BALTIMORE RAVENS 24, CLEVELAND BROWNS 17
September 26, 2010
After six consecutive regular season and playoff games on the road, the Baltimore Ravens were finally back home Sunday looking to flip the script against a short-handed, heavy-underdog Cleveland Browns.
Talk about 180º turnarounds — you couldn’t ask for a bigger improvement from quarterback Joe Flacco, who went from having perhaps his worst professional game a week ago against division rival Cincinnati, to what might be his best game to date. Flacco piloted a high-flying Ravens offense, with Anquan Boldin serving as co-pilot, to a 24-17 win over that other team from Ohio.
Flacco’s improvement was nervously anticipated all week as the Ravens prepared to face an opponent that few expected to be up to the task. While Flacco met all expectations, and then some, the game hardly went as expected.
Because the Browns were without starters Jake Delhomme and Jerome Harrison on offense, much of the spotlight shined on their dangerous, all-purpose performer Joshua Cribbs who was nursing a sore ankle. The Ravens managed to keep Cribbs the return specialist in check with strong special teams play, while the defensive scheme held him to 78 total yards on seven touches.
Game over, right?
Not so fast. Here comes Peyton Hillis. Downhill and straight ahead for 144 yards rushing on 22 carries, three more yards on the day than back-up Seneca Wallace threw for on 24 attempts. Hillis also chipped in with seven catches and 36 yards.
There are two Peytons in the NFL, and the Ravens defense can’t seem to stop either.
The Browns game plan of running two fullbacks right up the gut against the vaunted Ravens defense was unexpected and effective. It kept the ball out of the hands of a Ravens offense eager to work out the kinks in their passing game, and it exposed some question marks at the linebacker and safety positions for the Baltimore defense.
But in the end, the Ravens defense stiffened while the Browns self-destructed. After falling behind 17-14 at the start the fourth quarter, Flacco came right back, connecting on his third TD pass of the day to Boldin, this time in the face of an all-out blitz.
It was as if Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had learned nothing watching film of his brother’s game against the Ravens, when Rex Ryan’s Jets were repeatedly burned by Flacco as he found Boldin and Todd Heap in one-on-one mismatches against small defensive backs.
Any chance of a Browns comeback was then squashed when Seneca Wallace ran the wrong play and pitched the ball to nobody on the following series. The Browns recovered the ball on their own two yard line but they never recovered any momentum. Hillis was held to no yards on two carries in the fourth quarter. And with that, the game really was over.
So let’s take a look at how the Ravens graded out during this unexpected path to victory.
Joe Flacco has developed a strange habit of making terrifying plays to start the game. Against the Browns on the second snap of the game he dropped back, and with immediate pressure he made a terrible decision to loft a pass directly to safety TJ Ward. But Ward bobbled it into Derrick Mason’s hands, and Joe’s string of bad interceptions was snapped. From there, Flacco was very impressive. He seemed to correct all his bad fundamental flaws from a week ago, getting his feet under him and stepping into his throws. His accuracy was uncanny, whether whistling side-out throws, spinning the ball at a perfect height for Anquan Boldin to climb the ladder against smaller defenders, or dropping touch passes into peach baskets. His best throw on the day may have been an incompletion: a 55-yard laser to Boldin, who couldn’t coax an interference call from the officials. Flacco was much more decisive when pulling the trigger this week, and it made all the difference in the game. His numbers may not turn out to be the gaudiest in the NFL for the week: 22 of 31 for 262 yards, three touchdowns, and no picks. But they earned him a 128.7 passer rating, and he restored the confidence he lost with many fans in Baltimore.
Running Backs: B-
Ray Rice did a nice job of being patient and cutting against the grain to find holes. He also showed balance to pick up extra yards and push his totals to 80 yards on the ground and 16 through the air. His 25-yard run off left tackle on his team’s second possession seemed to finally spark the Ravens offense when still trailing 3-0. His pass blocking is still shaky. He did spend the fourth quarter on the sideline having his injured knee attended to. Willis McGahee was not as quick through the holes, which had actually become bigger in the fourth quarter. Le’Ron McClain was very effective as a blocker on Browns linebackers.
Wide Receivers: A-
Anquan Boldin was All-World against fourth-year cornerback Eric Wright. It’s hard to recall a more dominant performance by a Ravens receiver. Flacco targeted him eleven times, connecting on eight for nearly an 18-yard per-catch average. His three touchdown catches could have been four when Flacco led him too far out front as he cut to the end zone. The former college quarterback even connected on a pass, luckily, as he was falling down. While TJ Houshmandzadeh had just one catch on the day, he showed great hands on an important chain-moving catch to help run out the clock for the win. Derrick Mason was not on the same page as Flacco, with a couple of throws badly off target. The mercurial Mason showed his frustration by tossing aside a skip-pass, inviting a delay of game call. He did haul in four catches for 30 yards.
Tight Ends: B
Todd Heap was very effective sitting down in open areas and hauling in catches, four of them for 46 yards. He continues to display good hands and body control that belie his ten years in the league. Credit him too, out of the H-back spot with an excellent blitz pick-up all the way down the line to stop the crashing Abram Elam as Flacco was lofting his third touchdown pass the Boldin. Ed Dickson still needs work on his blocking consistency.
Marshal Yanda had a terrible start, allowing Matt Roth to blow past him with inside move to hit Flacco and nearly causing an interception. He then committed a false start on the next play. As the game moved on, the converted guard played well on the right side by moving his feet and providing much better protection. He still isn’t the drive blocker that he’s showed he can be as a guard. Michael Oher looked much more active and effective this week on the left side, as Flacco was getting plenty of time to survey his throws. By the fourth quarter on this hot day, Oher was dominant. He did however miss an early block on Scott Fujita after Anquan Boldin’s completion to Ray Rice, or Rice would have gone the distance down the left side. Oher also over-reacted to Robaire Smith smacking Heap after the tight end jumped offsides, and Oher was flagged for retaliating.
Interior Line: B
Without the massive Shaun Rogers in the game, the Ravens interior line caught a break, and they held up well against the Browns pass rush. With Matt Birk making the line calls, the interior played very well as a unit and allowed Flacco to step up in the pocket. They were not getting a lot of push in the running game, but enough to move the ball when needed. Matt Birk strangely flinched without snapping the ball to cause a five yard penalty.
Chris Carr continues to play very good football. He kept Cribbs in front of him and made solid tackles. Right behind him in rotation was Josh Wilson who saw a lot of time this week as the nickel, and showed why he has a reputation for being a hard-hitting DB, nearly knocking James Davis out of the game. Fabian Washington white-washed second-year receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, but he did miss an open field tackle on Hillis to allow a first down.
In the red zone Tom Zbikowski and Dawan Landry were having a good game until Landry allowed Ben Watson to slip by him for Wallace’s lone TD throw. It was not a great day tackling in space for the pair. Landry missed a couple tackles on Davis and Hillis, including one on a 46-yard run where Zbikowski was flagged for a hit out of bounds at the end of the run. Landry did lead the team in tackles however, as Hillis was plowing his was to the second level.
Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe had a tough time meeting Hillis in the hole and allowed a number of longer runs, including a missed tackle by Lewis at the goal line to allow a score. Lewis had just three solo tackles on the day and allowed Ben Watson to get past him in the seam for one of the Browns longer completions. Ellerbe looks much improved in coverage. Jameel McClain had a nice afternoon showing good instincts and staying true to his assignments. Jarret Johnson looked a little hobbled and had difficulty securing the edge.
Defensive Line: C+
The Ravens front four absorbed a lot of double team blocks. While they weren’t exactly getting blown off the ball, they got very little penetration on running or passing downs. Had the Ravens planned for Peyton Hillis, Terrence Cody might have seen his first regular season action. As it turned out, with Lamar Divens, Paul Kruger, and Art Jones also inactive, they probably could have used Cody’s bulk inside, especially after Cory Redding left in the third quarter with a concussion. Kelly Gregg had the best game among this group, including stuffing Hillis for a near safety at the end of the game. Trevor Pryce was very quick off the ball.
Special Teams: B+
Billy Cundiff’s only flaw was a 51-yard field goal attempt that doinked high off the upright. Otherwise, credit Cundiff with a perfect field goal from 49 yards out, but more importantly for putting his kickoffs deep into the end zone, neutralizing Cribbs. Jalen Parmele meanwhile did a nice job getting the ball out near the thirty on his returns. Sam Koch was a little off, kicking short to the sidelines but also dropping a snap to force a re-kick. To his credit, from five yards farther back he pinned the next punt inside the fifteen. Prescott Burgess, Marcus Smith, and Cary Williams all had stand-out days in coverage.
The Ravens staff managed to curb the turnovers this week, although the team was a little mistake prone in terms of penalties, eight for 60 yards despite playing in front of a friendly home crowd. John Harbaugh’s Ravens have never lost a game to a team that finished the year with a losing record, and the 0-3 Browns probably contributed to his streak. Beating who you are supposed to beat, when you’re supposed to beat them, is the mark of a well-coached team. Coming from behind and winning the fourth quarter is also a reflection of good coaching. While it could be argued that the Browns should not have been within seven points in the end, it should be noted that the Ravens staff didn’t have a lot of film to study when preparing for a much different Browns line up, and they did make adjustments as the game progressed. Credit the offensive staff for helping Flacco correct fundamental flaws in the pocket. And credit Cam Cameron for dialing up the right calls against the Browns defensive assaults.
Side Judge Larry Rose did a poor job spotting the ball on a couple of key first downs. Not flagging Robaire Smith for taking a shot at Todd Heap was questionable, but at least they were consistent when Ben Watson was flagged, like Michael Oher, for retaliating.
Steve Beuerlein did a professional job providing analysis and had obviously done his homework. It was in sharp contrast to Don Criqui, who clearly had not studied the rosters enough. He mangled names — “Trevor Rice,” “Jason Parmele” — or confused players, as Lardarius Webb was announced as Chris Carr and Marcus Smith became Fabian Washington through Criqui’s eyes. Beuerlein also had to correct Criqui when he suggested Massaquoi was “wide open” after Fabian Washington stepped in front of him for a near-interception.
With the win, the tough 2-1 Ravens evened their record to 1-1 in the division, with a chance to bring the 3-0 Steelers back to the pack next week in Pittsburgh.