BALTIMORE RAVENS 20, PITTSBURGH STEELERS 17, OT
November 29, 2009
Which Ravens team are we watching?
The one that can come within a whisker of losing a must-win home game when they allowed a third-string quarterback to dash 24-yards untouched to the end zone to take a late 17-14 lead?
Or are they a team “with the heart of a lion” that can claw its way back and find a way to come out on top?
To the dismay of many we saw both against the hated Steelers Sunday in a game in which the unlikeliest cast delivered the biggest blows. Perhaps it signaled a new Ravens era as younger players played larger roles in pushing the team to a 20-17 overtime win—and a second consecutive overtime loss for the defending champs.
On the Ravens side of the line, seeing him stand in the huddle, you would swear Ray Rice is actually smaller than his official 5’8” height. But after watching him chew his way through the Steelers defense in the nail-biting final minutes, you realized Rice is a big-time player in every other sense of the word.
Then there was Paul Kruger, another recent second round draft choice who emerged in crunch time. Many fans had prematurely labeled Kruger a bust when he was unable to crack the 45-man active roster for much of the season. But with Terrell Suggs sidelined, and Antwan Barnes now occupying the front row of the Harbaugh doghouse, it was Kruger who secured the overtime win by dropping off on a zone blitz to pick-off Dennis Dixon’s pass. It was a remarkably athletic effort; eerily similar to the game-clinching interception snared by the Colts’ Gary Brackett the week prior against the Ravens.
And finally, Mark Clayton. Another Raven the fans have used the ‘bust’ word to describe…and not the kind of bust you expect to see in Canton, Ohio. With the Steelers keying on Joe Flacco’s favorite receiving targets of Rice and Derrick Mason, and the offense bunched in maximum protection schemes, it was Mark Clayton who repeatedly keyed Ravens drives with a career day in receptions.
Are these the efforts we should focus on when analyzing the Ravens sixth win of the season? Or do we dwell on the mistakes that allowed the undermanned Steelers to win the field-position contest and put the game in jeopardy? Mistakes like turnovers, huddle confusion, blown timeouts, missed assignments and penalties?
The Ravens were flagged nine times for 80 yards on Sunday, which actually cost them 125 yards in field position. Should we be discouraged by the four special teams penalties that repeatedly pinned the Ravens in poor field position? Or was it encouraging to watch Chris Carr suddenly come alive on punt returns? Do we praise the emergence of Mark Clayton as a receiving target, or fret over his untimely fumble to kill a promising drive—reminiscent of an untimely drop against the Patriots? Do we cheer the re-emerging running game, or frown over the inability of Ravens running backs to pick up blitzers?
Perhaps it’s just a matter of analyzing this win and then quickly looking forward. After all, it’s December. And that means the playoffs start now for teams like the Ravens who are good enough to play with the best, but not quite good enough to sit atop their division. It means they will have to keep clawing to keep themselves in the playoff hunt.
Five games remain and then all the questions will be answered. For now, here’s how the uncertainty sits:
Joe Flacco looked smooth early, which is not always his tendency. He was accurate with short throws to his backs and made a nice throw in the seam to Kelley Washington. He seemed intent on proving that Mason is not his first and best option. But as the game wore on the five Steelers sacks took their toll, particularly on Flacco’s gimpy ankle. In the second half he made some inaccurate, forced, and hurried throws. But he also made some big completions including a 54-yard completion to Clayton where he diagnosed late help from the safety and a touchdown to Mason on an isolation fade route. The ball to Clayton was underthrown. He just needs to be more consistent. For the day he was 23 of 35 for 289 yards and the one touchdown with no interceptions. He did fumble twice in the collapsing pocket, losing one.
Running Backs: B
The running backs ran well but blocked poorly. Ray Rice missed some key blitz pick-ups and was called for a leg whip on another. LeRon McClain did not make a strong effort as a lead-blocking fullback; he was making contact but not finishing blocks and it cost the team yardage. Worse, he was poor against the blitz, particularly stepping right and allowing Lawrence Timmons to crash through on top of Flacco from the left. However, on the plus side, McClain was a brutal ball carrier, consistently churning long runs until he strained an abdomen muscle. Rice was spectacular again in open space. He made the Steelers secondary look pathetic, particularly on a critical fourth and five call to pick up 44 yards and help put the ball in overtime. Willis McGahee ran hard and north-south, but had limited chances with Rice playing so well.
Wide Receivers: A-
Mason and Clayton looked like real NFL receiving threats against the Steelers secondary. They ran excellent patterns and adjusted well on the ball. Clayton simply outran William Gay for the longest reception on the day and made a very tough catch in coverage. And Mason made a nice adjustment on the fade in the end zone. In fact, Mason was destroying Ike Taylor all night. The most underappreciated play of the day may have been Mason’s seventeen-yard reception on third and 22 to set up Rice’s fourth down miracle. The negatives were Clayton’s fumble after a catch and his getting flagged for a pick as the Ravens were driving for a win in regulation.
Tight Ends: B-
Todd Heap was thrown to once, with one catch late in the game. As a blocker he struggled some handling blitzers off the edge, particularly James Harrison, but was a better run blocker. The Ravens used Chris Chester as a blocking tight end to great effect, particularly on McGahee’s touchdown run early. He also blocked well in space.
Both Michael Oher and Jared Gaither dominated in the first half. In the second half, Gaither dropped off a bit against Brett Keisel and Oher struggled even more stopping Lamar Woodley. The two teamed on the left side to great effect in a heavy running scheme, particularly with McLean running the ball. Look for more of the same in December. They pushed Keisel and Ziggy Hood off the ball repeatedly. It was fun to see Haloti Ngata also get in as an extra tackle on the goal line.
Interior Line: A
This group was excellent. Even better considering the Steelers front four is very good. Matt Birk excelled at sealing blocks at the second level. Marshal Yanda started for Chris Chester and it paid instant dividends. Yanda was a beast in the running game, and was eating Travis Kirschke’s lunch for much of the game. He also executed a nice pull to the left to hook James Farrier to spring Rice behind him. Ben Grubbs was solid, but did get knocked into the backfield by Keisel once to stuff Rice.
Domonique Foxworth struggled to cover Santonio Holmes and it led to one long touchdown catch. His tendency is to play off the ball and then close for tackles, but it is not effective against mid-range passing. Lardarius Webb was impressive filling in for the injured Fabian Washington. He is a spectacular tackler who covers ground and closes as well as the Patriot’s excellent safety, Brandon Meriweather. But he also showed he has coverage skills, with tight coverage on intermediate routes by the very tough Hines Ward, and good recovery skills, as shown when Mike Wallace beat him to the back of the end zone. Chris Carr put in an improved performance.
Dawan Landry seems to have recovered his aggressiveness and confidence, and he was a fine contributor, with eight solo tackles He did get beaten by Hines Ward for an easy completion. Ed Reed was quieter, but did drop a terrible Dixon throw in the middle of the field when he collided with a teammate.
This group struggled mightily to get off blocks. It was hard to see Ray Lewis tangling with interior lineman rather than shedding and tackling. Lewis also looked slow and stiff, as if there may be an injury concern lurking from the looks of it. With a head of steam he was able to run over running backs on blitzes, but was not very agile in tighter quarters. Dannell Ellerbe played extensively and also struggled to make clean tackles. As a unit they bit on a lot of play fakes. Jarrett Johnson looked a little out of synch, and missed a tackle on Mendenhall that added twenty yards to a run. He was also blocked one on one by tight end Heath Miller. When Tavares Gooden got to the right spot he showed he can make plays, but he was not always in position. Paul Kruger was over aggressive at times holding the edge, but flowed down the line well and made one of the plays of the day on the interception and run back.
Defensive Line: C+
This group was steady, but did give up ground in the running game and did little to keep linebackers protected. Typical of the up and down nature of their play was Kelly Gregg when he beat a block to get into the backfield but watched Mendenhall spin past him. Trevor Pryce continues to play best in limited action on passing downs and the Steelers were forced to hold him. Haloti Ngata ate up double teams and was impressive shoving Trai Essex aside to make a tackle. Dwan Edwards was again very active and near the ball all night.
Special Teams: C-
The four penalties were ruinous. Frank Washington was guilty of both a hold and a missed tackle to allow Tony Logan to get off a kick return to midfield. Tom Zbikowski inexplicably had a late hit to start the game off on the wrong foot. It was great to see Chris Carr running more aggressively on punt returns. And credit Billy Cundiff with making critical field goals in pressure situations, however short and however crooked. If this group can eliminate the penalties it can be very good.
For John Harbaugh, it was the second week in a row where critical timeouts were wasted. Twice Sunday they needed timeouts to make decisions on fourth downs. The decisions worked out but they were questionable moves, and the timeouts should have been saved. It took the defensive staff too long to figure out they needed to back off the blitzing and instead keep the ball in front of them in zone coverage. Once that adjustment was made in the second half Dixon was ineffective. Cam Cameron made a bold decision to emphasize the running game against a tough rush defense but he really seemed to find something with his heavy package. Getting Yanda into the starting line-up and allowing McClain to run more on first and second downs was wise, and sets up an intriguing next set of games. Combine that with getting Mark Clayton involved, and at the very least, Green Bay will have a lot to prepare for.
You would like to see the officials be more consistent with the block in the back call. There could have easily been calls on Keyaron Fox who tackled KJ Gerard in coverage. Corey Ivy blocked David Tyree in the back on another turn. Of course, Edgar Jones held Patrick Bailey on a Ravens return, which should have been flagged for a fifth Ravens special teams penalty. A block in the back call against Gooden was really just feet tangling. Ed Hochuli’s crew had trouble announcing who they were seeing. They announced a hold by Haloti Ngata, 92, that they actually meant for Ray Lewis, 52, when Lewis grabbed Mewelde Moore by the pads and flung him onto his face. The flag was thrown at Lewis, and Lewis could be seen loudly complaining. They nearly mistakenly flagged Chris Chester for failure to report and then announced he did report; he did not, but it was a moot issue because Chester was simply playing tackle in a balanced line on the play in question. The crew failed to call pass interference on Ike Taylor when he grabbed Mason at the goal line; it should have ended the game in regulation. Later in OT there should have been a booth challenge on a ball that Mason may have caught to keep a drive alive. The worst call of the day was allowing Flacco to fumble forward at the end of regulation and credit the Ravens with five extra yards to allow a field goal try.
Broadcast: A –
Chris Collinsworth was very prescient on a couple of predictions, including the Dixon’s touchdown run and the fact that somebody’s defense would win it in overtime. Al Michaels and Collinsworth were right on the money catching nuances and providing explanations, including Flacco’s forwarded fumble, Dixon’s struggles against the zone coverage and the Ravens’ illegal touching of a punt to allow Harrison to risk picking it up. Andrea Kramer is awful with her deer-in-the headlights gaze and her teleprompter delivery. Mercifully there was less of her and more replays and flattering images of Baltimore. NBC does a good job.
That’s the short and long of it. Time to move on to the real games, now that December is finally here.