Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Flacco is no ordinary Joe

Moral victories and $2 in the NFL get you nothing more than a medium sized cup of ordinary Joe at Starbucks. Yet it is hard not to walk away from the Ravens’ loss to the Steelers on Monday night without feeling that the Ravens’ Joe is anything but ordinary.

Joe Flacco embraced the stage and bright lights of Monday Night Football and within the span of 3+ hours he became a beacon of hope for Ravens’ fans who have clamored for a play maker at quarterback for over a decade.

A little less than a year ago, the Ravens were completely embarrassed by the Steelers on that very same MNF stage, thrashed by the score of 38-7. And believe it or not as bad as that score was it was not indicative of the Steelers’ complete domination.

This time around, minus Steve McNair and plus Flacco, the Ravens stood toe to toe with the AFC North divisional favorites and proved to a national TV audience that John Harbaugh’s gang just might play a prominent role in completing the playoff picture of the AFC.

The loss to the Steelers drops the Ravens back a step in the standings yet it also represents a step up for the team and their rookie signal caller. Although he came unglued there for a bit in the third quarter, Flacco rallied and put together a convincing fourth quarter drive to knot the game at 20 and ultimately force overtime. Undoubtedly there are throws that Flacco would like to have back and I’m equally sure that he would like to have protected the football better prior to his fumble forced by James Harrison. Yet when we consider the expectations for this team just four weeks ago and where they sit today coupled with the unsettled landscape of the AFC, the Ravens appear to be on the rise.

The same cannot be said of Todd Heap. Given offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s history of featuring tight ends, Heap’s disappearance is a bit of a mystery. Against the Steelers Heap was kept in to help out with pass protection more than usual but even so it isn’t hard to expect a few catches from Heap in key situations to move the chains. On Monday Heap was shut out. The Ravens roster is missing a blocking tight end and until the Ravens discover one off the free agent scrap heap, Todd Heap will be MIA against tough defensive clubs like the Steelers. The loss of Quinn Sypniewski during OTA’s is beginning to loom large.

Another Raven who has been MIA is Mark Clayton. Through the first 3 games this season Clayton has 5 catches for 35 yards. Over the course of the last 18 games in which he’s played dating back to the start of the 2007 campaign, Clayton has only 53 catches for 566 yards and he hasn’t had a TD catch since Christmas Eve 2006. It’s time for Clayton to make a statement because a tag labeled “bust” is now being fitted for 2005 first round pick.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Tampa's Matt Bryant takes NFL off the hook

A day after burying his 3-month-old son in Texas, Tampa Bay’s kicker Matt Bryant booted three field goals to help the Buccaneers beat the Green Bay Packers 30-21 on Sunday. Unless you’ve experienced such a tragic loss, it’s difficult to assume Bryant’s shoes and understand the emotions that he experienced.

Bryant’s family is undoubtedly proud. He carried uncommon courage and focus on to the field at Raymond James Stadium. His willingness to play also took the league off the hook.

You see if Bryant could not suck it up and bring himself to play on Sunday, Jon Gruden and the Bucs would have had to cut another member of the team to make way for a short-term rental on a free agent kicker. While the league willingly makes roster exemptions for players like Fabian Washington (domestic dispute) and Derrick Martin (possession of illegal substances) for their off-the-field transgressions, they refused to make an exception for Tampa and grant a similar exemption for Bryant’s bereavement.

I don’t care what bureaucratic policy the league wants to point at as its collective cop out, sometimes common sense and human decency alone should dictate right and wrong. The arrogance of the NFL is approaching epidemic proportions and if not for Bryant’s courage, Roger Goodell and his cronies would all be caught with their pants down. They should be ashamed yet I’m sure another big weekend at the cash register will ease their fleeting and feigned guilt.

Ravens @ Steelers: My crystal ball says...

I found it interesting that the author of Ravens’ gloom and doom for many years, The Sun’s Mike Preston, predicts a 13-10 Ravens victory tonight in Pittsburgh. Of the seven Sun writers polled, only two are picking the Ravens, the other being Edward Lee.

Among the naysayers is respected beat writer Jamison Hensley. Interestingly, Hensley predicted a score of 13-10 in Friday’s edition of The Sun saying that a critical turnover would be the difference in a classic defensive battle. Yet this morning in his scouting report, Hensley writes that a Ravens’ loss “will be a painful reminder of last season” and offers the final score prediction of 20-6, Steelers.

Let’s hope that Joe Flacco isn’t so indecisive tonight.

But since Hensley went “out on a limb” twice (maybe we’ll get a third score before kickoff), I’ll put it out there with the understanding that any prediction is clearly open to heavy criticism. So here goes...

It’s an overused yet highly appropriate cliché when predicting games in the NFL that they are won and lost at the line of scrimmage. The Steelers are missing two key players on their defensive line (Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel) while the Ravens offensive line has played extremely well and they are riding a wave of momentum.

On the other side of the ball, the Steelers' offensive line has struggled, not just this season but also towards the end of last season. The O-Line is now pointing the finger at Ben Roethlisberger claiming he holds on to the ball too long and that’s why the sack totals are so staggering. The Steelers LT Willie Colon has said that his unit communicated poorly and that led to many breakdowns in protection schemes. The Led Zeppelin song and the confusion will probably continue against the Ravens and their many looks and exotic blitz packages.

The Steelers entire game plan and the most compelling reason to pick the Steelers is the inexperience of Joe Flacco under the bright road city lights – lights that illuminate even more on the stage of Monday Night Football.

Ever get a chance to prove someone wrong in your career? Maybe you were passed over for a promotion losing out to someone less capable? It certainly inspires you to focus and tighten down on the screws now doesn’t it? Tonight, Joe Flacco gets his chance to do that on a field upon which he never got a chance to start. He won’t be spectacular but he’ll do just enough to enable his teammates to beat the Steelers in a nail biter. Ravens 17, Steelers 16

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Columnist says Steelers to "smack down the Ravens"

Ron Cook a columnist from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote on Tuesday that, “The Steelers are going to win the AFC North Division. Let's get that straight right at the top. As badly as they played in Philadelphia Sunday, they still are better than Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati. They will prove that again Monday night when they smack down the Ravens at Heinz Field.

“I'm thinking something along the lines of 35-10.”

Just to prove that the statement wasn’t made in jest Cook added, “Seriously.”

Cook went on to opine that, “It's not as if [the loss to Philadelphia] was the first time the Steelers took a physical beating. It wasn't even two years ago that they went to Baltimore and were spanked, 27-0, on a day when Roethlisberger was sacked nine times, once so hard by linebacker Bart Scott that Scott bragged afterward about feeling the air rush out of Big Ben's body.”

Cook’s piece was intended to stir the pot and apparently it worked here in Baltimore, hence this blog posting and the attention it has received on local media outlets. I’m of the opinion that Cook really doesn’t believe everything that he wrote and that’s why he has refused to join me on Saturday during The X Factor on Fox 1370 Sports Radio to defend his poorly thought out conclusion.

His argument is predicated almost solely upon Joe Flacco screwing up. He gives zero credit to the Ravens ability to run the football and sweeps the loss of Casey Hampton under the cow pasture turf of Heinz Field as if the Steelers can drop in any old 350 pound behemoth and the results will be the same.

Sorry Cook, without Hampton Ravens’ center Jason Brown can now control back up Chris Hoke single handedly which frees up Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda to get a hat on the Steelers’ inside linebackers, Larry Foote and James Farrior. That means their tackles will take place further down field.

And when that happens, the Ravens can give more attention to nemesis OLB James Harrison. Those treads marks that you’ll see between the 9 and the 2 on Harrison’s jersey by the fourth quarter after the Ravens overload the left side with Jared Gaither and Adam Terry and pound Harrison and DE Nick Eason mercilessly will be the real beat down in this Monday night contest.

All things must pass and that includes the Steelers’ 13 game winning streak at home on Monday Night – a streak that nearly fell back in 2005 (Steelers won 20-19) when the great Anthony Wright led a challenged offense and the Ravens fielded a defense missing Ray Lewis.

Here’s what the game comes down to – if Joe Flacco doesn’t gift wrap the game for the Steelers, the home team will be the recipient of Monday’s beat down, not the Ravens.

And then we’ll save Tuesday for Cook’s beat down.

Little Ronnie, come out come out wherever you are….

Suggs play suggests training camp is overrated

Terrell Suggs has certainly made a statement already in 2008 and it says that for veterans familiar with a system who stay in shape, training camp is overrated. Suggs has shown improvement over the past few years in run support but slumped in ’07 getting after the quarterback. With Trevor Pryce back, healthy and in great shape, Suggs should be a more menacing presence for opposing quarterbacks.

That said it will be interesting to see how the balance of ’08 unfolds for the potential 2009 free agent. Suggs and his representatives want No. 55 to be the highest paid defender in football. Don’t expect the Ravens to concede on that.

Bart Scott and Ray Lewis are not under contract for the 2009 season yet both are performing well under pressure. Scott has been very effective attacking the line of scrimmage and Lewis continues to make game changing plays as evidence by his strip of Chris Perry against the Bengals and his de-cleating hit on Kellen Winslow this past Sunday against the Browns. The two inside linebackers are looking to cash in on their ’08 efforts next year at the bargaining table. And while that may benefit the Ravens this season, it will hurt them next year when managing the cap.

The guess here is that Suggs will be franchised again and the Ravens will only re-sign one of either Scott or Lewis – at best. The evolution of the NFL suggests that the Ravens can find capable if not spectacular inside linebackers who can perform far more economically than the Ravens’ incumbents and that the money would be put to better use on the defensive line and in the secondary. One only needs to look at the New York Giants for proof.

Don’t be surprised to see the Ravens make a real push for a true No. 1 receiver in 2009. Not only do they need one but it would improve their returns on investments they’ve made in Willis McGahee, Mark Clayton, Todd Heap and of course Joe Flacco. Projected 2009 free agents Roy Williams and Lee Evans come to mind.

Another contract that the Ravens should no longer ignore is that of Jason Brown’s. With Brown and their developing guards (Ben Grubbs, Marshal Yanda), the Ravens potentially have an interior line that could be among the league’s elite for a number of years. The longer Ozzie Newsome delays Brown’s re-signing the more it will cost and that’s less money available for them to obtain the coveted No. 1 receiver.

The team will look for tough, well rounded receivers that can contribute in many ways – players like Hines Ward and Anquan Bolden both of which played some quarterback during their collegiate days at Georgia and Florida State, respectively.

Monday Night stars aligning for Ravens?

The NFL season is but 3 weeks old and about the only thing that you can predict with any degree of certainty is that the remainder of the season will be unpredictable, particularly in the AFC, which by the way and seemingly overnight, looks like the weaker conference of the two.

You aren’t as good as your best game and not as bad as your worst. That must be music to the ears of Browns’ QB Derek Anderson whose QB rating over his last 8 games is hovering in the mid 60’s and skies above have thickening clouds. Look for Phil Savage to create separation between himself and Romeo Crennel if the Browns lose to Cincinnati with Anderson at the controls.

Here’s a staggering stat for Savage and Crennel to chew on…only two teams since 1993 have started a season 0-3 and made the playoffs. Of the 78 previous 0-3 teams, 68 ended with a losing record. Crennel is struggling to get his arms around the Browns’ struggles.

"Why [the loss to the Ravens] turned out the way it did, I'm trying to figure out myself."

I doubt that was the answer Phil Savage was looking for.

The Ravens have physically crushed both the Bengals and the Browns in the fourth quarter. In the final quarter of both games the Ravens have controlled the ball a total of 26:35 out of a possible 30 minutes. That is a beat down. Paving the way for such clock dominance is the team’s ability to convert third downs, particularly on the ground.

So far in 2008 the Ravens are 7 for 7 on third and 1 conversions – all by running the football. Looking back at 2007, the Ravens converted 13 of 22 third and 1’s (59%) but inside of that number is a rather staggering stat to tuck away and save for an appropriate day. Of the 13 successful third and 1 conversions in ’07, 10 were by way of the run. The Ravens failed only once on the ground in 2007 which by my math means they are 17 of 18 on the ground over the last two seasons in third and 1 situations. For the record, Brian Billick’s offense was 3 of 11 (27%) on third and 1 when throwing the football.

No one expects the Ravens to dominate time of possession in a similar fashion at Heinz Field on Monday night. That said, the Ravens will catch a break in Pittsburgh due to a few injuries that will sideline or limit a couple of key players and probably alter the way the Steelers play the game.

First there is the injury to Ben Roethlisberger who was battered by the Eagles last Sunday. The Steelers’ QB is toughing out a sprained shoulder but adding to his physical woes is a sore throwing hand that was stepped on in Philadelphia. X-rays were negative but those injuries spell blood in the water for the sharks in white (aka the Ravens No.1 ranked defense) on Monday. With a struggling offensive line and a rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall who will be asked to pick up blitzing linebackers and DB’s flying in from all angles, Roethlisberger will look to get the ball off quickly. Maybe Bart Scott will get a chance to even the score with Hines Ward by hitting him repeatedly within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.

And speaking of the line of scrimmage, the Steelers’ Casey Hampton has certainly presented a host of challenges for the Ravens in years past. But the All-Pro nose guard will miss the Monday Night affair due to a groin pull. That injury coupled with the loss of DE Brett Keisel can only mean good things for the Ravens’ rushing attack.

The stars look like they are aligning for the Ravens this Monday night. The wild card in the equation is how Joe Flacco handles the pressure of his first road game before a national TV audience in a very hostile environment.

The Steelers haven’t lost at home on MNF since October 14, 1991 (13 consecutive wins). Back in 2005 the Ravens nearly pulled off an upset on MNF at Heinz before falling 20-19. Anthony Wright cost the Ravens that win. It will be interesting to see if Flacco manages the pressure under the spotlight more effectively.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Blogging With The Enemy: Ravens v. Browns

Pete Grasso from Blawgpound.com reached out to me last week to see if I’d be interested in doing a “5 Questions” piece with him. Despite being a Browns fan Pete seemed like a good guy and he has a great last name that ends in a vowel. So I said, “yes.” Besides, he can’t help it if he’s from Cleveland…

First, being a gracious host here are the 5 questions from Pete…

1) Given what the Cowboys and Steelers defenses did to the Browns, are you licking your chops?

Not necessarily. The Browns beat the Ravens twice in ’07 and they’ve struggled to contain Braylon Edwards. If the Ravens don’t put pressure on a shaky Derek Anderson, Edwards and Kellen Winslow could be problematic for the Ravens secondary – a secondary that has struggled to stay healthy.

The Browns defense is another story and they will see a different style of offense from the Ravens than they are accustomed to seeing from Baltimore. Cam Cameron, a mentor of sorts to [Browns’ Offensive Coordinator] Rob Chudzinski will attack the Browns secondary after establishing the run through play action passing, something that rookie QB Joe Flacco handles like a veteran. The Browns can also look for some no huddle attacks from the Ravens in part to limit substitutions and wear down the DT’s like Shaun Rogers who looked gassed towards the end of the Browns contest against the Steelers.

2) How satisfied are you with your QB situation in Baltimore? Who's your pick to start?

Flacco gets the start but personally I had hoped that either Troy Smith or Kyle Boller would win the job to enable Flacco to learn a bit from the sidelines. That won’t happen because Smith contracted a bacterial infection coupled with tonsillitis just when it seemed the job would be his. Boller has a torn labrum and is on injured reserve.

The rookie looked very solid in his pro debut but if Flacco goes down, John Harbaugh will call on the great Todd Bouman.

I know what you are thinking…hoping…

3) With the changes the Ravens made during the offseason, what were your expectations coming into this season?

I thought the Ravens were a 7 win team entering the season. I just thought there were too many question marks at quarterback, offensive line and in the secondary. After one game it looks like the Ravens have done a better job addressing those positions than I thought, particularly with the development of Flacco, the meshing of the offensive line plus the added depth with former Pro Bowler Willie Anderson and the return of Chris McAlister, Samari Rolle and Ed Reed to the starting secondary.

That said, it is only one game but it is a start.

If the Ravens can play consistently and stay healthy, they will compete. Let’s face it the AFC North isn’t exactly a strong division and the Ravens could win as many as nine games. But staying healthy is hardly a given for a team that starts 6 players on defense who are 30+.

4) What's your scouting report on the Browns telling you about Sunday's game?

I think the Ravens need to be physical with Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow. I expect short drops from Derek Anderson as he looks to get the ball off quickly. Jamming his favorite targets will force Anderson to read through his progressions and those short drops might ultimately lead to a few unwelcomed meetings with Ravens’ tackle Haloti Ngata who is emerging as a force in the NFL. The Browns will have to beat the Ravens by air and more than likely they’ll need a couple of big plays. The Ravens aren’t worried about former teammate Jamal Lewis.

On offense the Ravens will try and pick up where they left off last week – running the football and leaving Joe Flacco with manageable third down conversions. They will test the Browns’ shaky secondary and you may even see Todd Heap flanked outside the numbers to create mismatches. Look out for rookie Ray Rice.

When all is said and done and the clock reads 0:00, the Ravens will walk away with a 20-17 victory.

5)Are you as sick as we are of hearing people say, "It's the old Browns versus the new Browns?" I mean, it's been long enough, can't people get over it already? These are two different teams.

Actually we seldom hear that phrase in Baltimore but if it makes Cleveland Browns fans feel better, have at it. The Super Bowl XXXV win probably has something to do with our relative indifference towards the statement. That said, be happy with your new stadium and old colors. Baltimore would love to have a stadium that didn’t require permanent seat licenses to help finance its construction and there is no question about the town’s affinity for the horseshoes of the Baltimore Colts.


And now back to your regularly scheduled programming...

My questions for
Pete Grasso...

1. Derek Anderson has struggled not only this season but also down the stretch in '07. How much rope does he have left with Brady Quinn waiting in the wings?

Not much. Personally, I've been calling for Quinn since the beginning. He hasn't ever had a fair shot at the starting job. Whenever he gets on the field, the fans go crazy. And, whenever Anderson struggles, the "Brady, Brady …" chants begin. If he struggles again and we lose to the Ravens, I expect Brady to play against Cincy.

2. Joe Thomas is without a doubt a stud offensive tackle. Despite that if Browns fans had their way; do you think that they would have preferred Adrian Peterson who the Browns passed on in the 2007 draft?

No, I don't think so. I think most fans agree that Peterson wouldn't be the running back he is today if he had to play behind the old Browns O-line. They may have been some clamoring for him leading up to the draft, but the consensus pick was Thomas, who we knew we needed to anchor that line if the offense was going to improve at all.

3. The Browns had legitimate playoff hopes for 2008. History tells us that 0-2 teams rarely make it to the post season. Can the Browns turn it around particularly with all of the question marks on defense?

It's hard to say. The wind has definitely been taken out of the sails of a lot of Browns fans after these first two weeks. It's been a reality check for sure. The offense isn't producing and the defense has its obvious weaknesses. These next two games – division games – will tell us a lot about the rest of the season.

4. At this time last year Romeo Crennel was on extremely thin ice. GM Phil Savage wasn't far behind. Can they both survive if the Browns win fewer games in '08 than they did in '07?

I think Savage will survive. But, if the Browns head into the bye week 0-4, Crennel may not survive. Especially if Anderson continues to struggle. Let's face it, Anderson played pretty well for most of the season last year and he pretty much saved Romeo's job. But he struggled down the stretch. So, since he's continued to struggle this year, it may be Romeo who suffers as he was his biggest supporter.

5. Cleveland seems to be enamored with former Ravens. As it stands today, Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis and Bart Scott could all be free agents in '09. Of the three, which would Cleveland covet the most and which the least? And why?

I wouldn't mind Terrell Suggs coming to Cleveland … I think he'd really help us out where we need it. Ray Lewis, in my opinion, is way past his prime. We've already got one linebacker (McGinest) who is too old to really be effective. The only difference is Lewis jumps on piles after plays so he can get credit for tackles.

Monday, September 15, 2008


“I blew it!”

Those are the words of referee Ed Hochuli – a statement of the obvious after he helped gift wrap a win for the Denver Broncos.

With 1:17 left in a very exciting game, Jay Cutler rolled right after taking the snap from center at the Chargers 1 yard line. Cutler fumbled the football and it was recovered by the Chargers. Everyone watching saw it the same way except for Ed Hochuli who ruled on the field that Cutler had thrown an incomplete forward pass.

The replay official buzzed Hochuli who then overturned the call on the field, ruling correctly that the play was a fumble at the 10-yard line. But by rule the ball could not be given to the Chargers after a replay reversal of a pass/fumble, according to Hochuli.

If that is a rule, it needs to be changed. In fact if there are any other rules that clearly make no sense given the circumstances of the game whereby common sense and obvious fairness override a rather obsolete rule, then the officials should be able to make a fair ruling on the field.
Yesterday if given that latitude, Hochuli could have corrected his egregious mistake. Instead he has to live with it and so do the San Diego Chargers who after 2 weeks find themselves 2 games behind the Broncos.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Patriots will be watching the playoffs at home

Let me go on record and say that the New England Patriots will not make the playoffs. These national media guys (and gals) keep trying to convince the viewing public that Matt Cassel has what it takes to get Belichick’s bunch (fka the Brady Bunch) dancing again post season.

Two words folks – AIN’T HAPPENIN’!

You think maybe their endless pimping of the Pats has something to do with TV ratings?

Look the Pats were on their way down WITH Brady. I’m not suggesting that they would not make the playoffs with their supermodel boyfriend QB, but look at the back end of 2007 and you will see a team nowhere near as dominant as they were during the first half of the season. Opponents began to figure New England out a bit more as the season progressed. A soon to be 5-11 team near and dear to our hearts nearly beat the Patriots in December. The Giants nearly beat them later in December and somewhere in between that loss and the Super Bowl, the G-Men unveiled a blue print to beat the Patriots. And the rest of the NFL took notice.

With Brady, I expected an 11-5 team. Without Brady, they are a .500 team at best.

We all place Bill Belichick up on a pedestal and exalt him as a genius on the level of the dude who came up with EMC squared. But take away Tom Brady and Belichick is a sub .500 coach. Some say that the Patriots are too talented not to be successful even without the 2007 MVP. I agree provided you define success as 8-8. Brady makes a difference, a big difference. We’ll see how this all shakes out and how long Randy Moss will remain interested when things turn a bit south.

Oh and by the way, the Jets are favored over the Patriots today.

That should tell you what the odds makers think of Matt Cassel.
Photo by Sabina Moran

Friday, September 12, 2008

Keys to game: Ravens @ Texans

The Ravens are leaving for Houston on Sunday to take on the Texans in a rescheduled contest set to begin at 8:30 PM Eastern Time on Monday night. The game will be televised on local CBS stations in the primary and secondary markets of the Texans (Houston, Beaumont-Port Arthur, and Bryan, Texas) and the Ravens (Baltimore; Washington, DC; Salisbury, MD; and Harrisburg, PA).

Depending upon the severity of the storm there is a slight chance that the game could be played on Tuesday in a location other than Houston. But for the sake of all involved, particularly the citizens of Texas, let’s hope we’re watching Ravens’ football on Monday night.

It’s too bad ESPN isn’t carrying the game. Then Redskins fans forced to watch the Ravens would feel the pain that Baltimoreans felt when their sorry ass teams were jammed down our throats week after week when Baltimore was without a team.

But I digress…

The Ravens at Texans match-up on paper looks like a slam dunk win for the Ravens. The Texans are coming off a 38-17 dismantling by the Steelers, a game during which Willie Parker ran for 3 TD’s before the midway mark of the third quarter. After three quarters Mike Tomlin called off the dogs while leading 35-3. Meanwhile the Ravens pummeled the Bengals for 229 net yards rushing.

The Texans without Ahman Green are almost completely dependent upon the performances of Andre Johnson and Mario Williams. Shut them down and the Texans have no chance unless the Ravens show up in a philanthropic mood and give the football away at an alarming rate and they are penalized excessively.

However the Texans do have home field advantage. Houston was 6-2 at home last year and the crowd will certainly be even more galvanized and emotional on the heels of Hurricane Ike.

Without emotion and Ravens’ miscues, the game could be a blow out particularly if the Ravens hit the rewind button on the Bengals’ game and execute an identical game plan against Houston.

With that in mind, here are the keys to the game as I see it:

1. Neutralize DE Mario Williams and WR Andre Johnson: Look for the Ravens to chip Williams with tight ends and the hard hitting jumbo backs, Le’Ron McClain and Lorenzo Neal. McClain and Neal need to hit Williams and make it hurt with the ultimate goal being to get him off his game by slowing him down not only physically but mentally. If Williams needs to worry about where the chips are coming from, he can’t react to the play developing around him as quickly. Running at Williams has been effective in the past because he will oftentimes penetrate the backfield from the perimeter. If he wants to go that way, let him and then run inside of the pursuit.

As for Andre Johnson, the Ravens should handle him much the same way that they handled Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Hit Johnson early with a linebacker and bracket him beyond 10 yards.

2. Collapse the pocket on Matt Schaub: The Texans have a young offensive line averaging 25 years of age. The center C. Myers has an angular build (6’4”, 287 pounds) and he should be no match for Haloti Ngata. If Ngata and sidekick Trevor Pryce can break down the pocket coupled with jamming Johnson on the outside, Schaub will be in a world of trouble in his 3 step drops which you can expect a lot of given the struggles of the Texans’ offensive line.

3. Run the football: The Steelers ran easily on the Texans and the Ravens need to establish a similar rhythm rushing the football. That will make Joe Flacco’s polished ball handling skills that much more effective during play action particularly early in the down and distance sequence. It will also take the hostile crowd out of the game and mitigate the issues rookie quarterbacks normally experience on the road.

Follow this plan and the Ravens win 26-9.

Ignore it and the Texans will cover the 4 1/2 point spread that has trap written all over it.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Was bad call on Frank Walker a make up call?

The late Gene Upshaw was honored around the league for his Hall of Fame career and his contributions to the NFL Players Union. Upshaw recently passed away after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. NFL fields were emblazoned with GU 63 and all players wore similar patches during the season’s opening week. The gesture was noble yet I couldn’t help to think about John Unitas. You may recall that Paul Tagliabue wouldn’t even allow quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Chris Redman to wear hightop cleats as a symbolic gesture of appreciation to Unitas after his sudden passing in 2002. Yet every single jersey was decorated with the GU 63 patch this Sunday. I suppose John just didn’t have the friends in high places that Upshaw had.

Other forms of fashion provided a topic of discussion down at M&T Bank on Sunday. For the first time since the days of Vinny Testaverde, the Ravens dusted off the white jersey/black pants uniform ensemble although this time, the pants did not come with the piping that the 90’s version had. The fashion police are wondering why.

The landscape of the AFC certainly has changed after just one week. The Patriots probably lost 6 games despite winning their opener against the Chiefs. The loss of Tom Brady is enormous and those national media folk with their lips squarely planted on the Patriots’ hind parts are in denial if they still think the Pats are playoff bound. That offensive line has been exposed and Brady isn’t there to save them. Word now is that Chris Simms will get a look from Bill Belichick. Just what we all need – Chris’ dad Phil sucking up to the Patriots even more than he already does.

Much has been said about the bad call against Frank Walker on Yamon Figurs’ would be punt return for a touchdown. Granted it was a very bad call but no one is talking about the non-call on the very same return. Tom Zbikowski (who by the way is a special team stud) hit a Bengal in the back prior to the Walker block to help spring Figurs around the left sideline. Can you say “Make up call?”

Ravens' fans raise bar of expectation?

After a poor showing during the preseason games Ravens’ fans lowered their collective bar of expectation for the 2008 season. The bar’s level was also influenced by a national media that holds little hope for the Ravens this year. But as we’ve learned things change quickly in the NFL and hopes can be dashed at the same time expectations can soar particularly under the microscope of Week 1 of the NFL season. Just ask the New England Patriots and New York Jets.

Realistic expectations for the Ravens are probably not much different today than they were back in April after the draft. While improving and certainly building towards the future, the Ravens are somewhere between a 5 win team on the low side and a 9 win team on the top side. However should they stay healthy, the 2008 version of the Ravens could be similar to the surprising 2003 squad.

Back then rookie Kyle Boller coupled with Anthony Wright helped direct the Ravens to a 10-6 finish and their first divisional crown. Yet as we all know, most of the credit for that title belongs to Mike Nolan’s defense led by DPOY Ray Lewis. If Rex Ryan’s ’08 defense can stay relatively injury free and perform like the ’03 defensive squad, the Ravens could have another rookie quarterback help guide them to a divisional title, particularly when you consider the talent around him versus the 2003 squad. But with an aging defense that features six starters in the 30+ club (Pryce, Reed, Rolle, McAlister, Lewis & Gregg) a clean bill of health throughout the season is a long shot.

And while we are on the topic of long shots, do you think Marvin Lewis will survive this season in Cincinnati? His team did not look prepared and they seem to be on the verge of an implosion. And sorry Marv, you have to take that field goal in the fourth quarter against the Ravens. That score makes it 17-13 and suddenly you’ve turned up the heat on a rookie quarterback who then would have had to respond. After all isn’t that usually the game plan against green QB’s? You had a chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and you blew it! When Bengals’ owner Mike Brown decided to bring Chris Henry back despite Lewis’ public statements to do just the opposite, it was clear then that the former Ravens’ D-Coordinator was skating on thin ice. The thaw continues for Lewis.
Photo by Sabina Moran

Buzz about Flacco

The town is buzzing about Joe Flacco. Many observers were a bit surprised by his play on Sunday but don’t count the Ravens coaches and front office execs among those defining the performance as an eye opening experience.

Ravens’ offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was hardly shy about implementing plays and gadgets never before seen in this part of the country despite the rookie behind center. What many don’t understand is that Flacco primarily operated out of a shotgun formation at Delaware and often called plays at the line of scrimmage after receiving sideline signals. Clearly he was in his comfort zone.

The bigger challenge for Flacco will be to maintain his poise and keep the offense in synch in hostile conditions like Reliant Stadium, the home of the Houston Texans. The Texans were 6-2 at home last season and they are reeling from their recent thrashing at the hands of the Steelers. That said don’t expect Joe Flacco to rest on his laurels. Word is he was one of the first players at the complex on Monday already in prep mode for this Sunday’s game.

Todd Heap certainly didn’t help his quarterback much against the Bengals. The usually sure-handed former Pro Bowl tight end fumbled Flacco’s very first career pass and then dropped a couple other passes, one of which would have been a touchdown. That’s what happens when you don’t practice and don’t experience the contact.

Heap wasn’t the only player to let Flacco down. Ray Rice would still be running with the football had he not dropped a pass over the middle of the field and in stride. Rice would later fumble the football on a quick pitch leading to a Bengals score. Those two miscues resulted in a 14 point swing. Word is that Cam Cameron wanted Flacco to check out of the quick pitch after recognizing that the play was doomed from the start given the Bengals’ defensive alignment. Rice tried to make something from nothing although nothing in hindsight looks a lot better than six the other way.

Speaking of six, Mark Clayton got his but he easily could have added another. He was behind Johnathan Joseph on a deep post that was underthrown by Flacco. Clayton is not generally regarded as a deep threat and his size or lack thereof is to blame. However Clayton does possess outstanding change of direction skills and he is effective gaining separation after a double move. That combined with Flacco’s ability to look off safeties and pump fake should influence Cam Cameron as the season unfolds.

Give Cameron credit for an effective game plan that kept the Bengals off balance and allowed the offensive line to dictate the action on the field. Also give Cameron some well deserved praise for finding a diamond in the rough in Le’Ron McClain. McClain never carried the ball more than 17 times in a season for the Crimson Tide yet on Sunday he carried it 19 times for 86 yards. Rex Ryan has deservedly been credited with the ability to utilize the athletic prowess of his defenders in such a way that makes them more productive on the field and bigger contributors to the team effort. Perhaps John Harbaugh has found the same kind of coach on the offensive side as well.

Apparently neither coordinator showed very much during the preseason (which by the way is the NFL’s biggest fraud) because what the Ravens did on Sunday, granted it was against the Cincinnati Bengals, is more indicative of the things we can expect from the Ravens going forward. Harbaugh’s coaching staff is not held back by the “protect the football-defend well-control the clock” formula that the previous administration used as a crutch. This team looks like it will play to win as opposed to playing not to lose and they appear far more inclined to experiment – the jumbo backfield, double reverse and unbalanced offensive line recently featured are prime examples.
Photo by Rick Noppenberger

Saturday, September 06, 2008

NFL & Ravens look to silence M&T's 12th Man?

We hear about the 12th man often and the advantages the home town crowd can deliver for their team. Perhaps now we won’t actually hear the 12th man as often or as enthusiastically thanks to the Ravens and the NFL.

First there’s this new Fan Code of Conduct. Now I’m not here to say that in spirit such a code is a bad thing. Its intent is to help foster the most comfortable atmosphere possible for those paying a hefty sum for the privilege of sitting in M&T Bank Stadium on game day.

That said there are some small grey areas that might lead to some big problems.

Can anyone tell me exactly what “excessive standing” means? What exactly is excessive when it comes to NFL games? Does it mean you can only stand when the Ravens are on defense or does it mean you can only stand on third down? Or maybe it means you can only stand after a big sack or interception. Hey maybe you have to screw yourself to your seat until the Ravens score a touchdown and THAT could turn into excessive sitting.

What exactly is the league's definition of "excessive?"

Maybe S.A.F.E. Management thinks they know. Maybe the arrogant S.O.B. seven rows behind you knows. Said S.O.B. will undoubtedly test it with S.A.F.E. until everyone is a little more sure of what excessive standing means. But until we reach that understanding, tempers will be tested more than Frank Walker when he lines up at corner.

To make matters worse, the Ravens organization is about to play Big Brother and thousands of “brothers” will have their say. A “brother” could even be sitting next to you. Beginning tomorrow, the team will implement a text messaging system intended “to improve safety among fans attending games at M&T Bank Stadium.”

A Houston-based company known as Qtags will provide something called GuestAssist, a text messaging code to fans through stadium signage and public address announcements. According to a statement released by the team fans can, “text via their mobile phones any issues or security concerns they may have. The message will be received by members of M&T Bank Stadium’s gameday staff. The staff can also send reply messages to the fan.”

This has the potential to be one big pain in the ass to fans who support the team, are enthusiastic but perhaps a little too enthusiastic for the stick in the mud that sits to their right or behind them. It might even be an invitation for one season ticket holder who harbors a grudge against another to settle a score or be vindictive or for a fan of the visiting team to have a laugh at your expense and it could eventually cost you your tickets or PSL.

We are all familiar with the Ravens' fan credo:

Have fun, root hard, show respect for the fans around you, but… don’t be a jerk.

Maybe it should be:

Shut up, sit down, rat out the fans around...oh and have a good time!

I can hardly wait for the new M&T Bank experience. Relatively speaking it might make the press box feel like a frat party.

You know it makes me want to shout!

Keys to game: Ravens v. Bengals

1. Hit Carson Palmer: Palmer took a brutal beating during the preseason behind a struggling Bengals’ offensive line. It will be important to knock Palmer off his spot and disrupt his rhythm. Look for Palmer to throw early in the down and distance sequence and rely upon timing routes with 3 and 5 step drops. This may inspire Rex Ryan to come hard up the middle and peel his backers into zone coverage.

2. Turnovers: The Ravens were minus 8 against the Bengals in ’07 in the turnover category. A little less hospitality will go a long way for the home town team.

3. Special teams: Without question Jerry Rosburg’s unit was the best in the preseason. They will need to continue to cover and return well to win the battle of field position. A longer field for the defense will give Rex Ryan some comfort. He can then invite Carson Palmer to dink and dunk while protecting his vulnerable and nicked up secondary.

4. Swing for the fences early: Marvin Lewis will bring the heat to rookie signal caller Joe Flacco. He’ll shorten the field with blitzes and by jamming the box with 8 and 9 defenders. The Ravens can’t give into this rather obvious strategy. They will need to attack it with play action and going deep early during the game to loosen things up in the box. The Ravens need to make the Bengals respect Flacco’s big right arm.

5. Throw on running downs: During the very first preseason game, Cam Cameron took pressure off his offensive line by throwing early in the down sequence. As a result, Kyle Boller was able to step into throws and connect consistently with his receivers, particularly Derrick Mason. The Ravens would be wise to do the same against the Bengals to enable Flacco to get into a groove and develop confidence while slowing down Lewis’ blitz and exotic formations.

Key Players to Watch: On offense, a surprise player could be Daniel Wilcox. He has a knack for finding holes in a defense and clearly the Bengals will be focusing their attention upon Todd Heap. Wilcox might be the beneficiary of such attention; on defense my key player is Trevor Pryce. If he can collapse the pocket and command double teams while Palmer is taking 3 and 5 step drops, players on the outside like Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson could tip a few passes and that could result in a key turnover or two; on special teams, Yamon Figurs is the guy who could help the Ravens win the battle for field position. Another player to keep and eye out for if he is active for the game is newly acquired kicker Steve Haushcka. Recently cut by the Vikings, Haushcka impressed Brad Childress’ staff with his big kicks off the tee.

The intelligence of the Ravens

When the Ravens’ organization first considered two of their offseason free agent acquisitions (Rise & Conquer), much was discussed about how exactly the team would use the birds.

As team officials learned more about the species, they were quite surprised by the bird’s level of intelligence. I learned that the team’s marketing department observed a film about ravens which in part compared the raven’s level of intelligence to other birds.

To compare and contrast the birds, a hunk of meat was tied to a rope and hung from a tree. Several species of birds approached the meat in a variety of ways. Some would quickly take small portions while others would hang on a nearby branch and enjoy a quick serving or two while skittishly looking around for threats to their perch before nervously flying away.

Not the raven!

The film tracked the raven’s behavior. It would fly to the tree and occupy a nearby branch. It would look around and soak in the scene then fly away without touching the meat. After a few rounds of surveillance, the raven untied the rope’s knot and flew away with the entire hunk of meat.

Here’s an interesting video from PBS which further demonstrates the raven’s intelligence.

So…the next time someone suggests that you are a bird brain, remember the raven.

Now if the Baltimore Ravens could figure out a way to get to Carson Palmer tomorrow, maybe we’ll all be smiling come Monday morning.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Ravens fish for quarterback, Reed for answers

If you have ever seen the animated movie Finding Nemo, you will likely recall the scene during which carnivorous sharks attend a recovery group meeting akin to Alcoholic’s Anonymous. Their mission is to abstain from eating fish.

All appears to be going well until Dory hits her nose and the scent of blood drifts through the water and knocks the great white shark Bruce off the wagon and into a fish feeding frenzy.

Let’s hope the Ravens defensive front seven have seen the pictures of Carson Palmer's bloody nose and that their determination to get to the Bengals QB is as inspired as Bruce’s to get to fish. They will need it. A trip to M&T Bank Stadium for Carson Palmer is like that of a 7 year-old boy visiting Toys R Us.

And that’s when the Ravens’ secondary is healthy. Rex Ryan’s current edition is anything but.

Chris McAlister is practicing but is not at 100% and he has not been battle tested at all in ’08. He failed to take a single preseason snap and he’s been a regular bystander during practice. Samari Rolle has also been very limited and hasn’t quite shaken off the rust of inactivity. Fabian Washington is suspended for the contest and he has been plagued by minor injuries. Derrick Martin’s season is in jeopardy due to an injured right labrum. He had offseason surgery on the labrum and sutures to stabilize the labrum were torn after a sideline collision against Minnesota.

If McAlister and Rolle aren’t at 100% by game time, the Ravens could be forced to use Corey Ivy and/or Frank Walker and both have proven to be inviting targets for quarterbacks far less accomplished than Carson Palmer. CB Anwar Phillips is still looking for his first career snap in regular season action.

And then there is Ed Reed. Reed is suffering from a neck and shoulder impingement – an injury that apparently has no short-term cure and Reed is taking the necessary precautions to make sure the injury doesn’t threaten his career. He also doesn’t sound like a player anywhere near ready to take on the Bengals.

"It's a long season and I feel like the team is going to need me more down the line than earlier and having to get hurt and can't play again."

If this injury forces Ed Reed into an early retirement in ’09, not only would the team lose a player generally regarded as the league’s best free safety, they would also take a big cap hit. Hypothetically speaking, if the Ravens absorbed Reed’s retirement prior to June 1 of ’09, they would carry $8.2 million in dead money next season. If they take the retirement hit after June 1, they will carry $2.8 million in dead money in ’09 and another $5.4 million in ’10.

Perhaps the team had an inkling of things to come with Reed during the offseason by bringing in the veteran Jim Leonhard and drafting promising rookies Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura. But if the Ravens don’t pressure Palmer on Sunday, school will be in session for the three newcomers.

And while we are on the topic of school, the Ravens will place Joe Flacco behind center to start the 2008 regular season for a bit of on-the-job training. Flacco will look to handle his baptism by fire more efficiently than Kyle Boller did back in 2003.

Heading into the season, the club wanted either Kyle Boller or Troy Smith to step up and direct Cam Cameron’s offense. But due to a bizarre sequence of events, neither Boller (shoulder injury) nor Smith (viral infection) will be available to the team against the Bengals. Adding to the chaos is the possibility that the team will go into the game with a back-up quarterback who has not taken a single snap with the team or during an NFL regular season game since 2005 -- Todd Bauman.

Word is that the team preferred Simms but the two sides couldn’t find common ground on a contract. Let's consider the inability to get Harrington signed as the team's first win of the season. Harrington is just a bad NFL quarterback.

Who knows, maybe the club is opting for the veteran minimum Bouman to save some dough for Willie Anderson, the four-time Pro Bowl tackle recently cut loose by the Cincinnati Bengals. Anderson refused to take a pay cut in Cincinnati and was then given the pink slip. He signed a five year, $32 million extension with the Bengals just prior to the 2006 season. Anderson, 33, is being courted by the Chargers and the Bears as well. He is from Mobile, Alabama and has business interests (Fatburger) in Atlanta.

Even if the Ravens do decide to bring in Anderson, don’t be surprised if they wait a week to make an official announcement. The delay in a signing could stem from the Collective Bargaining Agreement provision that permits a player with four or more years of service to collect “termination pay” if he is on a roster at the start of the season and subsequently released. Article XXIII of the CBA creates a vested veteran’s right to receive the balance of his salary as termination pay. It’s available to each player once in his NFL career.This provision could also inspire some gamesmanship on the part of GM’s around the league to cut vested veterans only to re-sign them after Week One.

After all it’s just business, right?