CORNERING THE MEGATRON MARKET
Very quietly, Ravens fans have witnessed Jimmy Smith develop from potential first-round bust into arguably the best cornerback on the Ravens and one of the better corners in the game. Head Coach John Harbaugh drew some attention to Smith’s progress last week when he called him “one of the top corners.” Pro Football Focus has graded Smith as the best corner on the Ravens this season as well.
Smith will be put to the test Monday night when he is going to likely be tasked with covering Detroit’s All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
Johnson set the single-season receiving yards record last season with 1,964 and is widely regarded as the top wide receiver in the league. He is listed at 6-5 and 236 pounds and is fast enough to outrun defenders while still more than physical enough to outmuscle defenders as well (despite what Ravens safety Matt Elam might tell you).
While Smith will likely draw Johnson in coverage most of the time, he typically plays exclusively on the right side of the field. The Lions move Johnson all over the field in different wide receiver formations, to get him different looks so fellow cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Corey Graham should be ready as well. Lately though, the Ravens have been up to the task of shutting down top receivers.
Cleveland Browns star Josh Gordon (leads the league in receiving yards despite missing two games), Antonio Brown of Pittsburgh, and Brandon Marshall of Chicago all are having huge years but have all been held under 60 yards receiving against the Ravens. Bengals wide receiver AJ Green was held in check too, until catching a Hail Marry on a botched tip.
For a team that almost watched their postseason aspirations crumble at the hands of wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson of the Vikings, who broke free last week in the final minute, expect the Ravens to do everything in their power not to let Johnson do the same.
JOE COOL SURGICAL IN FOURTH QUARTER
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is one of the highest-paid at his position in the NFL, despite never throwing for 4,000 yards, never throwing for 30 touchdowns and never getting voted to a Pro Bowl. But he set a record for most wins in a quarterback’s first six years last week, and won Super Bowl MVP last February. This has led to an ongoing debate about whether or not Flacco is “elite.”
One thing that cannot be disputed though about Flacco however, is that he is clutch. Flacco plays his best football this season in the fourth quarter as he trails only Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck in 4th quarter QBR (ESPN’s version). Flacco (8) also trails only Manning (11) in fourth quarter touchdowns this season.
Flacco put his clutch skills on full display last Sunday by throwing three interceptions to put the Ravens behind, and then marching his team down the field and throwing 2 fourth quarter touchdown passes to put his team back on top in the final minutes.
Overall, Flacco’s numbers are lacking, as the only quarterbacks with more interceptions on the year than him are Eli Manning and Geno Smith and his passer rating is 30th in the league.
But even so, there are still very few quarterbacks I would want with the ball in their hands in the final minutes of the game more than Flacco.
RECEIVING CORPS GETTING HEALTHY AT RIGHT TIME
Pundits were critical of the receiving options for the Ravens last summer after the team traded 2012’s top receiver Anquan Boldin to San Francisco and believed they had lost tight end Dennis Pitta for the year to a dislocated hip in training camp. When Jacoby Jones got hurt and missed a stretch of games early on too, the Ravens receiving corps was one of the weakest in the league.
Since then, Jones has gotten healthy, rookie Marlon Brown has emerged as a physical and reliable receiver, and Pitta has returned way ahead of schedule from his injury. Last Sunday, the Ravens finally had the receivers Flacco and the coaching staff had envisioned before the season. Flacco believes the team is ready to break out.
“I feel like we’re close, and not just because of two minutes in a football game,” Flacco said “The last handful of weeks, we’ve really been starting to break through and get to the point where we’re giving ourselves opportunities to put points on the board.”
Flacco also said as long as the Ravens have opportunities in the red zone they should score points.
One of the biggest issues for the Ravens heading into last Sunday was red zone efficiency on offense and Flacco led the Ravens to touchdowns on all three red zone possessions. Having Pitta and Jones back helped that, as did the emergence of Brown, who caught the go-ahead score with four seconds left on a really impressive catch in the back of the end zone.
The passing game seems to be heating up, and not a moment too soon either, as the Ravens pursue a playoff berth over the next three weeks.
DUMERVIL HOPES TO RETURN
The Ravens pass rush has seen a drop-off in quarterback sacks the last few weeks, and one of the main causes of this has been the injury to outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil.
Dumervil was sidelined last week against the Vikings, after injuring his ankle against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thanksgiving. While he has been dealing with his injury opposing defenses have had an easier time focusing on fellow outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, which has limited his effectiveness as well.
Dumervil has more than the bruise he claims to be hampered by, and Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun believes that it is also a sprain. However, Wilson feels Dumervil is just being rested as much as possible this week and said in a fan chat, “I’d be shocked if he’s not playing Monday night and at a decent mobility level.”
Dumervil said Thursday “It’s definitely gotten better, the strength is getting there. Just working man, trying to continue to work on my conditioning and really strengthen that ankle to get me to a point where I can tolerate it.” He added, “We’ve got a good team in Detroit, so I have to make sure I’m ready.”
Dumervil did not practice Thursday (the first day of practice this week), but suited up Friday, on at least a limited basis.