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.

Week 1: Ravens lose more than their opener to Bengals

Bengals 23, Ravens 16

A beautiful day...photo by Rob Duckwall

A beautiful day…photo by Rob Duckwall

When I saw the brutal footage from inside the Revel casino elevator on Monday morning, I knew Ray Rice would not step on the field again as a Raven. He will most likely not play again in the NFL. Memories of 4th & 29 — one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen  — have been forever tarnished.

He’s facing “4th & infinity” now. Rice overcame tremendous odds to play professional football and now he must do so again to lead a productive life outside of the game. I don’t know how the kid who told his mother that he was the “man of the house” at age 8 and went to work sweeping up barber shop floors came to viciously deck his fiancée in an elevator two decades later. Do traumatic brain injuries begin to affect behaviors before players have hung up their cleats?

The Ravens organization has come under harsh scrutiny and the new season rendered meaningless in the wake of these developments.  I’m capable of coming to my own conclusions as to why John Harbaugh and not Ozzie Newsome or Steve Bisciotti answered questions on Monday. If I were them, after dealing with myriad off-the-field incidents and today’s professional athlete, I’d want to go coach grade school kids.

I’m also ready to move on from the game of “who knew what when” that is designed to keep the story in the news. The video obliterated all the mystery and obfuscation surrounding what happened in the elevator and Rice was dealt with accordingly—albeit too late for many.

Speaking of mysteries, I remain puzzled about what happened on the field last Sunday—especially in the first half.

Joe Flacco didn’t come to play and neither did his supporting cast of receivers. I don’t understand how you can come out flat in your home opener, in front of 71,000 people. His biggest mistake was losing track of time in scoring position at the end of the first half and letting the half end without any points.

Did the team have an inkling about what was going to happen on Monday morning? The only reason I ask is that I noticed a deeply concerned Ray Rice having an intense sideline conversation with Terrell Suggs during the Dallas preseason game. There was chatter that he misrepresented what happened in the lift to his teammates. Again, the tape tells all.

The team looked out of synch and lackluster. Our new offense featured an empty backfield on more than one occasion—telegraphing to everyone in the stadium what was going to happen. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning can do that with precision, but that’s not who we are. I thought those days were gone with Cam Cameron.

The defense gave up large chunks of yardage but stiffened when it counted or the score could have easily been 35-0 at halftime.

And yet, unfathomably, we somehow took the lead in the 4th quarter, 16-15 on an 80-yard bomb from Flacco to Steve Smith, Sr.

The lead lasted two plays. The one person on the field we needed to keep in check and not let beat us—A.J. Green–got behind Chykie Brown and scored the winning touchdown.

We still had our chances both before and after that but left several touchdowns on the field.

Head Coach John Harbaugh said at the postgame press conference, “I thought our guys fought back. Obviously, we have a lot of heart, a lot of determination, and that’s a good place to start.”

They are going to need it, now more than ever. They are also going to need our support. They can still salvage this – because that’s who Never Easy, Never Pretty is. They are grinders who nearly found a way last Sunday and they will grind again on Thursday night.

The team needs us now.

Top 10 reasons Ravens will beat Bengals

photo12271. It’s a must win

We need this game. It’s a must-win. You need to beat the divisional champs at home. We need to “hold serve” and protect our house. Ravens play very well in must-win situations. Not to get greedy, but we have a chance, if we go 3-0 to take a one game lead over everyone (Bengals, Steelers, Browns). That’s a rare opportunity.

2. We need to atone for last year’s 34-17 loss

The Bengals ended our season last year. We stormed back to tie the game and then collapsed. That bitter taste lingers. We will erase that memory on Sunday. That’s what the Ravens franchise is all about: atonement and redemption.

3. Andy Dalton is not the answer

I don’t care about his contract or his red rifle. We can rattle this guy with pressure. He hasn’t won a playoff game or ever beaten the Ravens in Baltimore. Cincinnati hasn’t won anything, ever. I don’t see them putting together three successful years in a row. They are due for their typical meltdown. They do have weapons – namely A.J. Green who has burned us in the past. Giovanni Bernard is also a threat, but we need to do exactly as Steve Smith, Sr. said: “Take their lunch and their juice box,” from the opening whistle.

4. I’ll take Gary Kubiak’s game plan over Hue Jackson’s any day

I don’t expect the Bengals offense to be as prolific without Jay Gruden calling the signals. Kubiak will scheme people into the open against the Bengals. He’ll focus on the linebackers that are weak against the run and move the defense from side to side. He’ll exploit weaknesses in the secondary.

5. Steve Smith Sr. personifies the offense

Steve Smith is a winner. His first game as a Raven will be a win. He is on a mission just like Anquan Boldin was when he got here.

6. 71,000 Ravens fans are ready to rumble

The 12th man in M&T Bank Stadium will be a major factor and the noise on Sunday will be deafening. The Bengals are already spooked by Ravens Nation. You know why? Well, they don’t sell out at home even after three straight playoff appearances. People are dressed in tiger outfits like its Tony-the-Tiger day but they have to give away hundreds tickets to fill…the jungle? Perhaps John Ziemann and the Ravens band will unleash G-n-R’s “Welcome to the Jungle” so the Bengals get a taste of what being in the jungle is really like. We will crush them.

7. Our defensive front seven will dominate the line of scrimmage

The key match-up here is Brandon Williams against Bengals center Russell Bodine. We have a big advantage over their offensive line and could get to Dalton early on in passing situations.

8. Bengal safety Terrence Newman is in Champ Bailey territory

We have an advantage here with Torrey Smith. Newman at age 36 has been burned in the preseason and I look for us to exploit him early.

9. The Ravens offensive line will show up

Why?—because they have to. The line needs to atone for last year’s debacle and they need to keep Carlos Dunlap away from Joe Flacco. It’s the key to the season. They need to demolish the Bengals and get off on the right foot.

10. We have better special teams

We will win games this year because of our special teams. It’s a difference maker and we have put together a solid group here. Justin Tucker will always be a major factor. Jacoby Jones, Deonte Thompson and Michael Campanaro will score touchdowns.

Baltimore 31, Cincy 10

Ravens perfect in preseason, make final cuts

photoI won’t miss the preseason but finishing undefeated (4-0) for the first time since 2009 bodes well for what’s ahead. During this installment of summer football, we were able to rekindle Super Bowl LXVII memories by playing the 49ers in the first game. We also traveled to New Orleans, the scene of a purple confetti deluge and a Lombardi Trophy eighteen months ago. The rest of it looked like the East-West Shrine game.

The most amazing thing to me about the 22-13 victory over the Saints in the last preseason game is that three of the game’s standout performers ended up on the Ravens practice squad.

John Simon, a second year linebacker out of Ohio State played a solid game with three tackles, a sack and four quarterback hits. Simon needed a strong performance to make the club and he delivered but the team is loaded with linebackers right now. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, his name sounding more like a sax player in a Cajun blues band on Frenchman Street, gained 103-yards on 17 carries. Quarterback Keith Wenning also landed on the practice squad after going 8-13 for 113 yards.

All three failed to make the final roster. That’s how talented this team is. We’re loaded at wide receiver and linebacker and there was much attention paid to keeping those who contribute on special teams. Grizzled veteran linebacker Albert McClellan made the team despite rumors that he might get cut because he exemplifies the resilience of what it means to be a Raven. When the weather is bone-chilling cold, McClellan will be out there making stops and getting up last from the pile.

The major concerns about this team have waned in the last two weeks. The defensive secondary though, remains a work-in-progress. Smith, Webb and Jackson, all dealing with injuries, did practice this week.

The receivers continued to shine in the Big Easy. Receiver Kamar Aiken, a long-shot to make the team when camp began, led all receivers with 4 catches for 57 yards. Aiken is rangy and has a nose for the ball. Michael Campanaro, the River Hill standout caught 3 passes for 55 yards—including a 39-yard pass. Aiken and Campanaro both made the team along with 5 other wide receivers.

I don’t believe that Campanaro was ever on the bubble. The Ravens traded up to get him and he brings another dimension to the offense a la Brandon Stokley and Wes Welker. I also think the plan is in place to get him touches. They’ve kept him under wraps a little bit in the preseason, but his packages are being developed. Don’t be surprised if he plays a major role early.

This meaningless preseason game was more about Ozzie Newsome than the outcome. Our depth chart is deeper than what the Saints have. We have better players up and down the roster than we had last year. We are younger and faster and more potent on offense. We have more people that can beat you. We might just be able to play with anybody.

Preseason#3: Ravens vs. Redskins redux and rant

05 (2)Let’s face it. Preseason football is crap. It’s an all-around bad product that costs as much to attend as the real thing. Most of it is like watching Tennessee play Jacksonville. It’s not easy, or pretty – just plain ugly. Players get injured. The games are difficult to watch and nearly impossible to analyze because the game plans are intentionally watered down. Bottom line: we will be a better team than we were last year. Why? We have more talent (e.g. Smith, Sr., Mosley, Jernigan, Jusczcyk, Zuttah, Gilmore, Taliaferro, Brooks to name a few).

I’ll admit there have been some interesting recent developments like Peyton Manning chasing a defensive back into the end zone to tell him off or a head coach inviting a rival city to follow his team.

John Harbaugh said that Redskins fans should choose the Ravens as their AFC team. There have been defections to the Ravens from Skinsland in 2000 and 2012, but the hog faithful don’t want anything to do with the Ravens. We don’t want anything to do with them either. Growing up in Baltimore as a Colts fan, the Redskins meant nothing to me. You barely knew they existed. We didn’t play them often and they never mattered. I respect their fans and their tradition, but not their owner. The new quarterback has reenergized the franchise but at times to me he is more energy drink than NFL QB.

The Ravens defense treated RGIII like he didn’t matter last Saturday night en route to 23-17 victory—nullifying the quarterback and the Redskins’ first string offense. He threw for twenty yards. I don’t think he will move on from here to have a great career. He’s a step slower since the injury and the gimmick has worn off.

After RGIII was intercepted by C.J. Moseley to start the second half, Gerry Sandusky said on the radio, “That play was a mixture of veteran savvy and rookie athleticism.” Daryl Smith tipped the ball and pinned the receiver’s arm to allow Moseley to make the pick. Sandusky’s comment could be a recurring theme for the Ravens in 2014 as Timmy Jernigan, Terrence Brooks and Brandon Williams all looked strong.

The offensive line was ineffective in getting the running game going but Joe Flacco and Steve Smith, Sr. showed up. Flacco threw for 180 yards and Smith, Sr. corralled six balls for 80 yards including a touchdown. Flacco ran the two-minute offense to perfection to close out the half.

We were stuffed on 4th and 1 twice in the first half. On one play, Bernard Pierce was hit in the backfield and left the game with a concussion. Flacco was under pressure and got knocked down a couple of times. Our offensive line will need to regroup in the next two weeks and figure out what went wrong. Kubiak’s offense depends on the running game to control the ball and to open passing lanes.

Kirk Cousins gave us some problems and led the Skins into the end zone twice. Cousins can play, as evidenced by the Redskins stunning victory over the Ravens in 2012. Tyrod Taylor did some good things for the Ravens, throwing a touchdown pass of his own and playing within himself. It was the best game he’s played yet.

It’s hard to tell whether or not there is anything to be concerned about regarding the offensive line. Preseason games are staged events to test players in certain situations. In a real game, the Ravens would have schemed out the running plays in advance, focusing on mismatches. It’s going to be vanilla in the preseason. You have rookies trying to block all-pros. The first string is under pressure to perform immediately because their time is limited. The games have no continuity.

The Redskins first-stringers came loaded for bear to stop the run and they accomplished that goal. Washington has a good defense. It looks like they may need it.

Our first string defense proved it could shut down a dynamic quarterback. The cornerbacks had a good game—something we needed to work on.
I’m fairly certain the Ravens will be psyched to hammer the Bengals in two weeks. The players have had enough of the dress rehearsals—it’s time to play ball.

Preseason #2: Ravens use all phases to dump Cowboys, 37-30

Torrey Smith on a fade route for 6.

Torrey Smith on a fade route for 6.

I talked with sports commentator Ryan Sebring (105.7 The Fan) last week about the Ravens defense. Sebring, a Cowboy fan, predicted that the Dallas offensive line would manhandle our defensive front. We talked about the steady play of unsung linebacker Courtney Upshaw. He also said that our defense is solid but it doesn’t have any playmakers.

In the first quarter of the game on Saturday night, two players stepped up on defense. Jimmy Smith went high to defend Dez Bryant down the sideline to prevent the star receiver from making an acrobatic catch. Smith injured himself on the play—but we could see an aggressive and opportunistic Smith as a shutdown corner in 2014.

On the next series, Courtney Upshaw broke through the line and picked up a fumble, racing 26 yards for the score. I remembered a play in the Super Bowl against the Niners when Upshaw was blocked to the ground in the backfield; got up and pursued the play, recovering a fumble deep in Ravens territory. The Niners were on the move and he changed the game. He did the same on Staurday night. Upshaw’s a keeper.

With Smith in the locker room, Dallas drove quickly downfield. Romo hit Bryant to tie the score at 7-7.

These are still the Jerry “Jock Ewing” Jones-led Cowpies. Once America’s team, Dallas has become the home of America’s largest television set which hangs from the center of AT&T Stadium and captures more fan attention than what’s happening on the field. On one series, they looked unbeatable and on the next, hapless.  This time it wasn’t quarterback Tony Romo who made the catastrophic mistake. The entire Cowboy team drifted in and out like the WBAL feed.

Coming out of training camp hibernation, Deonte Thompson took the ensuing kick-off 108 yards for the lead. He wasn’t touched. He had three kickoff returns for a blistering 188 yards.

Like the Cowboys, the Ravens offense also needed smelling salts. For stretches, the once porous Dallas defense gave the first team offense all they could handle. The offense looked sluggish last night coming out of the gate. There were no quick slants or schemes designed to exploit mismatches early on and get people into the open. Flacco found himself in deep drops locked in on his primary receivers and when they were covered had to elude a steady pass rush. The running game looked solid. Bernard Pierce showed flashes of the explosiveness he had in 2012. Rice had an 18 yard run. Taliaferro churned up yardage and fumbled the ball once—but the backs were good overall.

On the first-team’s last possession of the night, Flacco hit Jones on a skinny post for 38 yards and then Torrey Smith for a perfectly executed 19 yard fade into the end zone. That made it 24-10 and the rest was mop-up work. Dallas made it interesting in the end, but there wasn’t much to write home about in this one.

The Ravens have better players than the Cowboys. It was a team win with two touchdowns coming from the defense and special teams. “There was good and bad and that’s what you expect this time of year,” said John Harbaugh. I get it.

There’s work to do.