BALTIMORE RAVENS 13, CINCINNATI BENGALS 7
JANUARY 2, 2011
The good news: the Ravens defense finally exorcised a demon by controlling Carson Palmer and a Bengals offense that had come into Baltimore very hot. For much of the game the Ravens were dominant defensively. By halftime the Bengals running backs had totaled just 23 yards on 10 carries while Palmer was being harassed into what amounted to a 50 passer rating.
But then in the fourth quarter, like so many fourth quarters for the Ravens this season, a tired, beat-up defense began to cave. A game that should not have been close suddenly hung in the balance. In the end, the Ravens held on and did just enough, barely enough, stalling the Bengals on their doorstep with :10 left to preserve a 13-10 win. It gave the Ravens 12 wins for the season, and hung just the fourth loss on Palmer as a starter against the Ravens in his last 13 tries.
Now here’s the bad: the Ravens offense was pathetic. They failed to capitalize very effectively on turnovers – five of them by the Bengals. Not just turnovers though. A shanked punt and a kick out of bounds also set them up with wasted field position. Numerous stalled drives on short yardage attempts by Cincinnati were not converted into counter-punches by the offense. It all should have led to a resounding victory for a playoff-hopeful Ravens team on a day where other playoff-bound teams like Pittsburgh, Atlanta, New England and the Jets were spanking lesser divisional opponents to finish on a high note.
Offensively the same scenario played out the entire second half. Running calls were drawn up on first and second downs, and then absolutely no answer was available from coordinator Cam Cameron on third down. Again and again Joe Flacco dropped back into a max protect pocket, surveyed the two receivers available to him, and took the sack or ran from trouble.
The Ravens played their starters for this?
It’s a pertinent question given the number of players who left the game with injuries. Starters who will be needed in the playoffs will now spend the week trying, at best, to overcome injuries sustained Sunday, including, Michael Oher (knee), Josh Wilson (shoulder), Haloti Ngata (hamstring) and Ed Reed (ribs).
Joe Flacco did not play particularly well, completing 14 of 19 for 125 yards and an interception. The passer rating of 69 was his worst showing in weeks, and an untimely reminder to the rest of the AFC to simply watch film from Bengals games to know how to scheme against Flacco’s offense. Take away a 37 yard completion to his tight end on a gimmicky but well-designed flea-flicker screen pass, and Flacco managed less than seven yards a completion. In the first half he had modest success moving around in the pocket, but by the second half he stubbornly stood in the pocket and was swarmed over by defenders, including four sacks on the day, when receivers failed to get open down field. Even when moving well to his right, Flacco was slow to see Todd Heap drifting wide open near the right pylon. A late, lofted throw allowed Reggie Nelson to secure an interception near the end of the first half when Flacco usually does his best work.
Running Backs: C
After a big game a week ago, Ray Rice came back down to earth. He was held to just 77 yards on 20 carries and was not a threat at all as a pass catcher. While he played well early, running hard to open holes, and being patient to create space when the holes where not there, his effectiveness waned as the game progressed. He was also flagged for pass interference in the end zone. Willis McGahee was a non factor, except for being the pitch man on the Flacco flea flicker. On the bright side, LeRon McClain was a strong lead blocker and looked good with the ball in his hands.
Wide Receivers: C
It’s hard to figure what’s going on with this receiving corps. Anquan Boldin has practically disappeared, and at one point was in the backfield blocking on a third and six to help protect the right side. There is absolutely no downfield threat amongst the group—or at least they are not being asked to run vertical routes. Not even Donte’ Stallworth, who had one nice 14 yard run on an end around. Stallworth’s role has been reduced to reverses or fake reverses. Boldin had two catches for 9 yards and the rest of the wide outs had five catches among them. TJ Houshmandzadeh had the stand out catch against his former team, tight-roping the sideline for a first down grab. Derrick Mason was wide open on a drag route, crossing in front of Todd Heap, but the play was never called again.
Tight Ends: B-
Nice to see Todd Heap back, particularly after his 37 yard catch and run on the inventive screen call. But that play can only be mentioned so many times on a day where very little else looked great for the Ravens. Heap was slow to pick up blocks in his first game back after injuring his thigh. Ed Dickson made an awkward attempt to get around on a catchable ball that he failed to go up for.
Michael Oher looked great in space, but did not do a lot to push the pile on the line of scrimmage. He continues to be more of a finesse player at a time the Ravens need to establish a stronger running game. His late hit penalty erased a near-first down gain, and set up the resulting blitz and sack on the next play. However, his replacement at left tackle, Oniel Cousins, is a big drop off in the passing game. On one series he seemed to be pass blocking as the team tried to run behind him. On the right side, credit Marshal Yanda with a nice block to seal Robert Gaithers to clear the path to the end zone for Ray Rice. However, Yanda was also guilty of a hold and a false start. With Oher out, the Ravens used Tony Moll as an extra tackle on the right side, but it was again ineffective.
Interior Line: A-
The interior line played pretty well against a tough Bengals front. While the Bengals sack pressure did come from the middle, coverage sacks were really the issue for the Ravens offense. Matt Birk was very strong in the running game and a key to the teams’ early success, including a nice seal block on the first play of the game. Chris Chester was very effective all day pulling left and locking up defenders. Chester was flagged for a false start although it was a mystery what he did to draw the foul. Ben Grubbs was also very good in space, particularly getting to Rey Maualuga on a Willis McGahee eight yard run.
Josh Wilson was playing very well prior to leaving the game with a shoulder injury after a hard hit on the mountainous tight end Chas Coffman. With Chris Carr asked to play man coverage on the opposite side, the defense struggled a bit more to contain the quick Jerome Simpson, who finished with 12 catches and 123 yards. Carr was savvy enough to recover and strip the ball from Simpson for one of his two fumbles on the day. Lardarius Webb had the speed to keep up with Simpson, but wasn’t always more effective, lacking Carr’s instincts, including letting Simpson get to the outside of the end zone for the Bengals lone score. He also got burned by Andre Caldwell inexcusably in the final drive for a 39 yard catch. Webb, the former college safety, continues to play well in run support.
What can you say about Ed Reed that hasn’t been said? His second consecutive two-pick game. Talk about savvy, he is simply in the right spot for every deflection, including tip-drill perfection on both his catches. His runs after the catch are also breathtaking; this week considered lateraling the ball but thought better of it. His second pick from four yards deep in the end zone came at a time when the offense was nursing a 6-0 lead. He also made a nice break on Simpson to defend a pass. The best testament to his value is that with Reed out of the game with a tweaked shoulder, the secondary looked very beatable. Dawan Landry was a factor in holding down the Bengals running game, with eleven tackles, but gave too much cushion in pass support.
Ray Lewis picked up the intensity and seemed to be on a mission to shut down the Bengals offense. He tied Landry for team high with eleven tackles, sniffing out just about every running call by the long time divisional rivals. He’s still not much of a factor any more on blitzes and dropping into coverage. Prescott Burgess saw a lot of playing time and was in on run support from the second play of the game on. He is a big presence but didn’t always play with sharp technique. Jameel McClain got more snaps, and showed a good nose for the ball, but was also guilty of some arm tackles. Dannell Ellerbe was used as the third down coverage back, in a role usually taken by the inactive Tavares Gooden, and looked instinctive in coverage. Jarret Johnson was very effective against the run, particularly scraping down the line to stop Benson on third and short for one of his seven tackles.
Defensive Line: A
There were a number of very good performances along the front four. Brandon McKinney saw extended action and was immovable. Terrence Cody was also very effective in short yardage and plays with better discipline each week. Kelly Gregg was very effective in a scheme that called for a lot of slanting and gap coverage. Cory Redding was in the backfield of the Bengals on a number of plays, as was Terrell Suggs who repeatedly used an inside slant to stop the run. The lone negative was allowing Carson Palmer to get a couple of offsides calls with a hard count.
Special Teams: B
Pro Bowl-bound Billy Cundiff tied the NFL modern record for touchbacks at 40 by registering two on the day. He also connected on a 25 and a 47 yard field goal that amounted to the difference in the game. With long snapper Morgan Cox out for the season, newly signed Kevin Houser didn’t miss a beat. Haruki Nakamura was a standout on coverage units. Ed Dickson also made a saving tackle on a long kick return by Quan Cosby. Lardarius Webb flashed good hands fielding a punt over his shoulder.
The Ravens needed to either ease back to prepare for the inevitable play off road trip, or they needed to throttle the Bengals to generate confidence going into the play offs. They did neither. The result calls into question the offensive profile of the team and leaves them with a number of injury questions. Cam Cameron seemed to be playing not to lose in a game they didn’t need to win. His offense looked helpless on third downs with more than three yards to go. Frankly, the team is lucky that Joe Flacco was not hurt after being asked to step back into a collapsing pocket with no receivers to throw to. Yes, the offense was without their left tackle for much of the second half, but Greg Mattison’s squad saved the team from a failing grade despite three key players being out for roughly the same amount of time. However, sending seven rushers proved not to be a very effective approach.
Peter Morrelli’s crew didn’t get a lot right, including the name of the city the Bengals play in: at one point they announced a “Cleveland” challenge. The NFL’s replay system is embarrassingly slow, and no crew is slower than this one. It took over five minutes to review a Stallworth non-fumble call that required the home audience no more than 20 seconds to see that it needed to be overturned. A non-fumble by Rice took a similarly absurd amount of time to review. Even with all the time taken, they didn’t get every review right. A play ruled a catch by Simpson was clearly trapped on the turf as he landed out of bounds, but the catch was not reversed after review. It was not just booth reviews they got wrong. They incorrectly flagged the Bengals for delay even though teams are routinely allowed to snap the ball at or near the :00 mark of the play clock, as was the case there. They missed Andrew Whitworth’s hands to the face of Terrell Suggs, ripping his helmet off, and missed Suggs’ retaliatory punch to the face of Simpson as he tried to return the helmet. It should have given the Bengals first and goal. They missed Matt Birk twelve yards down field on Flacco’s interception. And they were inconsistent in what constituted a false start. Chris Chester seemingly never flinched but was flagged, while the Bengals Nate Livingston completely stood up in his stance prior to a snap, and was not flagged.
Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots are not exactly CBS’ top crew. Wilcots provided very little in terms of analysis and spent the whole game throwing around superlatives. He was quick to draw conclusions and stuck to his initial impressions even when replays showed him to be wrong – such as his quick explanation of no pass interference on Reggie Nelson after replays showed Nelson at first going for the ball but then completely wrapping Anquan Boldin’s face in a bear hug from behind before the ball arrived. Solomon, it’s Jameel, not James McClain, by the way. Harlan was not any better, spending far too much time plugging CBS shows and sending it back to New York for updates of other games. CBS was so disinterested in the game in Baltimore, they missed a number of plays coming out of commercial or while lingering on sideline shots.