BALTIMORE RAVENS 31 CINCINNATI BENGALS 24
NOVEMBER 20, 2011
When two of the league’s top-five defenses clash, you don’t expect an offensive shootout, even when the Ravens entered this game without their defensive leader, Ray Lewis, sidelined with turf toe.
But offense is what we got in a 31-24 Ravens victory over the Cincinnati Bengals that featured 867 total yards from scrimmage and 36 first downs between the two teams.
Despite this production, neither defense played particularly poorly. The Bengals’ rookie quarterback Andy Dalton was fearless standing in the pocket barely eluding hits and making throws just past the outstretched hands of Ravens’ defenders.
However, this same bravado in the face of tight coverage also led to three picks by the Ravens to set up their own offense with counter-punching scores. Dalton looked better than his 60 QB rating suggests, and the Ravens defense looked better than the nearly 500 yards offense it surrendered.
After a slow first-quarter start that invited a good bit of booing by the hometown fans, the Ravens got their rhythm going. A smattering of mistakes on offense, and feeble runs and errant dump off passes had the offense looking like it was not going to show up once again against a vexing Bengals defense. But credit Cam Cameron for changing things up in the second quarter.
Rather than timidly stretch the play calling out to the intermediate areas of the field, where the team had seen a lot of recent success throwing to their tight ends, Cameron and Flacco instead went deep. After misfiring on their first long attempt to the nearly forgotten Lee Evans, it was rookie Torrey Smith who blew the top off the Bengals defense.
Attempting to throw underneath the Bengals’ cover-two zone had been Flacco’s nemesis in past games. Consequently, the game plan this week seemed designed to avoid that old trap. The game plan instead was going to rest on Flacco’s big arm and Smith’s rare speed. And it worked by being able to split the Bengals safeties for long strikes and make them hang back and respect the deep throw.
That allowed Cameron to hold the safeties and come back to a steady diet of runs and screens. That strategy worked like a savvy boxer who jabs, jabs, jabs at the opponent, lowers the defense, and then puts him on the ropes with haymakers to the head. And then back to the jabs.
Already this year the Ravens have gotten the Steelers’ monkey off of their backs by sweeping that critical season series. And now they have gotten another monkey of sorts off their backs by allowing Joe Flacco to have success against the Bengals secondary. That puts them at an ideal 3-0 in the division, with the cellar dwelling Browns still waiting for two more divisional games.
Perhaps the last monkey left standing is to overcome a new-found tendency to lose to weaker foes.
The Bengals are one of five games the Ravens have already played against top-five defenses—half their total schedule to date. And despite inconsistent play, they are 4-1 in these games, losing only to the Jaguars. They’ve also beaten the #7 ranked Jets defense, with games against good 49er and Browns defenses looming.
If nothing else, this revamped 2011 Ravens offense will be battle-tested by the time January rolls around.
Consistency was once again at question with Joe Flacco’s performance. He struggled early with accuracy, especially on short, finesse passes, and was frequently not on the same page as his running backs on their patterns in the flats. He also made a serious blunder allowing the play clock to expire.
But Flacco finally woke up when he started looking deep. It was sparked when he took advantage of good field position after a bad Bengals punt. He patted the ball twice and connected to his tight end Ed Dickson over the smaller Pacman Jones. On the next play, he was even better rolling out right and buying time, then reading the field before turning back to throw to a trailing Anquan Boldin on the backside seam, who turned up field for the score. That four-play 55-yard drive was later matched by a quick strike on a rope to Torrey Smith in the back of the end zone right after a Dalton turnover. Credit Flacco for capitalizing on every break.
Running Backs: B
Ray Rice barely saw the ball in a loss a week ago. This week he got twenty carries and was targeted ten times through the air. That gave him 143 total yards on the day. They fed him the ball despite falling behind by a touchdown early. Once again he was best in tight spaces, turning three-yard runs and receptions into nine, ten yard gains with regularity. Two stand out plays included a burst up the middle on a fake end around for 59 yards, and a nice job of taking a dump-off pass and staying in bounds to let the clock run down to three minutes with a touchdown lead.
Vonta Leach did catch two passes, but isn’t a threat with the ball once he gets it in his hands. He’s a big threat to linebackers however when blocking on the goal line. Ricky Williams was not as effective in limited duty. He rushed hard, but missed a wide-open cutback run to the left that Rice would have eaten up.
Wide Receivers: A
Wide receivers were targeted only ten times in the entire game. But they did a lot of damage. Anquan Boldin had one catch, showing veteran savvy to sit in the zone and then turn up field and run over the safety for a 35-yard score that knotted the game at seven. Lee Evans returned and was thrown to once without success, but it was good to see him stretch the field after a long absence.
The real star on offense was Torrey Smith who was simply too fast for the Bengals secondary and who changed the dynamic between the two teams. He caught six of seven balls thrown his way, averaged 28-yards a catch, and got a score when he split the safeties to the post. He also ran past cornerback Nate Clemmons for a long catch to set up a Rice score. But he showed more than just deep speed, also catching a couple of balls over the middle and coming back on a stop route with a difficult catch off the ground. He was flagged once for a crack-back block to erase a 26-yard gain.
Tight Ends: B-
Dennis Pitta was not involved in the game plan, and he was guilty of flinching (false start) to back the team up to near its own goal line. Ed Dickson made the most of limited chances, snatching a one handed catch in traffic and showing good wheels on a tight end screen. He also improved his goal line blocking.
Bryant McKinnie had one of his slow, indifferent-looking efforts. But he didn’t hurt the team. The Ravens zone blocking scheme was not very effective on most rushing attempts, and a big part of that was that Bengals linemen were quicker at penetrating than Ravens tackles McKinnie and Michael Oher were in cutting them off. Oher was also a step slow on pitch to allow Manny Lawson to penetrate and stop to Rice for loss before he could cut inside the block. Oher was flagged for a questionable holding call. But the tackles were steady in pass protection on the outside.
Interior Line: A
Few people watch interior line play, but this was a game worth watching for Ravens fans. At times the trio of Matt Birk, Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda absolutely dominated a good Bengals front. Other than letting Geno Atkins slice through the line a couple times, this group made all the right calls and got a nice push in the middle. Yanda in particular had a monster game at the second level destroying linebackers. Ben Grubbs looks fully healed after having toe issues and played very quickly all game long.
This group played better than the stat sheet may suggest. They were often in good position, but Dalton and his wide outs were just better at making very good plays. This was one of the better games within a game to watch.
Cary Williams nearly always had good position, but he still needs work locating the ball in the air and when positioning himself to make a play on the ball. But when he was on, he was really on. Both he and Lardarius Webb were unbeatable on one three-and-out series in the middle of the game as the Ravens were establishing momentum. But Williams also missed a sack on Dalton late, twice on the same play, to allow a late completion to his side of the field.
Lardarius Webb made a diving, highlight-reel interception at the start of the fourth quarter that turned the tide over to the Ravens for good, as they converted on the next play to go up 31-14. At times he gets a little flatfooted coming out of breaks, which severely tests his recovery speed.
After nickelback Chris Carr pushed Andre Caldwell in the back to get a goal line interference call, rookie Jimmy Smith saw more snaps, as both the nickel and boundary corner position. He was badly beaten by Caldwell on a 49-yard go route. Smith was flatfooted as Caldwell ran past him, perhaps having been coached to expect a hot route because of the all-out blitz that had been called. At times he looked uncertain before the snap. But redeemed himself by cutting inside an out-pattern for his first NFL pick. He needs to learn to not run with the ball like David Reed however, as it was slapped out from behind and recovered by the Ravens.
Bernard Pollard was tremendous near the line of scrimmage stopping the run. With Ray Lewis out, The Ravens leaned on Pollard. He was in on 9 tackles, most of them near the line. That included a great sideline tackle to keep the clock moving on the Bengals at the end of the half. He was also improved in coverage, and got a hand on a ball to defend a hot-read slant call.
Ed Reed was caught peeking in the backfield once to let Caldwell to run free in the middle of the field. But he was willing to stick his sore neck in on five solo tackles. And he picked up another interception when Dalton dared to heave a jump ball into the end zone.
Haruki Nakamura, in as the dime back, made a great play to strip the ball from the much bigger tight end Jermaine Gresham to force a punt.
The Ravens missed Ray Lewis. Dannell Ellerbe is a nice physical presence, but was often out of position sliding to stop the run. When asked to run blitz, his physicality showed. But he didn’t seem to have Lewis’ filmstudy-fueled ability to find the ball. Jameel McClain was not much more effective flowing to the ball. While he did share a team leading nine tackles, a lot of this was done five yards downfield after effective runs. McClain was more productive in pass coverage, as was Brendon Ayanbadejo. Jarret Johnson had a quiet day as the Bengals did not run outside the tackles much; he did pick up one tackle for a loss.
Defensive Line: B
Terrence Cody, Haloti Ngata, Cory Redding, and Brandon McKinney were very good at rotating in to stop the run and protect the young linebackers from having to make too many plays.
Paul Kruger really stood out for his ability to pressure the quarterback with hits and hurries on just about every snap. He is starting to be rewarded with more snaps. He still needs work dropping deeper into coverage. Pernell McPhee was also extremely effective pressuring the passer.
The defensive line just about took over the game to end the Bengals threat after they got the ball first and goal with seconds remaining. On three consecutive plays they got to Dalton with just a three man rush. Terrell Suggs found a superhuman gear at that point in the game, throwing aside the big running back Brian Leonard to get a sack and a grounding call.
Special Teams: B
The Ravens were steady, and did not do anything special on special teams. But that was a vast improvement over the previous week’s performance. Billy Cundiff didn’t give the Bengals a chance to return any of his six kick offs and he nailed a chip shot field goal.
David Reed, he of two kick-return fumbles a week ago, did not play. In his place Chris Carr did not get many chances to run the ball out of the endz one. Tom Zbikowski ran hard as a returner and held onto the ball when he was clocked.
Sam Koch had one bad punt sail out of bounds, but otherwise he was effective, including pinning the Bengals on their 13 with 2:27 left. And he also got off a sixty-one yard punt that was well covered by Nakamura and LaQuan Williams to swing field position.
Credit Cam Cameron, who made adjustments when runs and underneath throws didn’t work — he opened up the field deep to allow the offense to come back to an effective running game later. Cam had a much better plan on where to attack the Bengals – in the short flats and deep middle.
Chuck Pagano did a nice job dialing up different pressure packages. At times there was not enough pressure up the middle however, which allowed Dalton to step up and do damage. It was also curious to see Pagano put two players out of their normal position of strength; Cary Williams was ineffective as a corner blitzer and Paul Kruger was ineffective dropping into deep coverage on consecutive plays to allow the Bengals back in the game.
John Harbaugh made a good challenge of the Ray Rice run when his knee was down and ball was just at the goal line. It was correctly upheld, but worth the timeout in that instance.
For the most part, Ron Winter’s crew called a good game. You have to feel for Winter, who ended up in the middle of a fumble scrum laying on the ball as players pawed to get it.
There were a couple of iffy calls, including a crack back call on Torrey Smith who checked Rey Maualuga at his belt line, not below the knees, which caused a Rice 26-yard run to come back. And the holding call on Michael Oher was mysterious.
It may have been the right call, but it seems like a bad rule when Jermaine Gresham got both feet into the endz one with the ball secured in his hand, but it was ruled no catch because he didn’t hold onto the ball cleanly all the way to the ground after he was already out of bounds. Good call, bad rule that went the Ravens way at a critical time.
Dan Dierdorf was not quite as far off the deep end with his exaggerations this week. However, he was guilty of going overboard at times in trying to create drama around close officiating calls. For instance, on the final Bengals possession he suggested to viewers that a horse collar penalty should have been called. He was wrong. First, Dalton was never pulled down to the ground while Terrell Suggs was grasping his jersey. Suggs let go before a tackle could be made. More importantly, horse collar tackles are legal when the runner is in the tackle box, or the quarterback is in the pocket. It is meant to protect sprinting players in the open field from being bent back. So even if Suggs had been credited with the sack, he can’t be flagged with the horse collar. Dierdorf should know that.