Archive for October, 2011

Welcome Back (again) Derrick Mason

October 11, 2011

Hopefully Derrick Mason kept his house in Baltimore, because he’s been spending a lot of time in Charm City as of late.

In a surprise move late Tuesday, the Houston Texans traded a conditional draft pick to the New York Jets for the 15-year veteran. It’s clear that Mason was not a fit in New York and had reportedly been benched after criticizing his role in the offense.

Since when is having a big mouth in New York an issue, Rex?

With Peyton Manning likely out for the season, the AFC South is clearly up for grabs and it looks to be a battle between the Tennessee Titans and the Houston Texans for the division crown.

Signing Mason is a great move for the Texans because he was not being utilized the best way in New York. Mason, who has posted 1,000 yard campaigns in eight of his last ten seasons, was lost in the mix of Santonio Holmes’ big new contract and Plaxico Burresses freedom campaign.

I fully expect Mason to produce in Houston much like he did in his six seasons with the Ravens. When healthy, the Texans have one of the league’s elite offenses with running back Arian Foster, tight end Owen Daniels, and wide receiver Andre Johnson. With Johnson out though, the Texans are a bit thin at the WR position. Jacoby Jones has been a disappointment in his four seasons in Houston.

Mason should expect to see many balls thrown his way from Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, as these other high profile players command the attention of opposing defenses.

Some may surmise that Mason was just brought in for “intel” on the Ravens offensive game plan.

However, this seems highly unlikely. Hell, Cam Cameron could have been picked up by the Texans and he probably couldn’t even explain the inconsistency on that side of the ball for Baltimore.

No, this move is purely about the Texans hoping Mason can produce at near the level he did in Baltimore, and that he can be a viable compliment to Johnson.

So Derrick, welcome back to Baltimore! It’s probably best you keep your mouth shut and your head on a swivel with Chuck Pagano’s defense champing at the bit as they get ANOTHER chance to meet you head-on across the middle.

Ravens Look to Continue Post-Bye Week Success

October 11, 2011

Currently, the Ravens are listed as a seven-point favorite this week over the visiting Houston Texans (down from 7.5 when the lines first came out). While Ravens fans (many of whom are still uncomfortable with just how successful the team has become under John Harbaugh) may be uncomfortable being such heavy favorites, if I were a betting man I’d jump all over the purple and black this week.

Counting the quasi-bye week in 2008 (when Hurricane Rita forced rescheduling of, coincidentally enough, the Ravens-Texans game), the Ravens are 3-0 under Harbaugh following a bye week, with an average margin of victory of 19 points.

2008 Week 3 – Ravens 28 Browns 10

The Browns came into M&T Bank Stadium 0-2, and the Ravens ran them out of the building as Harbs and Joe Flacco improved their record at home to 2-0. Cleveland finished their season a dismal 4-12.

2009 Week 8 – Ravens 30 Broncos 7

Denver was sporting a nice shiny 6-0 record when they rolled into Charm City, having beaten Dallas, New England, and San Diego the previous three games. Josh McDaniels’ Broncos were coming off a bye of their own, but the Ravens stomped them back to earth. The 30-7 beating would be the start of Denver’s 2-8 tailspin to finish off the year as they ultimately missed the postseason.

2010 Week 9 – Ravens 26 Dolphins 10

The Dolphins were no slouches last year, at 4-3 with road wins over Green Bay and Cincinnati in Weeks 6 and 8, respectively, and a one-point (referee-aided, of course) loss to Pittsburgh at home in Week 7 when they came into M&T in Week 9. The purple birds outscored the fish 13-0 in the second half on their way to a 26-10 victory. Miami stumbled down the stretch (a trend that has continued into 2011), finishing 7-9.

All of this is to say that the Ravens have fared quite well after their bye weeks since Coach Harbaugh took the reins, and they’ve done so against decent – though admittedly, not playoff-caliber – competition.

The Houston Texans, when at full strength, should rightfully be considered heavy favorites to not only make the postseason in 2011, but to win the Peyton Manning-less AFC South running away.

Unfortunately for Houston – and fortunately for the Ravens – as currently constructed they are far from full strength, playing without their best players on both sides of the football. Wide receiver Andre Johnson went down with a hamstring injury in Week 4 against Pittsburgh, and will miss at least another game or two. Linebacker/defensive end Mario Williams tore his pectoral muscle last week against Oakland, and will miss the rest of the season.

While injuries are an unfortunate part of the game, they are nonetheless a very important part. The Ravens figure to get at least a couple of their injured starters back here in Week 6, and that, coupled with the Texans’ depleted roster, bodes very well for the team to continue their post-bye week success.

I won’t give away my score prediction – that’s reserved for the official Friday game preview here at the Nest – but I will say again that, if I was a betting man, I’d be all over that Baltimore -7 line.

Don't Doubt the Wizard

October 10, 2011

After the NFL lockout ended on July 25, Ravens executives were forced to make their roster a bit cheaper. If they could get younger and faster at the same time, all the better.

The team had aging and expensive veterans and needed to free up roster spaces and funds for free agents and draftees alike. These decisions led to much anguish among Ravens fans when players like Todd Heap and Derrick Mason were shown the door.

Ozzie Newsome, one of the greatest GM’s off all time, had people doubting him.

Fast forward 11 weeks and the Ravens are in 1st place in the AFC North with a 3-1 record. Dubbed an early contender for the AFC Championship, the Ravens have already dominated both participants in last years AFC Championship, the Steelers and Jets.

Every major player let go by the Ravens are either still free agents, playing onĀ teams with losing records, or were overpaid by the Washington Redskins.

If Ozzie Newsome resigned Le’Ron McClain, would we still be subject to #MCClain4RB campaigns when we already have a top tier rusher in this league? Would Willis McGahee have John Harbaugh or Cam Cameron on his bad side with the way he was utilized in the team’s offense?

And finally, you could be nearly certain Derrick Mason would have expressed the same distaste with the Ravens inconsistent offense as he has with the Jets. At least Rex stepped up and put his “foot” down with displeasure, basically benching Mason against the Patriots amidst rumors of bellyaching by he and the other receivers.

These problems are now someone else’s, because Ozzie Newsome is smarter than all of us and the team is proving that.

Let’s look at some of our biggest areas for concern heading into this season:

Tight End

Ed Dickson brings the exact same qualities to the Ravens as Todd Heap did when he was drafted 11 years ago. In the beginning of his career, Heap’s playing style mirrored that of a wide receiver with tight end size and Dickson looks quite similar.

Dickson’s speed and athleticism makes him a threat over the middle and has made him a great new check down target for Joe Flacco. Dickson has outperformed Heap this season as well playing in one less game but having one more catch, thirty yards and a touchdown more than his predecessor has with his new team in Arizona.

Throw in Dennis Pitta, who has shown the ability to work underneath and to be effective on tight end screens, and the Ravens look to be set at tight end for the foreseeable future.

Running Game

It was clear that Willis McGahee wouldn’t be coming back to Baltimore with his hefty price tag. Without McGahee stealing goal line carries from Rice, you would have to assume Rice is now happier knowing that he’ll have more touchdown opportunities. McGahee totaled 17 touchdowns in his past two seasons in Baltimore (as a backup), which had to have bothered Rice. He’ll never admit it, but he had to be frustrated by doing all the work on drives, just to see Willis end up as the one dancing in the end zone.

The biggest addition made in free agency by Ozzie was landing Vonta Leach, coming off a Pro Bowl season for the Texans. TheĀ  Leach signing impacted the Ravens in multiple ways. First, everyone knew they were going to give Ray Rice the ball and with Leach blocking, the quickest way to the end zone is straight through a defender.

The signing of Leach also meant the distraction of a fullback who would openly rather be a running back was no longer welcomed in Baltimore.

Receiving Game

Anyone who has been to Westminster for training camp knows Derrick Mason loves to run his mouth. Apparently, Mason’s mouth has found him on the way to the bench in New York. A struggling receiving corp full of rookies makes it hard to think the team is happy to not have Mason, but like Le’Ron McClain, the team is definitely better off without his distractions.

The jury is still out on Lee Evans, who came over in a trade from Buffalo for a 4th-round draft pick. At the time the trade looked like Ozzie stole Evans from the Bills. This season, Evans has been plagued with injuries and only has two catches in two games. Evans should return this week versus Houston and hopefully he will finally start to prove his worth to the Ravens.

Conclusion

Over the last 15 years, Ravens fans have been spoiled with great “home grown” players from the draft and a competitive product out on the field for most seasons. All of that is attributed to Ozzie Newsome and his unique method of player evaluation, as well as his ability to, time and again, make the correct difficult decisions.

Newsome is the reason this franchise has won 10 playoff games since 2000. Newsome is the reason the Ravens have only missed the playoffs four times since they won Super Bowl XXXV. Every single Ravens fan needs to realize this – Ozzie Newsome is smarter than you. Until Ozzie proves the Ravens faithful otherwise, he should not be criticized for his personnel decisions. I personally will never doubt him again.

In Ozzie we trust!

New Defensive Coordinator, Old Defensive Results

October 7, 2011

Through four weeks, it looks like the Ravens has returned to their ways of old under new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.

For years, when the offense hit the field, it was time to get another beer or head to the bathroom; Ravens fans knew that the majority of the exciting plays were going to happen with the defense on the field.

Could you blame anyone in Baltimore for not caring about offense? From wining a Super Bowl with a team that didn’t score an offensive touchdown for five straight games to being subjected to a “Quarterback of the Future” who couldn’t take a snap from center or keep track of his own feet, “offense” was downright offensive in B’More for many years.

Defense, on the other hand…

The perfect concoction of offensive duds (Kyle Boller, Travis Taylor, Elvis Grbac) mixed with defensive greats (Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs) has everyone in Baltimore wired for one thing: DEFENSE!

While over the past three seasons, talented players such as Joe Flacco and Ray Rice have started to make fans pay attention even when Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are taking water breaks, defense remains the identity of Baltimore football.

Last year’s defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison, left for the University of Michigan to take the same job title. Let’s not even talk about the two years we wasted with this talented bunch under Mattison’s conservative approach…ugh.

Chuck Pagano has stepped in and has been the best thing that could have happened to this team. Mattison’s three-man rushes are a thing of the past, as the defense has once again found itself being free to do what they’ve always done best… force turnovers!

Pagano’s attacking style has returned the Ravens defense to the form it once was under the tutelage of Marvin Lewis or Rex Ryan. This defense is aggressive, it’s filled with playmakers, and most important of all it forces game changing turnovers.

Through the first four games the Ravens already have tallied:

  • Sacks: 11 (T-4th)
  • Fumbles: 8
  • Interceptions: 6 (T-3rd)
  • Total turnover: 14 (1st)

The defense ranks in the league:

  • Points Allowed: 14.2 (2nd)
  • Total Yards Allowed: 284.5 (3rd)
  • Pass Yards Allowed: 212 (7th)
  • Rushing Yards Allowed: 72.5 (3rd)
  • Turnover margin: +7 (2nd)

With their three defensive touchdowns on Sunday against the Jets, the Ravens defense has SCORED as many touchdowns as they have ALLOWED through four games.

It’s clear that Pagano’s aggressive coaching style has the players pumped to take the field, and they are forcing opposing quarterbacks to make mistakes. The Ravens are so relentless that they aren’t even allowing quarterbacks a break by handing the ball off.

Don’t try running the ball on the Ravens either. So far this team has yet to yield a 100 yard rusher. The highest rushing total put up against the Ravens was from Cadillac Williams when he ran for 75 yards in a losing effort in Week 3. By that point, the Rams were so far out of the game the Ravens were letting them run to eat up the clock. Titans running back Chris Johnson is the next highest rusher with 53 yards against the Ravens in Week 2.

Stopping the run, forcing bad passes and turning turnovers into touchdowns has been the Ravens recipe for victory for years.

This regular season only may be a quarter of the way over but the defense is looking like those defenses of the past. It’s too early to guarantee the Ravens playoff games but the future is looking bright so far for Chuck Pagano’s defensive squad.

What's Important Now – Getting Healthy

October 4, 2011

The Ravens made it to their early bye week (week 4 is the earliest a team could possibly have a bye) boasting a very 3-1 record, with all three victories coming in dominating fashion, and two of those over the squads that faced off in last season’s AFC Championship Game. While having a bye week so early can be both a blessing and a curse, it seems to be coming at the right time for the Ravens, who have a number of players suffering from various bumps and bruises who have missed time lately. John Harbaugh has given the team an extra few days off on top of what they normally get during byes, perhaps realizing that his veteran-laden club could use the extra rest a bit moreso than the extra reps.

Here are the five Ravens that the team most needs to get (and stay) healthy moving forward if they hope to continue on with their gaudy .750 winning percentage:

5. Haruki Nakamura

Nakamura is not only a key cog for the team in its nickel and dime packages, but he is also a big special teams contributor. Think back to the fake punt he busted out on the Steelers (can’t remember if it was 09 or 10) that got called back due to penalty. It’s also not ridiculous to think that Joe McKnight’s kickoff return touchdown never happens Sunday night if ‘ruki is on the field. The guy can cover, he can blitz, and he’s a special teams ace. Nakamura is much more important to the team than you’d ever know if you just listened to how many times the announcers call his name.

4. Chris Carr

Over the summer, the Ravens knew they could either keep Carr or Josh Wilson around. Wilson signed with the Redskins and Carr stayed in Baltimore with a new deal. At the time, I was OK with it, but it’s looking more and more like the Ravens made the wrong decision, if only because Carr can’t stay on the field. He injured his hamstring in training camp, came back to play against Pittsburgh in Week 1, re-aggravated the injury and missed Week 2, came back against St. Louis, and then the hammy flared up AGAIN in practice last week causing him to miss the Jets game. Carr was a solid cornerback in 2010, and he got better as the season went on. While he doesn’t possess ideal size, he plays good technique and isn’t afraid to come up to make stops in the run game. You could do much worse for your #3 (or #4) corner.

3. Lee Evans

Evans was supposed to be the guy that came in and added instant explosiveness to the Ravens’ vertical passing game. We saw shades of what Evans is capable of in preseason games against Kansas City and Washington, but he hasn’t played since Tennessee in Week 2. Even then, he was obviously operating at less than 100%, and he managed just 2 catches for 45 yards after being completely shut out against Pittsburgh. Luckily, rookie Torrey Smith has stepped up and at least given opposing defenses something to think about in Evans’ absence, but if #83 can get back on the field with Smith and Anquan Boldin, the Ravens should truly have a legit Top 10 offense for the first time in recent memory.

2. Jimmy Smith

Smith, the Ravens 2011 first round draft pick, is the prototypical cover corner the team has been missing ever since Chris McAlister left. Unfortunately, he was injured covering a kick just a couple minutes into his first NFL game. The high ankle sprain has kept Smith out the last three weeks, as what was initially a position of great depth for the team has become an early season concern (as evidenced by the team signing second-year free agent CB Bryan McCann today). The good news is that Texans’ wide receiver Andre Johnson will likely miss the October 16th match up at M&T Bank Stadium, where Smith’s skills would have been in high demand. High ankle sprains are a frustrating injury for a player, as they tend to just nag and nag, not completely healing or responding greatly to treatments. While Chuck Pagano’s defense has done well to cover for their deficiencies in the secondary with great pressure and creative personnel groupings through four weeks, Smith’s presence will only make what has been a dominating unit that much better.

1. Ben Grubbs

Grubbs is the team’s most complete lineman, but has been sidelined for the last three games with what is basically “turf toe” – a hyperextension of the ligaments in his toe, eerily similar to the injury that hobbled Jonathan Ogden in the waning hours of his Ravens career. The team initially tried to replace him with Mark LeVoir, a failed experiment that lasted only a single game. Andre Gurode has filled in admirably over the last two games, but the team is obviously limited in what they can do running the ball without Grubbs. The former Auburn Tiger can get out in space and lay the wood like nobody else on the team, and the playbook is unquestionably shrunk without Grubbs holding down his left guard spot.

I’ve had (have) a hyperextended big toe, and I can tell you that it’s no picnic. I hurt it nearly 10 years ago, and it still flares up to this day. And I obviously don’t put nearly the physical demands on my toe that Grubbs, a 310 lb NFL offensive lineman, does. It’s an injury that severely effected the careers of the great Ogden as well as fellow Hall-of-Famer Deion Sanders. Let’s hope the treatments Grubbs has been getting lead to a full and speedy recovery – even with Ray Rice, Torrey Smith, Boldin, Evans, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, this offense won’t be nearly what it can without consistently winning the battle up front. Grubbs is a Four-Star General in that battle.

While it’s a bit discouraging that the Ravens are in such desperate need of a bye week just four weeks into the young season, it’s equally encouraging that they’ve performed so well while missing this many pieces. If they can get these pieces back into the mix and operating at the high level of which they are capable, this will be a very, very good football team for the rest of the regular season and beyond.

Ravens 34 Jets 17 (The WHO NEEDS OFFENSE TO SCORE 30? Game)

October 3, 2011

In one of the stranger games you’ll ever see (the two teams set an NFL record for return touchdowns in a single game with five total), the Ravens successfully defended their home turf against Rex Ryan and his band of blowhards, earning themselves a 34-17 victory and a share of the AFC lead at 3-1 heading into their much needed bye week.

How strange was it?

Well, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco didn’t complete a single pass between 2:37 in the first quarter and 11:50 in the fourth quarter, missing on 11 straight between those two bookends, was 10/31 (33%) overall, the Ravens still managed to hang 34 points on the scoreboard, and Flacco was still the best quarterback on the field.

As bad as Joe was, Mark Sanchez was even worse. The Jets’ QB went just 11/35 (31%), and while Flacco was betrayed by his receivers who dropped a couple good throws, most of Sanchez’s passes were nowhere near…well, anything, really.

Both quarterbacks did, however, manage to throw touchdown passes. To the other team. Flacco’s on a miscommunication with Ray Rice that resulted in a 35-yard touchdown interception return by linebacker David Harris, and Sanchez’s a woefully weak-armed out route that allowed Lardarius Webb to step in front of Santonio Holmes for a 73 yard score of his own.

On a day where 10 more NFL quarterbacks passed for over 300 yards (and two for over 400), these two teams showed that there is indeed still a place for defense in the NFL. The Jets and Ravens combined for 283 yards passing between them.

The Ravens, playing with a depleted secondary (safeties Bernard Pollard and Tom Zbikowski alternated as the 3rd cornerback for most of the game), put all their eggs in the “get after Sanchez” basket, and to say they were successful would be an understatement (calling it the greatest defensive performance you’ve ever seen, as John Harbaugh did, would probably be an overstatement though). B’More battered and bruised Sanchez all night, from literally the first play, when Ed Reed came off the edge for a sack-fumble that resulted in a Jameel McClain touchdown. Though they only registered two sacks for the night, they hit Sanchez countless other times, to the point where he was ducking as he threw late in the game. Of course it didn’t hurt that both sacks resulted in fumbles returned for touchdowns.

On the second, Haloti Ngata basically drove a truck though Sanchez as he was winding up to throw. It was close as to whether or not Sanchez’s arm was coming forward with the ball, but the play was upheld upon review, much to the chagrin of Rex Ryan, who burned a timeout just to yell at referee Mike Carey.

Despite the 34-17 final, Ravens fans will undoubtedly find a few things to concern themselves with over the next two weeks before the team plays again. Were the Ravens able to put together any kind of offense through the game’s second and third quarters, the game could have been much more of a blowout than it was. The defense allowed only a single field goal, and even that was on a drive where the Jets started in Ravens territory.

The two plays that kept the game interesting – the Harris interception return and the Joe McKnight kickoff return – should have never happened. Of course, if you’re a Jets fan, you’re saying the same thing about three of the four Ravens’ touchdowns. The fact is that, through the season’s first four weeks, the Ravens have blown out two of the AFC’s top teams as well as an NFC bottom feeder, and look every bit as formidable as any squad in the conference. If they can get healthy here during this early bye week – getting Ben Grubbs, Lee Evans, Jimmy Smith, and Chris Carr back on the field would be huge – they can find themselves in a very strong position as the season nears the mid-way point. Even better, the schedule is a bit front-loaded; they still have 3 games against the NFC West teams, as well as two each against Cleveland and Cincinnati. You don’t have to be a complete purple kool-aid drinking optimist to have little problem finding at least 10 wins for this team looking ahead.

Again, gotta get – and then stay – healthy.

We’ve already had some pretty good quotes come out of games so far this year. After the Pittsburgh game, it was Terrell Suggs’ “God can have Roethlisberger’s soul, but his ass belongs to me.”

Last night, Jarrett Johnson had this gem: “Rex created us, now he has to deal with us.”

Mark Sanchez would prefer to not have to “deal with” the Ravens any time in the near future.


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