Ravens win Bourbon Street brawl

breesRavens 34, Saints 27

Heading into the bye week after ten games, the Ravens hadn’t yet played their best football. They returned to the scene of their most recent world championship and played an aggressive and flawless second half in beating the Saints. It was brawling and butt ugly and hard hitting—core behavioral traits of Ravens football.

They won a slugfest in the Big Easy. Tempers flared. There was trash talking and cheap shots after plays.

Torrey Smith caught 5 balls for 98 yards and played with a Steve Smith, Sr.-like intensity we haven’t seen since 2012. Justin Forsett racked up a career best 182 yards on the ground—finding the end zone twice against a porous Saints defense. Joe Flacco was crisp when the game was on the line and Justin Tucker channeled the great Saints kicker Tom Dempsey with a 55-yarder that might have been good from 70.

Once again though, it was the Ravens defense that set the tone.

Tied 17-17 in the third quarter, the game turned in the Ravens favor for good when safety Will Hill intercepted a Drew Brees pass and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown. The Ravens sacked Brees three times and it was Terrell Suggs who rushed him into the game-changing interception. Hill also came up big against Jimmy Graham, deflecting three passes with the Saints deep in Ravens territory.

From the beginning, the Ravens dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The offensive line opened wholes for Justin Forsett and the defensive front seven eliminated the Saints ground game. But Breeze found the end zone twice and the Saints led 17-14 at half.

The Ravens showed flashes in the first half. The defense stuffed the Saints on 4th and I from the goal line–smothering Mark Ingram in the backfield. Joe Flacco then drove the Ravens 97 yards for a 7-0 lead on an amazing catch by Steve Smith in the corner of the end zone. Penalties kept two Saints drives alive that led to scores and the Ravens fumbled on the goal line.

Smith, Sr. went beserk in the third period, chasing down Kenny Vaccaro after a catch. Blows were exchanged. A sideline brawl nearly ensued and Vaccaro was flagged. The Ravens dodged a bullet there and the former Carolina Panther spent time on the bench simmering down.

The Ravens overcame an inconsistent first half and rekindled memories of their Super Bowl season by holding the Saints out of the end zone when it counted and scoring the same number of points, “34” as they did against the 49ers.

“I just tried to seize the moment,” said Justin Forsett after the game.

In the second half, the entire Ravens team did just that.

Not pretty in Pittsburgh, but team will rebound

photo(60)Steelers 43, Ravens 23

It was ugly—and never pretty.

The Ravens lost to their arch rival last Sunday night and discovered this week that cornerback Jimmy Smith is lost for the season. Yet, they still have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs if they can hold serve at home and win one or two games on the road. The final home game against the much-improved Browns could be a big one.

The Ravens started fast with a touchdown that reminded fans of the 2011 Joe Flacco-to-Torrey Smith strike that beat Pittsburgh in the waning moments. In the first quarter, we controlled the line of scrimmage and dominated the Steelers. Early in the second, rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro fumbled the ball and this turnover ignited the Steelers. The Ravens never recovered.

Ben Roethlisberger torched a depleted secondary for six touchdowns. Whenever he had time to throw, he came up with either a big gain or a touchdown. The Ravens sacked him on three successive plays but the Steelers adjusted and we never got to him again.

The Ravens offensive line didn’t fare as well. Sacked four times, Joe Flacco was pursued by his old nemesis James Harrison who dropped him twice and got inside his head. Flacco is a player who relies on rhythm and comfort level and he looked rattled from the second quarter on. Joe shriveled up–he seemed small and indecisive out there. After the Steelers tied the game at 7, he threw an interception to Jason Worilds. There were open receivers on the play—but Joe had no time to get the ball there. He spent most of the night running for his life.

Our defense, exhibiting conduct reminiscent of the Billick years, became unhinged and lost their cool. You think back to comments made last year about leadership in the locker room and it makes you wonder about a vacuum. Listening to Ed Reed this week on “Inside the NFL,” whose commentary is better than anyone’s in the room, suggested that there is no one in the secondary committed to putting in the extra time studying looks and tendencies.

The Ravens are pretty much what you would expect two years removed from a Super Bowl victory. They only have 8 players remaining from that squad. They got off to a fast start at 5-2 but the early match-ups with the Bengals and the Steelers found them trying to find themselves.

The watered down, flag-frenzied 2014 NFL is schizophrenic from week to week and we will see improvement and consistency from the Ravens before years’ end. This is one of Harbaugh’s strengths. He will put in the time to get the most out of his players.

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.