REARVIEW MIRROR — AFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS
BALTIMORE RAVENS 20, HOUSTON TEXANS 13
JANUARY 15, 2012
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh patrolled the locker room afterwards, soaking in his team’s 20-13 home playoff win against the Houston Texans. WBAL-radio color analyst Stan White stopped him to ask if he was concerned his team didn’t match the Texans’ performance on the stat sheet. In response, Harbaugh quoted the immortal words of former Eagles coach Herm Edwards. “You play to win the game.”
Indeed. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a win, one that propelled the Ravens into the AFC Championship next week against the New England Patriots—a Tom Brady-led team that was noticeably prettier in dismantling the Denver Broncos on Saturday.
Ravens fans may want to tune out the national media rhetoric this week, leading up to the Championship showdown. Brady’s record-breaking performance from Saturday will surely be held up in contrast to Flacco’s pedestrian output on Sunday.
And that’s fair. In fact, right here we’ll pick apart what went right, and what went wrong for each individual unit for the Ravens as we analyze how the team eeked out a win.
And then we’ll note that stats don’t matter.
In the final analysis, there are no dominating victories or lucky wins. Only winning, and surviving to play another day. Sometimes winning simply comes from capitalizing on the opportunities your opponent gives you, and covering the weaknesses they expose. In the playoffs in particular, that is usually the difference between winning and losing.
The Ravens capitalized on four Texans turnovers. And they scored 17 of their 20 total points off of the turnovers to grab an early lead and make it difficult for a good Texans team to climb back into the contest.
Against Houston’s good, young defense, the Ravens offense showed some weaknesses, for sure: namely catching the ball and stopping a penetrating front seven. But they covered those weaknesses by avoiding penalties–none–and playing better on special teams than in previous games this season. When you are not moving the ball on offense, and you have the lead, you better punt and cover, and the Ravens did do that well.
Defensively, the veteran presence of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis – two players whose skill levels had been questioned here, and in other media outlets recently – trumped the lack of experience that Texans rookie quarterback TJ Yates brought onto the field of play.
When Texans running back Arian Foster was slicing and dicing his way through the Ravens’ defensive line, it was Reed and Lewis, and a young secondary featuring Lardarius Webb that halted the Texans, holding them to field goal tries, or forcing turnovers.
So while there are plenty of weaknesses to fret over during the week leading up to the showdown in New England, there are also plenty of strengths for this Ravens team to build on. Quarterback Joe Flacco after the game put it in his usual, blunt and understated way. “We’ll look at the film. I’m sure we’ll see some things we’ll need to tighten up.”
It’s true. But they’re still alive, with plenty of reason to study that film, and not many other teams in the NFL can say that right now.
Flacco’s grade gets pulled down because of his lack of accuracy. He was just 14 of 27 for 176 yards. But without throwing any picks, and with two touchdown strikes, he did manage a passer rating of 97. Again, not all of it was pretty. He fluttered a shot-put touchdown to wide-open tight end Chris Wilson, after colliding with his fullback on a play action call from the one. Wilson bailed him out with a nice catch. Similarly, he was helped by some very nice grabs by wide-outs Anquan Boldin and Lee Evans, and by Ed Dickson on a ball thrown behind him.
But he was also hurt by some catchable balls that hit the turf, particularly in the first quarter with receivers looking back into the sun. He did a nice job of moving around in a treacherous pocket to buy extra time, although it did lead to five sacks and a forced fumble, recovered by the Ravens. A well placed touchdown throw in the back right corner of the end zone to Boldin, and stepping up past the rush of Shaun Cody to hit tight end Dennis Pitta for a first down stood out as Flacco’s best moments.
Running Backs: C
Ray Rice struggled to get going, and was held to just 60 yards on 21 carries, plus 20 more yards through the air on four catches. The Texans did a good job of corralling him, but he also seemed to have trouble maintaining his balance, perhaps trying to do too much near the goal line. Rice also fumbled near the goal line, but guard Ben Grubbs fell on the ball.
Ricky Williams chipped in with his usual nice job of downhill running as a change of pace to Rice, compiling 27 yards on just six touches. Against his former team, Vonta Leach was an effective lead blocker. He picked up a first down on one carry, but fell short on another.
Wide Receivers: B-
Torrey Smith was neutralized by Johnathan Joseph. Smith dropped a tough catch down sideline on second play of the game and had trouble getting into any rhythm after that—one catch on four targets.
Anquan Boldin, back from knee surgery, was extremely effective, although he also registered one drop on a crossing pattern. He urged Flacco before the game to hang passes out where he could get them, and Flacco obliged with a number of back-shoulder fades.
Lee Evans played briefly, and made the most of it with a spectacular one-handed catch and run on a similar fade route.
Tight Ends: C
Kris Wilson had his first catch as a Raven, and first TD, slipping a block and making a nice grab on a ball thrown behind him. Ed Dickson dropped a ball on a crossing route, also thrown behind him. He caught just one of four balls thrown his way, but did a nice job holding onto the catch. Dennis Pitta hauled in two catches, for first downs, but overall Pitta and Dickson accounted for just 44 yards combined on eight balls thrown their way.
Michael Oher struggled mightily against rookie JJ Watt. Watt blew past him a number of times to make backside tackles or to get to Flacco. Watt led the Texans with 12 tackles, and that goes on Oher’s record for the most part. Watt’s effectiveness also left Oher vulnerable to a stunting Brooks Reed, who blew past him for a sack. Brandon McKinnie was better, and particularly effective as a zone blocker.
Interior Line: C
This unit started out fast but finished slow. Ben Grubbs and Matt Birk made some nice blocks on the interior early on, but looked slow trying to stop the relentless Texans interior as the game wore on. Grubbs looked best as a lead blocker for Rice on an effective screen in the first quarter. Later he was knocked onto his backside by Shaun Cody on his way to a sack.
Birk whiffed on a block on Demeco Ryans, who stuffed what would have otherwise been a big gainer on a screen to Rice. Marshal Yanda was much less effective that he has been most of this season, looking a step slow in protection, perhaps from injury issues sustained late in the year.
Cary Williams, Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith looked polished in zone packages, playing underneath receivers and using safety help to good effect. Webb picked off Yates twice by planting himself in front of routes, and he was excellent stopping jump balls to Andre Johnson.
While Johnson did get 8 catches for 111 yards, most of that damage came late, behind dropping linebackers and in front of safeties. Good corner play helped limit Yates to a 29 passer rating on the day.
Ed Reed was a much more willing tackler this week and was effective bringing down ball carriers. He seemed to pay the price, coming up with a gimpy-looking hip and ankle late in the game. He also did an excellent job reading the eyes of the young Texans quarterback and it lead to one pick that helped end the game.
However, he also dropped two more that could have put the game out of reach. Bernard Pollard also dropped an interception chance. Pollard however was very effective as a one-on-one tackler in the flats against the dangerous Foster.
Ray Lewis appeared to benefit from the extra week off, as he showed more pursuit speed and decisive tackling. He also was effective diagnosing where the seams were in the Texans’ zone rushing scheme and made some nice take-downs behind the line. His best effort came when he beat a block by fullback Lawrence Vickers to slice through and bring Foster down for a loss. Lewis led the defense with eight tackles, seven solo. He dropped what should have been an interception at the Texans 30, which could have put the game out of reach in the first quarter.
Jarret Johnson stood out for mostly quality play holding the edge and forcing Foster back inside. It forced the Texans to alter their game plan to run more straight ahead, between the tackles, where they found success. Johnson was also effective in defending rollout waggle calls to his side, forcing Yates to throw the ball away when the tight end was covered.
Jameel McClain registered just two tackles; one was a devastating hit of Foster at the goalline.
Defensive Line: C+
At times the defensive line played well, penetrating through zone blocks. However, the Texans took advantage of sloppy play from some of the younger members of the rotation. Terrence Cody had trouble maintaining gap responsibility. Art Jones was blown off of the line by double teams to clear a lot of running room in the middle.
Brandon McKinney was more effective in eating up space. Haloti Ngata looked more active than he had late in the season, but far from the dominate player he can be. He did force a fumble recovered by Houston.
Terrell Suggs could not do much against the underrated Duane Brown, and was more effective when moved to the strong side away from Brown. He made a nice play to get after Yates and then peel back to bring down Foster at the line of scrimmage on a screen.
Special Teams: B+
The special teams unit began the game by botching the opening kick coverage; Jimmy Smith and Danny Gorrer did a poor job taking on blocks to allow Danieal Manning to return the ball the to Ravens 40, setting up a field goal for what would be the Texan’s only lead in the game. Harbaugh had commented earlier in the week that the team had decided to keep a lot of young players rather than use roster spots for veteran special teams players, which put pressure on the unit to learn and perform immediately. The lack of experience showed early.
However they redeemed themselves with good play from that point forward, other than a near disastrous fumble by Lardarius Webb on the ensuing kick, recovered by Albert McClellan. Webb was replaced as a kick returner by Tom Zbikowski, who spent the rest of the day kneeling in the end zone. Zbikowski gets credit for taking a good angle on Manning to stop a touchdown on the opening kick.
The play of the game may have Cary Williams tackling Jacoby Jones inside five after he tried to catch a Sam Koch 75-yard punt on a bounce. Jimmy Smith pounced on it; he could have gotten up and run with the ball, but credit him with being smart enough to fall on the ball rather than attempting a scoop.
Koch averaged 50 yards on nine punts, and the coverage unit did a good job to be in position to pin the ball deep. The bounces didn’t always go their way, but the execution was good. Danny Gorrer and Haruki Nakamura both stood out for excellent tackling on special teams coverage.
Billy Cundiff was also a big difference maker hitting from 48 and 44 yards out, while Neil Rackers missed a field goal from 50, hitting the crossbar.
First the negatives for Cam Cameron. He nearly let the game get away from him after the Ravens had build up a 17-3 lead in the first quarter. Rather than feed Ray Rice the ball in the second quarter, Cameron called for some deep balls that didn’t end in completions, and instead quickly got the ball back in the hands of the Texans’ Foster, with time to climb back to 17-13 at the half. Getting away from the run, and using Ricky Williams early-and-often seemed to contribute to Rice’s lack of rhythm.
On the plus side, Cameron got away from some tendencies, and it was effective on third downs. That included the goal line play action touchdown to Wilson and a third and nine screen to Rice and a similar call to Dickson on third and long.
Chuck Pagano did a nice job of getting pressure up the middle on Yates when the Texans had established some momentum. And the game plan of bracketing receivers paid off with three interceptions.
The decision to go for a touchdown on fourth and inches, which failed, was not a terrible call, but in retrospect the right call was to take the points, which would have made it a 7 point lead to finish the third quarter. A decision to challenge whether Foster had stepped out when running down the sideline was not smart when there was not nearly any clear evidence of him going out. Harbaugh wore a frustrated look on his face all day.
Referee Peter Morelli’s crew let them play, which I suppose is what you let teams do in the playoffs. The Ravens did not draw a flag.
There was some rough play in the secondary that could have drawn calls. Boldin was tackled ten yards down field by cornerback Jason Allen. The frustration of no calls did lead to some avoidable pushing and shoving. Danieal Manning ran through the back of Dickson on a batted ball that should have been flagged for pass interference. But the liberal policy on interference went both ways. Some of the ball spots were questionable, but not egregious.
It is customary to blast Dan Dierdorf in this space. However, Dan did a nice job of keeping his patter below the obnoxious level we are accustomed to getting from him. With the Steelers out of the playoffs, perhaps the lack of Roethlisberger-worship from Dierdorf was the difference.
However, he and Greg Gumball seemed a little flat at times. For such a close playoff game, another crew might have milked more excitement out of the telecast. They seemed to gloss over the significance of the Ravens – despite the ugly victory – making it to the AFC Championship.