BALTIMORE RAVENS 33 DALLAS COWBOYS 24
December 20, 2008
The Baltimore Ravens’ first ever trip to Dallas will go down in NFL history as the last game ever played in Texas Stadium. It was a game that would send the Cowboys fans home disappointed, and send the Ravens home victoriously with a 33-24 win to run their all-time record against the Cowboys to 3-0.
Like everything in Texas, this game was big. Big enough to provide a little bit of everything, and a lot of contrasts. That made for an exciting presentation for the fans across the country tuning in at home via The NFL Network – er, assuming folks subscribe to said network. Keep in mind the NFL’s squabbles the nation’s cable providers is alive and unwell.
The fans that could tune in, just like the national media, gave the Ravens little chance against a Dallas club that was on a roll, winners of four out of the last five. To make matters worse, the Cowboys were essentially playing their homecoming game, an emotional close-out to Texas Stadium and a must-win game for both teams fighting for a Wild Card berth.
The Cowboys had all the big names on offense, to go along with the Texas-sized expectations. Despite that, it played out as a defensive struggle, with the Ravens leading 16-10 with seven minutes remaining in the game. Neither team could establish much of a rhythm. Both teams had put the ball on the ground (seven times) but it led to just one turnover off of fumbles.
After seeing Tony Romo struggle against the Steelers and Eagles, the Ravens defense sent swarm after swarm of blitzers to thwart the Cowboys passing attack. After the game, Romo would remark, "We had a little trouble recognizing who was a linebacker, who was a lineman. We made a lot of mental errors, offensively, in this game. It came back to haunt us."
But then, suddenly, both offenses caught fire. The Ravens defense, as has been their nature at times this season, gave up late scoring drives. Tony Romo, who played poorly throughout most of the game, and whose passer rating of 16.2 in the first half, started hitting receivers with Ravens blitzers in his face. Passes that were far off the mark most of the game, or sailing into Ed Reed’s arms, twice, were now finding his targets. Jason Witten, Terrell Owens, Roy Williams, and Patrick Crayton burned the Ravens straight up the seams, and underneath the safeties.
While the Ravens defense spent most of the game bailing out the offense, in the end it was the offense that saved the defense. After giving up five quarterback sacks in the first half, the Ravens offense stiffened to give up no sacks in the second half. The run blocking that had been lacking for most of the contest finally broke the back of the Cowboys in the final three minutes, springing Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain up the middle for consecutive touchdown runs of 77 and 82 yards.
The game was perhaps best characterized as streaky. In the end the Cowboys could not put together a consistent enough effort to beat a more physical Ravens team. The Cowboy mystique could not overcome the Ravens’ desire.
Part of that mystique was an eleven-game winning streak during nationally televised, home games at night. However, that stood in sharp contrast to their finishing performances over the last eleven seasons, where they have failed to produce a winning record in December.
In the end, they showed themselves to be the poor finishers who have not won a divisional crown since the Ravens entered the league. The modern Cowboys may, in fact, be living off the mystique that 37 years in Texas Stadium helped create.
For a young franchise like the Ravens, with a rookie head coach, young offensive line, and rookie quarterback, there is no mystique to discuss. It simply came down to a fearless, relentless win to keep them in the Wild Card hunt. Here’s how each unit contributed:
Joe Flacco finished 17 for 25 with 149 yards and a touchdown pass to Derrick Mason. He was at his best stepping up in the pocket, ignoring pressure, and threading lasers to receivers sitting down in the zone, or making his progressive reads and finding check-down receivers. His best throw was a precision strike to Todd Heap crossing the middle, at the five. But he also missed Heap on three other attempts where Todd had broken open. He needs to learn how to hold onto the ball when giving up sacks. Troy Smith was utilized as an option quarterback and a good change of pace.
Running Backs: B
Wide Receivers: A
Mark Clayton continues to improve as the season wears on. He executed a nice stiff-arm on a quick hitter to move the ball eleven yards up field. And he is showing veteran-like savvy when settling into seams for clutch third-down catches. The star of the game may have been Derrick Mason who re-injured his separated shoulder stretching for a first down but refused to stay out of the game. In fact, as he was walking off the field he signaled to the huddle he’d be back. And back he was. Mason was particularly abusive to former Browns corner Anthony Henry. Mason beat him in the corner of the end zone, with just one-arm, for the team’s only passing touchdown. Mason and Clayton combined for ten catches and 101 yards. Marcus Smith was not effective getting open for Flacco when the called play broke down.
Tight Ends: B+
Todd Heap ran outstanding patterns, including a double move to turn Keith Davis inside out and force Davis to grab him for pass interference. Although Heap had just two catches, for 23 and for 1 yard, he was open more often that that and helped put pressure on the Dallas secondary. He struggled in pass protection when asked to block one-on-one. Anthony Spencer beat him for a first half sack.
The Ravens tackles struggled in the first half. DeMarcus Ware ran right around Adam Terry, who was in an unbalanced formation on the left side, for the first sack of the game, at the Ravens five. Jared Gaither followed that with an offsides penalty to start the team’s second drive. Gaither was also badly beaten on an inside move by unheralded Stephen Bowen to slow another drive. The tackles were also battered physically, as both Willie Anderson and Adam Terry had to be helped off the field after getting rolled up on. The shuffling of tackles included Chad Slaughter entering the game for a series with Anderson out.
Interior Line: B–
Jason Brown had a rough game. He was beaten at the point of attack a number of times, or pushed back into the ball carrier. The Cowboys were able to get pressure up the middle on a number of plays, where Brown, Ben Grubbs or Chris Chester failed to pick up the correct man, including Kevin Burnett going untouched to knock down Flacco. There was also confusion by Chester and Heap on blocking assignments inside the red zone. The group redeemed themselves with excellent drive blocking on the two long runs by McGahee and McClain in the final minutes.
Samari Rolle played an excellent game, particularly with his tight coverage in the first half on Owens. When Rolle disappeared late in the game, Romo was able to pick on Walker, Ivy, and Oglesby for scoring drives. It could have been worse except for some errant throws by Romo when Owens had beaten Walker and Ivy on a couple deep patterns. Fabian Washington had an up and down game. He struggled in run support. Owens also beat him for a touchdown catch on a simple fade.
Jim Leonard was an effective blitzer but was more inconsistent than past weeks in pass coverage and run support. Tashard Choice juked him badly on one run and ran through Leonard’s arm tackle on another occasion. Ed Reed played a deep centerfield that helped lead to two first half picks of bad Romo throws. But the deep coverage was less effective later in the game with Romo throwing over corners and in front of Reed.
Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs kept the Ravens in the contest by constantly hounding Romo. Both were also excellent in pass coverage and showed why they are Pro Bowl performers. Jameel McClain was also very effective in blitz packages. All the linebackers were excellent in taking away check-down receivers as the game progressed. Bart Scott led the team with six tackles.
Defensive Line: B-
The Ravens held Tashard Choice to under 100 yards rushing, but he was effective at getting to the linebackers before being tackled. At times the big Cowboys offensive line pushed the Ravens’ front four off the ball. Trevor Pryce was most effective at getting push in the middle. Overall they played well particularly when stunting and opening up lanes for the linebackers.
Special Teams: A-
Other than Derrick Mason, it was punter Sam Koch whose play stood out. His net average was 46 yards on five punts. He boomed the ball deep and was effective at dropping the ball inside the twenty. Just one of his punts was returned, for eight yards, by Pacman Jones. Koch also ran for a first down on a gutty fake field goal attempt. Playing in his hometown, Matt Stover was perfect in four field goal attempts and three tries. He was also given kick-off duties and performed well. The only weakness on special teams was Yamon Figurs who has become timid on kick returns. Figurs fumbled a critical kick late in the game but the Ravens managed to fall on the ball. Jim Leonard continues to be fearless and effective on punt returns. The kick coverage unit was not particularly strong.
The coaching staff continues to throw expected twists at teams and find mismatches. Cam Cameron made a great call on QB keeper on a third and five play that resulted in a first down. Cam’s use of the heavy, unbalanced line eventually cracked the Dallas defense. The coaching staff diagnosed a weakness in the Cowboys’ field goal defense and had a fake kick ready to use.
Rex Ryan should be credited for continuing to pressure Romo with blitzes throughout the game. It was an excellent game plan.
Ed Hoculi is the best in the league at explaining penalties. The challenged Mason catch and fumble out of bounds was a good example of that. The officials largely allowed the teams to play and backed off the ticky-tack fouls. There were a few small calls that were missed. Mark Clayton flinched in the backfield but it was not flagged. Bart Scott was taken down with a choke hold that wasn’t called. A critical Unnecessary Roughness call against Dallas’ Bradie James seemed to be out of character with the rest of the game calls, and it helped the Ravens move the ball from the Dallas 37 to to 22 to set up a late field goal.
The NFL network did a nice job of presenting the pageantry of this game without allowing it to overwhelm the play on the field. The extra cameras added extra flavor to the contest. The opening shot of Ray Lewis praying and swaying during the national anthem was a classic. Bob Papa is okay as the lead announcer, and a big step up from Bryant Gumbel in that seat. Marshall Faulk was excellent in the color role, describing the nuances of the game. Deion Sanders is a love-him or hate-him analyst. He gets facts garbled but makes up for it with emotion. Those outbursts either add to the game or detract from it depending on your tastes. He is a sort of modern-day Don Meredith, with his enthusiasm and goofiness.
Indeed, it’s time to move on to Week 17, Jacksonville, and then hopefully the sixth and final seed in the playoffs.