DECEMBER 19, 2010
The experts outside Baltimore and the pessimists closer to home didn’t see this one coming.
The Ravens defense was too tired, they said, coming off a short week and a harrowingly close finish in Houston. The offensive line had lost its luster, unable to protect or push its way past opposing defenses.
That’s what the doubters believed, based upon recent history. And for a while, it looked like the doubters were right as the reigning Super Bowl champion Saints came to town, needing a win to keep up with the Atlanta Falcons in their NFC South divisional race to the playoffs.
Skeptics had plenty to shake their heads over as the Ravens offense took their opening possession and marched fifteen yards—backwards—before punting. A few boos could be heard throughout M&T Bank Stadium.
And then, after the Ravens offense got untracked to raced out to a two-touchdown lead in the first half, the Ravens defense allowed the Saints to march back, 92 yards in less than three minutes as the half ended, to cut the lead in half.
Still clinging to a 24-17 lead into the fourth quarter, the Ravens defense then allowed the Saints to finish an eighty yard drive with a game-tying touchdown. It came on a third and long prayer of a throw by Drew Brees into the corner of the end zone that Lance Moore somehow came down with off a deflection as he tight-roped the boundary. It marked the ninth time this season the Ravens defense surrendered a fourth quarter lead.
Oh no, here we go again.
But on this day the doubters were wrong as the Ravens rediscovered and re-asserted their identity on offense. Turns out, their identity runs through Ray Rice on the ground and through the air, just as it did a year ago, before star receivers Anquan Boldin and TJ Houshmandzadeh joined the offense.
The diminutive back carried the ball 31 times for 153 yards, and added 80 more on five catches, including a spectacular basket catch in the corner of the end zone. He did it behind an offensive line that went back to where it began, with Marshall Yanda at tackle and Chris Chester and Ben Grubbs out in space trapping.
Defensively, the Ravens snuffed out the running game of the Saints, who were without their impressive rookie out of Tiffin University, Chris Ivory. In his stead, a combination of Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Julius Jones managed just 27 yards – 27 measly yards. It made the Saints predictable, forcing Drew Brees to air it out 46 times, just a week after Matt Schaub of the Texans threw it 62 times against Greg Mattison’s defense.
The Ravens indeed may have found their identity and it starts with the running game on both sides of the ball.
Joe Flacco didn’t have his biggest statistical day by any means. He completed just half of 20 pass attempts for 172 yards. But he was very patient, sidestepping blitzers and protecting the ball. He was extremely patient to wait for a stumbling Ed Dickson to sneak past Jonathan Vilma for a 34 yard TD down the seam. And he made perhaps his best throw of the year into the right corner of the end zone, dropping the ball over the linebacker into the 5’7” Rice’s arms on a wheel route. It might be sacrilegious to say it in this town, but he looked ever bit the part of Johnny Unitas shuffling in the pocket, pump faking to his right, and dropping another graceful arc into the arms of Derrick Mason on a double move down the sideline. The concern coming out of this game is Flacco’s ability to maintain offensive pace and score touchdowns in the second half; the Ravens have now gone five consecutive games without an offensive touchdown after intermission. Ten years ago another Ravens team went five consecutive games without an offensive touchdown, you may recall.
Running Backs: A
Ray Rice showed much better patience this week running behind his offense line, and it paid huge dividends. With the Saints putting seven and eight defenders in the box Rice was still able to find seams and grind the ball for nearly five yards a clip. He seemed to run better when fed the ball consistently. Cam Cameron pulled the old lag draw call out of the back of the playbook and it seems to suit Rice perfectly, making a hard job even harder for outside linebackers trying to bring down Rice in space. Rice continues to make tacklers of all sizes miss once he’s in the open field, and was a step away from breaking more long runs as he was caught from behind a couple of times setting up blocks. Willis McGahee spelled Rice with seven carries for 53 yards, pushing the total to over 200 yards rushing on the day for this tandem. Le’Ron McClain dropped what should have been Joe Flacco’s third touchdown throw, but McClain was a consistent lead blocker.
Wide Receivers: C-
Mason, Houshmandzadeh, and Boldin had just one catch each on the day. David Reed dropped a ball in red zone. Not much else to say about a day for the receivers when they were not particularly needed. They did block well for Rice. They need to be a more viable threat in the red zone.
Tight Ends: B-
Ed Dickson’s first NFL touchdown was a memorable one. He fooled Vilma to slip into seam to catch the pass on the run on a third and nine call from the Saints 34. He then showed a nice move to step out of Roman Harper’s grasp at the 15 and outrun Usuma Young while running over Jabari Green at one for the score. It came just as Ravens fans may have been wondering when their rookie tight ends would contribute at the level of other rookie tight ends throughout the league. But it was Dickson’s only catch for positive yards. He did make a nice lead block in the secondary on Rice’s TD scamper. He struggled however containing Danny Clark on the back side when the Ravens ran to the other side.
Michael Oher was coming off a shaky performance in Houston, and had a horrendous start against the Saints. On the first series he could not stop Will Smith from making a back side tackle with Rice running right. And on the second play Oher was pushed into the backfield for a loss of four. Eventually Oher settled down and had a decent day. Marshal Yanda was solid back at the right tackle spot, and stood out on Rice’s TD run, taking Jeff Charleston from his outside shoulder and riding him inside all the way down the line to open a huge hole for Rice.
Interior Line: A-
The game started with Chris Chester and Matt Birk allowing Sedrick Ellis and Alex Brown to beat them on simple stunt for a sack. After that, the guard and center tandem played well, particularly considering how many defenders crowded the line of scrimmage. Chester in particular utilized well pulling to the off side. He and Ben Grubbs were superb getting out front of Rice on a screen to take down Remi Ayodele and Roman Harper, clearing the way for a gain of 15. Ben Grubbs struggled a bit to keep his feet. Birk was late snapping the ball for an offsides call.
The Saints completed very little outside the hashes, with the Ravens corners doing a fine job of funneling receivers to the inside. Even on completions Josh Wilson played tight coverage on Robert Meacham and Devery Henderson. Lardarius Webb continues to show very good recovery speed and plays the ball at its highest point. He did drop a potential interception at the Ravens’ 35, but was then was on the field as a punt returner fair catching the ball at the 40. Both Webb and Chris Carr were very good recognizing and closing on underneath throws.
With Tom Zbikowski out, Haruki Nakamura filled in on dime packages. He struggled to cover Henderson over the middle. In general, the weak spot in the Ravens defense continues be in front of the Ravens safeties, behind the linebackers, between the hatches. When teams spread the field, as the Saints did before the half, Ravens safeties allow too many completions over the middle. Dawan Landry was slow to react and essentially watched Jimmy Graham catch a ball in the red zone, turn and score. Ed Reed was flagged for clubbing Brees on a blitz. He had a near pick off of a deflection early, and he played better coverage in the fourth quarter to help preserve the win.
The Ravens linebacking corps still struggles in pass coverage, but showed signs of getting better. Dannell Ellerbe emerged from the proverbial doghouse and returned to action. He was not great covering the tight end, and looked lost at times sensing where he needed to be at the snap, but he also looked strong playing the ball in front of him. Jameel McClain was essentially a carbon copy of Ellerbe. Jarrett Johnson was by far the best linebacker in coverage and had a very nice all-around game with seven tackles, two for a loss, a sack, and a forced fumble coming around the edge and whacking the ball from Brees’ hand. His pressure on the quarterback late drew a holding call against the Saints that would have sealed the win if a Cory Redding interception had not removed all doubt. Tavares Gooden and Ray Lewis were much improved getting pressure up the A gaps without tipping their hand.
Defensive Line: A-
When a team rushes for just 27 yards on the day it’s hard to give anything less than an A. Although consecutive offsides calls against Paul Kruger and Cory Redding put that grade in jeopardy. Terrell Suggs was also flagged for offsides and he may have blown an assignment when Jimmy Graham released past him for a touchdown catch. The Ravens were effective in tipping balls from the league’s shortest quarterback. Terrence Cody and Kelly Gregg alternated and were solid in sticking to their assignments. Haloti Ngata let nothing by him up the middle, and his deflection of a pass into the waiting arms of Cory Redding sealed the win for the Ravens.
Special Teams: B-
Billy Cundiff was not quite as dominant on kick offs, getting just one touchback on a day with a lot of scoring. He was perfect on three field goals of 33, 32, and 27 yards. As a punt returner Lardarius Webb failed to get Haruki Nakamura away from a short bouncing kick that nearly resulted in a turnover. He also fair caught a punt prematurely. But he bounced back with a very nice return of 26 yards where he set up blocks on the left side. Sam Koch continues to perform like a Pro Bowler, placing punts inside the opponents’ 10. Jalen Parmele stepped in to return kicks after David Reed was out with a concussion and was solid. Cary Williams had trouble keeping his cool on special teams but was not flagged.
Credit Cam Cameron with sticking with his game plan and finding an identity on offense. Coming off an exhausting week, the Ravens needed to control the clock and keep Brees off the field. The Saints knew it but the Ravens offense was still able to use the run, and screens to keep the Saints on their heels and Brees off the field. Cameron spread the formation when necessary and still was able to run the ball. The gutsy pitch call on fourth and short was brilliant. Defensively, the Ravens made the Saints one dimensional.
In a chippy game, Walt Anderson’s crew kept things under control, although they were a bit inconsistent on their unsportsman-like calls. A late flag against Darren Sharper for spearing on Ray Rice at the end of a play was justified even though players get away with these hits nine times out of ten. A call against Rice for flipping the ball to a defender at the end of the play was stranger, still. Especially strange considering the play Will Smith got away with when he jammed his left hand into the side of Joe Flacco’s head after he was sacked. Flacco and teammate Anquan Boldin continued to yell at the officials for a flag that never came. Strangest yet, in true make-good fashion, Smith was later flagged for a shove after the whistle to allow the Ravens to run out the clock.
Fox avoided the temptation to make too much out of Brian Billick’s return to Baltimore, and Billick did a good job of maintaining neutral perspective. Chris Meyers was excellent reporting from the sideline with real information instead of the usual fluff from downstairs.