RAVENS REPORT CARD: Bengals 23 Ravens 17

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Each year Marist University conducts a poll asking Americans what is the most obnoxious word or phrase used in casual conversation.  For the fourth consecutive year the top choice was, whatever.

So with apologies to all Americans, here’s our reaction to a Ravens 23-17 loss in their regular season finale to the Cincinnati Bengals: whatever.

As many suspected, head coach John Harbaugh treated this game like a meaningless pre-season tune up, opting to sit most of his starters well before the first quarter had ended.

With a post-season home game against the Colts already locked up, this game unfolded as nothing more than a chance to watch the bottom of the depth chart perform and judge how much progress some of these younger Ravens have made since we last saw them in preseason games.

No doubt that head coach Marvin Lewis was mindful of past criticism when it comes to sitting players in week 17. Twice before Lewis had locked up a playoff berth, rested starters in week 17, lost the final game, and then saw his Bengals come out flat and lose in the opening round of the playoffs.

The Bengals have not won a playoff game in more than twenty years. So it was no surprise to see Lewis leave his starters in through the first half in an effort to keep alive a winning streak that now stands at seven of their last eight games.

For the Ravens, who have won at least one playoff game in each of the last four years, this game was deemed to be less of a mental tune-up.  It was, however, a reminder of how the team has already been scraping by with a collection of reserves in the defensive secondary and middle linebacker for a number of weeks now.  They will enter the Wild Card round still relying on a number of these mildly seasoned defensive players pulled from the bottom of the depth chart.

To their credit, the Ravens reserves seemed to outplay the Bengals, but in the end, they could not overcome self-inflicted mistakes –penalties and turnovers–that led to Bengals points.

The goal for the Ravens in this final regular season contest wasn’t to maintain an edge or evaluate talent. It was to preserve the health of key talent on an already fragile roster.  Inactives this week included Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Bernard Pollard, Ray Lewis, Marshal Yanda and Anquan Boldin, along with Tandon Doss.

In that regard the biggest disappointment coming out of this game was seeing Vonta Leach take a shot to the knees after catching a swing pass in the flat. After laying on the field for quite some time, Ray Rice’s lead blocker was helped off the field under his own power.

Other than that misstep, the Ravens accomplished what little they wanted to in this relatively meaningless game.

Quarterback: C

Joe Flacco looked like a player who was anxious to get off the field. He threw a number of wildly inaccurate balls, going 4 of 8 for 34 yards.

As a passer Tyrod Taylor was not terribly accurate on deep balls, but threw a nice intermediate pass and had patience to find his second and third options.  When that wasn’t there or in the face of a blitz, he was an obviously dangerous change of pace, picking up 65 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.  He also added a nice option-run look and threw well on the run-option rollouts.

However, his shorter stature in the pocket did lead to a Carlos Dunlap tip and interception for a game-winning touchdown.  And he was lucky not to have two earlier passes picked off, one of which could have led to points.

Running Backs:  B

Ray Rice had just three carries for five yards and picked up a strange unsportsmanlike penalty call for continuing to block a downed Vontaze Burfict in the backfield before the whistle had blown the play dead.

Bernard Pierce continued to impress with hard running, picking up 89 yards on 22 carries.  Pierce seemed to miss a hot read on a pass that Reggie Nelson dropped for a sure touchdown the other way. Anthony Allen got ten carries for 41 yards and a TD.  He was particularly impressive running the option, a reminder of his days playing at Georgia Tech. He ran downhill hard in the red zone.

Wide Receivers: C+

Deonte Thompson picked up where he left off in the preseason, getting open and showing good hands to catch all four balls thrown his way. While he netted just 26 yards he made difficult catches in traffic.

David Reed also looked quick, doing a nice job of sitting in the zone defense to catch a 23-yarder from Taylor, the quarterback’s longest completion on the day.  Reed was lucky not to be flagged for a block in the back in the end zone on a Taylor rollout for a score.

Jacoby Jones got open down the sideline for a would-be touchdown but Taylor led him out of bounds on the throw.

Tight Ends: C

Ed Dickson was the top receiver, catching 6 of 8 balls thrown his way, doing a nice job of fighting for extra yards after the catch. Billy Bajama was inserted as a blocking H Back with Leach out and did not contribute much.

Tackles: D

For those who have been clamoring to see Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, you can stop clamoring. He was an early substitute, bumping Michael Oher to the right side, and was awful in this game.

He rang up a false start.

He was blown back by Michael Johnson into the quarterback for a sack and near safety, giving the ball back to the Bengals with 2:00 left in the first half to tie the score 7-7 at half.

He stood around looking for someone to block at the second level and ended up throwing his own running back to the ground.

And he blew an assignment to allow Wallace Gilberry a free run at Bernard Pierce in the backfield, leading to an injury to his running back.

If McKinnie has been in Coach Harbaugh’s doghouse this year, then this game would suggest it was a well-deserved doghouse.

The tandem of Oher and Kelechi Osemele on the right side was not much better. Osemele picked up a false start.  While Oher was effective as a run blocker, he was not as good in pass protection. He was embarrassed by a Gilberry stunt and sack to the inside.  On the Dunlap interception for a touchdown, a quick punch by Dunlap sent an off-balance Oher backwards three yards and gave Dunlap space to jump and come down with the ball uncontested.

Interior Line:  C

Bobbie Williams got the start at right guard for Marshal Yanda and, as bad as McKinnie was as a substitute Williams may have been worse.  His butt was in the backfield far too often trying to block not only Geno Atkins but an array of back-up defensive linemen.  He whiffed on a block that lead to Pierce being tackled in the backfield and contributed a false start, a hold, and a personal foul.

Jah Reid at left guard continues to improve, although Michael Johnson did beat him for a sack.  As a run blocker Reid is coming into his own.

Gino Gradkowski looked vastly improved from when we last saw him in the preseason. He was aggressive as a run blocker and won most of his one-on-on assignments using good leverage to turn and pile-drive defenders. He was flagged for a very questionable holding call on Atkins.

Cornerbacks: C

Jimmy Smith made a nice play on a ball thrown into the end zone but could not come down with the pick. Unfortunately, he failed to turn and find the ball in the air, which led to an interference call to put the ball at the 15.

Other than allowing Andrew Hawkins to split a tackle by Cary Williams and Corey Graham, the corners tackled well, particularly Chris Johnson and Chykie Brown.  Brown, however, was beat on a double move to allow a long completion to Brandon Tate, and an eventual go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter.

Safeties:  C

Sean Considine and Omar Brown both played extensively and each had two tackles. Brown continues to find ways to make plays and was all over the field.  James Ihedigbo seems to be improving in pass coverage and knocked loose a completion.

Linebackers: B

Dannell Ellerbe has begun to establish himself as one of the most valuable Ravens as he approaches his contract year.  He finished with six tackles and was impressive applying pressure up the middle.   Josh Bynes also improves each week covering a lot of ground in picking up a team-high nine tackles.  His ability to read the cut back run has improved.

Paul Kruger was burned on a tackle attempt in space of Marvin Jones as he raced past for a score, but he defended a slant well to stop another score. He also picked up a sack as he shoved Andy Dalton out of bounds short of the line of scrimmage. Kruger showed nice hands to reach out and scoop in a loose ball on a fumble that was later reversed.

Defensive Line: B

The Bengals were held to just 47 yards on the ground. Art Jones, in limited play, continued to show he is difficult for offenses to corral.  Ma’ake Kemoeatu played his best game of the year, getting into the backfield for run stuffs and beating the rookie guard Trevor Robinson for a sack up the middle. Terrence Cody was also getting good penetration and can’t be blamed for the late hit on Dalton. Credit Bryan Hall with the strip sack that was reversed.

Special Teams: C

With a lot of roster changes the return teams seemed out of sync, preventing Jacoby Jones to gain much on the day.   The positives on the day were Josh Bynes alerting standing up when Daniel Herron jumped into the neutral zone to pick up a first down out of punting formation, and Sam Koch’s fake punt to also convert when he opted to run instead of forcing a throw.  The Ravens gained three first downs on fourth down plays overall. Justin Tucker had a rare field goal miss.  The Bengals’ Kevin Huber had one punt travel just 35 yards, but when Jacoby Jones couldn’t field it, it rolled another twenty yards to the five, eventually allowing the Bengals to even the score at half with the change in field position.

Coaching: C

The Ravens continue to have a problem of letting up near the end of the first half with mental errors leading to opponent points.  After allowing Huber’s punt to roll to the five with under three minutes left in the half, they were flagged for 12 men on the field, gave up a sack, punted back to the Bengals, and then played soft defense and missed a tackle in the red zone (Kruger) to allow the Bengals to march down and tie the game at the half. These mental let-ups at the end of the half have been a pattern that the staff needs to address.

They were also slow to get Justin Tucker on the field for a field goal attempt at the end of the game, creating unnecessary confusing and forcing them to burn a timeout. It brought back bad memories of the fiasco in the playoffs last season with Billy Cundiff being forced to rush a failed kick.

Credit John Harbaugh with making good decision to go for it on fourth and short on their opening drive.  And a little credit goes to Harbaugh not tipping his hand to reporters about before the game about plans to rest starters so early. While it is annoying at times that the coach is so tight lipped, it did make Tyrod Taylor difficult for the Bengals to adjust to when he entered the game very early on.

Officiating: D

This week’s Roger Goodell Pink Whistle Award goes to Ron Winter and his crew for wimpy calls.  The Cody late hit was just fractions of a second after quarterback Brad Gradkowski released a long pass to the end zone.  They protected Gradkowski, but failed to flag the Bengals’ Carlos Dunlap for an obvious horse collar tackle on a sack of Taylor.

In the broadcast booth, former Bengals player and current color analyst Solomon Wilcots defended the play by claiming that Taylor was grabbed by the jersey, not the shoulder pads – but the rule states that being dragged down by either qualifies as a penalty.  Taylor was well out of the pocket as the rule requires, and Dunlap’s weight came down on Taylor’s legs. The officials failed to protect the quarterback on this missed call.

The detestable “Tuck Rule” also came into play on a strip-sack fumble recovery by the Ravens. There is nothing intuitive about the rule, making it frustratingly impossible to understand why a forced fumble after a pump-fake should be treated like a batted-down incompletion (but stripping the quarterback as he is winding up to make a throw is a fumble).  Regardless, common football sense tells you that was a fumble and we should not have to wait ten minutes for Winter to come back onto the field and reverse it.

The crew also allowed Adam Jones to shove down David Reed when he beat Jones on a comeback route. The incompletion forced a 45-yard field goal attempt missed by Tucker that would have allowed the Ravens to go up 17-14.

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