BALTIMORE RAVENS 20, CLEVELAND BROWNS 14
DECEMBER 24, 2011
There is one undeniable fact about the Ravens’ Christmas Eve home win against the Cleveland Browns. The 20-14 victory gave Baltimore a 5-0 record atop the division, and protected their stake to a number-two seed and an opening-round bye in the playoffs.
Beyond these facts, there is plenty of room to debate what this team really is. Until next week’s New Year’s Day season finale in Cincinnati, the optimists will sit at one end of the bar, and the pessimists at the other, with a lot of debate back and forth about how strong or weak their Ravens team really is.
Optimist: “They are 8-0 at home and swept the rival Steelers. They win the important games.”
Pessimist: “Yeah, but they have a losing record on the road, including stinkers to some bad football teams. Do you really trust Joe Flacco to go to Cincinnati next week and get a must-win?”
Optimist: “Flacco threw two TD passes today and he beat a blitz when he had to run the ball 32 yards up the gut. He has what it takes.”
Pessimist: “Are we talking about the same Joe Flacco who also threw a bad pick in the end zone Saturday, and was wildly inaccurate at times, and nearly fumbled at the end of that long run?”
Pessimist: “I’m worried about injuries. Cory Redding, Anquan Boldin, and Billy Cundiff were all out Saturday, and then we saw some key players go down during the game; their best return man, David Reed, their best lineman, Marshal Yanda, and their up-and-coming corner, Cary Williams.”
Optimist. “Next man up! Andre Gurode and Chris Carr filled in adequately. Tom Zbikowski is a steady return man. Did you see Shayne Graham nailing those two field goals from more than forty yards out?”
Optimist: “This game was never in doubt. The Ravens coasted to a 20-0 lead. The Browns were lucky to get any points on the board at all.”
Pessimist. “The Ravens are lucky that Browns head coach Pat Shumur managed this game with his head up his ass. If Cleveland would have stuck with Peyton Hillis and managed their time outs and the clock better, we’d be talking about a Ravens loss.”
And on and on it could go. Which end of the bar has it right? Which Ravens team have we been watching? The answer of course is that they both are right. The real question is which Ravens team will show up on any given Sunday.
Fifteen games in, we know that is a Ravens team that has positioned itself to be right where they want to be going into the playoffs, particularly if they can finish out the season on positive note.
They are also a team that has given the coaches plenty of film-room fodder to use to make a strong point to the players. The point being, they are not good enough to coast through games, and they sure as anything are not good enough on the road to afford to lose home field advantage in the playoffs.
No doubt, it gives us all something to talk about.
Joe Flacco typically plays better at home than he showed Saturday. The numbers reflect the reality of his performance: eleven for 24, 132 yards, two TDs and one INT. Not much to brag about. What it tells us is that he made a couple of clutch throws early to get control of the game. But, despite some key drops by receivers, his accuracy was not good throughout the game.
Flacco moved well in the pocket – including the 32-yard scamper up the middle — and he was good with his progressive reads, but he was simply not on target with throws too often in the game. His attempted deep ball to Lee Evans in the end zone, picked off by Sheldon Brown, was a bad decision and a bad throw. He consistently under-threw Torrey Smith, even on a completion on a shallow crossing route. The TD throws to Ed Dickson and Ray Rice, however, were picture perfect.
Given the fact that Flacco completed 75% of his first-half passes, including the two TDs before the Ravens went with a heavy dose of the running game, it’s easy to conclude that Flacco’s head was not in the game when they needed to come back to him in the second half.
Running Backs: B+
Watching the effective combination of Ray Rice and Ricky Williams is very encouraging as January nears. Williams finally got involved as an effective pass catcher. Just two receptions but they were both third-down conversions. Williams looked strong on his ten carries for 45 yards and was a nice change of pace as a downhill runner, with no hesitation, to the shifty Rice, who hauled the rock 23 times for 87 yards. Even when the blocking fell apart upfront, Rice still managed to juke the first defender. His TD reception, beating D’Qwell Jackson on a wheel route, was almost too easy.
Vonta Leach came to Baltimore as a highly touted professional fullback and yet he seems to get better each week. Other than being flagged for a false start, he was impressive. That included breaking a tackle on a screen pass to turn a loss into a five yard gain. He was also impressive cleaning out the left side of the Cleveland defense, making multiple blocks to escort Rice up the right sideline for what could have been a longer gain had Rice tried to cut back inside.
Wide Receivers: C
Anquan Boldin, who is among the lead leaders with seven dropped balls this season, sat out this contest after having surgery to repair a meniscus tear. His replacements, essentially Lee Evans and Tandon Doss had an opportunity to give their team a new wrinkle. It didn’t go well. They went a combined 0-5 on receptions. Evans looked too small to be able to go get balls in traffic, so he was ill-suited for the type of routes he was asked to run. He could not haul in a ball tipped at the last second by Sheldon Brown, and on the next play Flacco forced a ball to Evans that Brown easily took away. Torrey Smith started the game on fire. He beat the Browns safeties on a double move to set up a 60-yard interference call, and then went for 28 on a crossing route, making a difficult catch on a ball thrown behind him. But he only snared two of seven balls thrown his way and did not get himself in good position to make catches.
Tight Ends: C
Ed Dickson’s up and down day typified the team performance overall. He earned some A’s and some F’s. He had two bad drops that can’t be overlooked. But he also made some outstanding catches. He was too much for the linebacker Jackson on the TD catch and made a nice fingertip catch to move the chains.
Credit Dennis Pitta for some nice blocking that was easy to overlook. On a Rice run down the sideline he chipped the defensive end and then pancaked Chris Gocong. He made another nice lead block to get Ricky Williams free off-tackle.
Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher stayed within the scheme and checked in with a decent, but in no way dominant game. With a ton of zone running, both tackles fell into a pattern of running non-aggressive interference for the running game. McKinnie was beaten badly once on an inside move.
Michael Oher did a nice job in protection with less help chipping his man this week. That said, he and guard Marshal Yanda seemed confused on assignments when they allowed Ahtyba Rubin to split them for a sack.
The Browns collected just one sack on the day. With the game on the line, and the score 20-14, Oher committed another false start to make it 1st and 15, which is no way to answer the Browns’ scoring.
Interior Line: B
Marshal Yanda was having a nice game until he ended up in street clothes in the second half after sustaining bruised ribs in the second quarter. Missing Yanda down the stretch could hurt the team significantly. After the game he described the rib injury with reporters. "I’m on some pain pills right now to slow it down a little bit….I can’t do deep breaths right now. Deep breaths are real painful.” He indicated he would have a better feel for his status in the next day or two.
Andre Gurode stepped in for Yanda and looked quicker and better prepared than when he filled in for Ben Grubbs on the left side earlier this season. Meanwhile, Grubbs and Birk were both solid up the middle
Lardarius Webb, after being slowed last week by a toe injury, started back at corner and was outstanding. He broke on throw by a back-pedaling Seneca Wallace to grabs an interception on third and short, stalling what was shaping up to be a Browns scoring drive. He had one other near-pick, and was his usual sure tackling self throughout, including cold-cocking the much larger tight end Evan Moore.
Cary Williams was having a nice game on the other side until he suffered a concussion running into teammate Pernell McPhee while chasing the scrambling Wallace. Chris Carr stepped in and did a nice job knocking off the rust. He was called for an arm bar interference penalty that was simply a mental mistake.
Jimmy Smith got a number of snaps at boundary corner as well, allowing Webb to play the slot. He did a better job this week recognizing the double move and staying with receivers deep. He is still guilty of looking for the ball too early on stop routes; while it allows him to plant and dig for the ball effectively, more experienced receiver-quarterback tandems will catch him peeking and throw over the top on him. He is an NFL work in progress.
Maybe Ed Reed is saving himself for the playoffs. He wanted no part of tackling Peyton Hillis. Whether it is self-preservation or not, he also is not wrapping up on tackles. He got a nice hit on Greg Little, but failed to make the tackle, and allowed Little to spin off him for Y.A.C. He was also a step slow breaking on a ball that the inexperienced Browns receiver hauled in. On a blitz up the middle Reed effectively caused an incompletion on a critical third down when the Browns had the momentum.
Bernard Pollard was excellent in run support, a more willing tackler, and he was in good position in coverage. He is slow to find the ball in the air however, which prevents him from making interceptions when he is in position to do so. He had a tremendous series at the end of the first half, making a tackle in bounds to keep the clock running, and then getting Hillis to the ground to grind out the clock. Those two tackles may have been the difference in the game.
Pollard and Reed could not combine to cover Evan Moore as Wallace rolled out for Cleveland’s only offensive score.
Ray Lewis still looks rusty after missing four weeks with a toe injury. He ran himself out of some plays to allow Hillis a lot of run yardage. And he whiffed on Wallace in the open field when uncharacteristically lunging. He looked better dropping in coverage this week, although he got flagged for interference on a close play over the middle.
Jameel McClain played better than Lewis, particularly his closing speed, but missed some snaps with a stinger; Dannell Ellerbe did a nice job filling in.
Brendon Ayanbadejo played very well in the third down package. He simply ran past tackle Tony Pashos for a sack and later forced an offsides penalty on the threat of a blitz. He also ran Hillis out of bounds on a critical fourth and five pass to get the ball back and preserve the win.
When Jarret Johnson was not being held on the edge, he was doing a nice job dropping into coverage.
Defensive Line: C+
Terrence Cody struggled to get off of double teams all game long. It helped fuel Peyton Hillis’ 112 yards of rushing on the day. Although Cody had more tackles, four, Brandon McKinney was more disruptive in the running game, and picked up two tackles in limited duty.
With Cory Redding sidelined, the front line was not as effective overall. Art Jones flashed some skills in a substitute role, as the game progressed but he was a slow starter. Haloti Ngata was effective penetrating but was not a big contributor in stopping the run otherwise.
Paul Kruger used a swim move to consistently free himself in passing downs, and picked up the team’s second sack. Terrell Suggs was completely neutralized by tackle Joe Thomas in the passing game.
Special Teams: C
Josh Cribbs continues to dominate the Ravens. His punt return for a touchdown, after Haruki Nakamura whiffed on a tackle, kept the game close.
Filling in for the injured Cundiff, Shayne Graham was perfect from 43 and 48 yards out on his two field goal attempts. On kick-offs, he was more suspect, although the squib kick down the middle may have been called to limit Cribbs.
Lardarius Webb nearly muffed a fair catch on a punt, but he was sure handed otherwise, even in traffic.
David Reed nearly broke a kick-off return for a touchdown when he broke down making a cut.
The coaching staff earns an A if for no other reason than the contrast to the F performance of the Browns staff.
That perplexing coaching performance started with the insane decision by Shurmur on third and inches to ask his back-up quarterback to throw an interception rather than simply handing it to the heretofore dominating running back Peyton Hillis. The Browns also burned timeouts unnecessarily and perhaps lost the game entirely by allowing time to run out in the first half without scoring when they had it first and goal. And what about the decision to throw a swing pass to Hillis on fourth and five on their own end of the field, with four minutes left? Dreadful. And then the Ravens cemented the win with a hard count by Flacco to draw the Browns’ rookie lineman offside – did the Browns staff not tell their defense what was coming?
It was not all Browns blunders that earned the Ravens a positive grade. Cam Cameron called a nice game. He was masterful at getting match ups, including Dickson and Torrey Smith on linebackers for a score and a 28-yard reception. And the draw to Ricky Williams on third and five was an old-school treat to watch.
Walt Coleman’s crew did a nice job, particularly on the usually controversial pass interference calls. They made an easy pass interference call against Mike Adams who never looked back for the ball as he ran into Torrey Smith with ball in air. And they correctly flagged Chris Carr for an arm bar interference call.
Credit umpire Roy Ellison for alertly noticing that the clock operator put an :13 extra on clock after false start. Hey, the little things count.
The one nit against this crew was the refusal to call obvious holding against the Browns’ tight ends who consistently grabbed Jarret Johnson and held on for dear life.
The JV crew of Spereo Dedes and Rich Gannon was sloppy. It started early when they missed the second snap of the game due to player intros, and then failed to offer a replay.
Dedes seemed to be rooting for a Browns comeback and even started discussing what a big win this would be for Cleveland when they were still down by six.
He tipped his hand, too, by immediately announcing a “late flag” on Adams after Torrey Smith drew a 60-yard interference call, but flag was out of the official’s pocket before ball hit turf.
And both Rich Gannon and Dedes had trouble with pronouncing names. Dedes fell for the Sam Koch = “Sam Khosh” trick. And Gannon butchered Ayanbadejo, making it “oh-an-day-jo.”
To add insult to injury, there were a number of instances where players were laying on the field injured and the crew cut away to graphics rather than staying with the play.
Worse yet, Dedes was babbling on about Joe Flacco’s mustache and his wife’s pregnancy in the middle of Josh Cribbs returning a punt for a touchdown. Really? That is a highlight Dedes should pray never makes Sports Center.