Week 8: Ravens falter late in Cincy

photo-23 (2)Bengals 27, Ravens 24

During forty-five years of watching professional football, I support the “no-call” rule when two players are going for the ball—more often than not, the referees let them play. I don’t like it when the zebras determine the outcome of any game. Check the video of any Hail Mary pass. Bodies are piled up, arms are held, and yes, receivers are knocked down while the ball is in flight. We played the Falcons in Atlanta a few years back and Roddy White shoved down a defender on his way to the game-winning score—no call.

On Sunday, Steve Smith, Sr. and Bengal safety George Iloka went up for a bomb with less than a minute to go. Down 27-24, Joe Flacco escaped the pocket with 44 seconds left and unleashed a missile 60 yards across the length of the stadium. Smith, Sr. hauled it in, winning the pigskin from Iloka after a handfight and a shove. He ran diagonally into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. For a split-second, the Ravens had distanced themselves from the Bengals and the Steelers atop the division and solidified their playoff position.

It wasn’t meant to be. Smith, Sr. was called for offensive interference.

At five- foot nine and one-hundred and ninety pounds, Steve Smith, Sr. is dwarfed by the six foot-four, two-hundred and twenty pound Iloka. The theatrical safety fell away from Smith’s arm like a scarecrow in a hurricane. The zebras were there to flag it and give the Bengals the game.

Truthfully, we shouldn’t have been in this position to begin with. Our defense had taken over the game. They mustered two late turnovers. Haloti Ngata is silencing the radio pundits who don’t believe he is worth the money with one of his best seasons ever. Once again he demonstrated his superior agility as he tapped the ball out of Andy Dalton’s hand upfield and Daryl Smith hauled it in, racing toward the end zone. Lorenzo Taliaferro scored on the next play. After an interception, the Ravens took a four point lead. The die-hard Bengals faithful, some dressed as empty seats, headed for the exits.

Unfortunately, the defense couldn’t hold the Bengals on the final drive. Namely, our secondary faltered. Dalton scrambled and hit Mohammed Sanu down the left sideline. On a 4th and 1 from the goal line, Dalton rumbled in behind Andrew Whitworth to give the Bengals a 3 point lead.

We had our chances early. We outplayed Cincinnati—but we couldn’t make critical plays when we needed them. On the Bengals 2 yard line in the first half, we had two chances to punch it in. On 4th down, we opted for a pass instead of playing “smashmouth” football. That’s the second time this year we’ve gotten too cute when it counted near the end zone.

If you can’t gain two yards in the NFL when you need them, you don’t deserve to win.

Now we head to Pittsburgh to face a resurgent Steelers team that crushed the Colts, 51-34. We’re banged up. We’re angry. And we’re headed into Joe Green Night at Heinz Field. In the history of the Ravens franchise, these conditions have always been a recipe for success.

Week 7: Ravens melt Matty Ice, seize control of first place

photo-23 (2)Last Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens pummeled Matt Ryan and the Falcons. They sacked him five times, once for a safety. Pernell McPhee was a force with two sacks along with Elvis Dumervil. Terrell Suggs dropped Ryan in the end zone. The Ravens held dangerous receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones in check. The Falcons, whose aspirations for a winning season were well-documented in the latest installment of HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” desperately needed a victory.

The Ravens defense, led by Daryl Smith’s 13 tackles, brutalized them. This group is developing a stingy and ferocious junkyard dog mentality and they will continue to get better. They have kept us in every game.

The offense scored two first half touchdowns and didn’t look back. Joe Flacco went in for the kill early and exploited the Falcons secondary. He found Owen Daniels and Torrey Smith for touchdowns. Steve Smith, Sr. and Torrey Smith combined for 6 catches and 148 yards. Flacco threw to seven different receivers including Michael Campanaro and Kamar Aiken.

Flacco was intercepted twice during the game. It wasn’t a flawless five touchdown performance like the week before but he showed why I refuse to compare him to Matt Ryan. He’s resilient and he stands in there and throws the ball in the face of pressure. His offensive line was lackluster early on and he kept fighting. He wins games. He’s won a Super Bowl. Let me know when Ryan has done that.

Justin Forsett gained 95 yards on 23 carries. Forsett is the biggest surprise of the season and gives the Ravens an explosive option on the ground. Bernard Pierce scored a touchdown and appears to be settling back in as the number two option.

Jacoby Jones struggled again and is forcing the issue. He’s pressing and trying to make things happen that aren’t there. Is Kubiak his Kryptonite? He’s reverted back to those enigmatic days as a Texan. He leads the NFL in dropped passes. He muffed a punt in the second quarter that could have allowed Atlanta a chance to get back in the game. It gave them the ball on the Ravens 37-yard line. The Ravens defense bailed out the struggling return man, sacking Ryan for an 8 yard loss. Falcon kicker Matt Bryant’s boot hit the cross bar and bounced back toward the field.

The Ravens are quietly 5-2 and leading the AFC North. With two road games against the Bengals and Steelers ahead, they control their future. They could agin separation from the Bengals who’ve tied and lost in their last two. The Steelers seem shells of their former selves but that won’t matter when we alight on Heinz Field.

With games against the Titans, Texans and Jaguars still to come—the Ravens have a division title in their sights and enough talent on both sides of the ball to bring it home.

Week 6: Ravens throttle Bucs

Photo by Phil Hoffmann

Photo by Phil Hoffmann

Ravens 48 Buccaneers 17

The Ravens jumped all over the Buccaneers. They started fast and ended the game in the first quarter. By 2pm on Sunday afternoon, all was right with our world. The Oriole playoff losses took a back seat.

Joe Flacco threw 5 touchdown passes in 16 minutes of playing time—an NFL record. He connected twice to Torrey Smith, and one time each with Steve Smith, Sr., Kamar Aiken and Michael Campanaro—yes, the River Hill standout was in the mix. Six different receivers caught passes.

Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak gunned the throttle. The offense scored touchdowns and didn’t settle for field goals. The 56-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to Smith, Sr. was a one of the most beautiful plays of the year. Flacco dropped back to pass and rolled left. He stopped and launched a bomb that highlighted his tremendous arm strength. Smith. Sr. crashed into the end zone with the catch.

The last offensive explosion like this one came in Week 3 of the 2011 season. In that game, Torrey Smith caught 3 touchdown passes.

Behind a resurgent and healthy Marshall Yanda, running back Justin Forsett ripped through the Buccaneer defense and gained 111 yards. Yanda is a beast and he is having a great year. Against Tampa Bay, he opened an EZ pass lane on the Interstate. James Hurst and John Urschel started on the offensive line as rookies and held their own.

The defense also came to play. Suggs, Dumervil and McPhee launched themselves off the edge at Tampa Bay quarterback Sean Glennon. They hurried, hit and sacked him all afternoon. Jimmy Smith had a big interception early on that led to another score. This defense is developing a ferocity and a surprise attack mentality under Dean Pees.

The loss to the Colts gave the Ravens offense an early season wake-up call. You can’t lay an egg when you have the chance to beat a premiere team in their own place.

On Sunday, the Ravens played with urgency and a sense of purpose in Tampa. The Bucs are terrible but they beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh. You still have to play the game.

These are the real 2014 Baltimore Ravens. What if these offensive explosions become the norm?  If they can string a few more of these together, we are going to have some fun this season.

Week 5: Loss to Indy may sting down the road

Colts 20, Ravens 13

photo-19coltsLast Sunday’s loss to the Colts resembled many Ravens losses during the Brian Billick years. The defense played well and the offense didn’t show up. I wasn’t expecting much in Indianapolis – a stadium we hadn’t scored a touchdown in. I figured the Colts would be itching for a fight after the last playoff game. Though, when all was said and done, neither the Colts nor the Ravens played very well. When we look back on this one, we’ll want another crack at it because the Colts were flat and beatable.

When in the history of our franchise would we be so nonchalant about playing the Colts? The Ravens can thank the Orioles for that. Still, we’ll want this one back. We’ll remember this game for the outstanding play of our defense and linebacker C.J. Mosley who led the team with 14 tackles and an interception.

He was everywhere. For most of the game, our offense went nowhere.

The game reminded me of the 2007 playoff loss against Peyton Manning in Baltimore. The defense played lights out but the offense stumbled under Steve McNair and couldn’t score.

In the end, Andrew Luck made just enough plays to win the game. Still, we had the ball with a chance to tie the game late in the 4th but couldn’t make it happen. It’s understandable that the new offense will regress—but this unit has not played well on the road for years. With so many new weapons and options, we were guilty of overthinking and tried to surprise the Colts on a 4th and short yardage situation by passing the ball. Flacco was sacked and we left points on the field.

We need an offensive road show that mimics the one we had against Carolina at home. It just doesn’t happen on the road. You have to look back to Week 3 of the 2011 season for a dominating Ravens offensive performance on the road. We beat the Rams 37-7 and Torrey Smith had three touchdown catches.

Also, we still have difficulty gaining one yard when we need to and protecting our quarterback in critical situations. All of these things need to change for a playoff return—including a resurgent Torrey Smith.

Our defense was stout—in all aspects. Haloti Ngata had an interception, his second of the year and we stifled their offense inside the red zone twice, recovering a fumble with time running out to give out offense another chance.

There were some positives from the loss. Justin Forsett continues to run with a sense of purpose and the journeyman running back broke the Ravens Lucas Oil dome touchdown drought.

Week 4: Ravens demolish Panthers in Flacco’s 100th start, 38-10

photo-16 (2) smittyAfter beating the Pittsburgh Steelers a few weeks ago, Joe Flacco said, “We’re going to show the world how good we are.” Making his 100th consecutive start as a Raven, the seven-year veteran put on a near flawless aerial display, connecting on 22 of 31 passes for 327 yards and three touchdowns.

With Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady wobbling in the pocket these days, Flacco’s performance reminded us once again of how good he can be.

It had been another challenging week with a season ending injury to Pitta and surgery for left tackle Eugene Monroe. Monday saw owner Steve Bisciotti aggressively refuting the latest ESPN palaver. Saturday Night Live portrayed the franchise as laden with criminals. Coach Harbaugh was in great spirits celebrating O.J. Brigance’s birthday with the rest of the team on Friday. Brigance embodies the definition of overcoming adversity—and there is nothing the team will face this year that will come close to equaling that.

After four games, the Panthers are at best a “paper tiger” in 2014. They were humiliated by the Steelers a week before, and key players on their offense and defense were absent with injuries and one suspension. The Ravens did what good teams do—they exploited those weaknesses.

Cam Newton marched his team downfield to begin the game and the Panthers looked ready to score until the defense stiffened and “undertakers” Suggs and Dumervil sacked him out of field goal range. The teams traded punts and the Ravens started the second quarter with a three touchdown explosion.

Early in the second quarter, Flacco dropped back and threw a pass down the left sideline. Owen Daniels and Steve Smith, Sr. were both in the ball’s flight path. Daniels reached up to haul it in and tipped it in the direction of the former Panther who snatched it and raced into the end zone. Smith, Sr. was far from finished. Later in the quarter in Panther territory, Flacco fumbled a snap and lofted a “no-look” pass in the direction of his favorite receiver who caught it in the end zone. Smith Sr. had 100 yards in receptions by halftime.

Smitty had come to play against his former team. He comes to play every day and he is on a mission. He said that the Panthers defensive backs trying to cover him “ran around like schoolboys.”

With Smith, Sr., Justin Forsett, Lorenzo Taliaferro and C.J. Mosley making contributions, these are not your 2013 Ravens. Justin Forsett slashed his way on the ground for 66 yards and a touchdown. He combined with Lorenzo Taliaferro for 124 rushing yards. Undrafted rookie James Hurst played well enough at left tackle and Marshall Yanda opened running lanes.

Kubiak’s offense is unlike any other the Ravens have ever had. He keeps the pressure on and continues to rack up points. This offense is hungry to score.

C.J. Mosley led all defenders with eleven tackles. Overall, the defense played well. The secondary looked suspect at times – with safeties and cornerbacks confused in coverage. This still needs work as the Indianapolis Colts loom as the next opponent.

On a crystalline day at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens played an impeccable game. Todd Heap entered the Ring of Honor. “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” roared from the speakers as the Jumbotron found O’s fans sprinkled throughout the crowd.

It’s going to be fun seeing how good this team can be.

Week 3: Ravens squeak by Browns

Ravens 23, Browns 21

photo-16 (2)“What is it…? We sure don’t make it easy,” said Joe Flacco after the Ravens 23-21 victory over the Browns in Cleveland. It’s never easy, never pretty – the Ravens Way.

The Ravens could have packed it in yesterday.  They squandered opportunities to score points on offense and blew coverages on defense that led to big plays for the Browns.

All in a days’ work–the Ravens have been winning this way for years. It’s yin and yang, darkness and light, and somehow we grind it out.

The Browns also left points on the field, including two field goals by Billy Cundiff that would have provided enough separation to win the game. Brian Hoyer torched the Ravens defense for 290 yards in the air but when the game was on the line, he failed to deliver against the Ravens pressure. The Browns outplayed the Ravens for most of the game, except the last five minutes.

Cornerback Asa Jackson blocked a field goal that shifted momentum in our direction and made a great play on a critical third down, breaking up a pass play with Cleveland deep in their own territory.

In the end, Joe Flacco connected to Steve Smith, Sr. on a 32-yard pass to put the Ravens in field goal position to win the game. Smith, Sr. is quickly becoming the heart and soul of the Ravens offense.

Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro gained 91 yards but was gassed in the fourth quarter. The Ravens failed to convert on 3rd and 4th down from the Browns 20 yard line—a familiar story—with Taliaferro stuffed at the point of contact. In retrospect, the shifty Forsett should have been in the game but our coaching staff deserves a ton of credit for making the in-game adjustments necessary to win.

Our offensive arsenal took a hit with Dennis Pitta re-injuring his hip. Jacoby Jones dropped a pass reminiscent of his Denver playoff bomb and Torrey Smith had a quiet day but did draw a penalty late that led to a score. It’s time to play Deonte Thompson and to also see what Michael Campanaro can do.

Cleveland native, Kyle Jusczcyk scored his first touchdown as a Raven and had three catches for 51 yards. He is part of the Ravens Ohio football fraternity that includes Harbaugh, John Simon, Keith Wenning, Kevin Byrne, Jamie Meder, and honorary members Gerry Sandusky and Stan White.

Good teams win these games, and the Ravens had just enough to pull it off.

We knew going into the season that our secondary was suspect and Hoyer made us pay. Our safeties nearly costs us the game and must improve for us to make the playoffs. I have confidence in John Harbaugh to address the situation.

We also knew going into the season that we have more people who can make game-changing plays. Asa Jackson was that guy in Cleveland.

With more garbage swirling around them from new reports designed to keep the Ray Rice story alive for as long as possible, the team refused to fold on the shores of Lake Eerie.

“I’m just a player,” said Flacco on the CBS postgame show as the reporter tried to get him to comment on the latest ESPN story. “My work is on the field.”

All of this negative publicity will keep the team sharp. They compete with an urgency on every play.  They are playing for each other, and that’s a good sign.

Week 2: Ravens manhandle Steelers in franchise-defining win

photo-15 (2)

Ravens 26, Steelers 6

Blue angels soared through afternoon skies around the city, practicing for the 200th anniversary of the Star Spangled Banner. Johnny Unitas’ passed away on this day 12 years ago. September 11th-a day that we will never forget for as long as we live.

The last time we played the Steelers on 9/11, we routed them 35-7. We desperately needed a football game to begin the healing process with turmoil continuing to swirl outside Russell Street. Inside, there were no TMZ videos or AP reports. There was–thankfully and mercifully–football.

The Steelers and the Ravens battled like they always do. Bodies flew. There were devastating hits all over the field. Early on, linebacker Courtney Upshaw lifted Ben Roethlisberger out of his shoes and set the tone. Haloti Ngata tipped and intercepted a pass. C.J. Mosley caused a fumble and made crucial tackles. Matt Elam kept Antonio Brown in check. Elvis Dumervil had two sacks. The defense excelled once again – bending but not breaking — and the offense revealed an emerging explosiveness on the ground and in the air. It was old-school, smash-mouth football.

The Ravens showed their resilience when they needed it most. Another bad performance was out of the question. This was vintage Ravens football–a punishing and relentless defense, 4 field goals and a pair of touchdowns.

Perhaps our new tight end said it best.

“Being on the football field was the best thing for us,” said Owen Daniels.

It was the best thing for all of us.

Joe Flacco played very well (21-29 for 166 yards) and the offensive line gashed the Steeler defense. Bernard Pierce and Justin Forsett amassed 150 yards between them. Daniels was a “Hoss.” He made beastly catches over the middle and hauled in two touchdowns.

Steve Smith, Sr. had six receptions for 71 yards and was difficult to take down all night. He played with an angry sense of purpose as he raced into the Steelers secondary.

“Steve Smith is the attitude of the offense,” said Deion Sanders on the NFL Network.

A few days earlier, Chris Canty fought back tears. Steve Smith was not in the mood for judging. Torrey Smith talked about the loss of Ray Rice within the context within the Ravens family.

“We care about the Rice family,” said John Harbaugh after the game. “Our guys do.”

“We’re gonna go show the world who we are,” said Joe Flacco on the NFL Network.

“It’s a huge win for the city,” he said.

I agree.