Ravens outlast pesky Jags, still in the hunt

photo-26 (2)Ravens 20, Jaguars 12

The haze of the Army-Navy game hung over M&T Bank Stadium. There were empty seats all around the enclosure at game time and neither the crowd nor the team felt playoff urgency looming. Wind swirled off Russell Street and the gray skies muted the crowd. Much of the game was like watching purple paint dry or being trapped in an endless television timeout. Not even the “Game of Thrones” theme song, a show in which Ravens play a symbolic and major role, could fire the boys up.

Sometimes a bad team is the worst one to play. Those guys are playing for their careers next year. And yesterday, the Jags pulled out all the stops to get a win with an onside kick and a fake punt. Toby Gerhardt and Blake Bortles came to play as did the Jaguars defense.

"Real Fan Dan" ignites crowd

“Real Fan Dan” ignites crowd

Bruce Cunningham’s introductions featured the Ravens offense and the spotlight on Coach Kubiak’s unit didn’t have the desired effect. It was the special teams who got the Ravens on the board first with a blocked punt by Darian Stewart that went for a touchdown. Kamar Aiken, kept for his special teams play as well as his hands as a wide receiver scooped up the ball and raced into the end zone. Aiken was everywhere on special teams.

Rookie quarterback Blake Bortles and the Jaguars moved the ball well in the first half and took the lead 9-7 and then 12-10 on four field goals at the half. His quick release was effective early on, getting the ball to his receivers before Suggs and the wrecking crew of Dumervil, Jernigan and McPhee dropped him to the turf eight times. He had difficulty finding the touch on deep balls and sideline passes all afternoon—a blessing for the Ravens.

Terrence Brooks and Asa Jackson were injured during the game. Jackson made a great defensive play on Cecil Shorts III in the third quarter, getting inside position on a route down the sideline. Shorts dove over Jackson’s back and was called for offensive pass interference. The Ravens corner injured his knee on the play. Another practice squad refugee from the Dolphins signed last week, Rashaan Melvin took his place and immediately made some critical tackles and deflections.

How good would the Ravens defense be with a secondary?

The Ravens lacked inspiration on offense, running into a strong Jaguar defensive line. Joe Flacco wasn’t as sharp as he has been, with balls sailing over receiver’s heads or low to the ground. There were plenty of drops too.

In the third quarter, “Real Fan Dan” took off his shirt in Section 531 and led the R-A-V-E-N-S cheer. The stadium sprang to life and so did the offense. Flacco found old faithful, Owen Daniels deep in Jaguar territory coming across the ten yard line. A few plays later he found Daniels again, this time alone in the right corner of the end zone for a 17-12 lead. The Ravens extended the lead on a Justin Tucker field goal to make it 20-12.

On a 3rd and 5 from the Ravens 42 with a little over 3 minutes remaining, Flacco took the snap and raced around right end for 11 yards and a first down. It was the most surprising play of the game.

Still the Jaguars had a chance to tie the game until Bortles threw a long pass to Ravens safety Jeremy Miles—ending the game.

“Winning ugly is a beautiful thing,” said Baltimore writer Charles Cohen. We’ve been doing it since 1996.

Ravens will make playoffs, 5 reasons why

flacco12141. John Harbaugh is built for the playoffs

He has navigated this team through some difficult and challenging times. Ray Rice’s departure and a lingering cloud over the franchise, the loss of Dennis Pitta, Jimmy Smith and Haloti Nagata have forced the team to respond.
This may be one of John Harbaugh’s best coaching jobs ever. He’s built for adversity and that’s what makes him great. Preparation is what he thrives on and this team works hard during the week. He embraced Elvis Dumervil after he broke the Ravens single season sack record in Miami. He knows what each player brings and he’s not afraid to share his enthusiasm with them when they do well.

We must win out and Harbaugh will have the team ready to do that.

2. The Schedule is doable

The last three games are against weaker teams (Jaguars, Texans, Browns) who are not on the Ravens level. That said, there can be no letdown.
The most difficult game will be in Houston against the menacing J.J. Watt, a big receiver in Andre Johnson and quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick who torched the Ravens a few years back as a Buffalo Bill. The last time we traveled there the Texans obliterated us. They will want to beat their former head coach Gary Kubiak.

We will find a way against the Texans.

3. The Running Game

Justin Forsett, Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro are responsible for what has been a potent running game. Marshall Yanda is having a great year and he is leading the charge on a rejuvenated offensive line. December means running weather and good teams need to control the ball.

4. Ravens Defense Continues to Play Well

Corey Mosley is a special, one of a kind rookie. He leads the AFC in tackles. He is feeding off veterans like Daryl Smith, Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. Suggs is on a mission and is playing for Haloti Ngata. He wants Ngata to come back for the playoffs. The secondary has played better—but will be challenged against bigger receivers.

5. Joe Flacco plays his best football at the end of the season

Last week in Miami, Joe Flacco shrugged off an erratic first half and may have played some of his best football of the year in the second half. He finished 25-33 for 269 yards. That’s the kind of performance the Ravens will need to make the big dance. He’s proven that he is capable of that and he performs well when the season hangs in the balance. I see him getting more comfortable with the offense and confident in the new system.

It won’t be easy or pretty, but we will get there…and no one will want to play us.

Ravens truck Dolphins, eyes on playoffs

photo-24 (2)

Ravens 28, Dolphins 13

The picture of Justin Forsett on the sideline late in the 4th quarter against Miami said it all. He had just helped close the door on the Dolphins. His arms were streaked in grass stains and sideline paint from a 44-yard burst that put the Ravens into position to extend an 8 point lead. He had given his team that lead on a 3rd and 2 from the 2 yard line—a short distance we’ve had trouble mastering this year. He didn’t reach 100 yards but each one of Forsett’s 71 yards counted towards a victory.

Where would we be without him?

On defense, Elvis Dumervil was unstoppable—recording three and half sacks. Corey Mosley continued his rookie onslaught with seven tackles. Terrell Suggs excelled again with six tackles, one and a half sacks and two quarterback hits.
It was a spell-binding win and one that didn’t look promising in the first half as the Ravens trailed 10-0 and looked ready to self-destruct after Joe Flacco threw an interception in the red zone. On that drive, the offense gained confidence and continued to move the ball, scoring a touchdown just before half to trail 10-7.
Miami never felt comfortable with the Ravens front seven dominating the line of scrimmage. The Dolphins mounted a drive that ended in a field goal to trail by 1.

The game hung in the balance.

Then Joe Flacco and the offense went to work. Steve Smith Sr. caught passes that moved the chains and after an eighteen yard sideline tip-toe catch in Miami territory he pumped his fists to his defensive colleagues—igniting the sideline. Flacco followed that play with a surprise pass to the former practice squad tight end Phillip “Superman” Supernaw for 29 yards who nearly rambled into the end zone to extend the Ravens one point lead. They rolled into the end zone two more times to seal the win.

“That [game] was our beginning right there,” said John Harbaugh in the locker room afterwards.

In their 13th game, the Ravens showed resilience after what may have been the most painful defeat of the season to San Diego and the loss of Haloti Ngata. Throughout their history, the Ravens have played best when counted out.
It was blood and guts and purple all over. It was smashmouth, run-them-over football, the Harbaugh way. It was the most inspiring win of the season.

“We’ve been through a lot this year,” said Terrell Suggs. “Divided we fall, together we stand. We came down here together.”

Step it up, Ravens

photo-31Lackluster. Frustrating. Inconsistent.

You’ve played 12 games and we haven’t seen your best football yet. There’s been no consistency from week to week and you’ve beaten yourselves at times. That’s all in the past now.

It’s time to start knocking your opponents off the ball on every play. No more trying to decide if you want to win the game while it is being played. No more playing it safe in the red zone and settling for field goals. No more timid 4th and 1s. It’s time to lay it on the line or you’re hanging up the cleats for the winter.

I understand that you can’t beat both Drew Brees and Philip Rivers with a secondary that has three players (Hill, Levine and Gorrer) who’ve not been on an active NFL roster up until four weeks ago.  It was obvious that they “had to have” that game. You were outsized by the Charger receivers and still should have won it.

You can beat the Dolphins’ and their QB Ryan Tannehill by pressuring him into giving you the game.

It’s clear that when the game is on the line the referees aren’t giving you any breaks–but you’re better than 7-5 with or without Ngata. He was having a great season but adversity is what you thrive on.

It’s time to make plays Timmy Jernigan, Brandon Williams and Pernell McPhee. It’s time to make plays Steve Smith Sr., Owen Daniels and Kamar Aiken.

It’s time to salvage this season and make a playoff run.

You need to pound the Dolphins or the season is lost. You need to dominate the line of scrimmage. Then you need to beat the Jaguars, Texans and Browns. It’s that simple.

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.