Ravens win will salvage season

Ravens 23, Steelers 20, OT

Yes, the Ravens beat the Steelers.IMG_2641

A win is a win is a win. It was blood and guts and butt ugly—and we wouldn’t have it any other way. One of the greatest wins in team history and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

After watching the Ravens refuse to die after putting themselves in a grave for the fourth straight week, I believe there’s a good chance ten weeks from now we’ll have 8-9 wins and we’ll be reminiscing about the 0-3 start like it happened twenty years ago.

With the Browns and 49ers up next, the Ravens have an excellent chance to square themselves up at 3-3. This is the NFL. There can be no letdown. The Ravens bristled at the idea they they are throwing in the towel. Just read the latest from Kevin Byrne.

As Thursday night approached Friday morning, it looked like another winnable game and another collapse. When Joe Flacco was sacked in Pittsburgh territory with his team trailing 20-17 and a little over two minutes remaining, the game was over.

Jim Nantz gave the Ravens nation a purple bead of hope, pointing out that there were still 4 seconds before the two-minute warning—they could get the ball back with enough time.

The Steelers Josh Scobee took care of the rest—missing a field goal that could have extended the lead. With Steve Smith Sr. injured, Joe Flacco and Justin Forsett returned to drive the team into field goal range for the tie at the end of regulation.

It still looked bleak as the Steelers marched into field goal range twice. Each time Pittsburgh went for it on 4th down and were stuffed by the Ravens. Will Hill and Jimmy Smith made great plays to give the Ravens offense another chance.

One thing that will never end up in the box score was the overtime play of Kapron Lewis-Moore on the defensive line. The 3rd year defensive end from Notre Dame, sidelined with injuries his first two seasons, blasted the Steelers line back into the backfield. On the first 4th down play, his surge widened Vick’s angle to the edge, giving defenders time to turn the quarterback into the defense. His second rush helped force Vick to rush his throw and put too much on it.

In the first half, the Ravens were driving with a 7-3 lead. Joe Flacco threw an ill-timed “no-look” interception that changed the complexion of the game and the Ravens didn’t recover until the 4th quarter. Joe fumbled a snap and gave the ball to Pittsburgh at the start of the third quarter when it bounced off his knee into Ross Cockrell’s hands. It looked as though Joe had James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons in his head. He was sacked five times and had little time to throw.

But Joe is resilient and he dusted himself off and did enough to win the game.

“It was a gritty performance,” said Justin Forsett whose 152 yards on 27 carries led the Ravens to victory. “We kept chopping. We kept working. We have to run the football.”

I wish we could blow somebody out once in a while.

What I loved the most about this game? The team never quit on themselves—they scuffled, scratched and gouged their way to a win.

“We looked at ourselves in the mirror,” said Forsett. “See what you can do to get better.”

Ravens can’t close again, 0-3 for first time in history

IMG_2633-2The Pope and the Ravens performed side-by-side on big screens in front of the Cathedral of Mary Queen on Charles Street this afternoon—but not even Papa Francesco could pull this one out for the purple and black.

“We’re just not good enough to win games in crunch-time situations,” said Joe Flacco after the Ravens let another game slip away against the Bengals, 28-24. For whatever reason, they can’t stop A.J. Green or beat the Bengals – losing 5 out of the last 6 to Cincy.

Green racked up 227 yards and Dalton threw for 382. Unstoppable.

From the opening gun, the Ravens secondary was overmatched and outplayed. Their technique, positioning and execution were awful. Andy Dalton had time and targets all over the field. Jimmy Smith’s end zone interception was the only highlight.

The Ravens started sluggishly, committed numerous poorly-timed penalties, missed a field goal, turned the ball over and yet they found themselves with the lead late and the game within their grasp–twice. The offense played well enough to win and Steve Smith Sr. single-handedly kept the Ravens alive.

But the defense couldn’t hold the lead twice in the second half. C.J. Mosley returned a fumble recovery to give the Ravens a 17-14 lead. That should have been the game. In years past, Suggs, Lewis, Reed or Ngata would have stepped up and made a play.

Cincinnati struck on the next play with an 80-yard bomb to A.J. Green to regain the lead.

After the Ravens grabbed a 24-21 lead with 3:56 left on Smith Sr.’s second touchdown catch, Andy Dalton led the Bengals straight down the field for an easy and uncontested pass to Green from seven yards out. It looked as though the Ravens had no idea the Bengals would be throwing to someone who had already amassed 200 yards receiving.

Still there was time to mount a game-winning drive but execution failed when Kelechi Osemele was called for a facemask penalty to bury the offense deep in its own territory. Flacco threw a bomb to rookie tight end Maxx Williams and he got a glove on it and “almost” made a great catch.

Almost hasn’t gotten it done this year.

Flacco looked sharp for most of the game—except for a lazy interception in the first half and missing badly on a third down to Smith Sr. on the last drive. This season his weapons are limited to one receiver. In all three losses, Joe has put his team in a position to win with limited options except for number 89.

The third stop on Steve Smith Sr.’s farewell tour was brilliant.  He snared 13 balls for 186 yards and two TDs. But it wasn’t enough and he wasn’t basking in his accomplishments.

“I hate losing,” he said.

Behind again from the start, the Ravens started out in a 14-0 hole but battled back to take the lead. On a crucial 4th and 2 from the goal line just before half, they held the Bengals on a decent play by Brendan Trawick and it looked like the season might just be taking a turn for the better.

We won the game twice only to lose it. Now we need to win on Thursday in Pittsburgh to avoid and 0-4 start. With Ben Roethlisberger out a victory is doable with one caveat.

The last time we faced Michael Vick as an Eagle he scorched us for 512 total yards of total offense.

And another thing–nothing has been easy or pretty this year.

Ravens start ugly in 2015

IMG_2595Two games, two losses, and touchdowns that could have won both games are still on the field. The Ravens had a chance to beat the Broncos on their last series and at least force the Raiders to score a touchdown to tie the game today if both of Steve Smith Sr.’s golden Under Armor slippers had landed into the end zone. They also stalled at the 7-yard line to end the half. More touchdowns might have changed the outcome of the game today. Another TD, and the defense could have found a way to stop the Raiders for the second time. Well, maybe not.

The offense generated 500 yards and Joe Flacco was impeccable but again we were not good enough to win. Steve Smith Sr. was unstoppable and Kamar Aiken looked great. Thirty-three points should have been enough. We shut out Peyton Manning last week and made Derek Carr look like a Hall of Famer. A porous and Suggs-less defense looked clue-less as the Raiders resembled the Golden State Warriors.

Our defense struggled without its leader. Our offense lacked a killer instinct, a touchdown over field goal mentality.

How many times over the last few years have you asked why do we all too easily settle for field goals instead of trying to get into the end zone? Our team is designed to move the ball between the 20s for Justin Tucker – and that’s not going to be good enough this year. A ball control offense with one aging scoring threat that plods its way down the field will not be successful in the arena ball, fantasy-driven NFL.

How many times over the last three years have you prayed that the Raven, no matter who he is from the offense or defense breaking free down the sideline with the ball, gets into the end zone because you know if he’s tackled, it’s field goal time?

During that span, they’ve lost key offensive players like Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta and Ray Rice. That takes a toll. Our best playmaker is about to retire. Steve Smith, Sr. is still one of the best but his playing days are numbered.

The worst loss of all may have been Terrell Suggs against the Broncos. Without two of the Raider’s offensive players trying to neutralize T. Sizzle and his keen sense of reading an offense, the Ravens defense looked pedestrian against the Raiders. Derek Carr shredded them for 351 yards, 3 touchdowns and 37 points. There was no pass rush and little defense at all.

Denver 19, Ravens 13

At first glance, I thought that a six-year veteran like Joe Flacco should never have put his team in a position to lose the game like he did with his late third quarter interception. In his defense, he had zero time to throw and not one receiver open. Yet he rallied and marched his team downfield in the final drive with a chance to win the game. He lofted a the same jump ball that he’d thrown numerous times to Anquan Boldin for touchdowns. Only this time he was throwing to Crockett Gilmore. He’d already put the ball into Steve Smith’s hands for the game winner but Smith couldn’t see the ball until it was too late and it skittered from his fingers. Gilmore had it for a second along with Aqib Talib’s arm but couldn’t haul it in.

After the game Talib was asked if they were surprised by the call to throw over the middle to the tight end.

“No. We watched the preseason film. We knew what they were going to do.”

All day their defense looked like they knew what was coming before the Ravens offense could execute it.

The Ravens defense played an outstanding game—one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. Daryl Smith was a monster.

Raiders 37, Ravens 33

On the first drive of the game Amari Cooper burned Jimmy Smith for a touchdown and that play set the tone was set for the afternoon. Smith looked like he had something else on his mind during the play. From that point on, the Raiders scored on every possession except for one and still the Ravens fought back, twice down 10-0.

They had a chance to put the Raiders away late with a touchdown but they couldn’t get it done. The defense couldn’t stop the silver-and-black.

The Ravens are on their flight back to Baltimore wondering what went wrong and they need to right the ship quick because the Bengals do know how to score touchdowns and have several options to call on.

You have to wonder how the Steelers always seem to find more people for Ben Roethlisberger to throw to every year but our front office doesn’t sense that urgency. Darius Heyward-Bey, a former Terp might be looking pretty good right now in purple-and-black. These first two losses are games that we’ve won in years past. With the Bengals and Steelers looming, these losses need to provide the angst needed to win them both.

Ravens need to be road warriors in 2015

I can accept the 31-13 defeat to the Skins last night. I can live with the 40-17 preseason loss last Saturday in Philadelphia. It’s not showtime yet, but in two weeks the Ravens will head to Denver to start a two-month journey that will mostly take place on the road. My main concern about the 2015 Ravens will be how they respond away from Russell Street.IMG_2493

We have a 10-14 regular season road record since 2012. We have a tendency to start slow on the road and gradually wake up–sometimes too late. The scheduling gods have shafted the Ravens this year.  With five of the first seven games away, the Ravens will need to play better football on the road than they have in the last three seasons or 2015 will be over quick.

In Philly, we checked out early from the challenge. NFL official Jerome Boger set the tone by “bogeying” at least two calls against the Ravens that helped usher the glass-blown Sam Bradford and his cohorts down the field for their first score. Joe Flacco’s first of two interceptions was the result of going for the home run to Kamar Aiken and I’m fine with that brand of aggressiveness.

Against the Skins at home, the Ravens jumped out to a 13-0 lead and then collapsed once the second unit entered the game. Steve Smith Sr. looked unstoppable in the first quarter after a 64-yard touchdown and was ejected after tussling with a Redskin after what was surely unnecessary roughness by Keenan Robinson on Ravens receiver Kamar Aiken. Not sure why Smith Sr. got tossed when others like Crockett Gilmore were far more animated.

IMG_2492Coach Harbaugh shouted at Redskins coach Jay Gruden. Poor Gruden–the look on his face was like, “Why is he picking on me? I have enough problems to deal with.” The Redskins fought with the Texans a few weeks ago–maybe their strategy in 2015 will be to try and get the best players from other teams ejected.

It was great seeing Harbs ready for a street fight.

Fury Road

Do we have the horses to meet the challenge in 2015?

Our defense looks strong but it isn’t deep–especially on the defensive line where injuries are beginning to pile up. The “improved” secondary has looked vulnerable as well. Remember these names: Suggs, Mosley, Smith and Upshaw. This is the heart of our defense.

We have an offense that will control the ball and hopefully keep the likes of Peyton Manning and others off the field. We don’t have a receiver that can stretch the field or at least one that’s healthy right now.  Brashad Perriman is nowhere to be found in the Ravens dungeon of unexplained injuries. Our tight ends are untested. Joe Flacco, Steve Smith Sr. and Justin Forsett must have career years.

The Ravens will be a work-in-progress during the first half of the 2015 season. Minimizing injuries will be key because we are thin on both sides of the ball. Justin Tucker will be a prolific scorer in 2015 and the Ravens defense will carry us this year–provided we don’t let the zebras get in our heads.

The Ravens need to play angry and unleash their fury on the road in 2015.

Jim Mutscheller: An elegant warhorse

FB photo from Michael Mutscheller

FB photo from Michael Mutscheller

On April 10th, we lost more than a gridiron hero.

Baltimore Colt Jim Mutscheller personified Baltimore football. He was a hard-nosed ex-marine made of Western Pennsylvania scrap iron who obliterated anything in his path and snared many of the passes thrown in his direction. He was also a great father and family man who had an impeccable reputation in the community.

I interviewed him for my book, Never Easy, Never Pretty at his home in Timonium, MD in the Spring of 2013. I could have stayed with him all afternoon. His health was beginning to fail him then but his eyes were serious and penetrating.

“Johnny Unitas could feel things, he could sense things,” he told me. “He had an incredible ability to concentrate.” He had seen similar traits from Joe Flacco in the Super Bowl victory over the 49ers.

“Flacco proved himself,” the Colt great told me.

A scrappy and undersized tight end at six foot one and 200 pounds, Mutscheller played 8 professional seasons (1954-61) in Charm City. He caught 40 touchdown passes and was the best blocker on the team.

Coach Weeb Ewbank had Mutscheller demonstrate his blocking technique to the Colt rookies. During scrimmages in practice, he’d line up across from the menacing Gino Marchetti and Bill Pellington.

“Don’t worry Jimmy, I won’t hurt you,” Pellington told him.

He helped lead the Colts to the 1958 championship victory against the New York Giants. Quarterback Johnny Unitas surprised everyone by throwing a pass to Mutscheller from the 7 yard line in sudden death overtime.  The tight end caught the pass and slid out of bounds at the two. On the next play, his crushing block paved the way for Alan Ameche to score the touchdown.

Unitas told him, “I tried to make you the hero.”

“Did you see my block on the play?” he asked me.

Mutscheller and his wife Pert raised four sons in the Guilford neighborhood. One his favorite things to do was take Pert to a restaurant near Hopkins called Tambers.

When he finally moved to the county, his son Michael asked him, “What will you miss the most about the old neighborhood?”

“Tambers,” he said.

He loved the city and its fans.

“Baltimore was the ideal place to play football,” he told me. “It was a perfect time.”

2014 Ravens personify “never easy, never pretty”

photo-28 (2)“You guys just kept your heads down and your eyes forward,” John Harbaugh told his team after losing to the Patriots. He told them that they could not have played better.

Patriot safety Duron Harmon came across the end zone and made an over-the-top play on the pass to Torrey Smith—that was the difference.

The Ravens came within a touchdown of making it to the AFC Championship game. You can torture yourself with what the offense should have done on that final drive or you can tip your hat to a job well done and move on.

I’ll miss being in the swarm of purple on Russell Street, in the sports bar at the Philly airport during a flight delay watching them demolish the Dolphins in the second half or listening through the Pennsylvania mountains to Gerry Sandusky’s bone-chilling call of the Chargers game.

They had humbled and quieted me during the Patriots game—I was in awe as I watched this team push New England to the brink of defeat in one of the most tantalizing contests of the last ten years. I’ll have trouble watching the Patriots and the Blue Horseshoes—it will be difficult to pull for either team. You’ll find that story in the book.

But this Ravens team was special.

They were grinders. Justin Forsett was almost out of football before the Ravens and Gary Kubiak gave him another chance. Now he’s going to the Pro Bowl. Kamar Aiken battled his way into playing time from practice squads in 2013. Torrey Smith rose up in the 4th quarter against the Browns and caught a bomb and then a touchdown pass—and sealed the 6th playoff appearance of the last seven years. C. J. Mosley played with a ferocity rarely seen from rookies.  Field general Joe Flacco led the offense and had the most productive season of his careers. Terrell Suggs cemented his position as leader of the defense. Steve Smith Sr. defined what it means to “Play like a Raven.”

When the season began, the NFL nation wanted the Ravens to disappear. Negativity swirled around the franchise. Ray Rice jerseys were turned in. The old and tired “thug” label was reattached by haters from other teams. A player who had once made a major contribution to the purple and black was gone.

Three days after Rice was let go, the Ravens beat the Steelers on national television. Harbaugh kept the team moving forward.

Each season is a progression towards something bigger. In the years ahead, we will look back on this team. The run to the next Super Bowl began in Week 19 of the 2014 season against the Steelers. They got better every week—with losses and with ugly wins—they kept fighting. It all came together against Pittsburgh and it carried through most of the New England game.

The bitter taste of this defeat will lead to future victories. In Foxborough, the 2014 Ravens learned just how good they are when they execute.

Sometimes, it’s just not meant to be. I’m proud and lucky to be a Ravens fan.

10 keys to beating the Hoodie and the Brady Bunch

Photo by Phil Hoffman from "Never Easy, Never Pretty"

Photo by Phil Hoffman from “Never Easy, Never Pretty”

When the Ravens make the playoffs, throw out all of your preconceived notions. Anything can and will happen. The Ravens are tournament-tested and built for the postseason. It’s been a great season and we can prevail tomorrow. I’m tired of the Patriots, their coach, their quarterback and their self-righteous owner. As John Harbaugh told the referee last Saturday night in Pittsburgh, “We’re not going to let them push us around. We’re not.” Let’s send the Patriots home for the winter.

1.) Make Tommy Boy shiver in his Uggs

We need to knock his Bradyness down once early. Brady can’t run very well any more but he gets the ball out quickly. He will be throwing into our strength—the Ravens line-backing corps. More than the front four, the Ravens linebackers need to have their best game of the year.

2.) Take away their running game

Belichick couldn’t wait to get running back LaGarrette Blount back in a Patriots uniform. LB needs to be stopped for us to have a chance. He will be hard to handle in the cold. If we shut down their run, we will win the game. In last years’ 41-7 thrashing of the Ravens, Blount ran for 76 yards.

3.) Stop their Smurf receivers

Edelman and Amendola can be difference makers. We need to blanket them. They are often open when teams are distracted by Gronk. We can’t allow Brady to dink-and-dunk his way down the field.

4.) Keep the Patriots out of the end zone and turn it into a slugfest

Trust me on this one, the Patriots will want no part of a grind-it-out game with the Ravens. Over the last two years, New England has been rebuilt in the Ravens image. They’ve beefed up the defense–adding two punishing corners in Brandon Browner and Darelle Revis. If we can keep the game played between the 20 yard lines and turn it into a physical match-up—we’ve got a chance. We need to withstand their initial onslaught – make adjustments and dominate.

5.) Flacco must use all of his weapons

We need an element of surprise and a big effort from someone the Patriots haven’t scouted. I’m looking for Marlon Brown to have a big game. I’m looking for Kamar Aiken and Michael Campanaro to do big things as well. Jacoby Jones can also get behind a defense and run back kicks for touchdowns. “Wherefore art thou, Mr. Jones?”

6.) Feed off of last year’s 41-7 thrashing!

The Patriots embarrassed the Ravens last year in Baltimore, defeating them by a score of 41-7 and dominating all aspects of the game. The Ravens who played will use this as a rallying cry. We need to ruin their season just as they did ours last year. We had to win the last two games and couldn’t pull it off.

7.) Outsmart the Hoodie

Harbaugh, Kubiak, Pees and Spagnuolo have what it takes to outfox the master. We have the best coaches in the NFL. Whether it’s a new offensive scheme or a blitz package, we have the brain power to adjust to whatever he has planned. Trust the coaching.

8.) Establish a running game

We need a running game tomorrow to keep Brady off the field and control the clock. It will be a key success factor. Justin Forsett and Bernard Pierce need to have solid efforts.

9.) Torrey Smith must have a great game

He has come up big against the Patriots before and he did it against Denver in the Divisional round in the 2012 playoffs. His two catches propelled us past the Browns and he had a 3rd and 13 catch and a touchdown against the Steelers. With Smith Sr. grappling against Revis for much of the game, Torrey needs to beat Brauner deep a couple of times.

10.) Play relaxed and loose

The pressure is on New England. The Ravens can just play football. We don’t have a gaudy record and didn’t win a division. We can just play tournament football. We knocked out the Steelers by playing a great football game and we can do the same in the land of Miles Standish.

Ravens 27, Patriots 24