The mood was anything but celebratory.
The Ravens had just won their fifth game of the season to take a commanding lead in the AFC North. They are one of 2 AFC teams with a winning record. Yet the players seemed agitated while the fans exiting M&T Bank Stadium expressed relief more than they did jubilation.
The emotion was on par with barely earning a passing grade after a tough pass/fail exam.
Also dampening the mood were injuries to defensive stars Lardarius Webb and Ray Lewis. The losses of these two players, places defensive coordinator Dean Pees in the unenviable position of turning around the performance of his struggling unit without his shutdown corner and defensive quarterback.
Some might say the Ravens are a very flawed 5-1 team. But look around the league. Are there really any dominant teams? At 6-0 do the Atlanta Falcons really strike fear in the hearts of opponents after narrowly escaping with a 23-20 over the 1-4 Oakland Raiders at the Georgia Dome? The Falcons surrendered 474 yards of offense to Carson Palmer & Co. and they picked Matt Ryan 3 times.
This week’s opponent, the Houston Texans, were schooled in Houston by the Green Bay Packers one week removed from barely escaping Met Life Stadium with a win over the Jets.
Is this parity at its finest or is the league just watered down? Regardless of how you spin, today perhaps more than ever before the cliché, “on any given Sunday” applies to the NFL.
Expect more of these gut-wrenching games going forward.
Now on to grades…
With only 49 plays and less than 20 minutes of game clock to work with Joe Flacco engineered drives that produced 24 points (Jacoby Jones was responsible for the other 7) despite working with less than favorable field position (starting point on average was his own 20). With a little help from Ed Dickson he would have fired 2 scoring strikes but nevertheless posted a QB rating of 106.9. Flacco kept the offensive in rhythm and effectively executed the game plan almost exclusively from the no huddle. All of this against a team that ranked 4th overall on defense heading into the game, and first overall against the pass. The only blemish on the day was Flacco’s inability to sell the screens. That said this game is arguably among the finest Flacco has played as a professional particularly when considering the average to below average performance of the Ravens’ offensive line.
RUNNING BACK: B+
Ray Rice produced 106 yards of offense on 17 touches while Bernard Pierce showed why the Ravens were confident in his abilities, contributing 21 tough yards on 4 carries. Rice was also a perfect 3 for 3 in third and short attempts, which hopefully convinces offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to bury the empty backfield formation in such down and distance situations. Vonta Leach was his usual badass self. Ray Rice needs to be better in pass protection if he wants to do his part to keep Flacco upright.
WIDE RECEIVER: B+
The Cowboys press coverage approach on the edges had to bring a smile to Anquan Boldin’s face. Boldin is physical and has the ability to make catches in traffic. If the Ravens had more snaps on offense, it is likely that Boldin eclipses the century mark. Nevertheless Boldin did manage 5 catches for 98 yards. Torrey Smith hauled in a nice toss from Flacco in traffic at the left front corner of the end zone to give the Ravens a 17-10 first half lead. It was one of the few times when the Cowboys failed to roll safety coverage Smith’s way.
TIGHT ENDS: C
Billy Bajema was up for the first time this season and had an up and down performance as a blocker. He missed a block on a third and 1 play that ended with the Cowboys dropping Pierce for a loss of 1. He did make a nice kick out block enabling Ray Rice to waltz into the end zone on his second scoring run. Dennis Pitta continues to struggle blocking and that’s probably why Dickson saw more snaps than usual in single tight end sets. Pitta did make a spectacular catch on an 8-yard pass during the team’s first drive. Dickson’s hands are still inconsistent, dropping a sure touchdown pass from Flacco.
Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele both responded with rebound performances against the Cowboys after rather miserable efforts in Kansas City. Osemele’s assignment wasn’t as challenging as Oher’s who was tasked with sack-master DeMarcus Ware. Oher held serve for most of the game but did fall prey to a nice inside maneuver by Ware. If the Ravens had more snaps Oher likely would have been challenge by more of the same. Osemele battled Jason Thatcher to a draw.
INTERIOR LINE: C-
Matt Birk looked like he needed a friend at times when taking on the always-tough multi-Pro Bowler Jay Ratliff. He whiffed on a few attempts at the second level. Bobbie Williams received a “welcome back to starter status” greeting by Dan Conner who flattened the Ravens new left guard. It wasn’t the only time Williams’ feet were in the air. Marshal Yanda did not contribute a typical Yanda-like performance. This entire group could use a refresher course on executing a screen.
Cary Williams is an inviting target particularly when quarterbacks have so much time to throw. Romo locked in on Dez Bryant often when going up against Williams. Thirteen catches is a great month for Ravens receivers. Bryant got his in 40 game minutes. Jimmy Smith showed flashes of why the Ravens made him their 2011 No. 1 pick but he still lacks consistency. Chykie Brown was decent when called upon for emergency duty after Lardarius Webb went down with an ACL injury and Smith left the game with a leg injury.
Bernard Pollard up to now has been a pleasant surprise in pass coverage. On Sunday he was late too often and he wasn’t the sure-tackler he usually is. Ed Reed was much worse on his takedown attempts. Reed’s extremely poor tackling and failure to wrap up, cost the Ravens about 50 yards of field position on the afternoon.
Ray Lewis’ 14 tackles might mask his poor performance on the stat sheet but most tackles were from 4 yards and out when supporting the run. He did not record a single defensive stat on the Cowboys opening 80-yard TD drive despite the fact that Dallas ran it 7 times on the drive. Lewis doesn’t shed blocks and gets lost in the wash far too often for a defense designed to funnel ball carriers his way…Jameel McClain played much like Lewis and did not make an impact…Dannell Ellerbe was decent at times but really struggled to stay in the same zip code with TE Jason Witten when called upon to cover the Cowboys’ Pro Bowler…Courtney Upshaw was probably the most consistent of the LB’s on the afternoon and did a nice job running down plays at the LOS…Kruger had his moments late in the game but was relatively absent most of the afternoon.
DEFENSIVE LINE: D (saved by Ngata)
It’s hard to remember the Ravens defensive line looking this bad since they signed Sam Adams as a free agent in 2000. Only Haloti Ngata’s effort saved this unit from an “F”. The Cowboys did nothing fancy to confuse the Ravens defensive front, they just beat them senseless. And the concerning thing here is that the Cowboys are nicked up on their offensive line, one not regarded as being even among the average fronts in the NFL. Maake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody were moved around like crash test dummies. Art Jones wasn’t much better.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-
Interesting grade here in that it should be higher but when you consider that the team failed to cover an extremely obvious onsides kick (the ball bounced through Ayanbadejo’s 5-hole) the grade has to suffer. The kick return unit seems to be getting it together, easily breaking open a record tying 108-yard return by Jones and nearly breaking a second. Justin Tucker remains money and continues to punch kicks through the end zone. Chykie Brown performed well as the punt gunner.
COACHING: Defense D, Offense B+
Dean “Swiss” Pees will get the lion’s share of the blame for the Ravens’ miserable defensive performance but you can’t blame him for the extremely poor tackling. It’s hard to make chicken salad out of chicken-you-know-what. That said the Ravens are becoming a “no-dimensional” defense. They can’t get it done against the pass or run and if the Ravens want to make it to the post season for the fifth consecutive season that will have to change. John Harbaugh alluded to the need to place players in positions to succeed and to do that, they need to play fast and be comfortable with schemes. That sounds like a not-to-subtle hint directed at Pees.
Cam Cameron put together a great game plan to attack the Cowboys No. 4 ranked defense. Despite the limited time of possession Cameron’s plan directed by Joe Flacco was efficient and inspired. Cameron seems to have abandoned the empty backfield formation on third and short. Now they need to work on the screens, something that will be important to quiet the rush they’ll face this week in Houston.
Mike Carey’s crew enforced 23 penalties for a total of 158 yards. They threw flags for penalties that really weren’t infractions (the hideous chop block call on Felix Jones for example) and held on to their flags when obvious holding penalties against the Cowboys offensive line stared them right in the face. Tackle Doug Free absolutely mugged Pernell McPhee and nothing was called paving the way to a 19-yard completion while Phil Costa gave Kemoeatu a big ole man hug. Maybe Carey found solace in all of the male bonding going on. After all, he’s the same ref who led the crew in Detroit back in 2005 that flagged the Ravens 21 times and threw an unsportsmanlike flag at Terrell Suggs for having “malice in his heart.”
Fox’ use of relevant statistics dwarfs those at CBS. The overhead field camera also provides a fan experience not often seen on the AFC’s network. The down side in the broadcast ironically, was Brian Billick. Billick is usually a very solid analyst but he clearly didn’t have his “A” game on Sunday. After Cowboys DB Mike Jenkins mugged Torrey Smith Billick said, “No way are the fans going to get that call.” It was a pretty obvious P.I. Later Billick criticized the Ravens defense on one play for allowing the Cowboys to run up the middle, mentioning Ray Lewis and Haloti Ngata by name. Ngata wasn’t even on the field. Then Billick tried to sing the praises of Matt Birk saying that he was involved in drafting Birk out of Stanford back when Billick was on the Minnesota Vikings staff. Must have been some involvement. Birk went to Harvard…
Lastly, can someone please tell Ravens P.A. man Bruce Cunningham that his excitable, “It’s third down” call isn’t really relevant when opponents have to score a touchdown to win or tie?