs. The winless Browns and their battered head coach Eric Mangini would be desperate for a win.
But here’s a case where you should have just listened to your heart. Indeed, the Ravens knocked the heart out of the Browns, coming out from the opening whistle with the kind of purpose that left no doubt about the outcome of this game: a 34-3 Ravens win.
In a lot of ways this was a coach’s game. On the one hand you had Mangini, who had seemed to lose his team from the moment he stepped off the plane at Cleveland-Hopkins and who needed a statement win against the Ravens to put the season back on course. He had already made a hard job harder by harassing veterans with petty demands. And then there was the fiasco when he refused to name a starting quarterback on the eve of their week one opener, as if to announce neither Brady Quinn nor Derek Anderson were good enough to deserve the nod.
After watching both play on Sunday, perhaps his indecisiveness was justified.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh, on the other hand, has managed to create a new, more disciplined attitude among his players in Baltimore. He has them playing “like Ravens,” which, remarkably, now means a balance between offense and defense that has the national media abuzz.
So this game presented an opportunity for John Harbaugh to make a few coaching points. Ironically enough for a man who came to Baltimore as a special teams and defensive backs coach in Philadelphia, it was Harbaugh’s chance to instill some pride in his special teams unit as they faced the dangerous Cribbs, and a secondary that had surrendered big plays a week ago.
Mark this as a unanimous win for Harbaugh on all cards. And a win for Harbaugh was a decisive win for his very focused Ravens team. Not surprisingly, it leads to a lot of “A’s” on the players’ report cards this week.
The team’s sense of purpose was reflected in their quarterback. Joe Flacco threaded a bullet to Mark Clayton on the first throw of the game, and the Browns’ defenders were left standing around him as if they were shocked the play had occurred. It was the start of a very good day for Flacco, spreading the ball to eight receivers and completing 71% of his passes (25 of 35) for 342 yards, and one long touchdown pass to Derrick Mason. That was good enough for nearly a 112 passer-rating. But the stats don’t really tell the story on why this was such a good day for Joe Flacco. He was in total command of the game. He flawlessly guided the offense in and out of no-huddle series. He showed tremendous calmness making his reads and checking down to his running backs in the face of the rush. He showed versatility, whether it was sneaking for a first on fourth and short, rolling out of the pocket to buy time, taking a sack rather than risking a blind throw, executing a perfect option-pitch to Mark Clayton, or even orchestrating a leaping fake on a direct snap to Ray Rice. It showed tremendous preparation despite the unchallenging opponent. Flacco even showed the savvy to step out and avoid a penalty for too many men in the huddle as the team switched personnel. Flacco’s only errant throws were a couple of underthrown deep balls to Mason down the left sideline, one that resulted in a touchdown, and a couple of overthrown swing passes to Rice with a defender in his face. Troy Smith, in mop-up duty, completed one short throw.
Running Backs: A-
Willis McGahee scored twice more for a league-leading six touchdowns (five rushing) on the year. His best run of the day was a sweep right that he cut back across the field for 33 yards. The only black mark against McGahee was his fumble in the redzone when Ahtyba Rubin punched the ball out of his arms. Ray Rice was at his best running right at the Browns best defender, Shaun Rogers, picking up big chunks of yardage and breaking a few tackles in the process. Rice was thrown to seven times, catching four for 27. Rice also got his first touchdown of his pro career, easily beating defenders to the pylon on very poor defensive play. Le’Ron McClain continues to be a big weapon out of the backfield, making the first defender miss on short throws, and rumbling for an 11+ yard average on three catches. Matt Lawrence also got into the game late to snare the pass from Smith.
Wide Receivers: A-
It was a big day for Derrick Mason. He got a nice ovation after hauling in his 800th career reception to put himself in the top-twenty all time. On the day he had five catches for 118 yards, including the fantastic comeback catch on an underthrown ball for a 72-yard touchdown. Mason did flub one timing route when he turned in on a ball thrown to his outside. Kelley Washington continues to catch nearly everything thrown his way; of the six balls Flacco directed to him the only miss was a very good effort in the back of the end zone to work around the defender and dive for a ball that bounced out of his arms as he hit the ground. He ran strong after the catch and blocked well, particularly when shielding Brandon McDonald to allow Mason to turn the ball upfield. Mark Clayton was flagged for a block in back at the tail end of a long completion to LJ Smith. Clayton ran a very sharp route that fooled Eric Wright for an easy twenty-yard completion. He also carried the ball twice, including one twelve-yard gain.
Tight Ends: A
Yes that was an LJ Smith sighting. With the stadium murmuring, ‘who is 82?’ Smith slanted behind the linebackers to haul in a crisp throw from Flacco and tore up the middle of the field for 26 yards. It was his only chance on the day and he made it pay off. Todd Heap looked fearless snaring high throws against shorter defenders in the middle of the field. He caught all four passes thrown his way, including crucial, chain-moving receptions. His best catch on the day came on a Flacco laser, showing tremendous concentration as Eric Barton crossed his face, and then holding onto the ball as he was crunched by Abram Elam. It had to leave the Browns defense wondering what they had to do to beat the Ravens. But it was not just pass catching that earned Heap high marks. He executed a very difficult downfield chip on Hank Poteat to spring Mason for extra yards, part of a solid blocking afternoon for Heap. The vet was however flagged for a questionable offsides infraction.
Michael Oher had an excellent day in his match up with Kamerion Wimbley. He stood up Wimbley and totally negated him on the corner to allow McGahee to walk in for his first touchdown. In general, Oher manhandled his side of the line. Jared Gaither showcased a lot of athleticism in the pocket out of an unbalanced-right formation to kick out eight yards to his outside shoulder in a sudden burst to protect Flacco. His feet were a bit slower, however, in moving to his outside left to thwart Wimbley who would put down Flacco and force the Ravens to settle for a field goal on the team’s second drive. Later, toward the end of the half, he ate up two rushers, Elam and Corey Williams, to protect Flacco and allow the drive to continue on a completion downfield. He was flawless run blocking, including the ability to seal the corner on McGahee’s second TD. Gaither was flagged for one holding call.
Interior Line: A
Matt Birk played brilliantly, and frustrated Shaun Rogers to the point that the big fellow was called for an unnecessary roughness penalty, after which he sulked off the field. Chris Chester pulled to his left and schooled Eric Barton on one touchdown. On Clayton’s long gain on the reverse, Ben Grubbs was out in front paving the way. He also pulled well on a Rice first down run, which could have gone for more if Rice had cut behind Grubbs’ block. The strong performance of this core threesome paved the way for the running game all day. In limited action Marshal Yanda was beaten by Shaun Rogers to his inside.
How good was this group? Officially, just two passes defended on the day, both by Domonique Foxworth, who was very impressive in a determined effort to make up for past sins. It meant that the corners gave very little for Browns’ passers to throw to. The entire group played well, holding both Quinn and Anderson to under 100 yards passing each. Other than one 22-yard completion to Mike Furrey sitting in the zone coverage, the big plays were eliminated this week. Chris Carr was very active and chased Quinn out of the pocket for really the quarterback’s only productive play of the day. Domonique Foxworth watched Quinn stare down Braylon Edwards and the Ravens corner sat on the route to jump in for an interception. He could have easily had a second on a dropped ball. Fabian Washington was unchallenged by the Browns’ quarterbacks, to his credit.
Ed Reed and Dawan Landry both had textbook interceptions when they cut in front of receivers, and also defended one pass each. It was entertaining to see Landry make his interception run of 29 yards and then pitch the ball to Reed for another twenty. Landry was also active in run support. His one miscue was a missed tackle on Harrison to allow an extra six yards.
As well as the starters played, it was encouraging to see better play from the rotational linebackers. Brendan Ayanbadejo seems to be getting more comfortable in his expanded role on defense. He picked up his first sack on the season and he excelled dropping into coverage to snare an interception off of Anderson by stepping in front of Furrey. Jameel McClain was very aggressive and in the right spot to bottle-up runs. McClain may be playing better than Gooden right now, who is still improving. Case in point was a good fill of the running lane, but Gooden dove for the ball carrier rather than running through Harrison, turning a would–be loss into a gainer. He was also a bit soft against the pass to allow a gain of ten. He was able to showcase his sideline-to-sideline speed however on a couple of runs. There was a scary moment when Haloti Ngata rolled into Lewis’s shoulder, but the veteran linebacker was out for just a single play. When Ray Lewis sat late, Antwan Barnes played well, including a tackle for a loss. Jarret Johnson seemed to be nursing his shoulder, and at one point his arm tackle allowed Harrison to rumble for eight more yards. But he later made a very solid open field tackle to stop a drive.
Defensive Line: A-
Terrell Suggs upped his game and made a bigger impact Sunday. He managed a tipped pass, and then showed good lateral speed to stop Furrey short of the marker, after an all-out blitz, to force a punt. He also stopped Harrison behind the line early to set the tone. Dwan Edwards had an excellent day, seeing a lot of action on a hot afternoon. His best play was a straight shed of the guard for a tackle in the backfield but was around the ball all day long. It was interesting to see the veteran Trevor Pryce to ask for sub, fail to get it, and then register a sack on the next play. Even when leading 27-0, expecting the Browns to throw, Kelly Gregg and Justin Bannan played stout run defense to clog the middle of the line. Ngata continues to show surprising speed and hustle chasing down ball carriers from behind.
Special Teams: A-
This unit had something to prove after struggling in the first two games, and they had the supreme challenge of stopping the Browns’ most dangerous player in return man Joshua Cribbs. Mission accomplished. The coverage units were impressive, in particular, playing under control and sticking to their assignments to keep Cribbs in check on his two punt returns and six kick-off returns. It kept the Browns on their end of the field all day and allowed the defense to play their kind of game. A slew of Ravens coverage men contributed to keeping Cribbs on the ground, including Lawrence, Jameel McClain, Edgar Jones, Lardarius Webb, and Chris Carr. On the Ravens returns, Carr was hitting the lanes much harder this week. The only miscues on the day were offsides by Webb, defending a field goal, and Frank Walker holding the gunner on a punt. Steve Hauschka nailed both his field goal attempts, from 36 and 33.
When every unit chips in with an A or A- it’s a credit to the coaches for getting the team prepared and avoiding a let-down game. When the team is still playing hard up by 27 points it reflects very well on the coaching. It’s not an accident. It was a brilliant move for the team to continue to use the no huddle to stay focused and aggressive throughout the game and continue to wear down the Browns on a hot day. The fact that the Browns started to lose their cool late showed how well the game plan worked.
You are not going to see a better-officiated NFL game. Terry McAulay and his crew showed why they are the best in the league, better than Mike Carrey’s Super Bowl crew from last season. The calls that did not go the Ravens way were hard to argue with, including Clayton’s block in the back, Walker’s holding on the punt, and the no call of defensive pass interference as Mark Clayton was hand checking in the end zone to establish position. You could argue that the pass interference against Reed was on an uncatchable ball, it was thrown so badly by Anderson, but it’s hard to make that argument when the receiver is flattened on the play. The only poor call of the day was allowing Coye Francies to check Mark Clayton well down the field that would have given the Ravens a touchdown and an even bigger win.
You have to love Gus Johnson’s enthusiasm. Well, maybe you don’t, but when your team is winning by four touchdowns, his presentation is even more enjoyable. Credit Johnson and Steve Tasker for avoiding the typical schtick in a blow-out game, where the announcers try to make a case for a closer game than it really is. It is a pleasure to hear an honest assessment of what they were seeing on the field. Tasker was particularly good as an analyst. His assessment of the Ravens being physical and disciplined approach was deadly accurate and concise, while still asking the obvious question about a team peaking too early. He could have added a comparison to last season’s 10-0 Titans.
The Ravens should find out very quickly how long they can keep this train rolling as they head up to Foxboro to take on the Patriots. The media should have a ball with this match-up of the grumpy Belichick and his glamour-boy quarterback, against the surprisingly balanced Ravens. Hopefully Phil Simms, the President of the “I love the Patriots” fan club will get the day off…but don’t hold your breath.