Archive for the ‘Ravens Game Previews’ Category

Preseason Game 1: Ravens @ Eagles – What to Watch For

August 10, 2011


Smell that?

That’s right, it’s football. Another season ended in heartbreak for our Ravens in 2010, as the team choked away a 21-7 halftime lead at Heinz Field on their way to losing to the Steelers 31-24 in the divisional round of the AFC Playoffs at Heinz Field (fortunately, the season also ended in heartbreak for those shithead Yinzers as well.)

Well, after seven long months, we finally get to watch the purple and black take the field again. While it’s just “practice” for this and the next three weeks, with the Orioles again pushing the limits of suck, we’re more than thrilled to have the other team in town back in action.

This will be the debut of the “new look” Ravens. You all know the names by now – no Todd Heap…no Derrick Mason…no Willis McGahee…and no Kelly “Buddy Lee” Gregg. Instead, Ravens fans will have to get used to watching guys like Ed Dickson, Dennis Pitta, Torrey Smith, Tandon Doss, Ricky Williams, and others fight the good fight against the evil forces of the AFC North.

This first game of the 2011 preseason finds B’More traveling just a short distance up Interstate 95 to take on the NFL’s newest “dream team,” the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles were far and away the “offseason winners,” adding such big-name free agents as Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Vince Young, and others, as well as trading for the likes of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. With game 1 of the preseason typically being the second-most useless of the four “scrimmage” games (only number 4 has historically been more lackluster), we aren’t likely to see many of those big names for any significant amount of time, which is actually probably not a bad thing. The Ravens’ mostly unproven group of wideouts running around trying to get open against Asomugha, DRC, and Asante Samuel? Not fun. And likely not exactly what the doctor ordered for a very jittery at the moment Ravens nation.

Still, there is plenty of reason to pay close attention on Thursday night. So what should Ravens fans be on the lookout for?

I thought you’d never ask….

Offensive Line

One of the Ravens’ biggest weaknesses in 2010 was their offensive line play. Their yards-per-attempt when rushing the ball was down near the bottom of the NFL, and Joe Flacco was sacked 40 times, the most in his three-year career. Moving newly resigned Marshal Yanda back to guard from tackle gives the team an instant upgrade, as does adding free agent fullback Vonta Leach. Still, questions remain.

  • Will Michael Oher rebound from his disappointing 2010 campaign and start to become the elite left tackle the Ravens thought they were getting when they chose him in the first round of the 2009 draft? Oher will, first and foremost, need to learn to stop jumping the snap count and killing his team five false start penalty yards at a time.


  • How much tread is left on Matt Birk’s tires? The center will miss this game and most – if not all – of the preseason after having an operation on his injured knee. The Ravens’ lost their go-to backup center when Chris Chester took off for Washington a few weeks back, and they have yet to find an adequate replacement. Filling in Thursday will be rookie Ryan Bartholomew. An undrafted rookie center going up against the AFC North’s nose guards? No thank you.

  • Who will play right tackle? Third round draft pick Jah Reid has been taking most of the snaps with the first team offense in training camp, but Oneil Cousins and Ramon Harewood will also be in the mix. Reid looks like an absolute monster on the field. Let’s hope that translates to being a serviceable right tackle in his rookie season. Look for the coaching staff to try to get Reid as many snaps as possible this preseason, so they can judge whether or not he is at all ready to stare across the line at LaMarr Woodley on September 11. Reid will probably play the majority of the first half, with Cousins taking over thereafter. John Harbaugh, it should be noted, has stated that Cousins “has the edge” currently.

Wide Receiver/Passing Game

With Joe Flacco scheduled to play a full quarter, we should get at least a few chances to see what, if any, kind of rapport he has been able to develop with his new receiving corps over the past few weeks. At the moment, rookie Torrey Smith seems to have a tenuous hold on the #2 WR position lining up opposite Anquan Boldin, but fellow rookie Tandon Doss has been all the rave of late. Doss is more of an underneath/intermediate receiver along the lines of Boldin or the departed Derrick Mason. With Mason absent from the offense this season, Flacco will have to learn to look for somebody else for his “sure thing” routes. When the Ravens went to Boldin in 2010, he delivered. Unfortunately, he seemed like the forgotten man in the offense much too often. That won’t be the case in 2011 – either from his own team or from opposing defenses. While Boldin will undoubtedly be a focal point of every offensive game plan, the increased attention on him as the only established pass catcher on the team will put all the pressure on the young guys to step up.

It will be very interesting to watch this preseason as Smith, Doss, tight ends Ed Dickson (will not play Thursday) and Dennis Pitta, and receivers further down the depth chart like LaQuan Williams attempt to prove that they can be productive NFL players.

Will the young guys be able to get separation from the Eagles’ very impressive cornerback trio? Will they be able to get off the line against press coverage?

How will Flacco react when his favorite two security blankets from years past – Mason and Todd Heap – are no longer out there for him to throw to? Will we see even MORE check downs to Ray Rice, or will he use that shoulder-cannon that he was blessed with to start putting the ball into his receivers’ chests, even when they appear to be “covered?”

Backup QB

The Ravens appear – at least for the moment – to be serious about this whole “Tyrod Taylor can be our backup” thing.


Ok, Tyrod, let’s see what you can do. The rookie sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech is scheduled to play around 2.5 quarters in Philly, so he should get PLENTY of time to showcase his talents. Granted, it will be against fellow second- and third-stringers, but Taylor will nonetheless have a golden opportunity to start locking down his position as Joe Flacco’s emergency stand-in/clipboard holder.

Personally, my comfort level of having a rookie sixth-rounder as my team’s insurance policy is a solid -14 on a scale of 1-10.

Don’t turn the game off once the starters go out, Ravens fans. While Flacco is one of only four quarterbacks – along with Phillip Rivers and the Manning brothers – to play in every one of his team’s games since 2008, this is the NFL…and injuries are only a matter of time. Should Flacco go down for a series, a quarter, or – perish the thought – a game or more in 2011, Tyrod Taylor could very well be the one leading the team. Starting Thursday, get a good look at him.

Sergio Kindle

Perhaps the guy I am most excited to watch on Thursday is linebacker Sergio Kindle. The Ravens first overall draft pick (second round) in 2010 missed his entire rookie season after falling down a flight of stairs and fracturing his skull. For a while, it was uncertain whether we would EVER see Kindle wear the purple and black, or any NFL colors for that matter. However, the former Texas Longhorn has apparently healed to his doctors’ satisfaction, and has been participating unhampered in training camp workouts. Now, for the first time in his life, Kindle will step foot on an NFL field, and for the first time nearly two calendar years, he will take the field in a competitive environment.

By all accounts, the second-year pass rush specialist has been a man-child in Owings Mills, impressing his coaches, teammates, and media members alike. Should Kindle start to fulfill some of the promise he showed coming out of Texas, the Ravens’ woes as far as finding a compliment to Terrell Suggs on the other side could very well be a thing of the past. Kindle will not be limited in this first preseason game, and new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano says he wants to “get him out there, get him on the edge, and let him go.”

We can’t wait to see that either.

Billy Cundiff

While it isn’t nearly as exciting as anything listed above, I’m actually eager to see what Billy Cundiff looks like this year. He tied the modern record for touchbacks last season, and was a HUGE weapon for the Ravens on special teams. This year, however, the rules have changed on him – instead of kicking off from the 30-yard line, kickoffs will now be spotted at the 35.

So, will Cundiff have no problem putting nearly every single one of his kickoffs into the end zone? Or, will former special teams coach John Harbaugh have other plans in mind, such as Cundiff using that strong leg of his to get more hang time on his kickoffs as opposed to distance, so the coverage team can get downfield and tackle the returner at the 10 or 15 yard line?

In the preseason, as the Ravens try to evaluate their roster and find guys who can contribute on special teams, it’s also possible that Harbaugh will have Cundiff purposefully put his kickoffs short, just so the young players have a chance to cover the kicks in game situations.

I’m interested to watch a kicker. Sue me.

Ok, that’s about enough to keep an eye on for me.

How about you, Ravens fans? What are you most interested to see on Thursday night? Anything I missed?


Divisional Playof Preview: Ravens (13-4) @ Steelers (12-4)

January 15, 2011

Here we go again. For the second time in three years, either the Ravens will have their season ended at the hands of their most hated rivals…or vice versa. It might be a smidgen less stressful on some levels than the 2008 AFC Championship game – the winner doesn’t go directly to the Super Bowl, just earns the right to try to stop the Patriots’ juggernaut in Foxboro (most likely) – but on other levels there is much more pressure on the Ravens this time around.

In 2008, they far exceeded reasonable expectations, reaching the AFC Championship game with a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback. This year, despite going 12-4, the Ravens still underachieved in the eyes of many fans, squeaking games out by the skin of their teeth and still failing to capture the AFC North title and gain at least one home playoff game.

On paper, they’re the more talented team than Pittsburgh. In 2009, Ozzie Newsome drafted Michael Oher in the first round for pretty much one reason – block James Harrison and/or Lamarr Woodley. After the Ravens exit from last year’s playoffs, Ozzie went out and got Anquan Boldin, as the Ravens’ lack of weapons in the passing attack was seen as their “Achilles heel.”

Oher has been unsteady at best this year. Last week against Kansas City, he got beaten several times by Chiefs’ linebacker Tamba Hali. Here in January 2011, Hali (14.5 sacks in 2010) is the more dangerous pass rusher than either Harrison (10.5) or Woodley (10.0), but Oher will have to be better Saturday for the Ravens to have a chance. Those two are relentless, and have given Joe Flacco nightmares throughout his young career.

Boldin had some big games for the Ravens early in the year, but seemed to disappear down the stretch. He reemerged in Kansas City though, with his most productive day since the last Steelers game. “Q” was actually very effective against Pittsburgh this year, with 12 catches for 168 yards and a touchdown in the two games combined.

I’m going to do a bullet-point style run-down of the rest of this preview, so I can get to the work of distracting myself from thinking about this game – and subsequently vomiting – for the next few hours.

  • Very disturbing news late last night about Ray Rice having a stomach flu.  ESPN reported that Rice was seen vomiting at the team hotel.  This “bug” has been going around the Ravens’ locker room for the last month or so.  WNST’s Glenn Clark says that it is, for the most part, a 24-hour type infection.  Let’s all cross our fingers that Rice can go and be effective.  Not that running the ball is all that feasible against the Steelers, but losing your best player on offense will always handicap what you’re trying to do.  No matter how much Mike Preston thinks that Willis McGahee may be a better fit for the Ravens’ current offensive line, #27 is still the Ravens’ most important weapon. UPDATE – Rice Tweeted that he WILL play today.
  • Speaking of offensive lines, the two in this game aren’t going to be appearing on any OL teaching videos.  While the Steelers’ problems come from being racked with injuries, the Ravens have just been inconsistent.  They played better in the second half in KC, and will need to keep it up at Heinz Field.  Ben Roethlisberger seems to have adjusted to his own porous line, so as always the key isn’t getting in his face – it’s getting him on the ground.  Matt Birk is listed as questionable with a knee injury, but should play.  The thought of Chris Chester at center and Oneil Cousins at tackle just…ugh.
  • Donte’ Stallworth.  At this point everyone that watches Ravens games knows that if #18 is on the field, a WR reverse is likely coming.  The Ravens have ran this play for what seems like a half dozen games in a row, and not necessarily successfully.  In the regular season finale, Stallworth picked up a few yards before just fumbling the ball away to the Bengals.  Against the Chiefs, it was stopped for no gain.  It’s not fooling anybody at this point.  So, I fully expect Cam Cameron to try something cute out of it this week, either a fake reverse, double reverse, WR pass, or somesuch non-sense.  While I hope to be proven wrong, I just don’t see this working against Pittsburgh.  I’m just hoping the tomfoolery results in just a 10-yard loss or so, and not in a turnover.
  • As long as we’re talking tomfoolery, let’s not forget that trick plays are a staple of Steelers football, especially in the postseason.  The Ravens’ defense will have to be on their toes for some trickery, and not let some stupid shit like an Antwaan Randle-El pass to Mike Wallace be what decides this game.
  • The Ravens know all too well how rust can creep up on a team that earns a Playoff bye (see 2006).  The Steelers will be well rested, but the Ravens should be sharper, at least to start the game.  They’d be well-advised to start strong, and hopefully jump on Pittsburgh while they’re still adjusting to the speed of the game after two weeks off.  After having been on the field for just 18 minutes in K.C., the Ravens’ defense (which is the side of the ball full of those older veterans that we worry about wearing down at the end of games) should be very fresh as well.
  • Get Ben down.  A hidden play from the Steelers’ 13-10 victory in Baltimore last month was the one where Haruki Nakamura came as a free runner against Roethlisberger, and had him lined up dead to rights for a sack.  The third-year safety was a bit too gung-ho and out of control though, and Ben easily sidestepped him, found a receiver about 25 yards down the field, and set his team up for a field goal.  It’s the kind of play that Ben has earned his living on, and minimizing them will – as always – be tantamount on Saturday.  Keep the big lug in the pocket, and get him on the ground when the opportunity presents itself.

While I always pick with my heart to some degree here, I still try to be at least mostly realistic and ojective – my head/heart prediction for this game would be something like 17-16 Ravens – but that hasn’t worked out too well against Pittsburgh in the past.

So, as I said in the podcast – f it. I’m going all in this time.

Ravens 27 Steelers 13

Don’t let us down boys.  Not again.

Wild Card Preview: Ravens (12-4) @ Chiefs (10-6)

January 8, 2011

First things first. With reports coming out Friday evening that Ed Reed’s brother is missing in Louisiana, after apparently jumping into the Mississippi River to elude police, the All-Pro safety’s status for Sunday was suddenly very much up in the air. Around 1 PM Saturday though, it was reported that Reed WILL PLAY Sunday. Our thoughts are certainly with Reed and his family during what could be a very tragic situation. We’re a football site and football fans though, so we’ll also hope for not only a happy ending to this story, but that Reed has his head on straight and is at his best for the game. A cerebral player like Reed can’t afford to be distracted and maintain his usual level of play.

The Ravens will be playing in one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL on Sunday. The Chiefs’ fans, who have not seen a home playoff win since 1993, will be amped beyond belief, and eager to make life hell for Joe Flacco and company. The Ravens, who false start with alarming frequency even when playing in front of a home crowd, will need to first and foremost cut down on the pre-snap penalties which have served to put the offense behind the eight ball time and again throughout the season.

Once the ball is snapped – again, hoping that he waits that long – Michael Oher will have his hands full with Chiefs’ linebacker Tamba Hali. Hali racked up 14.5 sacks in 2010, good for second best in the NFL behind Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware. The offensive line as a whole has been alarmingly porous in recent weeks, as Flacco has been sacked four or more times in 5/9 games since the bye week. Flacco went an entire game without being sacked just once this season – Week 3 against Cleveland. He stayed upright all game 4 times in 2008, and twice in 2009. For the Ravens to have success in the postseason, they’ll need to do a much better job of protecting their quarterback. It would also help if Cam Cameron would mix up his formations a little better as well, and put Joe back in the shotgun where he seems to do his best work. For his part, Flacco would do well to start getting the ball out of his hands quicker.

The Chiefs finished 2010 right in the middle of the pack on defense, 17th against the pass and 14th versus the run. They were gashed by Oakland in Week 17, when Michael Bush ran for 137 yards. Watching NFL Playbook this week, Ravens fans were encouraged by the huge holes that the Raiders were able to open up against the Chiefs on their home turf. After breaking out against New Orleans, Ray Rice had more moderate success the last two weeks against Cleveland and Cincinnati, averaging 3.7 and 3.9 yards per carry. Expect a heavy dose of Rice early, though, and the Ravens would also be wise to get Willis McGahee’s relatively fresh legs involved more in the game plan. It would be nice to see Cam try to open up some running lanes by passing early, but it’s doubtful – based on his M.O. throughout the year – that he will choose to have Flacco challenge the Chiefs’ young but talented secondary unless he has to.

Again, I’d love to see Anquan Boldin bust out like he did in the first half of the season as much as the rest of you would, but we just have no reason to believe that will be the case until proven otherwise.

The Chiefs’ offense boasts the league’s #1 running attack. Third-year back Jamaal Charles has had an outstanding season, averaging an incredible 6.4 yards per carry.

That’s right James Van Der Beek…6.4 YARDS PER CARRY!

Charles does his most damage on the outside runs, so the Ravens’ corners will need to be ready to support the run defense. Lately, Lardarius Webb has excelled in this area, coming up and hitting like a safety. Unfortunately, on the other side Josh Wilson suffered a concussion against Cincinnati. He is listed as questionable, so let’s hope he isn’t hesitant in his tackling, because all Charles needs is a speck of daylight to suddenly be 50 yards down the field. Charles was held under 4 yards per carry in a game just once all season, so it’s a bit unrealistic to expect the Ravens to completely shut him down. I’d say holding him to anywhere in the 3.5-4.5 ypc range should be considered a success. The main thing will be to make sure he doesn’t break any 20+ yard runs, which he’s done in three of the last five games.

Charles’ running mate is veteran Thomas Jones. Jones is the Chiefs’ between-the-tackles back, and shouldn’t be as much of a concern for the Ravens. While Charles is the Chris Johnson-type that has given B’More problems, Jones strikes me as the kind of back that they will eat up. The run defense has been extremely stout down the stretch, which gives the Ravens a distinct advantage against Kansas City.

The reason shutting down the run will be crucial is that Matt Cassel has never faced the Ravens’ defense and Ed Reed. Even guys like Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer – as we saw last week – still have trouble accounting for Reed despite being very familiar with him. Reed will need to be free to roam center field at Arrowhead, where he can help take away big play wide receiver Dwayne Bowe. If Charles and Jones are gashing the defensive line and getting into the second level consistently, Reed and Dawan Landry will be forced to come up in the box more, which makes the play action and Dwayne Bowe much more dangerous.

As always, it starts with stopping the run. Bowe is really, really good, and will likely get his handful of catches and approach 100 yards. But he has over twice as many receiving yards as the next guy on the list for the Chiefs.  As a result of the Chiefs’ Bowe-focused passing attack, I’ll definitely take Reed over Cassel for a four-quarter span.

The Chiefs gave up a fair amount of sacks as well, including seven last week to the Raiders. Terrell Suggs in particular has a very favorable match-up, going against left tackle Brandon Albert. Albert, a graduate of Glen Burnie High School, gave up eight sacks in his fifteen starts in 2010. I don’t know about you, but I’d say a “Gopher” has zero chance against Sizzle.

With game-time temperatures in the 20’s expected, Billy Cundiff’s kickoff skills may not be on full display. He struggled to get the ball into the end zone in the colder games down the stretch. However, kick returner David Reed is expected to return. Reed led the NFL in kickoff return average after winning the job midseason, and could provide a nice spark.

Kansas City has the home field advantage, but the Ravens have the distinct advantage of recent playoff experience. The Chiefs are a young team on the rise, but the veteran presence of Baltimore will wear down the home squad. The Ravens know exactly how to go into hostile territory and quiet an opposing crowd, having done it in Miami, Tennessee, and New England in recent years. Let’s take care of business at Arrowhead, and force Chiefs fans to wait at least another year before seeing that long-awaited postseason win.

Ravens 23 Chiefs 17

Bengals (4-11) @ Ravens (11-4)

January 1, 2011

The Ravens enter their Week 17 finale against Cincinnati with everything still to play for. A win, combined with a Steelers loss in Cleveland, would give the Ravens the AFC’s #2 seed and a first round playoff bye. However, if Pittsburgh takes care of business against the Browns – the most likely scenario – the Ravens’ game against the Bengals will be essentially meaningless. The worst case scenario, which a Steelers’ win would dictate no matter the outcome in Baltimore, is the #5 seed. The New York Jets can’t possibly overtake the Ravens for that spot, by virtue of the Ravens’ Week 1 win in the New Meadowlands.

As Steelers-Browns and Ravens-Bengals are both 1 PM kickoffs, though, the Ravens have no choice but to go into the game treating it as a must-win. Should Pittsburgh build a large lead in Cleveland, John Harbaugh may decide to “call off the dogs” and put some of his subs into the game. The Ravens, along with the 70,000 plus maniacs at the Purple Palace, will be scoreboard-watching intently during Sunday’s game.

At the very least, this game offers the Ravens a chance to “exorcise some demons,” if you will. They have not beaten the Bengals since 2008, having lost three straight in the series, and it’s the Bengals’ Week 2 win over the Ravens that is, in effect, keeping them from having the inside track to the division title and all that comes along with it.

Joe Flacco’s struggles against Cincinnati are well-documented. With a potential Wild Card weekend match up against the Indianapolis Colts looming, it would warm the hearts of Ravens fans – and likely, coaches – to see Joe show that he can overcome some of his previous struggles against the Cover 2 defense. Since his disastrous Week 2 in Cincy, Flacco has the NFL’s second highest passer rating, and has tossed 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

Fortunately, Joe won’t have to do it all himself. The Ravens have reestablished their identity as a run-first football team over the last several weeks, climbing from 19th-ranked to 13th on the ground since the Houston game.  The Bengals, for what it’s worth, have had no luck stopping either the pass or the run in 2010, as their attempt to defend their 2009 AFC North title has been nothing short of pathetic.  They are 4-11, and had lost 10 straight at one point, until winning their last two against Cleveland and San Diego.

Their victory over the Chargers a week ago came as nothing short of a shock to the NFL-watching world.  San Diego still had a playoff berth within their grasp, but were completely dominated at Paul Brown Stadium as the Bengals rolled 34-20.

The hope is that San Diego simply overlooked the Bengals, who were playing without both Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco.  “Batman and Robin” will be out again this week, but Carson Palmer, after looking completely washed up for most of the season, looked as good as he has since 2005 last week without dumb and dumber out there running routes.  He completed his first 10 passes on his way to 269 yards, 4 touchdowns, and a career-best 157.2 passer rating.  The Ravens would be wise to not sleep on wideouts Jordan Shipley, Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell, and tight end Jermaine Gresham.  Those four carved up the Chargers in the absence of 81 and 85.

The Ravens’ defense redeemed themselves a week ago against the Browns’ Peyton Hillis, and they’ll look to do the same against the Bengals’ Cedric Benson.  Benson went over the 100-yard mark twice against the Ravens in 2009, but had just 78 yards on 23 carries in the first meeting in 2010.  Benson, after a career resurgence last season, is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry this year.

Some other notes:

  • The Ravens have not lost a season finale since 2005
  • Billy Cundiff needs two touchbacks to tie the NFL record
  • Ray Rice has over 100 yards from scrimmage in 3 straight against the Bengals
  • Anquan Boldin has more than 3 receptions just twice since the Week 8 bye
  • Todd Heap is expected to play, after missing the past 3 games, and all but one play of the Pittsburgh game

If the cards fall right, and Cleveland has a comfortable fourth quarter lead against the Steelers while the Ravens are pounding the Bengals, the atmosphere at M&T Bank Stadium around 4 PM Sunday could be better than any we’ve seen in Baltimore in nearly a decade – the equivalent to a playoff win.  If not, no big deal – but damn would it be cool.  Let’s hope.

Ravens 27 Bengals 17

Goob's Pregame Thoughts: Ravens-Bungles

December 30, 2010

After a brief holiday hiatus, Goob Theoharris is back in front of the camera to give us his thoughts on the Ravens’ Week 17 match up against the Cincinnati Bengals.  This time around, he rubs our faces in all his Ravens-related Christmas presents, talks about man-boobs (but doesn’t rub our faces in his, thankfully), and repeatedly refers to the Bengals as “The Bangles” (please excuse him).

Ravens (10-4) @ Browns (5-9)

December 24, 2010

The Ravens travel to Cleveland this weekend to take on the Browns. While B’More has never lost to the Brownies in the Harbaugh/Flacco era (5-0), things haven’t exactly been easy for the purple and black in the Forest City. In 2008, Cleveland jumped out to a 27-13 3rd quarter lead before the Ravens rallied for the game’s final 24 points and a 37-27 victory. Last year, on “Monday Night Football,” the Ravens ended the first half locked in a 0-0 tie with the 1-7 Browns. They managed only one offensive touchdown, a Ray Rice 13-yard run, on their way to an ugly 16-0 win.

The 2010 Browns have been one of the NFL’s most schizophrenic teams. They beat the New Orleans Saints 30-17 in the Superdome in Week 7, then pasted the New England Patriots 34-14 in Week 9, and took the New York Jets to overtime in Week 10. They seem to have hit a bit of a wall of late though, losing their last two in Buffalo and Cincinnati. Cleveland finishes the season with two home games against the hated Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers though, and will be eager to provide bumps in the playoff road for one or both of their division rivals.

We all remember Browns’ running back Peyton Hillis barreling through the Ravens defense like a freight train in Week 3 in Baltimore. Hillis racked up 144 yards as the Browns took the Ravens to “the wire” in their home opener. Ray Lewis remembers as well, and has been very outspoken this week in his assertions that Hillis won’t have the same type of success this time around.

Via the Carroll County Times:

“It won’t happen again,” Lewis said. “I hope they understand that. We’re not coming in there to overlook them or nothing and we definitely aren’t coming in there to give him over 100 yards again. So hopefully they can buckle up all their chin straps and do whatever you need to do, but we’re definitely coming in to play a very physical football game.”

“A blind cat will find a meal every once in a while,” Lewis said. “We understand the two big runs we gave up against them.My son could have run through the holes that we gave him in Baltimore.

Those are some big words from the Ravens’ defensive leader.  After shutting down the Saints’ running game (1.9 yards per play) last week, the Ravens feel like they have found their stride on that side of the ball.  Hillis represents the biggest weapon the Browns possess, so shutting him down is priority number one.

It will also be the Ravens’ first look at rookie quarterback Daniel “Colt” McCoy.  McCoy took over in Week 6, but missed three games with injury.  In his six starts, Cleveland is 2-4, and McCoy has thrown 5 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions while averaging a very respectable 8.0 yards per attempt (Joe Flacco is averaging 7.5 ypa in 2010).  His favorite target last week was tight end Ben Watson, who caught 7 passes for 92 yards.  Watson isn’t the athlete at this stage in his career that the Saints’ Jimmy Graham (2 TDs against the Ravens last week) is, and has nowhere near the supporting cast of Graham, so the Ravens should be able to contain him adequately.

On the other side of the ball, the Ravens need to prove that last week’s ground explosion is something they can at least come close to replicating.  They’ll attempt to do so against a Browns defensive unit that will be eager to redeem themselves after giving up 150 yards to the Bengals’ Cedric Benson a week ago, and 112 yards to the Bills’ Fred Jackson before that.  Ray Rice, who was named the AFC’s Offensive Player of the Week after his performance against New Orleans, will be squarely in the crosshairs of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.  Rice has had success against Cleveland recently, racking up 96 and 104 total yards, respectively, in the last two meetings.

Joe Flacco picked on Cleveland cornerback Eric Wright in the first meeting, victimizing him on all three Anquan Boldin touchdowns.  Wright was placed on injured reserve this week though, so the Ravens will have to find someone else to go after through the air.  One guy who the Ravens are likely to avoid is rookie cornerback Joe Haden.  Haden has really picked up his game of late, and has five interceptions.  Haden had picks in four straight games back in Weeks 10-13.  Ravens’ wide receivers were forgotten men in last week’s gameplan, accounting for just three catches (one each by Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Derrick Mason).  Donte’ Stallworth was a healthy scratch against the Saints, but will likely play Sunday with David Reed out due to a concussion.

If “ground and pound” is the ticket to the Ravens’ success from here on out, so be it, but it’s at least nice to know that those veteran wideouts are out there if needed.  If the Browns sell out against the run, Flacco should be able to exploit them through the air, Joe Haden or not.

Special teams are always key against Cleveland and return man Joshua Cribbs.  In Week 3, Billy Cundiff effectively negated Cribbs by banging touchback after touchback, especially late in the game.  With game time temperatures Sunday expected to be in the mid-twenties, along with 10-20 mph winds, touchbacks may be hard to come by (we saw how much shorter Billy’s kicks were than usual last week in the B’More cold).  In addition, Tom Zbikowski is out, and Brendan Ayanbadejo and Haruki Nakamura missed practice time this week.  All three – along with David Reed – are key special teams contributors.  Ayanbadejo and Nakamura are, fortunately, listed as probable.

The Ravens made a tentative statement last week that they are legit title contenders.  I say tentative because a loss in Cleveland will toss them right back into the “likely pretender” category.  With the Steelers having already won in Week 16 (a 27-3 throttling of the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night), the Ravens need a win to keep their slim hopes of an AFC North title alive.  A loss would not only throw them back into the crowded Wild Card mix, it would clinch the division for Pittsburgh.  On the other hand, a win clinches a playoff spot of our own, and makes the two AFC North games in Week 17 (Cin @ Bal, Pit @ Cle) critical in the division race.

A great late Christmas present would be for the Ravens to give us a thorough beatdown of the Browns.  While I’ll hope for it, I won’t expect it.  Another close one seems much more likely.

Ravens 24 Browns 20

Saints (10-3) @ Ravens (9-4)

December 17, 2010

Filling out the rankings chart (above) is getting to be a bit depressing.  As the weeks rolled on, I really expected the Ravens’ offense to inch closer and closer to being a top 10 unit.  Instead, even after playing the lowly Houston Texans and their 31st ranked defense, the Ravens dropped in every offensive category when compared to last week.

Total offense: 16th to 18th

Rushing offense: 19th to 21st

Passing offense: 13th to 14th

They did go from the #17 scoring team to the #14 scoring team, but as we know, the special teams and defense had as much to do with that as the offense did.

At least, though, the most important number – wins – moved in the right direction.  However, it’s still a little disheartening that the offense continues to struggle as much as it does.  Thinking that they can find a quick answer down the stretch seems to be becoming more of a…well, stretch.

This week, the defending Super Bowl Champs roll into Charm City, winners of six consecutive games. They’ve also put up 30 or more points in five straight games, which gives Ravens fans a nice pre-holiday case of indigestion after watching the Texans rack up 21 second half points on Monday night.

Upon further review though, it’s not like the Saints have been hanging 30 on the ’85 Bears. Their recent 30 point outputs have come against the Rams (15th in points allowed), Bengals (28th), Cowboys (31st), Seahawks (24th), and Panthers (26th). Even after blowing their first 21-point lead since 1997, the Ravens much-maligned defense is still fourth in the NFL in points allowed. Throw in a healthy dose of the elements, and this game should be far from the shootout that many are predicting/fearing.

Which isn’t to say that Drew Brees and his stable of big play wideouts/backs doesn’t present a formidable challenge.  Brees is playing as well as any quarterback in the NFL right now, and is just the type of “elite” signal-caller that the Ravens have struggled time and again to find a way to beat over the past five years or so.

If Brees has one chink in his armor this season, it’s been the interception.  “Breesus” has already been picked 18 times, tying his career high.  That’s 3.4% of his throws that are being intercepted, highest since his third season in the league in San Diego (for comparison, Joe Flacco’s INT percentage this year is 1.9%).  When the Ravens last played the Saints in 2006, they picked him off twice and both were returned for touchdowns.  After four interceptions in his first four games back off the PUP list, Ed Reed hasn’t gotten his hands on a pass in three straight contests.  Sunday would be a great time for Reed – who looked slow, old, and hurt at times Monday – to come alive again.

When you think New Orleans, you think offense.  However, their defense is none too shabby either.  After leading the NFL in turnovers a season ago, which helped mask their 25th-ranked defense, this year’s Saints have been much more consistent – at the cost of the turnovers – on that side of the ball.  They currently sit as the #6 defense in the NFL, allowing just 308 yards per game.  They’ve intercepted just nine passes though, four shy of the Ravens’ 13, and 13 less than the Philadelphia Eagles’ league-leading 22 picks.

They’re more vulnerable on the ground than they are through the air, but nothing the Ravens have done lately inspires any kind of confidence that they can exploit the Saints with the running game.  Baltimore is still averaging just 3.6 yards per attempt on the ground, tied for next-to-last in the NFL.  Monday in Houston – despite focusing on the running game with unbalanced lines and such – they were even worse, averaging just 2.6 yards per carry.  Le’Ron “Ankle Sprain” McClain looked like he was still a bit bothered by the injury Monday, so hopefully he can get back to full strength and do a better job of opening some holes (McClain missed practice Thursday with an illness.)

Todd Heap still hasn’t returned to practice (as of Thursday), so his status is very much up in the air for Sunday.  Heap has never been the best blocking tight end, but at this point he is worlds ahead of rookies Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta.  Heap’s absence not only hampered the Ravens in the passing game against Pittsburgh and Houston, but on the ground as well.  Keep your fingers crossed that #86 makes an appearance on the practice field Friday. (Update: Heap is OUT Sunday. Damn it.)

Even more concerning than their inability to run the ball lately, has been the Ravens’ pass protection.  Joe Flacco has been sacked 32 times now, and an incredible 22 of those have come in the six games since the bye (3.67 sacks per game).  The Saints are right in the middle of the pack in sacks, with 26 (the Ravens have 24).  Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams, who never met a blitz he didn’t like, was surely licking his chops this week looking at film of the Ravens’ inability to stop a rushing safety.  That’s right, even after Cam Cameron assured us that whatever breakdown in protection allowed Troy Polamalu to steal the Pittsburgh game from them was fixed, Houston safety Bernard Pollard came untouched over and over Monday night on his way to 1.5 sacks.

WTF, Cam? WTF, Matt Birk? WTF, Michael Oher? Fix it, please.

On the bright side, the Ravens’ special teams have been playing lights out lately.  Rookie David “Cop Speed (cuz you got weed)” Reed now leads the NFL in kick return average after his franchise record 103-yard touchdown return last week.  He also had an 84-yard return against Carolina.  Billy Cundiff is now just three touchbacks shy of tying an NFL record.  Sam Koch (more like Sam Kick, am I right?!) was incredible Monday, dropping 5 punts inside the 20-yard line, including the crucial one in overtime.  He leads all punters with 34 placed inside the 20.  Winning the field position battle will go a long way towards a Ravens win on Sunday.

The New Orleans Saints may be the best team the Ravens play all year (New England would be a close second, but they weren’t playing their best football in Week 6 when the Ravens saw them).  Playing them on a neutral field (let’s hope that happens in early 2011) would be a very daunting task, but the home field should really benefit B’More this week.  The Saints are a very good road team, but the Ravens are even better at home.  They owe the fans one after pooping away the last home game in the final minutes.

Ravens 24 Saints 21

I met this guy – “The Sidewalk Saint” – in the Big Easy last summer.  Here’s me showing him what’s what.  Let’s hope he remembers me on Sunday, and shakes his fist angrily at the sky after a Ravens win.

Ravens (8-4) @ Texans (5-7)

December 12, 2010

The Ravens head to Houston for the second time in three years on Monday night, hoping for a repeat of the 41-13 drubbing they put on the Texans in 2008. Thanks to Carson Palmer being the worst quarterback in the history of anything ever, they need a win to stay within one game of Pittsburgh atop the AFC North.

The 2010 Texans, despite their 5-7 record, look to be a more formidable opponent than the 2008 version, which was quarterbacked by good old Sage Rosenfels when the Ravens played them. Matt Schaub will be on the field this time around, along with the NFL’s leader in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage, running back Arian Foster. The Ravens will have to put up similar resistance to Foster as they displayed against Michael Turner of the Atlanta Falcons and Rashard Mendenhall of Pittsburgh last week to give themselves a chance on Monday Night Football. If Foster gets untracked, the already daunting task of keeping Schaub and the rest of the Texans’ high-flying aerial attack – which includes All-World wide receiver Andre Johnson – becomes all the more difficult.

Although this was supposed to be the year that the Ravens’ offense finally outshined – or at least, kept up with – the defense, it has been more of the same. The defense enters Week 14 ranked seventh in the NFL, and seems to really be hitting their stride of late. Since the Buffalo game in Week 7, when they gave up 34 points and dropped to 10th in the league in total defense, the Ravens have given up just 14.4 points per game (if you take out the Atlanta game, that average drops to 11.5 ppg). Terrell Suggs had arguably the best game of his life – and one of the most dominant games by any Ravens defender in their history – in last week’s losing effort against Pittsburgh. The Ravens will likely be wearing their black pants again in Houston, so hopefully Suggs could be in for another huge prime-time performance (for whatever reason, he is better in the black pants).

While they’ll be hard pressed to keep Houston under say, 20 points or so, they should at least be able to force a few turnovers to keep the Texans from lighting up the scoreboard to any appreciable degree. Houston has put up at least 20 in five consecutive games, so the onus will likely fall on the Ravens offense to break out of their recent funk.

Speaking of the anemic offense, to say that it’s been a frustrating struggle as of late would be an understatement. Reiterating that its been “business as usual” in Baltimore this season, the offense again finds itself ranked considerably lower than the defense. Despite all the shiny weapons, the Ravens offense has sputtered and spit since the bye week, culminating in last week’s disastrous performance in front of the home crowd with the division title in the balance. Since the Week 8 break, Joe Flacco & Co. have managed more than two offensive touchdowns in just one game – Atlanta, and that was after getting completely shut out in the first half of that contest.

John Harbaugh wants to get the run game on track down the stretch, but Houston looks to be capable of much less resistance through the air (worst in the league in pass defense) than on the ground (#10 against the run). The Ravens’ inability to effectively run the ball has certainly had a lot to do with their struggles this year. As the Sun’s Ken Murray breaks down here, the Ravens are just barely ahead of the Indianapolis Colts for worst rushing average in the league.

Only one NFL team has a worse rushing average per carry than the Ravens’ 3.6, and that’s a team that can’t run the ball at all — the Colts, who averaged 3.47 going into Thursday night’s game.

The Ravens rank 31st in the league in rush average (3.623), percentage points behind the Seahawks (3.648).

The Ravens’ inefficiency is not for lack of trying. They rank seventh in the league in rush attempts (359). But 13 teams have rushed for more first downs than the Ravens; only nine teams have scored fewer rushing touchdowns than Baltimore.

It’s apparent that this team is missing Jared Gaither far more than we would have hoped. The big tackle’s absence is also being felt in pass protection, where the Ravens have allowed 17 sacks over the past five games (Flacco is just five sacks away from a career high in that area, set last year at 32). It’s disappointing that Oneil Cousins can’t get on the field, as though Marshal Yanda has played well at RT, he is still far more suited to move inside and play guard. The return of Le’Ron “Ankle Sprain” McClain, who missed the Steelers game, could help open up some holes for Ray Rice.

His final two attempts aside, Flacco played a fairly good game against the Steelers, connecting on deep passes to Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth, and extending the play nicely on his only score of the night, a 14-yarder to Boldin. He should be able to have a field day against the Texans though, who are allowing over 287 yards per game through the air, and a league-worst 27 passing touchdowns. Fans who like to get on the case of members of the Ravens’ secondary should be thanking their lucky stars that we don’t have Houston’s defensive backfield. Seriously – they’re awful. If Flacco can’t find a comfort zone Monday night at Reliant Stadium, it seems unlikely that this offense will come together at all this year.

Hell, they put up 41 down there two years ago with Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton, and damn Yamon Figurs as the WRs. It would be a good night to start those Ravens wideouts in your fantasy football playoffs.

A nice side effect of the offense getting their shit together (besides, you know…winning)? More kickoff attempts for Billy Cundiff. The Ravens’ placekicker needs just seven more touchbacks to set a new NFL record. The temperature-controlled, warm weather conditions in Houston are a great chance for Billy to really cut into that number before finishing the season with likely three cold weather games in outdoor stadiums (two in Baltimore, one in Cleveland).

Come on guys, do it for Billy.

Although Pittsburgh won, at least the New York Jets lost on Sunday, so the Ravens can move up from the #6 AFC Playoff spot where they sit now to #5 by pulling even with Gang Green at 9-4.

Since they fumbled away their best shot at winning the division (and a home playoff game or two), the Ravens will have to beat playoff-caliber teams on the road in January. To even have that opportunity though, they’ll still likely need to beat a non-playoff team (or two) on the road in December. The “road warrior” mentality needs to set in now.

Ravens 31 Texans 20

Steelers (8-3) @ Ravens (8-3)

December 3, 2010

The Pittsburgh Steelers bring their 8-3 record into town this week looking to take control of the AFC North from the Ravens, and – despite what may be best for my mental and cardiovascular health – I’m going to be parked in front of the tv for the game. Popular hyperbole is that you can throw the records out the window when these two teams clash, but when they are both an equal 8-3, and the winner assumes the inside track for not only the division crown, but for a first round Playoff bye…yeah, the records matter.

Pittsburgh is coming off a game against the Buffalo Bills. A game in which, just like the Ravens in Week 6, they needed a small miracle in overtime to pull off the victory. For the Ravens, it was of course Ray Lewis’ strip and fumble recovery long after a whistle probably should have blown. For Pittsburgh, there were no less than 3 instances where Buffalo should have won the game. First, the Buffalo kick returner likely would have taken the opening kickoff of OT to the house – or at least into short field goal range – but he tripped over his own man just past midfield. Next, Pig Ben fumbled at the Steelers’ one-yard line, but recovered it himself. And finally – the one we’ve all seen by now – wide receiver Steve Johnson dropped a wide open touchdown pass in the end zone that would have given the Bills the win. It really sucks that the Ravens don’t come into this game with a full game lead on Pittsburgh already, but hopefully they used up every last bit of luck they had in that Buffalo game, and all bounces go for purple on Sunday night.

The Steelers once again boast the league’s number one run defense coming into B’More. Allowing just 64 yards per game, it will be rough sledding for Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. Add on the fact that lead blocker Le’Ron McClain remains extremely questionable for Sunday, and the Ravens’ prospects of ground success look pretty bleak. However, Pittsburgh also had the #1 run defense in 2009, and the Ravens managed to put up 132 and 175 yards in the two contests, with Ray Rice going for 141 by himself in Pittsburgh. In the first meeting this season, though, they managed only 70 yards on the ground. The run game as a whole has been disappointing in 2010 – and they proved in Week 4 that they don’t NEED to run the ball to beat the Steelers – but this would be a great week for Rice and Willis to finally bust out, and repeat some of the success they found against Pittsburgh a year ago.

In the Steelers’ two non-Raven losses this year, they have been carved up by two of the league’s premiere quarterbacks. Drew Brees of New Orleans threw for 305 yards and 2 TDs, and Tom Brady of New England put up 350 and 3 scores. Joe Flacco does not possess the quick release nor mastery of the short passing game that those two QBs exhibit, but the blueprint is there on how to attack this Pittsburgh secondary. Flacco showed in the first game, when he easily and efficiently drove 40 yards in 36 seconds for the game-winning strike to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, that he can move the ball through the air even when Troy Polamalu is, as he will be Sunday, roaming back there. In fact, since his disastrous rookie year against them, Joe has been decent against the Steelers in general, with ratings of 100.8, 83.1, and 82.7 in the three games (100.8 was in Baltimore).

Joe was sacked nine times by the Steelers in the two games in 2009, but only once in the first 2010 meeting. Tackles Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda did a superb job against linebackers Lamarr Woodley and James Harrison, and will need to repeat that success on Sunday night. Pittsburgh, as always, is right at the top of the NFL in sacks, tied for second with 32. Woodley has hit a bit of a dry spell lately, registering just one sack over the previous three games. Harrison has three in the last two games, and is as much of a beast as ever. He is hurting his team as well though, as “Silverback” has become the NFL’s poster boy for what it deems malicious hits. Harrison has been penalized and fined more than any other player (by a lot) for illegal hits, especially on quarterbacks. It was one thing – and not surprising at all – for Harrison to get penalized and punished for hits on glamor boys Brady and Brees. Last week, though, he was flagged and fined for a hit on Ryan Fitzpatrick. It’s safe to say at this point that the refs are keeping a close eye on #92 in black and yellow. If the Ravens benefit from another questionable penalty on Harrison Sunday – as long as Flacco or anyone else isn’t injured on the play – I’m certainly not going to complain. It is a bit ridiculous though, but that’s a topic for another day.

The towel waving throngs have been beating the drum of “yeah well we didn’t have Ben” ever since that Week 4 Ravens victory. Putting aside for a second the fact that the drama queen now apparently has a broken foot – of course he does – coming into the game, Pig Ben isn’t near the conqueror of Charm City that Steelers fans would have us believe. Ben has a total of ONE win in B’More in his life. One more victory at M&T Bank Stadium than you or I have.

  • 2004 – Ben enters game for injured Tommy Maddox. Ravens win.
  • 2005 – Ben hurt, Maddox starts. Ravens win.
  • 2006 – Ben plays, sacked 9 times. Ravens win 27-0.
  • 2007 – Ben sits, Steelers having clinched Playoff spot. Ravens win.
  • 2008 – Ben plays, needs miracle last second questionable touchdown to win.
  • 2009 – Ben hurt, Dixon starts. Ravens win.

Yes, he’s 7-2 against the Ravens in his career. Six of those wins though, came in Pittsburgh (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2008), and three came against a rookie quarterback (2008, 2008, 2008).

Whoopdie doo.

The real Raven-killer isn’t Pig Ben, it’s the now departed Santonio Holmes. Holmes against the Ravens? Lights. Out.

  • 2007 @ Pitt – 4 rec, 110 yards, 2 TD
  • 2007 @ Bal – 4 rec, 98 yards, 1 TD
  • 2008 @ Pit – 3 rec, 61 yards, 1 TD
  • 2008 @ Bal – 3 rec, 21 yards, 1 (game winning) TD
  • 2008 @ Pit – 2 rec, 70 yards, 1 TD
  • 2009 @ Bal – 6 rec, 74 yards, 1 TD
  • 2009 @ Pit – 5 rec, 86 yards, 1 TD

Eight touchdowns in seven games, and at least one in all seven.  If and when the Ravens face the New York Jets again, be scared of Santonio.  Don’t be scared of Ben.

Of course, the Ravens also have Ed Reed back for this game. Reed missed the first Steeler game as well, something yinz always seem to forget when whining about Week 4. Reed has four interceptions in five games in 2010, and barely missed his fifth in five on back-to-back plays against Tampa.

With Holmes out of the picture, Reed’s attention will need to be focused on Mike Wallace. Wallace, the second year former college teammate of Michael Oher, leads the NFL in yards per reception, and has eight touchdowns already in 2010. In Week 4, the Ravens did a very good job on Wallace, especially Lardarius Webb, who knocked a potential touchdown pass out of his hands in the end zone. I love Webbie, but I’d like to see him getting some help from Fast Eddie Sunday night. Webb allowed Bucs’ receiver Michael Spurlock to beat him deep last week, and Wallace – should he break free like that – won’t drop the ball the way Spurlock did. Let Hiney Cheap Shot and Heath Miller work underneath, but don’t give up the big strike to Wallace.

On the ground, the B’More defense will have to bottle up Rashard Mendenhall the way they did Michael Turner and, to a lesser extent, LeGarrette Blount in previous weeks. Though not as inept as Willie Parker before him, Mendenhall never seems to get untracked against the Ravens. His best performance was a 24 carry 95 yard one in Baltimore last year. In the last two, he has managed only 2.1 and 3.2 yards per carry.

The Ravens should be able to take advantage of Pittsburgh’s extremely banged up offensive line. Terrell Suggs (the AFC Defensive Player of the Month for November) and Jarret Johnson have cranked up the pressure in recent weeks, and could be in for a field day. The Steelers allowed five sacks to Buffalo (22nd in the league in sacks), and offensive lineman were called for something like eight holds on top of that. The best player on the OL, rookie center Maurkice Pouncey, has even struggled recently, perhaps hitting the proverbial “rookie wall.”

The last thing I want to mention is these stupid ass towels that the Ravens are handing out prior to the game. As Goob said in his pre-game video, don’t wave these damn things Ravens fans. Yell, clap, bang on the back of the chair in front of you – anything to you know, MAKE NOISE, when the Steelers’ offense is on the field. Memo to Ravens PR/Marketing departments: WE DO NOT WANT TOWELS. WE MAKE FUN OF STEELERS FANS FOR THEIR TOWELS. STOP TRYING TO GIVE THEM TO US!

They did this shit last year too, remember? If not, read what WNST’s Glenn Clark had to say about it then. Everything still applies.

Everything the Ravens set out to do in 2010 is still sitting right in front of them. Sunday they get the chance to really grab their destiny by it’s throat.

Go Ravens.

Ravens 23 Steelers 16

Goob's Pregame Thoughts for Ravens-Steelers II

December 2, 2010

Goob is back in front of the green screen this week, to give us his take on all things Ravens-Steelers.

  • Stop trying to give us towels, Ravens PR dept.
  • Jeff Reed isn’t on the team any more but…f that guy
  • James Harrison gets a lot of fines
  • Ray Lewis for Old Spice > Troy Polamalu for Head & Shoulders