BALTIMORE RAVENS VS CINCINNATI BENGALS
January 1, 2012
The Baltimore Ravens’ 24-16 margin of victory at the Cincinnati Bengals was not a comfortable win. After jumping on the Bengals 17-3 at the half, the Ravens’ lead in the game, and their grasp on first place in the AFC North standings, was hanging by a thread.
The Bengals’ Mike Nugent had just punched a 46-yard field goal through a fierce wind at the start of the fourth quarter to pull within 17-13. After the Ravens’ offense stalled at their own end on the ensuing series, the Bengals had the ball back, and were driving, pushing the ball back into Ravens territory. The Cincinnati faithful, sensing a win and a playoff berth, were whipped into a frenzy.
That’s when the Ravens’ MVPs took over. First on defense. The Bengals’ Jermaine Gresham–who had already chewed through the Ravens defense for an earlier 31-yard gain–snared a second-and eight tight-end screen pass along the line of scrimmage and turned up field.
But the Ravens’ Terrell Suggs looped in from behind and clamped a bear-hug of a tackle around the unsuspecting Gresham. The ball squirted to the ground, and was pounced on by the Ravens’ Bernard Pollard for the only turnover of the game. It would turn out to be a huge turnover.
Three plays later, from their own 49, on a third and one, fullback Vonta Leach took a crow’s hop to is left at the snap and led Ray Rice off left tackle. Rice knifed in behind Leach’s block on the linebacker and juked past the safety on his way to a 51-yard run. Game over.
The win evened the Ravens’ road record on the year to 4-4 to go along with their 8-0 home record. More importantly, it meant the Ravens are 6-0 in the division for the first time in team history, and they locked up a bye and a home playoff game.
Of the four teams who could come to Baltimore in two weeks, the Ravens have already beaten three of them: the Steelers (twice), the Texans, and now the Bengals. Only Denver has not played the Ravens. And Denver is not beating Pittsburgh next week.
For the Ravens, the margin of victory in Cincinnati may have been slim, but the repercussions are phat.
With the Ravens leaning on running back Ray Rice, quarterback Joe Flacco was not asked to do a lot. But when called on, he performed. He tallied just 130 yards in the air but was extremely efficient, going 15 for 19, including a perfect touchdown lob to Dennis Pitta where only Pitta could grab it in the corner of the end zone. It was a clutch throw with time in the first half running out, giving the Ravens a commanding lead going into the half. It also showed that the Ravens could score from inside the red zone through the air, which had been a weakness this season.
With no turnovers, Flacco piled up a 112-passer-rating. Not bad for a quarterback who had struggled to put together a good road-game performance. It helped that Flacco received good protection against was what mostly a four-man rush by the Bengals. He showed good patience in the pocket waiting for his receivers to get open. Of his four incompletions, two could have gone for catches; Lee Evans dropped a perfectly thrown bomb, and on the play prior Torrey Smith was grabbed by a defender to prevent him from getting to another long throw without the benefit of a flag on the play.
Running Backs: A+
Where would this team be without Ray Rice? Rice carried the ball 24 times for 191 yards, nearly twice as many yards as the Bengals tenth-ranked rush defense had been averaging this season. Reminiscent of the road playoff game against the Patriots two seasons ago, Rice began the game by knifing through perfectly executed blocks on the right side and took off on a 71-yard TD run to gain the early lead and set the tone in the game. That was followed by the 51-yarder off the left side.
In both cases Rice was aided by tremendous lead blocks by Vonta Leach, who clobbered safety Chris Crocker in the hole on the first run, and sealed-off linebacker Rey Maualuga on the second. Coincidently, Leach’s two touches on the day–a short first-down run–and a catch for seven yards, came on the play prior to him leading Rice’s long touchdown runs.
Credit to Rice is also due for his 16-yard, first-down run with two-and-a-half minutes left in the game. It redeemed Marshal Yanda for committing his first penalty on the season, a false start to make it first and fifteen. And by staying in bounds it forced the Bengals to burn a timeout. Ricky Williams got 6 carries in relief of Rice and nearly averaged 5-yards a carry. On this day he also went over 10,000 rushing yards for his career.
Wide Receivers: C-
With Anquan Boldin still nursing a surgically cleaned-out knee, the Ravens wide-outs looked mediocre at best. Lee Evans allowed a perfectly lobbed bomb to deflect off his fingertips at the Bengals 22. A catch in that spot rather than force a punt could have changed the game.
Torrey Smith was more sure-handed, catching five of seven passes but accumulating just 33 yards. You can see how his speed is a huge threat to defensive secondaries with the ball in his hands, but the Bengals kept everything in front of them and limited Smith’s damage. The Ravens will need to find a way to get more than 33 yards out of their wide-outs going forward. Getting Boldin healthy is a start.
Tight Ends: A
Dennis Pitta had a coming out party in Cincinnati with the game of his young career. The Bengals had no answer for the lanky, mustachioed, second-year tight end out of BYU. In addition to the leaping, nine-yard grab in the corner of the end zone, Pitta’s most impressive catch came in the first quarter on a third-and-one play-action reception Maualuga bit on the fake and allowed Pitta to spill out unguarded for the reception; he rumbled through defenders, moving the ball from the Ravens’ 31 to the Bengals’ 30. Pitta caught six of seven passes thrown his way for a team-leading 62 yards.
Ed Dickson made one spectacular grab, holding on to the only ball thrown his way on a 20-yard crossing pattern where he was clobbered by safety Reggie Nelson for a questionable unsportsmanlike penalty. Credit Dickson for a nice block on linebacker Manny Lawson at second level to spring Rice’s 70-yard run.
The pass protection from Michael Oher and Bryant McKinnie was good for most of the game. The big tackles however seemed to sleep-walk through some running plays. Oher made a poor block on Frosty Rucker to stop Rice for just one yard and he held his man on a sweep. Oher also committed a mental error by jumping off sides. McKinnie struggled with blocks at the second level. Rather than driving through blocks, he tended to stand and wall-off defenders, at one point causing Rice to simply run into him. He also failed to make any kind of chip block on Frostee Rucker on his way to the linebacker, allowing Rucker to stuff Rice for no gain.
Interior Line: B
The zone blocking scheme was not particularly well-executed by this group. However, the Ravens called for a lot more drive-blocking runs against the Bengals’ front four, and they excelled at that. This was particularly true with Ricky Williams running straight ahead. Ben Grubbs fell down to allow a sack and Marshal Yanda slipped up with an off sides call and by allowing Domata Peko to slip inside him for a back-side tackle. But overall, the group was effective in neutralizing the front four of the Bengals’ defense and allowing Leach and Rice to do damage at the second level. Matt Birk executed a difficult block, riding his man out of the way for Rice’s second TD run.
Cary Williams managed to get back on the field after a concussion last week and it was a big plus for the defense. As a group, they held the Bengals top wideouts, AJ Green and Jerome Simpson, to just seven catches on 19 targets, which was a big part of limiting Andy Dalton to 67 passer rating. They set the tone in the first series of the second half when Dalton came out throwing.
Williams was aggressive playing through receivers to get to the ball. He had good position on one of Simpson’s five catches but the athletic receiver went up high to bring down the pass.
Other than allowing Green to completely turn him around playing the slot, for an 18-yard reception, Lardarius Webb played well, and stood out closing down on a shovel pass on third and short to force a punt.
Jimmy Smith played with a lot of confidence converging on the ball. Chris Carr made a great break on a pass over the middle for a near interception. However he made a poor effort to throw a shoulder into Simpson and allowing the receiver to slip past him after the catch.
Bernard Pollard had an excellent game. He set the tone early by closing at the line of scrimmage and blowing up Cedric Benson. Pollard’s play was a big part of holding Benson to just 51 yards on the day. He also showed improvement in coverage, making a very nice break to knock down a side-out throw to the dangerous Green. Pollard fell on a fumble, however, he dropped a would-be interception thrown right to him over the middle.
Ed Reed also missed a chance at a pick on a more difficult play in the end zone. Reed continues to look like a liability as a tackler, shying away from hits, and he allowed Bernard Scott to out-race him to the edge en route to a long TD scamper.
How strange is it to consider that Ed Reed and Ray Lewis may be the weak links in the defense right now. Ray also allowed Scott to scoot past him on the TD run and looked helpless covering Gresham over the middle. He also allowed Scott to run right past him up the middle for what should have been a touchdown throw. He was also blocked one-on-one by the guard to give up an eleven yard run by Benson.
While those were the negatives, there were flashes of the old Ray. He showed some speed to catch Benson from behind running east-west. And he and Jameel McClain were very good at cleaning up most runs between the tackles, playing behind a penetrating front four. They tied each other for the team lead with seven tackles apiece.
McClain was a step slow trying to catch Gresham on a flair pass that went for 25. Jarret Johnson showed a lot of quickness chasing Dalton out of the pocket. Johnson did get flagged for a retaliatory unsportsmanlike punch after the whistle, which extended a drive that netted the Bengals a field goal to make the score 10-3.
Defensive Line: A-
While Terrell Suggs picked his spots, he looked like the best defender on the field. He absolutely exploded through line on a late, looping stunt to nearly sack Dalton. And later did get Dalton to the ground for the team’s only sack. In all, Suggs clocked in with six solo tackles, including forcing the critical fumble.
Pernell McPhee had a good game in passing situations. While he did not register a sack, he did force a bad throw that led to a punt, and knocked down another pass at the line. Haloti Ngata dropped back and sheepishly swatted another Dalton pass with just 0:11 left in the game.
Art Jones played one of his better games, getting a lot of penetration into the backfield, although he had just one tackle to show for it, plus one big quarterback hit. The run defending trio of Cory Redding, Brandon McKinney, and Terrence Cody controlled the line of scrimmage all day.
Special Teams: B-
Billy Cundiff got the start despite nursing a sore calf. He was effective kicking off, when not kicking into a head wind. And he did manage to curl in a 42 yard field goal despite the wind. The coverage units were a little overly aggressive and did give up some running lanes to the Bengals returners. Jimmy Smith made a saving tackle on Brandon Tate who otherwise could have gone the distance when the Ravens were up 10-0.
The Ravens benefited tremendously when Manny Lawson slid into the end zone with the ball after it had already been deadened at the one. That break allowed the Ravens to start an 80-yard scoring drive before the half expired. The other nutty special teams play occurred when Edgar Jones comically took a line drive off the chest trying to field a kickoff, and then had to locate and fall on the ball.
It was a well-managed game. Cam Cameron finally got a team to bite o an end-around fake, drawing the safety out of the middle of the field to allow Rice to run to pay dirt. The play action 39 yarder to Pitta on third and one was well-designed. And credit Cam for solving the red zone woes by getting Pitta involved as that big target in the corner of the end zone. Cam stuck to the running game even when the Bengals drew close. When it works, he’s a genius. John Harbaugh made a smart challenge call on a poor spot of the ball with five minutes left in the half.
Tony Corrente’s crew had a really bad day. Let’s count the misses. Nate Clemons was beaten by Torrey on a deep ball, and so he whacked away at Smith’s arms to prevent him from accelerating to the ball. No call. However they did make a ticky-tack call on Clemons for grabbing Pitta downfield, which extended a Ravens drive after an incompletion. The personal foul on Reggie Nelson for hitting the defenseless Dickson was just wrong. And the officials flagged the Bengals for running an illegal pick play, but it should not have been called.
It continues. They consistently had trouble spotting the ball correctly after runs. They failed to stop the clock and measure the ball with :30 left in the half, forcing Flacco to run a sneak and lose :10 off the clock. Carlos Dunlap gets an acting award for drawing a holding call on Michael Oher. And finally, the “totally unnecessary hit on the quarterback” that Corrente called against Haloti Ngata was necessary, and legal. Most crews not officiating in New England have been allowing those hits just after the ball is released.
Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts did a decent job keeping the game interesting, even though Eagle would have had you believing the Bengals had already gained the lead when they were still trailing late. Fouts’ defense of the bad officiating was a little tiresome. The crew in the truck however did a very nice job showing in-game details. The replay of Dan Skuta tipping a punt before colliding with Koch was very informative. It was also nice to see a shot of Cam Cameron and Joe Flacco consulting on the sideline while flipping through photos of game action.