BALTIMORE RAVENS 16, SAN FRANCISCO 6
November 24, 2011
Two very good defenses met on Thanksgiving night in Baltimore, in front of an emotionally charged home crowd and a well-fed national television audience.
You could have predicted the low-scoring, close result and maybe even the 16-6 win for Baltimore over the visiting 49ers. After all, the Ravens had lost just once at home in the last 16 games. And the 9-1 Niners were crossing three time zones on a short week’s rest.
But in an era of high-flying offensive football, it would have been hard to predict such dramatic and electrifying game, from start to finish.
San Francisco’s defense was as good as advertised. Baltimore’s defense was phenomenal.
For a city that has been privileged to witness dominate defensive football for over a decade, on this night Ravens fans saw their defense, without immortal linebacker Ray Lewis, dismantle a highly competent San Francisco offense like few Ravens defenses have done in the past.
The Ravens tied a franchise record with nine sacks of quarterback Alex Smith, who undoubtedly saw a nightmarish tidal wave of black jerseys as he slumbered on the plane ride back to San Francisco.
Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano was able to dial-up an aggressive zone-blitzing scheme that battered Smith all night long because the Ravens front seven was so good in stopping a very good Forty-Niners running game. By holding Frank Gore to just 2.8 yards per carry, and 38 total yards, the Ravens put Smith in predictable and vulnerable passing situations.
The Ravens won by dictating the tempo, staying aggressive on defense, and playing steadily on offense. The fact that the Ravens could appear dominant but never pull away from the 49ers is a testament to how strong an opponent they faced. And what a quality win they achieved.
Head coach John Harbaugh after the game spoke about what it took to beat his brother Jim’s 49ers: “They don’t beat themselves, and they make you beat them. If you give them an inch, if you give them any kind of a crack or opening, that’s when they beat you.
“We had to play a field position football game and not turn the ball over, we had to make third down conversions, and that’s what our guys did.”
Indeed, in a contest that appears nearly identical on the stat sheet in many areas, with small offensive numbers, the biggest stat of the game was third down conversions. The Niners converted on 17% of third down attempts – just two all night long. The Ravens meanwhile converted 47% of their 15 attempts.
The Ravens patiently fed the ball to running back Ray Rice and were willing to rely on quarterback Joe Flacco’s arm to convert third downs, or punt the ball and play a field position game. They couldn’t, and didn’t commit a turnover, and didn’t give up a sack.
It sounds like a boring formula. But in actuality, it was a thrilling night of football in Baltimore.
The numbers don’t look like much. Joe Flacco converted 15 of 23 passes for 161 yards and a TD. That’s nearly identical to the 15 for 24 and 140 yards with one interception for Alex Smith. But Flacco was clearly the better quarterback.
While afforded better protection, Flacco nonetheless stayed in the pocket and showed strength under pressure to extend plays and dump-off the ball or throw it away rather than take a sack or force throws into coverage. He made excellent decisions and managed the game extremely well. And when he needed to, he won the game by engineering a nearly perfect, 16-play, 76-yard scoring drive at the end of the third quarter to take a 13-6 lead into the fourth. He planted his feet and threw impressive strikes into tight windows to move the chains and finally put six on the board.
The biggest criticism of Flacco might be the funky, retro handlebar mustache he unveiled. Then again, maybe it reveals a goofy confidence that will endear the man to the city for a long time to come.
Running Backs: B
No fumbles. That may be one of the most important contributions by Ray Rice, Ricky Williams, and Vonta Leach who ran and blocked hard and held onto the ball to keep the offense grinding. Leach was also able to haul in a swing pass and gain ten yards on a play call that had yielded nothing in the past few weeks.
Ray Rice had two stand-out plays, first bouncing a first-quarter run to the outside, making linebacker NaVorro Bowman (first in the league in tackles) miss, to pick up ten yards. Later he showed tremendous balance after catching a pass outside of the right hash mark and then turn up field for extra yardage.
Ricky Williams didn’t have the speed or elusiveness to take advantage of seams when he spelled Rice. But in the fourth quarter his downhill running style between the guards was exactly what the team need. Combined, Rice and Williams had 28 carries for 88 yards, which was an impressive and needed performance against the league’s best run defense.
Wide Receivers: B
On the opening drive Anquan Boldin and Joe Flacco hooked up on a skinny post route on consecutive plays to net 38 yards, a drive that resulted in a field goal to get on the board early and set the tone for the game. Boldin worked the field well and would be targeted seven more times, catching just two more passes, and dropping one ball to force a punt.
Torrey Smith did not burn the 49ers deep. But the threat of his speed had the 49ers corners backpedalling so hard that he was able to easily convert on a stop route. He still managed 23 yards on two catches.
Lee Evans made the unsung hero play of the night, catching a third-down crossing route short of the sticks and making a strong second effort to fight through a Donte Whitner tackle and gain a first down. It came with the game still knotted at 6-6, and helped spark what would be the decisive touchdown drive for the Ravens.
Tight Ends: B
It was not a particularly good night for Ed Dickson. He did grab one, 15-yard reception to get the ball to the 49ers 8 yard line on the touchdown drive. But his blocking was poor, including a bad effort on cornerback C.J. Spillman on the goal line that stuffed a Rice run for a critical loss.
Dennis Pitta was clutch catching a difficult first down and the TD reception, both in heavy traffic.
Michael Oher played very well. While he was not exactly a road grader in the running game, he consistently stonewalled the defensive end and was a big part of the team’s ability to give Flacco time to convert third down throws. He looked best playing on the left side, in an unbalanced formation, where he made a fantastic kick-out block on Parys Haralson to let Rice run for ten yards. Bryant McKinnie was equally mistake-free, not dominant, but he executed his assignments consistently.
Interior Line: A
The Ravens interior wore-out a good 49ers front seven and made the heralded Patrick Willis look pedestrian. By the fourth quarter they had taken over the game. Marshal Yanda continues to be lethal blocking in the red zone and getting to the second level. As a unit, Yanda, Matt Birk and Ben Grubbs are playing their best football of the year as we head into December.
Other than giving Michael Crabtree too much space to convert on a third and 17 play, Lardarius Webb played a solid game in all aspects. He used his body extremely well to shield the bigger Braylon Edwards from a ball thrown into the end zone to get a pick. And he also chased Smith out of the pocket on a corner blitz to force one of the nine sacks on the night. And he continues to close and tackle well underneath.
Cary Williams could have been the goat when he allowed Ted Ginn to out-jump him for a catch, and failed to bring Ginn down as he turned and raced for the end zone. But the would-be TD was called back on a penalty.
Tom Zbikowski saw more playing time this week and did a nice job closing on Smith as he ran out of the pocket to cause three and out.
Ed Reed made a great break on a throw Smith made across his body as he rolled right, reading the quarterback’s eyes and peeling off to the intended receiver, for a break-up and near interception. Reed did whiff on an attempted tackle of Frank Gore in the back. Bernard Pollard played solid assignment football filling running lanes.
This was the kind of scheme-oriented running team that Ray Lewis excels against because he is so good at studying tendencies and putting himself in position to make plays. With Lewis out, the Ravens started special-teams specialist Albert McClellan in his place. McClellan had never played inside linebacker in his career, collegiately or professionally. He didn’t register a tackle, but was never beaten by being out of position in the running game, either.
Jameel McClain continues to give the Ravens what he can give. He is excellent shooting gaps in the passing game. He tied Pollard for the team lead with 8 tackles, but at times was a step slow getting to the point of attack.
Jarret Johnson did his usual solid job setting the edge to control the running game with one exception where back-up Kendell Hunter bounced outside a diving attempt to gain nine. Brendon Ayanbadejo made an excellent tackle of Smith to keep him from running out of bounds and stopping the clock.
Defensive Line: A+
It’s difficult to recall a more dominant performance by the defensive line. They held Gore to 39 yards rushing and then beat-up Smith in the passing game. They could have registered a tenth sack when Haloti Ngata burst up the middle and grabbed Smith but only came away with the towel tucked into his belt. The pressure from Ngata in the middle was tremendous.
Cory Redding was equally impressive and was playing as fast as anytime since donning a Ravens uniform. Pernell McPhee and Paul Kruger continue to be a nightmare for offensive linemen by using their hands well to slip blocks and relentlessly pursue.
Terrell Suggs was probably the best player on the field. They couldn’t block him and could only hope to slow him down. He registered three of the nine sacks.
Special Teams: C+
On the plus side, Billy Cundiff was perfect on three medium-range field goals to put the team in position to win and to extend the lead late in the game.
When Cundiff was not kicking touchbacks, the coverage unit looked suspect allowing Ginn to bring the ball out, and giving up 93 yards on three returns.
Lardarius Webb erred by backing up and catching a punt at the five to give the Ravens poor field position. But he did look better running north-south with the ball and setting up blocks.
In punt coverage David Reed made the mistake of not finding the ball in air, allowing it to drop and roll in the end zone on a punt that should have pinned the 49ers on the two. Tom Zbikowski inherited the kick return duties and had just one opportunity to bring the ball out 16 yards to the 24.
Chuck Pagano called a perfect game, shutting down the run and shredding the 49rs pass protection.
On offense, credit Cam Cameron with being patient in sticking to the running game and wearing down the defense. However, the play calling on the goal line was suspect. While the 49ers have not given up a running touchdown all year, the Ravens appeared to be effective running the ball inside the ten, between the tackles. Despite this, Cameron tried to run horizontally and relied on a weak-blocking tight end to make a play. The same questionable runs to the outside were called on third and inches situations that forced punts rather than keeping drives alive. With time running out in the first half, the Ravens made a questionable time-out call to help the Niners set up a fourth and three conversion, and even with the time-out, the Ravens defense was confused with 12 men on field. They didn’t look prepared for what the Niners were doing in that situation.
John Parry’s crew made a number of questionable calls.
The most controversial was probably a chop block penalty that reversed the Niners’ TD throw to Ted Ginn. Technically Bernard Pollard was hit high-low, but the reason the penalty is on the books is to prevent defenders along the line of scrimmage from getting engaged high by one blocker and not being able to protect against a hit below the knees by a second blocker. Pollard was cut low first by Gore, and then simply pushed afterwards. It should have been overlooked.
The crew missed a pass interference penalty by Ahmad Brooks who held Anquan Boldin as the ball was in the air on a slant. Later they allowed Donte Whitner blatantly chuck Dennis Pitta in the chest twenty yards downfield to disrupt the pattern.
They incorrectly flagged Kris Wilson for a hit in the back on Blake Castonzo that erased a nice punt return. It was clearly a legal, but hard block across Castonzo’s chest.
They somehow missed a false start by Vonta Leach when he lurched forward and tried to conceal it by dropping into a three-point stance.
The crew also struggled marking forward progress correctly in two critical situations. Ricky Williams had backed his way over the 45-yard line for a first down, but the ball was spotted two feet short of the correct spot, and inexplicably no measurement was taken, despite the ball sitting right where the first down marker appeared to be.
Later, line judge Rusty Baynes was out of position and absolutely guessed that Braylon Edwards had crossed the first down marker on a fourth down catch. It was a bad spot, and when the Ravens challenged it, the Parry refused to make the correct call.
NFL Network took full advantage Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh Thanksgiving Day drama. While they may have overplayed their hand a little, give them credit for really giving viewers a sense of the Harbaugh family.
In pregame, Rich Eisen seemed genuinely stoked to be in the stadium and helped convey the emotions of being there. I could listen to Mike Mayock talk football all day long. While he may be too X’s and O’s for some fans, it adds a lot to the broadcast for inquiring football minds. He could tone down the claim that just about every player on the field is one of his favorite players in the league, however.
For some reason the director of the broadcast was obsessed with showing tight shots of Ray Lewis’ replacement, Albert McClellan, even as the commentators were discussing how it was Jameel McClain who had taken over Lewis’ defensive play calling role.