August 29, 2009
BALTIMORE RAVENS 17, CAROLINA PANTHERS 13
Ravens’ Stars Shine during Saturday Night Win.
For a solid decade the Baltimore Ravens played a singular brand of blue-collar football. It featured a swarming team-defense designed to bend but not allow opponents to break the ten-point barrier. Mix in a run-oriented offense to grind the ball down the field before trotting out their reliable placekicker and the formula worked. But outside of an occasional Ed Reed interception, it didn’t exactly endear the team to the national media, hungry for highlight-reel plays.
Enter John Harbaugh.
The Ravens’ skipper is a young head coach with an old-school attitude—preaching a selfless, team approach. The homespun Harbaugh is quite a contrast to the glib, brash, almost reckless style of the previous regime under Brian Billick and his defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. And yet, with Harbaugh’s staff a new, unlikely brand of Ravens football seems to be emerging.
In their penultimate preseason game, a 17-13 road win over the winless Carolina Panthers, the Ravens showcased star players making blistering plays. Throughout an impressive first half a handful of Ravens starters turned in the kind of performances that could very well turn Harbaugh’s Ravens into media darlings as the 2009 season unfolds.
Star performers could be found on both sides of the ball. On offense, Joe Flacco looked unflappable; Derrick Mason un-coverable; Ray Rice uncatchable and Todd Heap, well, he looked like his old self. In each of their first three possessions Ravens skill players shined as they drove the ball into the red zone, twice coming away with touchdowns.
On defense Ray Lewis looked dominant. Haloti Ngata looked like a rhinoceros with the agility of a gazelle. Jarret Johnson nearly made fans forget that Terrell Suggs has yet to see the field. And Domonique Foxworth looked like your proverbial shutdown corner.
Indeed, Harbaugh’s motto of “Play Like A Raven” may be taking on a new, unintended meaning. If Saturday’s star performances can be mixed in with Coach Harbaugh’s team approach, 2009 could be a very interesting season.
However, high expectations may need to be tempered with concern over injuries to the team’s starters, given the apparent dearth of talent on the Ravens’ second teams. For the second week in a row, holes were exposed at the second levels.
Still, there were enough emergent performances that we can begin to make educated guesses about the players who have played themselves onto final 53-man roster. Let’s look at the grades to sort it all out.
Preseason or not, this may have been Joe Flacco’s finest performance in an NFL uniform. Flacco, playing into the third quarter, finished with 23 completions out of 28 attempts, 247 yards passing and one touchdown. Last year Flacco was able to connect on big throws when he absolutely needed to convert on third downs. Saturday he was making pinpoint completions at will to Derrick Mason, Todd Heap and Kelly Washington. And he showed improvement checking down to his running backs when the Panthers linebackers dropped deeper into coverage. One of Flacco’s few mistakes was holding onto the ball too long in the red zone for a sack. But when pressured later, he showed that he could outrun a trailing Julius Peppers for a short gain. Troy Smith entered the game with seven minutes remaining in the third quarter and showed he could bounce back from a poor outing earlier in the week. He was helped with better protection from his line, and took advantage with accurate throws. He was particularly effective on slants to Demetrius Williams and Justin Harper. Later he under threw an open Harper down the sideline, although Harper also seemed to run an indecisive route. With the clock running out in the fourth quarter John Beck came in for uneventful mop-up duty.
Running Backs: A
Ray Rice may not be a pure north-south runner, but when given the ball in space he consistently showed the ability to make the first tackler miss by cutting back or stutter-stepping past them. That frequently led to first downs when the Panthers should have stopped the play. Mostly through Flacco’s passing and Rice’s running, the Ravens put up 26 first downs on the night to 12 for the Panthers. Rice was only 10 carries for 32 yards as a rusher, but his real value came as a pass-catching outlet, where he led the offense with eight catches for 62 yards. Willis McGahee’s production was again dampened by the line play in front of him, but he ran hard and managed to plunge into the end zone for the lone rushing touchdown. Le’Ron McClain blocked well out of the backfield, but was frequently asked to line up as an H-back and struggled executing seal blocks on the backside. Jalen Parmele may have outrun fellow second-year player Matt Lawrence to earn the third and final halfback spot on the roster when he showed a tremendous burst off left tackle for a 48-yard gain that sealed the win. He also ran strong up the middle and caught a short pass.
Wide Receivers: A
Kelley Washington started the night off with good separation for nice first down catch, and he toned down his celebration antics after the catch, as if to suggest that big catches can become the norm for him. Panthers corner Chris Gamble had a very tough night covering Ravens receivers, including a 42-yard completion to Washington down the right sideline. Washington has the makings of the classic big receiver that Cam Cameron’s “Air Coryell” scheme requires. While the first year Raven created deep separation, Derrick Mason took advantage of the ample soft areas to move the chains when needed and shaking defenders for yards after catch “YAC.” Mason so frustrated Gamble that the veteran corner was caught grabbing the facemask to slow him down. It’s unclear if any one receiver emerged to stake claim to a final spot in the receiving corps. Justin Harper improved his downfield blocking and snared one catch for 13 yard. He also nearly made a circus catch on an underthrown, tipped ball. Jayson Foster played ahead of Yamon Figurs but didn’t figure in the game.
Tight Ends: B+
It started out looking like another deflating night for Todd Heap as he awkwardly crossed-up his hands to drop the first ball thrown to him. That prompted Stan White up in the television booth to make a very intriguing comment, “when you don’t practice you don’t make the easy plays.” However, almost as if he sensed the comment, Heap came back with a vengeance, making a difficult TD catch from Flacco, rising in traffic to make another superb catch near the right sideline, and making sure-handed smart plays on the opposite side during a two minute drill. He also blocked well on the goal line. Four clutch catches for 35 yards and a touchdown had Heap beaming on the sidelines when his night was done. Behind Heap, Edgar Jones lined up as a fullback and chipped in with a devastating block on blitzer destined for Troy Smith. But he also dropped an easy short toss from Smith that landed in Dante Wesley’s hands for the only Ravens turnover. On the Ravens very next offensive play Jones was called for holding.
Rookie Michael Oher made a boneheaded, rookie mistake at the worst time – a false start with the ball sitting near the Panthers’ goalline. It led to a series of Ravens gaffes, including a missed field goal. Other than that, Oher passed the tough test of handling Julius Peppers. He moved his feet very well in space. When moved to the left side in the second half for one series Oher looked more awkward and was beaten by defenders. Jared Gaither was very physical on the left and solid pass blocking “on the island,” save for one sack allowed when Flacco held the ball for an extra second. The pleasant surprise of the night was Joe Reitz. The converted tight end played extremely well on the right side, even with Peppers still in the game and with Oniel Cousins sidelined for the night. Expect Reitz to make the team and leave the coaches with a decision to make about Cousins versus bringing in a veteran tackle.
Interior Line: B-
This group was excellent in pass protection, improving on their performance against the blitz-happy Jets. The run blocking was a mixed effort. Like Cousins, Chris Chester was inactive for the game. That left the starting right guard job for Marshall Yanda to reclaim. Yanda was solid but not spectacular. Early in the game Yanda struggled to get to the linebacker at the second level, and that missed assignment was all that prevented a short run by McClain from becoming a long touchdown run. On the opposite side Ben Grubbs was a step slow pulling to the right, which was disruptive to McClain blocking for Rice. He also failed to hold a pass block on Peppers, which forced Flacco to throw the ball away. Otherwise Grubbs played very aggressively. He pulled and made a nice lead block for McGahee’s scoring plunge. Matt Birk is proving that what he adds in leadership he gives up in athleticism at the second level compared to Jason Brown. His approach to the shotgun snap is a bit labored, but his bouncy style did cause NT Damione Lewis to jump offsides. Birk is at his best getting a strong push near the goal line. As a unit, there is room for improvement blocking up the middle. Oher’s onetime college teammate at Ole Miss, third year guard Tre’ Stallings made an excellent block in space on a screen. Although the team is thin at interior line depth, it may be too little too late for Stallings.
Give a game ball to Domonique Foxworth for his tight coverage on Muhsin Muhammad and for his ability to run stride-for-stride in one-on-one coverage with Steve Smith. On the negative side Foxworth missed an open-field tackle that allowed Smith to run for twenty more yards. Showing he has a short memory, Foxworth came back on next play and made a nice stop on quick-out pattern. Fabian Washington and Foxworth offer excellent coverage skills but need work on tackling. Rookie Lardarius Webb filled well with strong run support and he could contribute effectively as a nickel. He is best in press coverage and showed some weakness against the Panthers when asked to play off the receiver. Frank Walker made amends for his Jets performance and did not attract throws his direction. Evan Oglesby played but didn’t appear in the box score.
It was a rough night for the safeties. The game started with Dawan Landry getting caught inside on a blitz to allow a long run. Haruki Nakamura revealed a lack of coverage speed when the experienced Muhammad blew past him for long completion to the 20. Nakamura is best coming up in run support, but needs work on taking better angles on plays off the line of scrimmage. The corners frequently allowed receivers to turn into the middle zone only to find slow reaction time from the safeties. Tom Zbikowski had a very poor showing. His coverage skills were weak and he was slow supporting the corners over the top on deep balls. In run support he was run over at the five to allow four additional yards. After a nice break on an out pattern to jump in front of the receiver, he dropped a would-be interception.
Ray Lewis showed he still has great speed when he caught rookie Mike Goodson from the far side on the 11-yard run that opened the game. He filled the gap quickly to beat the guard and drop Goodson for loss of two. Someone tell Ray it’s only the preseason. His one miscue was biting on play-action to allow a long completion to the tight end over the middle. Other than Lewis, Ravens inside backers struggled with run support, aggressively engaging blockers but at times failing to shed as ball carriers ran by. It was the second week in a row this weakness was exposed. Early Brendon Ayanbadejo was beaten one-on-one by a tackle to allow a 13-yard run on 3rd and 17. Later he corrected his block shedding technique. Tavares Gooden was overly aggressive taking on block of the fullback to allow the halfback to run past him for first down. Gooden was strong in pass coverage however. Jameel McClain again showed that he is very skillful as a blitz specialist, but at times takes the wrong pursuit angle at the line or is easily confused on play action. Antwan Barnes played better, particularly on a stunt that led to a sack by Ngata. Prescott Burgess did not do a lot to stand out. The star of the group was Jarret Johnson who played perfect technique against the run and looked stronger than ever fighting off blocks. One of the star plays of the night was Johnson leaping over a block by the running back for a flying sack.
Defensive Line: B+
As a second-team player, Justin Bannan continues to play as well if not better than the starters. He is consistency the first defender off on the snap and shows nice penetration into the backfield to disrupt plays. Kelly Talavou is building a case to crack the 53 man roster with an impressive run stop, running over his blocker for a tackle in the backfield. He also played well on the goal line. Haloti Ngata is a star. He was tremendously quick to the quarterback on the stunt that resulted in a sack and nearly stripped the ball loose on the way down. The play of the night was Ngata coming from the left side of the line to run-down Steve Smith in full stride as Smith ran down the left sideline, twenty-five yards downfield. In a more traditional role Ngata moved laterally down the line to blow up running plays in a way not seen since Tony Siragusa wore a Ravens uniform. Rookie Paul Kruger was stout but not spectacular.
Special Teams: C
In the closely watched competition for place kicking duties Steven Hauschka botched his first attempt, a chip shot, to put the kicking situation into disarray. Hauschka came back in the second half’s first drive to hit a 38 yarder. Chris Carr had a nice night, closing quickly to contain the opening kick off and setting-up blocks well as a punt returner. Edgar Jones and Nakamura blocked well for Carr. KJ Gerard had a strong tackle on kick coverage, while Jalen Parmele was pancaked while covering a kick off. Jameel McClain showed excellent ability to shed blocks, but he struggled wrapping up the tackle. As has been his history, Antwan Barnes was flagged for a hold on a punt return to put the team in a deep hole.
Kudos to the staff for coaching up the second units. They played together much better as a team. They did a good job not tossing the red flag despite the animated encouragement from Derrick Mason. Replays showed Mason’s toe was out before the ball hit the pylon. Before the game John Harbaugh put pressure on his young kickers by mentioning they may need to consider a veteran. Was that a good strategy to maximize the pressure and force them to perform, or did has he unnecessarily add pressure and created a headache for himself? Cam Cameron did a good job of improving the offense’s execution on short passes and he may have found a nice wrinkle in the option pitch, which was called twice with solid results.
The side judge Dave Wyant correctly made a difficult call when Mason stretched for the pylon. Later he flagged the Panthers tackle Jordan Gross for lining up in the backfield when it appeared Gross was merely lined up at a strange angle along the line. There was also a ticky-tack holding call on Dwight Jarrett that backed the Panthers up when they were at the goal line. Referee Jeff Triplette was frequently confused, and had it been a more intense game it could have easily gotten out of hand. When the Panthers challenged Triplette failed to reverse a call that the runner had not crossed the goalline when it appeared he easily was across. Then, on what appeared to be a make up call on the next play, the flags stayed in the pocket as tight end Dante Rosario tackled Nakamura around his neck at the point of attack to allow the touchdown run. The crew could not have been more confused ruling illegal-touching by Goodson as he made a catch (or was it a catch?) after stepping out of bounds and returning to the field.
In fact, the graphics were annoyingly long and unnecessarily stole from game coverage, as Sandusky simply read the names and positions out loud. The crew prattled on about Mason’s near touchdown at the pylon but ignored the fact they already had showed he was out. Even after a Panthers’ time out which provided even more time for replays, the crew still failed to diagnose the play correctly. White kept calling the play inconclusive when quite clearly it was not.
Graphically, there was a nice big sponsor logo on the screen at all times, but there was never any play clock shown, so when Ravens let the clock expire at the goal line it was a surprise to the fans at home. There was no replay of the crucial call against Gross for lining up off the line of scrimmage…When Michael Oher was switched to left tackle for a single series the crew became obsessed with the change and continued to gush about Oher even after he whiffed on a block, and didn’t notice his performance until one play later when he allowed a sack. Meanwhile they totally overlooked the more important fact that Joe Reitz was in the game and performing well in his audition to become a much-needed back up tackle.
And finally, yes we know the Ravens have a kicker competition going on, but how many times do we need to cut to sideline shots of kickers prancing on sideline or scratching their chins while real action is occurring on field?