MINNESOTA VIKINGS 33 BALTIMORE RAVENS 31
October 18, 2009
Another Ravens game came down to a few critical seconds. And the result was another close loss, the third in a row in fact, as the Ravens fell short to the Minnesota Vikings, 33-31.
Critical seconds… The game was lost with clock reading 0:02 and Steve Hauschka’s 44-yard field goal attempt sailing left of the uprights—right? Not exactly! The critical seconds in this game were on the front-end, as the Ravens appeared to sleepwalk their way into the Metrodome and receive a first-half drubbing from which they never quite recovered.
The Vikings took the opening kick back to their own 39, and eighty-three seconds later the ball was on the Ravens’ 32. Sixty seconds later Justin Bannan was jumping offsides as Brett Favre threw a laser to Morgan State alum Vinsanthe Shiancoe as he broke into the end zone. 7-0. After the Ravens offense went three and out, the Vikings started their second drive on their own 45, and 183 seconds later Favre, Shiancoe and Adrian Peterson again tore through the Ravens defense to make it 14-0. Nearly half the first quarter remained, and already the Metrodome crowd was settling in for an easy romp.
Or so they thought.
That’s when the Ravens woke up, and the contest was on.
Coach John Harbaugh has a knack for sounding like your high school coach. After the game he described how the Ravens showed “the heart of a lion,” in clamping down on the Vikings’ momentum and climbing all the way back to take a fourth quarter lead, when many teams would have quit. It was another corny Harbaugh-ism but you knew exactly what he meant. And he was right.
The Ravens head coach needs to find positives like that to build on. He has a prideful defense, a big-play offense, and a new-found kick returner in Lardarius Webb to build on. It’s a good start. With a bye week upon them, Harbaugh and his staff will be working full time to fix breakdowns in their secondary that continue to gift big plays to opponents. Favre had a passer rating of 137, with 176 yards in receptions for Sydney Rice and two touchdowns for Shiancoe. Or breakdowns at the line of scrimmage that allowed Adrian Peterson to reel off 143 of rushing, most of it on just two long runs, a 26 yarder in the first half and a 56 yard gain in the second.
Afterwards Jarret Johnson expressed the frustration felt by his fellow players and by the fans when he remarked that for years we’ve been waiting for this offense to emerge. Here it is. Franchise quarterback Joe Flacco is a top-five passer. Ray Rice is a walking highlight reel. Derrick Mason and Todd Heap are first-down machines. And suddenly the defense can’t slow down anyone. Who could have guessed it?
The grades reflect the new reality of your Baltimore Ravens.
Despite being battered, Joe Flacco had his best game as a pro, topping his 345 yards and one-touchdown performance at home against a mediocre Browns team. Against the Vikings Flacco threw for 385 yards and two TDs, including more than 240 in a furious second half comeback when the team scored 28 of their 31 points. Flacco has a tendency to start slowly, and this was another game where he seemed to figure out the coverages and then get on a roll. He made all the throws, whether buying time to find his running back, placing a well-placed bomb down the sideline, or rifling balls over the middle to his tight end and slot receiver. His best throw on the day was in the face of a third down blitz as he looked right and back pedaled; and then at the last instant he turned left to locate Derrick Mason coming out of a break just beyond the sticks to fire a first-down strike. Quite a play.
Running Backs: B+
Ray Rice was a one-man wrecking crew in the second half, taking advantage of a tired Vikings defense with a 63-yard catch and run and taking off untouched for a touchdown on a 33-yard sprint draw off the left side in the fourth quarter. That followed a more impressive 22-yard touchdown behind his left tackle in the third. In the latter case he practically stiffed-armed EJ Henderson’s face off and then sent another ex-Maryland Terrapin Madieu Williams flying to the turf as he stiff-armed his way into the end zone. On his 63-yard catch and run in the fourth he broke tackles by Chad Greenway, Karl Paymah, EJ Henderson, and Madieu Williams to get the ball down to the twelve before Tyrell Johnson pushed him out. At that point it was clear Rice was fresher than the Vikings. All told, he accounted for nearly half his team’s total output, with 77 rushing yards and 117 through the air. LeRon McClain was asked to help Michael Oher pick up the dangerous Jared Allen in passing situations and did a good job with protection. He was not much of a factor with the ball, nor was Willis McGahee who played sparingly again this week and was not given many running lanes. When he was, he danced and tried unsuccessfully to bounce outside instead of taking positive inside yardage.
Wide Receivers: B-
The Vikings did not respect the Ravens receivers early, crowding as many as eight defenders in the box and daring them to beat their cornerbacks one-on-one. The tactic worked early as Flacco was harassed and there was no timing between the quarterback and his wide outs. In the first half the Ravens wide outs were held to ten catches and under 90 yards. Derrick Mason seemed to quit on a seven-route where he got behind the receiver but didn’t expect Flacco to find him deep, as the ball sailed beyond his grasp. On another misstep Mason ran the six-route to the inside as his quarterback was throwing the three-route to the sideline. Eventually he and Flacco were on the same page for some clutch first downs and a 12-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. There was a Demetrius Williams sighting in the third quarter, and then Williams was called upon to step in for Kelley Washington after a helmet-to-helmet hit (not flagged) on a brilliant catch sent the Ravens slot man to the bench in a daze. Williams made the key block near the goal line to get Mason into the end zone. He also showed great hands picking a catch off the carpet. Two of Mark Clayton’s catches were brilliant, including bringing in a high rope from Flacco and a great jump ball catch at the goal line.
Tight Ends: B
Todd Heap and LJ Smith were relied upon heavily to slow down the Vikings pass rush. The results were mixed. Heap struggled at times with help on Jared Allen. But he later made a great block on Allen to spring Rice free on the draw that led to his 22-yard touchdown run. That block was preceded with a 23-yard catch over the middle by Heap to set up the scoring chance. In the first half when Heap was finally called on to catch a pass, he turned a one-yard reception into a twenty-two yard gain down the left sideline to set up the only Ravens points in the first half. So while his chances were limited, he had a big impact on the game.
It was not Michael Oher’s best day, but it was his best education to date as he squared off against Jared Allen. On the very first play of the game he steered Allen around and to outside of the pocket, demonstrating good athleticism. But there were occasions where Allen simply beat him. Oher also struggled with the crowd noise, flinching or simply false starting as he tried to get an early step back into a protective stance. He bettered Allen on Rice’s first touchdown run. The Ravens did not ask a lot from Marshall Yanda on the right side but he more than held his own on most downs.
Interior Line: D
As much talk as there was before the game about Oher vs. Allen, the Ravens interior line struggled even more with the “Williams Wall.” It started well as Matt Birk blew Pat Williams off ball in the first series, but it was soon clear there were too many men in the middle for the Ravens to handle. Chris Chester allowed Jimmy Williams to slip past him on a couple of disruptive plays, and Kevin Williams, too, when the Vikings shifted defenders. Ben Grubbs struggled to stop Kevin Williams from penetrating, and had is own false start. Chester also looked slow kicking out to pick up Brian Robison as he ran free to hit Flacco. There was too much pressure from the middle in this game. Birk fell into an old pattern in the early part of the game tipping off the snap from shotgun, but he eventually corrected it, which caused multiple offsides calls on Vikings as they continued to try and anticipate the count.
Fabian Washington continued his own bad habits: allowing receivers to easily take the inside route before he could get safety help. Eventually it got him benched for the more aggressive Frank Walker. Although Walker played better at the line of scrimmage, he struggled in coverage, and was flagged twice for interference, one of which was caught anyway by Rice to set up the game winning field goal. Washington also showed little field awareness as Percy Harvin picked him in the end zone, allowing Bernard Berrian to slant untouched into the end zone. Lardarius Webb saw limited action and covered Harvin well across the middle. Perhaps he earned more playing time with the secondary struggling otherwise. Chris Carr was good in run support. Dominique Foxworth played well, except for failing to get Berrian to the ground after a catch.
Ravens safeties were involved in nearly every bad play on the day. Ed Reed let Shiancoe slip past him for an easy TD catch. A week ago Reed guessed right and picked off Carson Palmer for a touchdown. This week on a similar play, he guessed wrong on a curl and got in the way of Washington as Rice streaked past them to haul-in a 63-yard reception on an eight-route. Later, Reed was badly offsides, which prompted Favre to simply throw the ball up for grabs near the end zone, and forcing Walker’s first interference call. Reed also failed to contain Peterson to allowed the running back to get outside for a long run. His only impressive moments were early, playing close to the line and bottling up runs. As bad as Reed was, Landry was worse. He dove at Peterson and missed him at the line of scrimmage to allow the other long run on the day. He was also caught peeking into the backfield on Shiancoe’s other touchdown catch. When Landry did have good coverage on Rice, Favre was simply better threading a perfect pass. Haruki Nakamura played sparingly and looked slow reacting in zone coverage.
Tavares Gooden finally revealed what all the buzz has been about him. He showed great instincts, covered receivers well, ran hard to the ball, showed uncanny speed, reacted and shed well, tackled hard and in fact led the team in tackles. Gooden’s best play may have been streaking across the field to catch Peterson from behind after Reed let him escape. Or it may have been Gooden’s well-executed stunt up the middle to sack Favre. It was one of the few bright spots on defense. The other was Ray Lewis who left no questions about his passion for the game or his ability to take charge. Lewis made two decisive stops of Peterson in one goal-line stand. He also brought Favre down hard on a blitz. And he shed a tough block by center John Sullivan to bring down Peterson on the edge. Coordinator Greg Mattison needs to build off the performances of Gooden and Lewis, especially their ability to pressure the passer. Dannell Ellerbe showed why he is the third linebacker into the game with a brilliant tackle for a loss on Peterson. Jarret Johnson, arguably the team’s most consistent defender up to this game struggled in pass coverage.
Defensive Line: C+
It was feast or famine for the front four. After showing nothing early, the unit woke up and began to pressure Favre, which seemed to be the turning point for the Ravens after they had fallen behind 14-0. Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata were getting blown off the ball early, especially by Steve Hutchinson. But they both had their moments, including an assist on sacking Favre and Ngata getting a paw on Peterson to knock him into the waiting arms of Brandon McKinney. At times, Terrell Suggs looked brilliant, destroying a block by tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser to drop Chester Taylor for a loss, running down screens, stopping runners in their tracks, or stringing Peterson out to the sideline. As the game wore on, Suggs was less effective and he was practically a no-show as a pass rusher.
Special Teams: C
Field goal kickers are going to miss 44-yarders. The average kicker in the NFL misses 2 out of 10 attempts from 40-49 yards. Last year Matt Stover missed 5 of 10 chances from 40 or more yards out. In part, it’s why Hauschka has the job. To keep it, he’ll have to make these kicks. You hate for him to learn with the game on the line, but you hate more for his team to put the game on the line in the first place. Punter Sam Koch was not as deadly as he has been in the past getting punts downed inside the ten. Winning more field position battles could have made a big difference in such a close contest. The Vikings started with the ball near their own 40 on their first three possessions, while the Ravens started from their 23, 13, and 8. But as the tide turned, one of the bright spots in this game was Lardarius Webb who managed 165 return yards on seven kicks. He was also good on punt coverage. Matt Lawrence continues to impress in coverage as well. Prescott Burgess looked a little flat footed at times. LJ Smith was called for a hold to negate a good return.
On the minus side the Ravens did not appear ready to play at the opening gun, as the Vikings were more aggressive in grabbing an early lead. On the plus side, the Ravens never let down and did fight back. Credit John Harbaugh with instilling that work ethic. And credit Greg Mattison with making adjustments to pressure the passer. That said, he has a lot of work to do, along with secondary coach Chuck Pagano, the man who had lobbied to get Fabian Washington into a Ravens uniform in the first place. Furthermore, it should be obvious to both men that Dawan Landry has zero pass coverage skills, yet week after week the team puts Landry in coverages that lead to big plays. Good coaches put players in a position to succeed and Landry appears to be misused. That’s on the coaches.
In past weeks you could argue that officiating cost the Ravens games. Not so this week. Still, the officiating was no better this week. It was a poorly called game on both sides. The Ravens benefited from a few calls. Derrick Mason pushed-off for a catch and held Tyrell Johnson downfield on a Rice touchdown, but neither was called. Haloti Ngata managed to club Brett Favre in the face with his forearm…not called. A Willis McGahee facemask near his own end zone was allowed to go without a flag. Mike Carey’s crew failed to call an obvious pick by Harvin in the end zone. When Gregg Lewis, trailing Lardarius Webb downfield by two yards, blatantly pushed Webb in the back on punt coverage, two officials saw it, and yet somehow a third official overturned it. Never has there been a clearer block in the back. There were two Vikings hits on receivers that should have been personal fouls. One was the helmet-to-helmet hit on Washington. Worse was the non-call at 1:46 remaining in third when Todd Heap leapt to make a six yard catch at Vikings 45. Vikings SS Tyrell Johnson launched himself and hits Heap high moment ball arrived to rattle the tight end’s head. I defy anyone to explain the difference between that and the Lewis-OchoCinco hit from a week ago, except that Heap came down with the ball and his helmet stayed on. The league simply can’t define defenseless receivers or illegal hits, and so their officials can’t consistently call these plays. More embarrassing was the fact that this crew seemed to be constantly confused with stoppages and mid-field discussions to sort out various calls, including a strange moment with 1:13 to go in the 2nd when the ball was properly spotted on the 26 to give the Ravens a second and two, but the sideline marker was still back at the 21 as if it was second and eight. Rather than simply move the stick forward five yards to the correct spot, the crew picked up the ball and walked it back to the 21, discussed it, and then returned the ball back to the 26 before correcting the marker location. They also called a block in the back on the Ravens’ non-existent #29…it was actually #59, Dannell Ellerbe whom they meant to name, although it was not much of a foul. They also incorrectly named Kelly Gregg after Justin Bannan jumped offsides.
Like Dick Enberg, the game has passed by Dan Dierdorf. Dierdorf was constantly guilty of confidently calling out what he thought was probably occurring, rather than what he was really seeing. For instance, early on he claimed Favre was exploiting a hole in the Ravens secondary when replays showed that Favre was simply making great passes to well covered receivers. As we watched Joe Flacco’s right ankle roll backward in slow-motion replay, Dierdorf somehow missed it and talked about Flacco getting stepped on and was still talking about it later in the game. He credited Ben Leber with reaching out to make a shoe string tackle when it was really a case of Rice tripping over his own tackle’s feet. Even with benefit of replay, Dierdorf claimed the officials had misspotted the football when the spot was right and it was the side marker that was wrong. As a former lineman, he should have seen that the Vikings were keying off of Birk’s shotgun snap motion to explain their offsides infractions, but instead he assured the audience it was Flacco drawing the Vikings offsides.
Granted, it was a hard to figure game. The Ravens now have an extra week to get over it and figure out how the defense can catch up with this high-powered offense. Who would think we’d ever need to say that?