September 13, 2010
It turns out Steve Bisciotti was right. After ‘changing his mind’ and dismissing head coach Brian Billick at the end of the 2007 season, the Ravens owner could have simply anointed defensive coordinator and player-favorite Rex Ryan as the third head coach in Ravens history. But he didn’t.
As owner of the Ravens Bisciotti had a very different vision for who should lead the team. He talked about a “gut feeling” that led to his choice of John Harbaugh. So, what did Bisciotti see in Harbaugh, the son of an old-school football coach—Jack Harbaugh—that he didn’t see in Rex Ryan, the son of an odd-school football coach—Buddy Ryan?
The answer was plainly evident to a national TV audience Monday night during the Baltimore Ravens thrilling 10-9 victory over the Rex Ryan-coached, self-destructing New York Jets. And the reasons for Bisciotti’s choice echoed in the words of John Harbaugh as he delivered inspired, post-game remarks to assembled reporters.
After first complimenting his opponent, Harbaugh complimented his own team, explaining, “I thought we were disciplined. I thought we were poised. I thought we played with fundamental soundness. Okay—that’s a team [the Jets] that creates havoc against you, and you have to be able to dust off those situations and come back and play the next play.”
In other words, the Ravens were everything the Ryan-coached Jets were not. The nation’s first glimpse of the much-ballyhooed 2010 Jets looked a lot like the often-maligned, chaotic, mistake-prone Billick-and-Ryan Ravens of old.
Yes, the Jets predictably shut down the run and created chaos in the Ravens backfield. But that same chaos also opened multiple self-inflicted wounds for the Jets. Especially on third downs, as Joe Flacco was able to withstand swarms of blitzers and still isolate defensive backs Antonio Cromartie and rookie Kyle Wilson in one-on-one coverage to keep the chains moving.
In doing so, the Ravens managed twenty first downs against a Jets defense that led the league in getting off the field last season. In the meantime, a disciplined Ravens defense held the Jets to a lowly six first downs—a franchise-record-tying mark for futility. The Ravens were 11 of 19 on third downs compared to just 1 of 11 for the Jets behind skittish second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez.
The game was not really as close as the score indicates if not for three costly Ravens’ turnovers and consistently bad field position throughout the second half.
It takes the kind of poise and discipline that Harbaugh spoke of to overcome these set-backs. And it helps when your chaotic opponent commits 14 penalties for 125 yards – mostly on key, third-and-long situations that extended Ravens drives or simply helped them escape their own end of the field.
The Ravens overcame costly turnovers because they were so dominant in every other way, including plays (75-44), yards (282-176), passing yards (248-74) and time of possession (38:32 to 21:28).
Individually there were a few areas of concern, but plenty of high marks to hand out. It starts with our Ravens 24×7 game ball. That honor goes to Steve Bisciotti. He created the vision, and his team responded.
Joe Flacco struggled early by holding on to the ball too long when trying to locate open receivers. That included taking a devastating hit and fumbling on the Ravens’ opening offensive play of the game to yield a quick Jets field goal. Later, it included a forced throw for a 66-yard Antonio Cromartie interception return when Todd Heap and Anquan Boldin ran similar patterns into a crowd of defenders. To his credit, Flacco chased down Cromartie from behind to prevent a touchdown. And true to his reputation, he never seemed flustered after bad plays. Despite the constant blitz pressure, he stood tall in the pocket and put the ball where only his taller receivers, Heap, Boldin, and TJ Houshmandzadeh could come down with them. He was particularly in synch with Heap. He also moved his feet well to buy extra time. During the game’s clutch moments Flacco was as impressive as Sanchez was inept. Flacco finished 20/38 with an interception, compared to 10/21 and 74 yards for Sanchez.
Running Backs: C
The running backs didn’t get much help from the offensive line (more on that in a minute). Willis McGahee was sluggish and danced too much in the red zone. He also fumbled. Ray Rice had a few good moments picking holes and churning for extra yards, but he averaged just two yards a pop on 21 carries. He also dropped a first down pass in the red zone. Le’Ron McClain was an inconsistent blocker. Case in point was a whiff on safety Jim Leonard on the left edge that would have sprung Rice for a long run.
Wide Receivers: A
Newcomer Anquan Boldin paid instant dividends in a game the Ravens may not have even been able to be competitive in last season. He caught everything, including a couple beautiful come-back routes to the back shoulder or over the top of smaller defenders. His advertised ability to run after catch was apparent. He finished with seven catches for 110 yards. Not to be out done, fellow “possession receivers” TJ Houshmandzadeh and Derrick Mason hauled in crucial catches on tight routes. Mason showed that while he didn’t have the speed to blow past Cromartie, he can still be dangerous with his route running.
Tight Ends: A
What a stellar performance by the ten-year veteran Todd Heap. Coordinator Cam Cameron moved Heap all over the field, including putting him in the backfield as an H-back protector. Heap displayed clutch hands in hauling in six catches for 72 yards. None was better than a highlight-reel diving catch for a 35-yard gain in the fourth quarter to ice the game. If not for an off-sides call, and a bobble that cornerback Kyle Wilson knocked to the ground, Heap would have had a touchdown and a perfect night. Ed Dickson was a surprisingly good blocker on the goal line.
The offensive line was an area of concern. Michael Oher was beaten by the likes of Taylore Lawhead and Bart Scott, who sped past the left tackle to cause a fumble. And Mike DeVito blew past him for a near safety. Marshall Yanda struggled early as well on the opposite side and committed one of five Ravens penalties on a hands to the face call. The tackles seemed to settle down and provided decent protection later in the game as the Jets defense wore down. Cam Cameron ran a lot of tackle-over to the left, with two tight ends to the right, and that also helped with max protection.
Interior Line: D
A noticeably heavier Chris Chester got a start at right guard, but the added bulk was not enough to prevent him from getting knocked back repeatedly. His holding penalty pushed the Ravens outside of field goal range. Matt Birk was easily pushed back by Kris Jenkins, before he left with a knee injury, or any number of linebackers stunting inside. Ben Grubbs was good on the goal line but was beaten one-on-one by Mike DeVito multiple times.
Whether Mark Sanchez failed to look downfield, or whether he looked and saw covered receivers is hard to know. What was clear is that Chris Carr and Fabian Washington were excellent in the red zone, and that was a major factor in holding the Jets to three field goals. They were equally good in holding coverage when the Jets employed more rollouts to buy time downfield.
Gregg Mattison blitzed very infrequently and opted to hold his safeties back in coverage. Tom Zbikowski was excellent in helping to bracket deep-threat Braylon Edwards, contributing to him being held to one catch for nine yards. Dawan Landry set the tone early by beating a block for a nice open field tackle.
The moral of the story for the Jets: Don’t piss off Mr. Ray Lewis. Whether he was making an on-field statement in response to the mouthy Jets, or whether it was the big-game atmosphere, or just the start of a promising season that motivated Lewis, he was all over the field Monday, proving that he is still one of the better players in the NFL. His hit on Dustin Keller to help end the Jets comeback chances was right up there in the pantheon of great Ray Lewis plays – nearly as memorable as the stuff of Darren Sproles to help secure a victory over the Chargers in the second game of the 2009 season. He was just as impressive sideline to sideline, forward at the point of attack, or turning his hips to pursue receivers. Terrell Suggs was a little more up and down, missing a tackle early to allow a 21-yard run, but got better as the game progressed. Tavares Gooden looked improved covering receivers on short routes. Jarret Johnson shared a sack with Suggs. Jameel McClain was in on six tackles despite limited reps for the Ravens defense.
Defensive Line: A
Haloti Ngata was a beast. He had two highlight-reel plays to embarrass Matt Slauson in his first NFL start in the role previously filled by the departed Alan Faneca. Early in the game Ngata simply pushed Slauson back into Shon Greene to cause a fumble. Later he clubbed Slauson to the ground and ran through Sanchez for a sack. Trevor Pryce was not as dominant, but adequate in limited reps. Cory Redding got his hands on a near interception.
Special Teams: C-
Tom Zbikowski made the mistake of fielding a punt inside the ten and ran backward for a near safety, which put his team in a deep hole. On the plus side, he showed good hands. The Ravens coverage units gave up too much ground on kick offs, despite long, high kicks by Billy Cundiff, and missed tackles on a long Jim Leonhard punt return. David Reed was a lone stand out as a gunner, splitting a double-team block and getting a difficult tackle. Josh Wilson was guilty of a hold for another poor field position situation. I have never marveled at a long snapper, but Morgan Cox was perfect on his snaps.
Cam Cameron is to be lauded for putting Joe Flacco into the shot gun to buy extra time downfield. It paid big dividends. He was not afraid to ask his quarterback to throw over the top in blitz situations. He is also to be credited for mixing up the play calls. After the game Rex Ryan made a point of noting, “they didn’t run it anywhere, but they ran it thirty-six times and that’s enough. They were effective throwing the ball…they beat us in every statistical category except turnovers.” Rex was outcoached. On defense, Greg Mattison showed patience by sending just four or even pass rushers for much of the game, and his team responded by playing sound fundamental football and keeping the Jets easily in check. John Harbaugh’s emphasis on avoiding penalties paid off immensely.
Jets fans may tell you that Walt Anderson’s crew called too many iffy pass interference and illegal contact calls in the defensive backfield. But Ravens fans know all too well about this point of emphasis. Both teams knew it was coming when they saw Anderson’s flag-happy crew was doing the game, and only one team did something about it.
Jon Gruden may have been right to gripe that numerous penalty calls were disruptive to the flow of the game. But the truth is that most calls were correct. For instance, the broadcast crew correctly noted that Anquan Boldin was not interfered with when the ball in the air, but they ignored the fact that a penalty was correctly called when the defender was grabbing Boldin fifteen yards downfield before the ball was ever launched. Overall, it was a good telecast by ESPN. I enjoyed Gruden’s intense banter, including his “Master of Disaster” narration of the Lewis hit on Keller. The WJZ post-game “live from a bar somewhere” coverage was pathetic.
The Jets will have a short week to harness their chaos theory against a tough Patriots team that destroyed the Bengals while the Ravens travel to Cincinnati on Sunday for their first intra-divisional game.
That game will be a tougher test for the Ravens’ defensive secondary.