NOVEMBER 16, 2009
Okay, maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration – the Browns played decently on defense. Or at least their front four seemed to play well at times. Which in turn raises questions about the Ravens offensive line, especially after seeing this unit get a knocked around for the second week in a row.
Offensively, the Ravens appeared determined to play aggressive, run-oriented football, exactly what many pundits had been calling for. But the plan mostly backfired as the Browns displayed more bulk and energy in the middle, led by veterans Shaun Rogers and Robaire Smith. Despite a full backfield, and sometimes with LJ Smith as a second tight end or Marshall Yanda in as a third tackle, the Ravens still found themselves running the ball squarely into 350-lb. defenders who had pushed and poked their way into the backfield.
Expectations: as fans, we judge players, coaches, and teams against the backdrop of our expectations for the season. Coming off a trip to the AFC Championship game in 2008 and after watching the Ravens offense explode onto the scene at the beginning of this season while destroying the Browns 34-3 in Week Three, expectations for Monday night were for a blow-out win.
Against a backdrop of expectations, and despite losing five consecutive Monday Night Football contests coming into the game, and despite being just eleven-point favorites, a 16-0 Ravens win was disappointing.
It was a game where not much went right for either team starting with a season-ending ankle injury to the Ravens’ Haruki Nakamura on the opening kick, and ending with a crushing blow to the head of Browns’ Josh Cribbs on a pointless hook-and-lateral play to end the game.
How disjointed was this game? The Browns fans couldn’t even stage an effective pre-game protest. They had planned to stay in the parking lot through the opening kick to embarrass owner Randy Lerner. Had they known the quality of play waiting for them, an entire first-half parking lot protest would have been in order.
Not only did the two teams fail to score, they looked confused for most of the half. Boneheaded penalties abounded. With both teams going no-huddle and shuffling on and off the field, players were often caught glancing to the sidelines and shifting right up to the snap. The Ravens were charged with 12 men on the field, twice, and burned all their timeouts by the midpoint of the first half. They bumbled their way down the field on a 12-play drive, only to see their now former kicker, Steve Hauschka, pull yet another short field goal wide left.
It was that kind of game.
But in the second half the Ravens defense seemed to come out of the locker room with more urgency. The secondary in particular was flying to the ball. They pressured soon-to-be ex-Browns quarterback Brady Quinn into two interceptions in his first three attempts and limited him to 36 yards passing overall for the half. Quinn appeared to be so frustrated that he put a cheap-shot on off-season workout mate Terrell Suggs with a blind hit across the knees after the second pick by Chris Carr, which left Suggs’ availability in doubt for crucial upcoming games against the Colts and Steelers.
In addition to an interception return for a score by Dawan Landry, the offense found a little rhythm of its own, finally, and managed to put their own points on the board. In between the injuries, the penalties, the turnovers, and the confusion, there were only a few bright spots for Ravens players.
Déjà vu all over again…Joe Flacco started slowly. An early snap was bobbled and forced him to throw the ball away. He was not on the same page as Mark Clayton, who sat on his route as Flacco led him on a slant that would have gone for a score. Flacco executed a nice fake swing pass and completed a screen to Le’Ron McClain. But he failed to audible out of trouble on a naked bootleg. After getting knocked around a little Flacco looked sharper in the second half. His best play on the day was breaking free of a blitz, running right, and firing a completion on a comeback route. After a slow start, Flacco completed 72% of his 18 passes, but for just 155 yards and no TDs.
Running Backs: B
On 20 attempts Ray Rice had 89 hard-earned yards. He didn’t have a lot of help on the inside from his line. And the Browns keyed on him out of the backfield. Although he caught all three passes thrown his way for 15 yards, he was held with few YAC yards. That left more room for Le’Ron McClain, who managed 29 yards on the ground and through the air. McClain was mostly very effective blocking for Rice, although he did miss one key block badly on a Browns run blitz. In keeping with the team’s desire to emphasize hard running Willis McGahee received 13 carries for 35 yards.
Wide Receivers: C
With the Ravens using maximum protection schemes more often than not the Ravens offensive sets featured just two receivers and their effectiveness was very limited. The highlight was a nice comeback route by Derrick Mason to get a first down and dig his team out of a deep hole. He ran an excellent route down the right sideline for a 41-yard reception, setting up the first score on the day. Kelley Washington and Mark Clayton were thrown to twice each, with no catches.
Tight Ends: A
Todd Heap continues to be utilized effectively as a blocker. As a receiver he showed great toughness running into tight zone coverage, making a catch and holding onto the ball for 18 yards as Abram Elam slammed into him. He also had a tough first down catch and run. LJ saw limited action and proved he is not a great blocker, as Kamerion Wimbley pushed him back into the runner.
As a straight-ahead blocker, Jared Gaither continues to excel. His best effort was a seal on Jason Trusnik to allow Rice to run around the edge and gain a first down on second down and 19. The Browns were stunting a lot on the interior and Gaither was less successful working with his unit to pick up blocking assignments. Overall this wasn’t one of his better games. He did get called for holding and offsides. Micheal Oher was getting pushed back into the pocket too frequently. Marshall Yanda was effective blocking as the third tackle.
Interior Line: D
The Browns front was simply better than the Ravens interior. Chris Chester is known for his quickness but he looked slow picking up stunts or blocking down on DTs. Corey Williams was able to push him around at times. Ben Grubbs was not getting much of a push and Robaire Smith made him look bad on two occasions. Matt Birk did do a nice job sealing inside one of Rice’s better runs up middle. They will have a chance to re-establish themselves next Sunday against a Colts front that averages 50 pounds lighter per man.
This group was not tested much, as the Browns seemed content with a lot of bubble screens and wildcat runs around the ends. Fabian Washington took advantage of the Browns’ predictability by flying to the ball, including sure tackles on Chris Jennings. Domonique Foxworth was not as steady in the first half, looking a bit confused in some coverages, but he was also flying to the ball in the second half. Chris Carr had one poor break on a ball to allow Mike Furrey to earn a first down catch, but was in the right spot later to snare an interception. Playing nickel for Carr, Lardarius Webb again closed quickly and tackled soundly. He should get his first real test against a better Colts passing game.
Dawan Landry made giant strides playing more instinctively, executing his assignments and making surer tackles. That included good discipline with an open field tackle on Mohamed Massaqoui for loss to force the first punt. He was rewarded with a deflected pass that fell into his arms for a touchdown return. Ed Reed had a quiet day, thanks to few downfield attempts by the Browns.
Tavares Gooden is still a work in progress. He failed to shed a block by fullback Lawrence Vickers to allow Jamal Lewis to run for fourteen yards. He also struggled to reach the backside tight end on an out pattern on a Ray Lewis blitz to allow another first down. And he still over-reacts to ball fakes or runs himself out of plays. Dannell Ellerbe played the run better. Ray Lewis was very active, as is always the case on Monday Night Football. He made a great read and break on a pass intended for Mike Furrey. Lewis was also effective when blitzing up the middle, trailing a stunting blitzer who would absorb blocks in front of him. Jarret Johnson also had an excellent game and picked up another sack to maintain his team lead. He additionally stripped the ball from Quinn and batted down another pass.
Defensive Line: B+
With Haloti Ngata resting his ankle one more week, Kelly Gregg and Justin Bannan maintained good gap control up front to bottle-up the Browns running game, against a good offensive line. Gregg also shot a gap to flush Quinn, which we have not seen so far this year. Trevor Pryce, who did not start, made his presence felt quickly by beating a very good Eric Steinbach for a sack. Look for increased production from Pryce as the coaches use him more sparingly. Terrell Suggs was very strong in run support and batting passes, but struggled when dropping into coverage. With Suggs out, Paul Kruger finally saw action and was up and down. He vacated his responsibility to allow Cribbs to get around the corner on a reverse. He was also flagged for lining up off-sides. But he was near the ball on most plays and did bat a pass down in coverage.
Special Teams: C+
Steve Hauschka kicked himself off the roster with a missed field goal after the Ravens opening drive stalled. An extra point was also blocked when Shaun Rogers pushed Michael Oher right off the line. Chris Carr had trouble getting under short punts, and it cost some yardage. Once again he prematurely signaled for a fair catch despite plenty of room to run. He tried to make up for it by failing to fair catch and getting creamed. Lardarius Webb made the best of his one kick return chance running strong up the middle through a good lane. He also benefited when a block in the back call that finally went the Ravens way when Brandon McDonald was flagged. Prescott Burgess continues to lead a very strong kick coverage unit.
The Ravens came out listless and a bit confused, which was surprising on national TV. Credit Greg Mattison for getting his defense to come out in the second half with a lot of energy. Cam Cameron made the mistake, seemingly, of listening to radio talk shows. His plan to run the ball into the strength of the Browns defense was misguided. The call for a halfback pass by Rice to Heap looked to be schematically good, but you must question why a 5’7” back should throw the ball, or why the coordinator should show the play in a game that was already over.
Referee Carl Cheffers made some bad calls and seemed as out of sorts as the players. The explanation he gave of Chris Jennings running into Sam Koch suggested the Ravens were getting a first down, and that mistake was not explained. He made a terrible holding call on Matt Birk on a play he was not in a position to really see, which took a first down run away from McGahee. And at one point he inexplicably ran in to stand over the ball with the play clock running and nearly cost the Ravens a delay of game. There was also a seemingly phantom face mask call on Grubbs that never happened. The false start call on Chris Chester was incorrect; the Browns moved into the neutral zone when Birk snapped his head up, prior to snapping the ball. The worst showing was the absurd five minutes it required to review Webb’s tightrope downing of a punt on the goal line on a play that should have taken no more than thirty seconds to evaluate.
There are those who will be annoyed by all the love this ESPN crew showed Cleveland, but that is standard fare when the circus comes to town. Gruden and Jaws have ties to Cleveland and they should talk about the ties to their town. I would expect the same if a Baltimorean was on the MNF crew and doing a game at M&T Stadium. Mike Tirrico is very quick and accurate with information. He was correct to call the low hit on Flacco a penalty, and Gruden was great with his follow-up comment saying it’s a bad rule. Jaworski was very good explaining why Quinn cannot throw a short out to Robert Royal until he gets his head around. It’s refreshing to hear enthusiasm in the booth without schmaltz, and to get solid football information to boot.
Speaking of booting footballs, stay tuned next week to find out how your new Ravens field goal kicker performs. The Ravens are undoubtedly hoping for more accuracy, and hoping it won’t be another Colts game where the offense is limited to five field goal attempts.