The season opener means as much to you as it does to me, I’m sure. However, because I’ll spend more time watching this game (because there aren’t others from this season to review right now) than most, there is a special significance.
Last year’s opener left very few questions as to the strength of the Ravens either offensively or defensively as Flacco had one of his best games, the team rushed for 175 yards vs. the Steelers, and the defense had 4 sacks en route to a 7-0 turnover result.
I wish I could say I am equally optimistic following this year’s lopsided opener. There are still significant concerns about the pass rush and run defense.
The Ravens were unable to mount much of any pass rush for the game’s first 44 minutes. During that time, they allowed Dalton ample time and space (ATS) on 20 of 29 throws with just 5 pressures and 1 sack.
Beginning with Reed’s interception, everything changed. On that play Upshaw stunted through the A gap to pressure Dalton into a throw to the bracketed Green. Lewis did not get his hands on the ball, but his presence may well have induced the high throw, which was tipped by Gresham to the hands of Reed. Reed ran to the record book, the Ravens led by 21, and all pass rushers appeared to have green lights from that point forward.
From that point on, Dalton had ATS 5 times with 2 pressures, 2 QHs (3 if you include Webb’s negated by penalty), and 3 sacks (all 4-man rush).
For a team that will face a number of quarterbacks better than Andy Dalton, the inability to generate pass rush without the lead remains an unanswered question.
A second significant concern is the Ravens inability to hold the edge. Kruger, in particular, lost contain several times as the Ravens surrendered an atypical 129 yards rushing and 4.6 YPC. Losing the edge to Whitworth will happen from time to time (Q2, 11:25), but Kruger also lost the edge to Gresham twice (Q1, 2:51 and Q3, 14:26). While there may not be another option, he doesn’t appear ready for the full-time job. The need to play so many snaps (59) may have contributed to his lousy night as a pass rusher (1 pressure on Ngata’s first sack in 31 pass rush efforts).
All of the Bengals 69 snaps were competitive (no kneels, spikes, special teams runs/passes, etc.):
Versus the Run: 28 plays, 129 yards, 4.6 YPC
Versus the Pass: 41 plays, 193 yards, 4.7 YPP
Overall: 69 plays, 322 yards, 4.7 YPPA
By number of defensive backs:
3 DBs: 1 plays, 4 yards, 4.0 YPP
4 DBs: 29 plays, 151 yards, 5.2 YPPA, 1 sack
5 DBs: 39/167, 4.3 YPPA, 3 sacks, 2 TO
6 DBs+: None
By number of pass rushers:
3: 4 plays, 20 yards, 5.0 YPP
4: 21/107, 5.1 YPP, 3 sacks, 1 TO
5: 15/66, 4.4 YPP, 1 sack, 1 TO
7: 1/0, 0.0 YPP
· The Ravens did not play a single snap of dime (6 DBs). Pagano put 6 DBs on the field just 21 times in 2011, so that’s a similarity. They did not play a single 3-safety alignment.
· Pees played the 4-4-3 for one snap on 4th and 1 (Q2, 2:36).
· The big 5 of the secondary each contributed something to the containment of AJ Green. Dalton targeted him 11 times for 5 completions, 70 yards, and a long of 19. Williams stripped him (Q1, 2:09), Pollard punched a ball free (Q2, 5:52), and Green was covered tightly on 2 deep tosses (by Webb, Q1, 3:06 and by Pollard/Reed, Q3, 0:33) that fell incomplete.
· Cary Williams recovered from a lackluster preseason to deliver a decent performance. While he was targeted 10 times, he didn’t surrender a catch more than 12 yards downfield and most of the 82 yards he surrendered was YAC to Hawkins on 2 short completions. Williams has now gone 11 games without surrendering a TD since the game at Pittsburgh last 11/6. He had 2 more PDs to bring his career totals for PDs and INTs to 21 and 0 respectively. If he is able to turn 2 or 3 of those touches into interceptions without other compromise, he’ll be rewarded with a big contract somewhere.
· Webb contributed significantly to the containment of Green (see above) including stride-for-stride coverage on the long incompletion (Q1, 3:06) when the Ravens couldn’t get home with a 7-man rush. He peeled off his own assignment to make several tackles including hustling across the field to take down Hawkins on his 27-yard catch and run. He rushed the passer 4 times including a jarring knockdown (QH) and a pressure where he registered a PD. He had another QH negated by the unnecessary roughness call (Q4, 13:10) penalty despite the fact it was nearly identical to the first. He also recovered the fumble forced by the Lewis sack (Q4, 14:57). Lardarius would finish with 6 tackles and was one of several to consider as the team’s defensive MVP.
· Jimmy Smith had a largely uneventful night despite 39 snaps at LCB. He was targeted just once which went for a 17-yard completion to Green where Smith also missed the tackle (Q3, 13:16) to allow 4 YAC. Gruden mentioned the Bengals wanted to target Jimmy Smith. Since his brother is the Bengals’s OC, he may have had inside information, but the fact that Smith was targeted just once among 39 defensive snaps, while Williams was 10/63 should be a measure of both avoidance and the actual quality of coverage.
· Pollard had another outstanding game and, like Webb, is contributing in all phases. He had a PD rushing the passer (Q1, 12:04), made a pair of run tackles blitzing off the offensive right side (Q2, 10:10 and Q3, 10:30), had the aforementioned PD on Green, had a big hit on Gresham to stop him short of a 1st down (Q2, 0:50), had tight coverage on 2 other balls that fell incomplete, and hustled to make the tackle after Smith’s miss (Q3, 13:16). The only play where he looked bad all night was the 27-yard catch and run by Hawkins (Q2, 5:46) where he was the 3rd blitzer allowed to slip by and should have been able to diagnose the screen. With Whitworth out front pushing Reed, Hawkins patiently negotiated his way up the left sideline.
· Ed Reed was in position to generate 3 interceptions although he ultimately made just 1. He nearly collected the high pass intended for Gresham (Q2, 15:00) where he appeared to anticipate the overthrow based on the underneath coverage from Ray Lewis. His record-setting interception came on similar bracket coverage (see above). With excellent coverage on Gresham in the back right corner of the end zone (Q2, 0:35) Reed leapt high out of bounds and appeared to want to tip the ball back to either Lewis or McClain, who were close. Whether he thought better of the risk, was unable to get it done, or simply didn’t think of it, the ball fell incomplete.
· With the exception of Christian Thompson, all 10 of the Ravens’ secondary who dressed played at least 5 snaps (the last series) including 19 by Ihedigbo who replaced Reed after the interception.
· The Ravens dressed 7 linebackers, but Brendan Ayanbadejo did not play a defensive snap. That’s a major shift from last season when BA played 28% of defensive snaps and was a fixture in the nickel.
· The beneficiary of BA’s absence was Dannell Ellerbe, who returned to a platoon role with McClain (46 snaps) and was in for both turnovers and all 4 sacks. Last season, Ellerbe’s role was very unclear with insertions primarily on 2nd and long. On Sunday Dannell played the run aggressively and didn’t make any serious coverage errors. He finished with 7 tackles. Ellerbe’s highlight was his stick on BJGE (Q3, 13:50)
· Albert McClellan played 41 snaps at ROLB in his most activity to date. He had a single pressure (Q2, 0:35) in 14 pass rush attempts, but he looked OK setting the edge.
· Lewis was patient and did not attack the gaps aggressively as he did in his youth, but he was effective in holding the Bengals to gains of 2-4 yards and had the wonderful open field twisting takedown of BJGE to hold him to a gain of 4. When opportunity presented itself (Q4, 14:57), he deftly punched the football free from Dalton with his left hand where Webb was able to pounce on it. In pass coverage, he continues to produce both results and fear. His assignments were targeted 6 times with 3 completions for 18 yards and the interception by Reed.
· Courtney Upshaw had an effective debut in 29 snaps. For the night he had 4 pressure events in just 14 pass rush opportunities, including his first NFL ½ sack. Beginning with his QH of Dalton on Reed’s INT, Upshaw had the QH, ½ sack, and a pressure in the span of 5 rushes. On one of the 2 plays he didn’t generate pressure, Ngata recorded a sack.
· The Ravens have a history of allowing some high play counts to the Bengals, were planning to use the no huddle, and yet dressed just 5 defensive lineman (Hall and Tyson were inactive). In addition, Sergio Kindle, who will line up with a hand on the turf frequently (if active), did not dress. That’s a formula for a tired defensive line.
· McPhee started and created some pressure, but was a non-factor versus the run. His neutral zone infraction (Q1, 3:06) also helped preserve a drive that resulted in a field goal. He flushed the pocket on Ray’s sack/FF (Q4, 14:57) and was credited with ½ sack (Q4, 11:06) where he could have been credited with the whole thing. However, with just 2 pressure events in 31 attempts, it was a below-average night for Pernell.
· Kemoeatu reemerged as a starter after a 1-year NFL sabbatical. He and Ngata did a fine job maintaining their position in the middle. Terrence Cody played just 21 snaps which included 16 in Q2 when the game was very much on the line. Looking at the pattern, it appears Kemo and Cody may have been splitting playing time by quarter.
· Arthur Jones played 9 meaningful snaps before being inserted for the last 2 series, but looked good with a couple of tackles for gains of 1 (Q3, 1:13 and Q4, 9:16) among a career-high 4 tackles. He also had one of the Ravens’ few 1st-half pressures (Q2, 12:25) among 7 rushes. It was probably his best game as a Raven.
· Ngata’s outstanding effort was reminiscent of his first 4 games last season. If he can avoid injury, he’s a legitimate DPOY candidate. He has occasionally played a higher percentage of the team’s snaps, but the ability to maintain a well-rested line was at risk Monday when Pees had him on the field for the team’s first 57 defensive plays. He had 2 sacks and a PD in 40 times rushing the passer including an effective screen recognition and coverage of Gresham (Q4, 11:54) that resulted in an incomplete pass. Each of his sacks split double teams from first-round picks Kevin Zeitler and Andre Smith.
· Compare and contrast Pees and Pagano? Pagano’s biggest change in terms of scheme was the pace of defensive substitution. Monday night was the antithesis. Pees left the same personnel packages on the field for extensive periods that included some no huddle, but many opportunities to change.
· The Ravens pass rush was remarkably free of deception after much experimentation in the preseason. They rushed 3, 4, or 5 on all but 1 pass play and used only 9 blitzers all night (defined as players who rush from at least 1.5 yards behind the line of scrimmage or from no closer than directly opposite the slot receiver). I scored only 2 of their rushes deceptive by my method. Based on his reputation and the preseason, I’m sure there’s a lot Pees didn’t wish to show in this game.
· If I had to pick a key play in the game it would be the stop of Dalton’s QB draw (Q3, 9:47). On 3rd and goal from the Ravens 7, Dalton ran for 6 yards, but was well contained by Lewis, McClellan, Pollard, and Webb and dumped at the 1. At that moment, the Bengals had possessed the ball for 24 consecutive offensive snaps (excluding Flacco’s kneel to end the 1st half) and more than 11 minutes. The Bengals decision to kick on 4th and goal at the 1 put the Ravens in position to open an 11-point lead on the ensuing drive. It’s not difficult to imagine a different path for the game had the Bengals tied it up there.