BALTIMORE RAVENS 37, ST. LOUIS RAMS 7
September 25, 2011
Coming into the third game of 2011 the talk around Baltimore was whether the Ravens had suffered an emotional let down in a bad loss to the Titans the week prior, and could they bounce back this week against a Rams team desperate to avoid a 0-3 start?
The Ravens did more than bounce back. They trounced St. Louis 37-7. They looked so dominate, in fact, that many observers will see this as proof that the Titans loss had to be an uncharacteristic lack of effort by the Ravens.
The larger truth is that the Ravens were simply facing a bad NFC West football team coming off a short week of preparation. The Rams were simply not equipped for what hit them.
Their secondary could not keep up with the speed of Torrey Smith, whose first three NFL catches all went for touchdowns. And their offensive line could not slow down a relentless array of blitzes dialed up by defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.
Most of this game was played over the top of the Rams defensive secondary, and back on their offense’s side of the line of scrimmage, where the Ravens defense beat on quarterback Sam Bradford with sacks, hurries and hits.
Even with injuries on both sides of the ball the Ravens demonstrated a clear superiority in talent. The lone exception, ironically enough, may have been Rams defensive lineman Justin Bannan who had a very nice game against his former team.
The result was a Ravens franchise-record 557 yards of total offense, and on defense they held Bradford to 50% passing for 132 net yards through the air.
That kind of performance led to plenty of high marks on both sides of the ball.
Believe it or not, Joe Flacco left points on the field due to some accuracy issues in the first half. But when he was hitting his receivers he hit it big. That included a perfect throw down the sideline to Smith for a 75 yard score, the longest of Flacco’s career. He also made a gorgeous back-shoulder throw to Smith in the end zone. Despite the big numbers it was the small things, which often go unnoticed, that Flacco did so well. That starts with moving well in the pocket to buy time while maintaining focus downfield. His decision-making was excellent, particularly when throwing the ball away to avoid sacks or tucking and running to move the chains. He also made smart audibles to dump off more than one throw to Ray Rice with nothing but green turf in front of him. He took two meaningless sacks late in the game, one that led to a lost fumble.
Running Backs: A
Vonta Leach looked completely healthy this week hauling in passes and delivering big hits with and without the ball. Ricky Williams ran with more confidence and authority, including a long one for 28 as he followed Leach through a seam on the right side. Ray Rice had just eight carries but made the most of them with a nearly 10-yards a clip average. He was even more lethal catching passes out of the backfield, just five of them, for 83 yards. The sole knock against Rice was a poor blitz pick up of Quintin Mickell to force Flacco to throw the ball too early on what was set up to be an easy score.
Wide Receivers: A+
Welcome to the NFL Torrey Smith. His first NFL catch could not have been more dramatic. He lined up wide, facing one-on-one coverage, got behind beleaguered fifth-year corner Justin King, hand checked his way to separation, hauled in a basket catch thirty yards downfield, and then took off down the sideline for 45 more yards to beat safety into the end zone. He outran the defense to the post for his second touchdown catch. And was open again for what would have been another long catch if not for an overthrow. But Smith was no one-trick pony. He also schooled King by leaping over him for his third TD on the night. And he made a tough catch in traffic on a slant. And he took a bubble screen up the sideline for a first down. Altogether he blew the top off the Rams defense with 152 yards on five catches – an incredible 30+ yards per catch.
Not to be outdone, Anquan Boldin muscled his way through the Rams secondary for 7 catches and 72 yards. It was the kind of one-two punch the Ravens dreamed of when they signed Lee Evans, who was sidelined with an ankle injury. Smith’s fellow Terps rookie receiver LaQuan Williams showed strong hands on his first NFL catch, and a near catch at the sticks. He has also shown consistency as a down field blocker. Tandon Doss saw his first NFL action but did not register a catch.
Tight Ends: B
Ed Dickson seems to improve with each passing week. His best catch of the day came down the seam over the linebacker and in front of the safety on a hard spiral. He also blocked well, including a kickout on linebacker Ben Leber to allow Rice to rumble for 17 on a second and 20 call. He was guilty of jumping offsides deep near the Ravens goalline. Dennis Pitta was used primarily as a blocker, and his block in the back cost the team 25 yards on a Leach catch and offsetting penalty.
Michael Oher played better this week, but certainly not best. He was flagged for holding Chris Long, still allowing him to get in Flacco and disrupt a throw to a wide-open Torrey Smith in the end zone. That penalty also wiped out the value provided by a long Lardarius Webb punt return, and forced a missed 51-yard field goal. Oher made a nice block on the edge to spring Williams for a run of 28 yards. Bryant McKinnie looked more engaged this week in both the running and passing game. He did slow down in the second half when the game was out of reach.
Interior Line: B
The Ravens played their third left guard in as many games. Andre Gurode was an upgrade over Mark LeVoir, but not quite as polished as starter Ben Grubbs. He completely missed a cut block on Justin Bannan that stalled a Rice run at the line of scrimmage. And Bannan later bull rushed the former Cowboys center right onto his back. But Gurode was more than competent overall, particularly in pass protection. Matt Birk and Marshall Yanda were slick in the way they handed off pass rushers to each other and in reading the defensive blitz schemes. Birk was very effective getting down field in front of Rice on screens. He needs to watch tipping off the snap count when Flacco is in the shotgun.
The defensive backfield looked more stable with Chris Carr available this week in the nickel spot. Although credit the front seven with getting to Bradford so quickly that the corners were not severely tested. Most of his success came on the run, throwing side-outs that Ravens corners quickly jumped on. Cary Williams broke very well on the ball when playing tight coverage, and tackled effectively. He was flagged for pass interference on a tough pick play. His aggressive play left him vulnerable to double moves, however. On the opposite side Lardarius Webb looked more comfortable covering the deep ball this week. He got an easy interception backpedaling to the Ravens three-yard-line after receiver Danario Alexander juked himself face first into the ground. It was that kind of day for the Rams.
Bernard Pollard got more snaps this week and was very active. He applied a hard hit to Bradford to force an incompletion and came back the next play with a near interception. He was also effective in run support. Ed Reed had a bead on Bradford’s throws and was in good position on a number of errant throws. Tom Zbikowski made a nice open-field tackle, but allowed Bradford to escape when he was running free to the quarterback on a blitz. Zbikowski is best utilized in zone coverage packages.
Ray Lewis played with an extra jolt as if he took personal responsibility to overcome a tough loss the week before. He led the team with ten tackles. Ten very hard tackles. At times he got neutralized too easily one-on-one with a guard, but he more than made up for when aggressively filling gaps or blitzing. He teamed with Jameel McClain on a perfectly executed blitz through the A gap to force an early throw-away. Later McClain got a solo sack on Bradford. McClain was second on the team in tackles with five and he clearly stepped up his play this week. Dannell Ellerbe played sparingly and was run over by Cadillac Williams for a first down. Jarret Johnson was solid holding the edge and allowing big defensive linemen to clean up runs on the inside. Johnson came off the field frequently to make way for Brendon Ayanbadejo who continues to be effective blitzing and dropping into coverage. He and Ray Lewis teamed up to sack and strip Bradford of the ball, which bounced into Haloti Ngata’s hands.
Defensive Line: A
Ngata scooped up the Bradford fumble and rumbled into the end zone after the diving Rams center Adam Goldberg bounced off Ngata’s thigh as if it was made of brick. Terrell Suggs played one of his smartest games. He showed great discipline to sniff out a reverse to Lance Kendricks, bursting into the backfield and throwing down the runner for a loss of eight. He also read a screen perfectly, sitting in coverage to force a throw into the turf. And he picked up another quarterback sack this week.
Pernell McPhee continues to impress getting to the quarterback and playing within himself against the run. He dominated guard Harvey Dahl on an inside move for a sack. Terrence Cody, back from a concussion last week, was pushing back the line of scrimmage against former Ravens center Jason Brown and flowing hard down the line to the ball carrier. Cory Redding also pushed the pocket consistently and got his share of big hits. The Ravens used a deep rotation that included Brandon McKinney, Art Jones, and Paul Kruger to allow the starters to stay fresh. They all played well. After a slow start, Kruger became more effective applying pressure, including a seldom seen, old-school spin move.
Special Teams: B-
Billy Cundiff missed his first two field goal attempts, both from 51 yards out. But he bounced back to nail kicks of 21, 31, and 38 yards. Nearly all his kick offs were un-returnable. Dennis Pitta missed an open field tackle to allow Jerious Norwood a return of 31. LaQuan Williams showed mixed results as a returner. He returned a kick 37 yards but then muffed and fell on a punt. Lardarius Webb showed improvement fielding punts. Haruki Nakamura was helped off the field with what looked like a troubling knee injury on a punt return. Albert McClellan made a fantastic play on kick coverage shedding a block and stuffing the returner.
Everybody knew the Rams would load up to stop the run. After all, they came into the game as the league’s worst running stopping team. And the Ravens came in with just one wide receiver who had ever caught a pass in the NFL. So with the Rams predictably putting eight in the box on the first two snaps coordinator Cam Cameron came out throwing. A swing pass to his fullback and then Smith iso’d down the sideline for a score. Cam barely ran the ball at all until the Rams adjusted to stop the pass.
It was also smart to limit Torrey Smith to what Torrey Smith does best: The nine route. Rather than asking him to read the defense and execute a precise route, they put him in a position to succeed. When the camera focused on John Harbaugh hugging Smith on the sideline after his first score, it was a nice reminder of how the coaching staff showed patience as they continued to play Smith. And credit Harbaugh and Cameron with not being afraid to sit their hobbled speedster Lee Evans in favor of the rookie. Their patience paid off.
Credit Cameron, too, with avoiding a letdown at the start of the second half after going up on the Rams 27-0. The offense ran some no-huddle at the start of the third quarter to keep the tempo up and the pressure on inside the deadly quiet dome.
And credit to defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, too, for a game plan that kept the pressure on Bradford continuously, and got his defense off the field quickly. After his secondary was run ragged a week prior, it was the perfect approach to protecting the back end.
One side note to John Harbaugh: Don’t let Ray Lewis talk you into throwing the challenge flag on a possible fumble when your team us up by 30 points late in the game.
The crew was a little inconsistent on what constituted hands to the face, or holding, or pass interference. Michael Oher got a very questionable hands to the face penalty, and yet there was no flag on the Rams when Terrell Suggs helmet was pushed clean off his rather large head. Jacob Bell put a reverse choke-hold on Ray Lewis and pulled him onto his back after a big collision with Cadillac Williams, but no call was made. It was hard to figure the offensive pass interference call on LaQuan Williams.
Yawn. Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots seemed as disinterested in the game as the Rams fans in the half-filled stadium. Harlan was particularly oblivious to anything that was occurring more than two yards away from whoever was holding the ball, and color analyst Solomon Wilcots didn’t do much to fill in with anything resembling an insightful observation.