BALTIMORE RAVENS 34 HOUSTON TEXANS 28, OT
DECEMBER 13, 2010
Awkward. How else do you describe the Baltimore Ravens? They resemble an awkward teen, delighting you one moment when their full potential shines through, scaring the hell out of you the next with boneheaded moves.
Will they ever grow up?
They better, with just three weeks left in the regular season to figure things out before they enter the grown-up world of the NFL playoffs.
The Ravens made child’s play out of the Houston Texans in the first half Monday night, as they raced out to a 21-7 lead, and then extended that lead to three touchdowns on a spectacular 103-yard kickoff return by David Reed to start the second half.
But then, with Texans fans raining boos down on their hometown team, the Ravens lost focus, lost energy and nearly lost the game by allowing the Texans to roar back with 21 unanswered points to send the game into overtime.
A Texans team that couldn’t catch the ball on offense and couldn’t tackle on defense suddenly could do no wrong against a sagging Baltimore defense and porous offensive line. When they absolutely needed to, the Texans performed, going four-for-four on fourth-down conversions and connecting on a critical two-point conversion to knot it up. One of the worst defenses in football held the Ravens offense to just four first downs in the second half.
Meanwhile, the Ravens defense appeared to be playing underwater in the second half, lining up three or four defensive lineman who flayed helplessly in the general direction of quarterback Matt Schaub snap after snap – an incredible 86 offensive plays, including 62 pass attempts, for the Texans on the night.
In a tale of two halves, this game came down to a coin flip. Cory Redding stammered out, “tails” and the coin landed tails-side-up. Mercifully. Redding pumped his fist, knowing full well his exhausted teammates could not go right back onto the field and stop the Texans from scoring in overtime.
In a Ravens season that seems to come down to a fourth-quarter, virtual coin flip each week, the offense drove the ball just far enough to pin the Texans deep. And the defense put just enough pressure on Schaub to force him to throw the ball into cornerback Josh Wilson’s waiting hands for an awkward, exhausting overtime win.
On a night where his offensive line could muster very little in the way of a running game or pass protection, Joe Flacco did a fairly remarkable job of holding things together. He continues to struggle to locate where the blitz pressure is coming from, and doesn’t seem willing or able to make changes at the line of scrimmage to skirt them. But despite the pressure, he made very good throws all night and didn’t toss any interceptions. He did fumble the ball on a sack on a play that looked remarkably similar to the fateful Troy Polamalu fumble from the week prior, but the Ravens fell on the ball. Even his excellent touchdown throw to Derrick Mason on a skinny post to the back of the end zone came as he was being hit. He showed very good touch and accuracy as he sidestepped pressure to connect on a screen to fullback Le’Ron McClain.
Running Backs C
Ray Rice may be getting frustrated with his offensive line. Although he did not look visibly upset, he did not look patient either trying to find running lanes. Willis McGahee was more patient, but no more success running the ball, aside from a power run for a touchdown where he simply ran over Troy Nolan. Ray Rice did take out his frustration by powering over middle linebacker Kevin Bentley, but you’d like to see him return to being the elusive back he showed when taking a dump off pass over the middle and making three defenders miss him to get the first down. Still, Ravens backs were held to under three yards a carry on 23 attempts. Rice was more effective as a receiver, catching all eight balls thrown his way for 66 yards. Le’Ron McClain flashed signs of being a devastating lead blocker, but mostly spent the night tangled up with pulling guards looking for someone to hit. None of the backs picked up blitzers particularly well.
Wide Receivers B
Derrick Mason dropped what should have been a long touchdown to open the game. And he seemed to be bothered by the injury to his hand as he dropped another pass. But he redeemed himself with a very nice touchdown grab in the back of the end zone and he schooled Jason Allen on a comeback route for a touchdown where he cut so hard he seemed to also fake out his own right shoe, as it went flying out of bounds on the catch. Anquan Boldin was visibly upset in the second half, whether it was play calling, missed audible opportunities by his quarterback, or his own offsides and dropped ball. He didn’t seem to give maximum effort at times and only caught three of eight pass opportunities. But he was clutch fighting for first downs when needed. TJ Houshmandzadeh made the most of two catches to move the chains.
Tight Ends: C-
With Todd Heap out with a hamstring issue, the Ravens elected to insert Chris Chester at tight end rather than rely on Ed Dickson’s suspect blocking. It didn’t work. Chester was not effective as a blocker, mostly on the right side, aside from leading the way for Willis McGahee on his touchdown run. The team also gave more snaps to Dennis Pitta in two tight-end snaps, but he was not a lot better than Dickson as a blocker, while being thrown to just once without coming close to the reception. The Texans stacked the box and the two tight ends did little in the running game to help offset the advantage.
By moving Chester from his guard spot to tight end, the team was able to slide Marshal Yanda back to his natural position and give Oniel Cousins the start at right tackle. Cousins, who showed at times last season he could be a very good run blocker, was a mess. He failed to get off the ball very quickly and kept his pad level too high, looking everything like a dancing bear in the running game. Against the pass rush he flayed away with odd technique that barely kept his quarterback protected. Michael Oher was not much better. He didn’t get a lot of push in the running game, and didn’t use his hands particularly well to ward off pass rushers. There also seemed to be a lot of uncertainty on how to handle tackle-end stunts or the safety blitz from Bernard Pollard.
Interior Line: D
Ben Grubbs was plagued by a mental error jumping offsides and struggled some with Antonio Smith, who was able to force Flacco to throw too early, particularly when targeting Boldin. Marshal Yanda did not look fully comfortable back at guard, inconsistent when pulling left and surrendering a blitz in overtime. Matt Birk seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time calling out blocking schemes.
Josh Wilson saved the game for the Ravens. His interception return for a touchdown in overtime is the most obvious example. But he did a tremendous job on Andre Johnson for a good part of the night, showing a lot of ball skill to defend passes intended for Johnson including a touchdown-saving deflection. He was right on the receiver on every ball thrown in his direction. Most of Johnson’s nine catches for 140 yards came late in the game when Schaub was not under any pressure. Wilson was victimized by a pick to allow Jacoby Jones to run free for a 16 yard completion. Chris Carr nabbed the other interception on the night on a ball tipped off Owen Daniels’ fingertips. Carr bit on an inside move by David Anderson to allow an easy first down catch, but otherwise had a very good game directing traffic in the secondary and making sure tackles. Lardarius Webb played very well in coverage, also rising to knock a well aimed pass away at its highest point and closing hard to make sure tackles.
Early in the game the safeties did a good job hanging back and not biting on play action fakes. But the longer Schaub had to throw as the Ravens front seven tired, the worse the safeties played. Ed Reed was involved in all three Texans touchdowns, most notably allowing Johnson to simply run past him inexcusably at the end of the first half. He also allowed Jones to run away from him in the end zone for another score. Dawan Landry missed an interception in the end zone.
Ravens linebackers were asked to play a lot of coverage, and didn’t do it particularly well. Their coverage drops were inconsistent. They had trouble covering Owen Daniels but were helped by a number of dropped balls by the Texans’ TE in his first game back from injury. Tavares Gooden was particularly weak in coverage, excelling only when asked to blitz like a safety. Neither Ray Lewis nor McClain was particularly good getting off blocks. Lewis finished with just two solo tackles.
Defensive Line: B
Cory Redding had his best game of the year playing in his hometown. After being driven out of a running play to start game, he bucked up and played well all night stopping the run and getting into the backfield to pressure, and getting a quick release to sack Schaub. Terrell Suggs was very active all night, and made one of the stand out plays when he ran around Eric Winston to sack Schaub and force a 52-yard field goal that Neil Rackers could not connect on. Haloti Ngata at times looked like King Kong using his long arms and quick hands to swat blockers aside and absorb ball carriers and when batting down a screen pass attempt. Brandon McKinney saw a lot of action and was stout against the run. The Ravens needed more from Paul Kruger late in the game when fresh legs could have made a difference in the pass rush.
Special Teams: A+
Special teams play was the key to this victory. David Reed’s kick-off return for a touchdown didn’t seem like it at the time, but was the margin needed to secure the win. His ability to break tackles was impressive, only surpassed by his burst of speed down the sideline. He also made an excellent tackle inside the twenty on one of the two kick offs Billy Cundiff didn’t pound for a touchback. Cundiff had three touchbacks to his credit. Lardarius Webb showed good change of direction and solid hands on punt returns. Sam Koch continued to drop punts inside the ten and gave the Ravens the field position advantage they needed in the first half to gain the large lead. In overtime, Koch’s 58 yard punt from his own thirty was fielded by Jacoby Jones, who was then tackled by Haruki Nakamura for minus-three yards to pin the Texans at their own nine. It set up the winning interception.
Cam Cameron had a dilemma. Already missing a dominant run blocker from last year’s line-up in Jared Gaither, he was now without an underrated blocking tight end in Todd Heap. He also had been exposed by defenses in recent weeks that had seemed to lock in on his run-left tendencies. So he made a bold more to make changes on the offensive line and utilize a two-tight end jumbo package for most of the night. Whether it made sense on paper to “go big” on what is considered one of the weaker secondaries in the league doesn’t matter. It didn’t work. The lineup was paltry in the running attack and porous against the pass rush. Aside from a few nice screen and draw calls, Cameron had little answer to stop the Texans when they attacked his offensive line in the second half. Defensively, Greg Mattison had a nice plan to slow down the Texans passing game in the first half. But he had no answer when the pass rush from his front four ran out of energy in the fourth quarter.
Bill Leavy’s crew called a nice game, with only a few misses on both sides of the ledger. They credited Ed Dickson with a catch four minutes into the fourth quarter on a ball he trapped off the turf, but it was still short of a first down and led to a punt. They missed a fairly blatant hold by Jason Allen on TJ Houshmandzadeh that prevented him from getting to the spot of the throw. The most egregious non-call was on ball thrown away by Schaub when he was pressured from inside the hashes. The ball didn’t cross the line of scrimmage and didn’t land anywhere near a receiver. The crew huddled but did not have the fortitude to make the late, correct call of grounding. The Texans were able maintain the original line of scrimmage and maintain the extra down needed to score on fourth down and get the game into overtime.
Apparently there are not a lot of interesting places to show in Houston coming out of commercial breaks. We know this because ESPN chose to feed us aerial shots of the closed-dome stadium from the DirecTV blimp. The broadcast crew of Gruden, Jaws, and Tirico comes across as genuinely interested in the game and they provide decent insights when not staging awkward birthday celebrations for Tirico in the booth. Jaws made two interesting comments that stood out: the Ravens need to check down to Ray Rice more often. And he sees more command at the line of scrimmage from Flacco.