Friday, January 30, 2009

Super Bowl XLIII Prediction

Ok, it’s time for a Super Bowl prediction…The last time the Steelers and Cardinals played was during Week 4 of the 2007 campaign. In that game the Cardinals sacked Ben Roethlisberger four times and intercepted him twice. They also held Willie Parker to 39 yards rushing. Meanwhile Larry Fitzgerald had a field day and that was before Kurt Warner was playing at an MVP level and it was without Anquan Boldin who was sidelined with an injury. Plus the Cardinals were not running the football as effectively as they have so far during this post season. That said the Cardinals have yet to face a defense as stingy as the Steelers in ’08-’09.

The keys for the Steelers:

1. Exploit a suspect Cardinals secondary: That might be a challenge without a healthy Hines Ward. Look for the Steelers to turn to TE Heath Miller. The Cardinals struggled to defend the Eagles’ tight ends and Miller could have a field day.

2. Get inside pressure on Kurt Warner and force him to move off his spot: Warner welcomes pressure off the edge. With his poise and quick release, Warner can exploit areas vacated by blitzing defenders.

3. Provide over the top help to the corners: The Steelers corners are average while Boldin is not and Fitzgerald is arguably the league’s best receiver.

The keys for the Cardinals:

1. Protect Warner between the tackles…PERIOD!

2. Contain Roethlisberger: If he breaks containment, Cardinals’ suspect secondary could be easy pickings.

3. Get backs in the passing game: Warner can spread the Steelers secondary if protected with three 1,000 yard receivers. They will command attention and Pittsburgh might not have the resources to give much attention to James and Hightower out of the backfield.

During Championship weekend I rooted for the Eagles in large part because I believed they would be a more willing victim for the Ravens than the Cardinals. The Cardinals would have been a bad match up for the Ravens. Many say that the Ravens and Steelers are built similarly and for that reason, I think Arizona is a bad match up for Pittsburgh too. The 2008 season has been heavily characterized by its unpredictability and the unexpected. That trend continues on Sunday when Kurt Warner becomes the first quarterback to win the Super Bowl with two different teams

Cardinals 26 Steelers 23

Up and down the radio dial in Baltimore

The local airwaves are now packed with sports talking heads. Baltimore has 1 ½ major league sports teams to go with 4 radio stations with an all sports format. And now that the only real major league team in town has completed its season, one has to wonder if all four can survive.

Advertising budgets are being slashed all over and it has had a clear affect on print media. Press Box now publishes its paper only once per month v. weekly; The Sun’s parent company Tribune Co. has filed Chapter 11; and now the Baltimore Examiner is closing shop on February 15.

The sports talk stations that can survive might be those with the best sales forces or those that can manage costs most effectively – or both! This might have something to do with Nestor Aparicio’s return to the airwaves on a semi-regular basis now that Rob Long has moved from a station powered by two coffee cans, a piece of chord and an underappreciated rodent to one powered by 50,000 watts. It might also help explain why a talent like Steve Davis gets the boot while Anita Marks gets a one year extension.

Staying with radio, here are a few thoughts from the 24x7 peanut gallery (that would be me) on the sports radio landscape with all due respect to our Media Watchdog…

Let’s start with 105.7 The Fan…Is Bruce Cunningham really that corny or is it just a bad act? From his tee shots down the fairway to his tough guy act to his navigational buoys to his mad love for Baltimore, he is sports talk’s Hee Haw without the laughs – at least not the laughter the “aforementioned Bruce Cunningham” tries to evoke. The show is a train wreck yet it lures me in not because I expect to learn anything, but instead it’s my eagerness to hear the former DJ stick his foot in his mouth. And much to my delight, as certain as a bear does you know what you know where, Bruce delivers again and again…Can’t you just feel Scott Garceau’s pain at times sitting across from the Ultimate Sports Chick?...Props to Mark Viviano and Ken Weinman – smooth, insightful and amiable.

Over to FOX 1370 and their 50,000 watts…I have to wonder sometimes what they’ve done with 49,000 of those watts. The signal in Harford County and along the I-83 corridor is very substandard…What is not substandard is the hustle of Jerry Coleman. That said I would prefer to hear the opinions of Coleman and his many guest co-hosts more regularly than the raw, unedited press conferences that at times have already been played by other sports talkers earlier in the day. And by the way, when does a radio station stop being “all new”?...Props to Coleman and station manager Bob Pettit for luring Rob Long and his Chicken Box Fridays.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Ravens can't get it right in draft at WR

It’s been suggested on these pages and written about over and over on blogs and message boards throughout the internet – tag Terrell Suggs and trade him for Anquan Boldin.

While the Ravens covet Boldin, they do not see him on equal footing with Terrell Suggs. The Ravens’ front office believes that Suggs is a bigger difference maker than Boldin and that Boldin benefits greatly from playing opposite Larry Fitzgerald and to some extent No. 3 receiver Steve Breaston. Plus Boldin’s 4.7 speed doesn’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of defenders and the Ravens prefer to find a No. 1 who can stretch the field.

The Ravens haven’t exactly set the standard for finding talent at WR in the draft. If anything they are closer to setting the standard for how not to find talent at the position. Since the team’s inception in 1996, the Ravens have drafted 14 wide receivers. Lamont Brightful and Derek Abney were drafted as wide receivers but were drafted primarily as return specialists and are not among these 14. Brightful played more defensive back than he played receiver and never caught a pass in the NFL as a member of the Ravens. Abney was cut during training camp the same year he was drafted (2004).

The 14 who were selected to play wide receiver (I’ve included Yamon Figurs in the 14) were chosen on average with the 117th overall draft pick – a mid-fourth round selection. The total number of catches by all 14 as members of the Ravens is 797. Comparatively speaking Marvin Harrison (selected in 1996) has 1,102 receptions, Terrell Owens (1996) has 951 and Hines Ward (1998) has 800. Harrison was a first round pick while Owens and Ward were third round choices. The Ravens in 1998 drafted Patrick Johnson in the second round with the 42nd overall pick – fifty slots ahead of Ward. PJ had 60 career catches over the course of 5 seasons with the Ravens.

Needless to say, the results are embarrassingly abysmal. The Ravens believe that their difficulties in drafting a quality wide receiver who can become a prototypical No. 1 are directly tied to the position of quarterback. Their research suggests that the high number of draft busts at the position for all teams is directly correlated to the team’s competency at the position of quarterback. Put another way, a fourth round WR going to the Colts has a much better chance of success than even an earlier WR pick going to the Chiefs.

Say goodbye to Jim Leonhard?

This won’t go over well with Ravens fans but Jim Leonhard in my estimation is as good as gone. He stepped up when it counted the most and the entire country was on hand to see via nationally televised games during the post season. Someone will overpay for Leonhard and what they will get is a hard working player who is a great teammate, pushes his physical abilities to the edge and has a nose for the football.

Of course the Ravens would love to keep him but in my opinion he will ultimately fail Ozzie Newsome’s acid test of “right player, right price.” Clearly he’s the right player for the Ravens. But his asking price will probably persuade Ozzie to look towards the next men up and Dawan Landry aside, it’s difficult for even the most staunch advocate of Leonhard to conclude that neither Tom Zbikowski nor Haruki Nakamura aren’t capable of giving John Harbaugh in ’09 what Leonhard provided during the ’08 season.

Kokinis already torn about new post with Browns?

Should I stay or should I go now? It would surprise no one if that classic from The Clash echoed through the cerebral cortex of former Ravens’ Director of Pro Personnel, George Kokinis. He is now entering the Twilight Zone of the NFL – the capital of Disorganized Chaos, the Mecca of Staph Infection, aka the front office of the Cleveland Browns.

Word is that Kokinis had second, third, fourth thoughts and more about the job and despite his friendship with new Browns’ Head Coach Eric Mangini, he wanted to back out but thought that his little tap dance had gone on a little too long. Kokinis wisely concluded that to bail now would hurt his career as an NFL executive down the road.

Good luck George and watch out for flying beer bottles from those always pleasant Browns’ fans.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Boneheaded play hurts Ravens comeback attempt

The play-by-play chart on for the game's opening play reads: 6-S.Hauschka kicks 56 yards from BAL 30 to PIT 14. 33-G.Russell to PIT 34 for 20 yards (81-M.Smith). BAL-39-D.Stone was injured during the play. His return is Doubtful.

If we were only that lucky.

You’ve probably heard of Robert “Hands of Stone” Duran. And unfortunately you are most definitely familiar with Daren “Head of Bone” Stone.

Let’s set the stage…

The Ravens fight and claw their way to a two point deficit against the Steelers during the AFC Championship Game. Trailing 16-14 the Ravens force a key three-and-out and subsequently the Steelers punt with 7:00 minutes left in the game. As he’s done so often, Pittsburgh punter Mitch Berger hits a relatively lame punt 38 yards to the Ravens 28 and Jim Leonhard returns it to his own 39.

First and 10 with 6:50 to go.

(Commercial break)

We all begin to feel it. The Ravens just might do to the Steelers what the Steelers had done to the Ravens twice during the regular season – snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

(Return from commercial break)

Oh, the horror!

Replaying before us in what amounts to the biggest boneheaded play in Ravens history considering the magnitude of the game and the major swing in momentum in the Ravens’ favor, is Daren Stone tossing a Steelers’ player well out of bounds. He’s flagged for a 15 yard penalty for unnecessary roughness from the spot.

Momentum back to Pittsburgh…

The crowd pounces on the shift in momentum as the Ravens now start their drive from the 14 yard line.

Five plays and 2:11 later, Troy Polamalu picks off a Joe Flacco pass and returns it 40 yards for the score.

Game, set, match, likely end of Stone as a Raven.

That will be the one play that we’ll ponder during the long off-season and ask, “What if?”

It’s tough to pin a loss on one play and Stone’s teammates and coaches will and have said the same. Yet during the course of a game, there are pivotal plays or mistakes that heavily affect a game’s outcome and clearly this was a mistake of monumental proportions.

How are you sleeping these days Daren?

Yes I did it – I watched that Championship game again. And here are a few of my notes and observations that unfortunately will linger for a while…

I know all about the rule and its impact on the Santonio Holmes non-catch at the goal line. And what a great job by Harbaugh’s staff picking up on it. But I have to say, we got away with one there and I wonder if Mike Tomlin’s flag had beaten Harbaugh’s if the officials would have reached the same conclusion that the pass was incomplete. Make up call for the TD in Baltimore during the Ravens 13-9 loss in December?...Ed Reed was just a step slow during the 45 yard catch and run by Hines Ward on the Steelers’ first possession. A slightly quicker step on that play and Reed would have been off to the races again…How many were thinking about Larry Fitzgerald on that deep sideline pass that just eluded the outstretched hands of the Ravens of Mark Clayton in the first quarter?...Back to Holmes for a second, he grates on my nerves, you? To me, he’s a shorter, faster version of Plaxico Burress…Hey Yamon, I hope you are renting…On third and 1 and then fourth and 1, why did the Ravens empty the backfield? Why isn’t Lorenzo Neal on the field? And if you wanted to get cute and go downfield, that’s cool but wouldn’t the full backfield draw the desired defenders into the box even more during play action?...Ray Rice was effective in limited action. I’m wondering why he was so limited…Cam Cameron was outfoxed by the oldest assistant coach in the NFL – Dick LeBeau. LeBeau used a Cover 2 with press on the edges often and he dropped his linebackers. That screamed for more rushes off the edge and less of the deep ball activity that the Ravens employed. That crossing route to Todd Heap in the fourth quarter was exactly the kind of pattern that would have proven to be more successful given the depth in the drop of the Steelers’ safeties. That said, the Pittsburgh secondary did play a much better game than most of us expected, particularly Cameron…Props to Willis McGahee. He played with heart that we haven’t seen much if at all from him all season. He was outstanding picking up blitzing Steelers. Here’s to continuing that in 2009.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Ravens' unexpected season sets stage for promising future

The dust and the flurries of Heinz Field have settled. The 65,000 plus black and gold attired fans have long gone. The battered and bruised combatants are now resting. One team will soon begin their preparation for a trip to Tampa, Florida to take on the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. The other, the Baltimore Ravens will head out to Owings Mills to empty their lockers and begin their offseason, a bit more prematurely than they or any of us had hoped.

Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption once warned that hope is a dangerous thing. It has a way of heightening our expectations to unrealistic levels.

Back in August while watching the 2008 vintage of the Baltimore Ravens, nearly all of us – fans and media alike expected this season to be a rebuilding year for the team. The offensive line appeared to be in tatters. A once great quarterback retired; a beleaguered quarterback out for the season with a torn labrum and a hopeful quarterback sidelined for weeks with a mysterious viral infection.

Unbeknownst to all of us, that sequence of events that removed Steve McNair, Kyle Boller and Troy Smith from consideration for opening day starter ushered in a new era on the fast track. Say hello to Joe Flacco.

Clearly the season took us all for a ride we never expected. The team fought through an early season three game losing streak and then won 12 of 14 games including two playoff games before falling to the Steelers last night in the AFC Championship Game. The truth is the Ravens gave us so much more than even the most optimistic of us could ever have wished. Whenever reality far exceeds expectation, jubilation results.

And then suddenly the jubilation ended.

The Ravens delivered yet we wanted more. They wanted more. It is the human, competitive spirit that inspires the pursuit of excellence and the insatiable desire to not settle for second best. Now we ponder what might have been while finding hope in what was.

The season began to feel like one of destiny. The team had come together in part through a galvanizing theme, “What’s Our Name?” that fostered a team first mentality. They battled through so many injuries; they were worn thin by depleted depth. They continually leaned on their mantra, “Next man up” and they were inspired by the courageousness of O.J. Brigance and his battle with ALS.

The march into and through the playoffs had a very familiar feel and the ultimate prize – the climb to the league’s pinnacle would culminate at Raymond James Stadium, the locale for Super Bowl XXXV and what better way to get there than through the town of the team’s most bitter rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Unfortunately it was not meant to be. The hints of destiny were merely remnants of hope. The team that will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl is the Steelers and the truth be told, they are the better team – for now. Three losses to Mike Tomlin’s gang in one season is all the proof you need.

Yet hope remains...

In 2008 the Ravens found a great head coach, what looks to be a franchise quarterback and a newly discovered resolve devoid of the bravado and unnecessary swagger of teams from the past. They learned how to win on the road and in bad weather and they showed as much heart or more than any that has ever donned the purple and black. They aren’t far behind the black and gold of the Steelers and the Steelers know it.

From the top of the Ravens food chain right on through to the ball boys, Baltimore is as strong as any organization. They’ve matured as a group and they’ve learned from past transgressions. The front office is talented, prepared and resourceful and they will find ways to strengthen areas of weakness. The coaching staff is extremely solid and they will be even better next year now that they’ve bonded for a season and that their familiarity and understanding of the team’s roster is more thorough.

Of course the sad reality of the end of any NFL season is that no roster will remain intact. Typically attrition affects 20% of a team’s roster. Rex Ryan will probably be gone today or tomorrow and he may take a coach or two with him. Players that we’ve cheered for and embraced almost like family will go and the names could be staggering – Ray Lewis, Bart Scott, Terrell Suggs, Jason Brown, Chris McAlister, Samari Rolle or Todd Heap.

That’s the nature of the beast.

The 2008 season has been a terrific ride and a day after its conclusion we can all be thankful. It brought joy to a community that needed it. It provided a pleasant distraction from the harsh economic environment that envelopes us all. It probably brought you together with friends, family and loved ones more frequently than you otherwise might have.

And it has given us hope for the future.

Today we begin healing. Tomorrow we’ll begin to look ahead.

Thank you Ravens – it’s been a blast!

Here’s to the future!


And here's to remembering the 2008 season...

Friday, January 16, 2009

posting new blog

Ravens' odds & ends...or is that ends and odds?

Steelers’ S Troy Polamalu is struggling with a calf injury and was held out of practice on Wednesday. Polamalu looked out of position at times against the Chargers and is susceptible to play action. Look for Cam Cameron to put that tendency and Polamalu’s calf to the test…Cameron should also look to exploit the Steelers’ corners Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden. Both were beaten deep by the Chargers’ Vincent Jackson. Taylor was torched for the game’s first score on the Chargers first possession and McFadden was beaten badly but Lady Luck was on his side when Philip Rivers overthrew the wide open Jackson…

Jason Brown is finally gaining some favorable national press. Pete Prisco from CBS Sportsline wrote recently that “the Ravens are almost resigned to the fact [Brown] won't be back next year.” If Brown gets away because the asking price is too high for Ozzie Newsome’s liking, Ozzie needs only to look in the mirror if he wants to assign blame for the blunder. The Ravens have said repeatedly over the past couple of seasons that they want to build the league’s best offensive line. That goal becomes even more important given their investment in Joe Flacco. Ozzie has had chances last year and earlier this season to get a deal done with Brown. Now that Brown is on the doorstep of free agency after a successful season as the leader of a surprisingly efficient offensive line, the asking price will expand significantly. Here’s something else to consider on the Brown front as the Ravens maximize the available salary cap. Bart Scott is represented by the same agent as Brown – Harold Lewis…The Mayor of Pittsburgh is named Luke Ravenstahl (pronounced Raven-Stall). For this week the honorable mayor has changed his name to Steelerstahl. Hopefully his new name will describe the Steelers’ offense on Sunday...That odd number on defense (84) that you will likely see more of on Sunday is Edgar Jones. Jones showed some promise during training camp and the preseason in '07 as an end but has been seen since at both tight end and DE, hence the offensive number. Hey, think that might confuse Big Ben?...The Ravens are now listed as a 6 point underdog with 31% of the betting public taking the points. If the Ravens want to make it to Tampa as more than just a spectator, they'll need to replace the Wacko for Flacco mantra with "Let Joe go!" It's time to release the reins Cam!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Have we seen the last of Terrell Suggs in Baltimore?

Will Terrell Suggs’ play against the Pittsburgh Steelers in this weekend’s AFC Championship game? That’s probably the most asked and pondered question in town this week. After the game in Nashville one Ravens’ insider shared that he was more concerned about Samari Rolle than Terrell Suggs. Perhaps that had something to do with Suggs’ reassurances after the game that he would play in Pittsburgh. Or maybe said insider was more concerned about remaining depth in the secondary versus that at linebacker.

"The only way I wouldn't be there is if I didn't have air in my lungs”, Suggs exclaimed confidently. “I'm playing. It's nothing. What did I tell y'all? I don't even feel it now."

Later we learned that Suggs’ shoulder popped out of its socket. Some believe that the Pro Bowler could play if dressed up with a special harness. The thought conjures up memories of a one-armed Peter Boulware gallantly fighting through double teams.

This looks more and more like a game time decision but here are a few things to consider…

Might Suggs’ agent remind him that he has no contract in ’09 and suggest that he sit it out? He could but there’s danger either way. If Suggs plays and the injury worsens and requires surgery, might that then limit his marketability? What if he doesn’t play and the Ravens win anyway. Might that weaken his bargaining power with the Ravens come February?

And here's a daunting question: Might we have seen the last of Suggs in a Ravens' uniform?

Suggs’ absence for most of the game against the Titans left the Ravens defense scrambling a bit. Word is that they had a limited number of plays and formations to lean on when Suggs left because those who subbed for Suggs were less capable of dropping off into coverage, less familiar with the multiple assignments or both. That may explain in part why Kerry Collins moved the Titans’ offense more efficiently than expected and it might help to explain why Collins had enough time to read War & Peace when he dropped back to pass.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Doubts linger in Ravens' quest to reach the Promised Land

I was at the gym this morning running and dialed up some uplifting, inspirational music on my ipod to boost my energy and shake off this bad karma that’s been dogging me about this weekend’s AFC Championship Game.

Enter Bruce Springsteen’s Promised Land…

Suddenly visions of happy moments at M&T Bank Stadium tumbled to the forefront of my thoughts and almost as suddenly I envisioned a ray of light breaking through the clouds of bad mojo courtesy of Cam Cameron’s play calling of late.

I listened to Bruce sing…

Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart

I have to admit, I’m not quite there. I still have serious doubts about this game but that will not break my will as a fan and it will not make me any less passionate in my support of our team.

After my run, I pulled up the lyrics to Promised Land and put my own spin on them. I have to say, it's helping but I could use some more convincing and arm twisting.

Anyway, here's my new spin on Springsteen's classic...










Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Obstacles suggest Ravens' season to end on Sunday

You could make the argument that the Ravens could have won either of the two games during the ’08 regular season against the Steelers and that could tip the scale and influence the law of averages more so than “the third time’s a charm” argument.

"It's going to be a battle to play a team three times in one year, especially the rivalry that we have," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "I think it's going to be one for the ages."

Unfortunately, the Ravens have three big things going against them this Sunday…

First, they aren’t healthy. Not that they have been described as healthy at any point during the season but now the Ravens are forced to deal with injuries to Terrell Suggs, Samari Rolle, Le’Ron McClain and Willie Anderson. The Ravens have played with a tremendous amount of heart in ’08 and these players are certainly among those who have gutted it out. All say they will play on Sunday but for how long? It’s an issue and it is something that the much healthier Steelers will put to task.

Secondly, the Ravens looked tired against the Titans. The optimist will hope that the weariness was the result of a short week and with the extra day of rest the team will have an extra bounce or two in their collective step. The pessimist might conclude that the Ravens are just flat worn out by a season that really afforded them no true bye week.

And finally, it’s almost naïve to think that the Ravens can suddenly turn on the offensive afterburners and attack the league’s No. 1 defense after they appeared very sluggish, arguably sheepish and unimaginative against the Dolphins (mostly in the second half) and the Titans.

It’s not impossible that the 6 point underdogs could shock the nation and head to Super Bowl 43. But there just seems to be too many obstacles standing in the way of a Ravens victory. It will take a great game from Joe Flacco and an A game plan from Cam Cameron to get it done on Sunday. That’s a lot to ask of a team that has been pretty poor in the red zone while taking on the best defense in the land. There’s a better chance that the vanilla offense will place Flacco in too many third and long situations and if that happens, it isn’t hard to envision turnovers costing the Ravens dearly.

I hope I’m as wrong about this game as I was about my suggestion to bench Ed Reed during Week 5 of the regular season: Steelers 20, Ravens 6.

Time for Cam Cameron to become Inspector Gadget?

Some believe that the Titans during Week 16 showed the world how to beat the Steelers’ defense. Many have concluded that the Titans did the same this past Saturday against the Ravens, offering clues on how to move Ray Lewis & Company backwards. The fact of the matter is on Sunday, the Ravens and Steelers know each other extremely well. It boils down to execution and making plays. There will be no surprises.

Or could there?

"I'm sure there will be new wrinkles on both sides and a lot of the same on both sides," John Harbaugh said yesterday. "When we played the Titans the second time, there were a lot of new wrinkles and a lot of the same. It's going to be a football game. Whoever plays the best and makes the most important plays is going to win the game."

Might those new wrinkles include some gadgetry?

The Ravens have executed some gadget plays against inferior opponents with a relatively high degree of success. Yet they seem timid about the slight of hand when playing tougher defenses. Against teams like the Titans, Steelers, Eagles and Cowboys, the Ravens have played it very close to the vest and it begs the question, “Why run gadgets against teams that you can beat straight up if you are never going to use them against the teams that are more difficult to score on?”

I have spoken to defensive players and scouts about gadget plays and almost to a man they will tell you that such plays do linger in the back of your mind. They make you think a bit more. They make you hesitate for a split second just to be sure that you aren’t being sucked in and that slight hesitation could be the difference between a successful basic offensive play and an unsuccessful one. He who hesitates allows for separation and as we’ve seen so many times, football is without question a game of inches.

Monday, January 12, 2009

If the Ravens don't step up on offense their season will end in Pittsburgh

The Ravens victory over the Titans on Saturday night had a very familiar look and feel to it. When the Ravens traveled to Nashville back in January of 2001 to take on Jeff Fisher’s No. 1 seeded 13-3 squad in a Divisional Playoff after winning a wild card game, they were beaten on the field convincingly in all facets of the game.

Back then, the Ravens were outgained to the tune of 317 yards to 134. In this year’s Divisional Playoff showdown, six days removed from a wild card playoff victory over the Miami Dolphins, the Ravens again fell far short of the No. 1 seeded Tennessee Titans (again 13-3) in yards gained (391-211). In 2001 the Titans had 17 (23-6) more first downs than the Ravens while controlling the ball for 40:29. This time around Tennessee moved the sticks 12 more times than the Ravens (21-9) and held on to the ball for 34:07 even with leading rusher Chris Johnson on the sidelines for more than half the game.

Fortunately for the Ravens the striking similarities don’t end there. Despite being beaten up and down the field, they outpaced the Titans in the only measurement that really counts – the scoreboard.

And again they’ve earned a chance to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

The feelings of déjà vu are hard to ignore and it’s difficult to not view the Ravens as a team of destiny particularly with the less than flattering expectations entering the season. But if the Ravens don’t make philosophical changes to the way they approach Sunday’s game offensively the only thing they are destined for is watching the Super Bowl at home on February 1.

Let’s make no mistake about it, the ’08 Ravens defense is not on par with the Super Bowl winning defense. Moreover, the ’08 Pittsburgh Steelers are not the ’00 Oakland Raiders. Put it together and the conclusion is clear and present – Rex Ryan’s unit can’t carry the team through the land of steel. The truth be told, they looked a bit fatigued against the Titans. You only need to look at some rather shoddy tackling for proof.

The Ravens offense must show up!

Cam Cameron must attack the Steelers defense and if he thinks for a second that he can bring the same conservative, unimaginative Billick-esque game plan to Pittsburgh that he traveled to Tennessee with and be successful, he is in for a rude Terrible Towel awakening on what promises to be a frosty night in Western PA.

If Cameron does employ the passive, play-not-to-lose approach in Pittsburgh, the Steelers will flat out make the Ravens one dimensional and force them into many third and long situations. That will be music to the pinned back ears of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. And that will force turnovers and force the Ravens consequently into a long winter’s nap.

During the regular season the Ravens were the fourth best rushing offense producing 148.5 yards per game on average – less than 9 yards behind the league leading Giants. On Saturday Titans’ defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, just as he did in the ’04 playoff game at M&T, dared the Ravens to throw. Regularly he jammed 8, sometimes 9 players in the box to choke off the Ravens’ running game.

Mission accomplished.

The Ravens ran thirty times for a paltry 50 yards. They ran it 12 times out of a possible 18 first down plays and produced 34 yards. Eight of their rushing plays were for losses and one went for no gain. The failure to run effectively forced the Ravens into many difficult to manage third down attempts. Overall they were 3 of 13 on third down with six of those attempts being from 10 or more yards away from the first down marker. On average the Ravens’ faced third down attempts of 8.3 yards.
Something has to give here and it probably won’t be the Steelers. They’ve done a nice job of protecting the football of late and didn’t turn it over once against the Chargers. The Ravens have feasted on turnovers thus far in the playoffs but such treats will likely be few and far between at Heinz Field.

The Steelers front 7 is as good as there is in the league. And as solid as Troy Polamalu is inside the box defending the run he is almost equally vulnerable defending the intermediate and deep pass. Bryant McFadden and Ike Taylor aren’t exactly prototypical cover corners and they’ve been protected to a large extent by Pittsburgh’s impressive defensive front and their ability to get after the quarterback, particularly when opponents are forced to pass.

In the first half yesterday, Philip Rivers was 4 of 5 for 77 yards and a TD on first down passes. On first down runs, the Chargers managed 6 yards on 6 carries. On the entire day even as San Diego saw the game slipping away and being forced to throw, Rivers was 10 of 16 for 133 yards, 2 scores and an interception when throwing on first down.

Against the Steelers it’s important to set up the run with the pass.

The Ravens cannot be meek or sheepish. The meek may inherit the Earth but they don’t win in the NFL during the postseason.

Yes the Ravens have played with a ton of heart this season. Their perseverance is impressive and their will inspiring. But to advance to the Super Bowl, they need to unleash Joe Flacco. They need to stop buying into the “he’s just a rookie” discussion.

So what, he’s a rookie – but he’s an uncommon one and they need to let him make plays. They need to let him be a quarterback and not just a caretaker. If the Ravens stare down third downs of 8.3 yards on average against the Steelers, Flacco will not stay clean and he will be forced into game altering mistakes. Make no mistake about that!

So Cam it’s up to you…get busy living or get busy dying.

Get busy attacking or get ready to watch your quarterback be attacked.

The choice is yours and hopefully you will make the right one come Sunday.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Heap not elite...Cameron needs to do better v. Titans

Todd Heap looks dazed and confused at times and I have to wonder just how tough he really is, relatively speaking of course. Recently I’ve noticed opponents talking trash to Heap on the field as they make their way back to their respective huddles. If faces indicate anything Heap’s face screams sheepish and mild mannered behavior. In the NFL there’s hardly room for that. Some players are unbelievably congenial and approachable off the field yet put them on the field and the proverbial Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde. Haloti Ngata comes to mind.

After his 31 yard catch yesterday I couldn’t help but be critical of how Heap failed to finish that play. DB’s regularly cut Heap at the ankles and his body lean while carrying the football is that of a tall oak tree ready to fall with just one more chop of the ax. Replays showed that Heap had one man to beat for that score. The elite tight ends in the league complete the play and score. Gates would have scored; Gonzales would have scored; Witten, Clark, Cooley and Crumpler all would have scored. And even if you think that Dolphins’ LB Akin Ayodele interfered with Heap at the goal line on Sunday, an elite TE makes that catch anyway. Let’s face it, Heap can no longer be considered elite.

Now shifting my attention to Cam Cameron, I thought he had an excellent game plan out of the gate and the Ravens moved the football seemingly at will early on. Cameron effectively mixed in runs and passes and the plan seemed to spark the confidence of Joe Flacco.

On the road and in the playoffs, first down is critical. After halftime when it became increasingly apparent that the Ravens would win I wondered if someone had replaced Cameron’s play chart with the pizza box menu that Brian Billick used as a play chart in Miami last year. He ran repeatedly on first down while the Dolphins completely sold out to stop the run.

In the first half the Ravens had 14 first down plays totaling 136 yards. The 8 first half first down runs produced 36 yards (4.5 yd avg) while the 6 first down passes produced 100 yards (16.7 yd avg). After the break, the Ravens had 8 first down plays producing a TOTAL of 15 yards. Seven of the plays were runs to go with one incompletion.

I get all of the talk about managing the game. Well to me Cameron was mismanaging the game after the break. In the playoffs you must play to win. I’ve yet to see a team effectively defend the 7-10 yard outs, curls or comebacks to Derrick Mason or Mark Clayton particularly on first down. If the Ravens want to advance, they’ll have to do better here. Cameron and the offense left the Ravens defense on the field far too long in that second half and they were spent. Why else do you think Edgar Jones was on the field at defensive end?

Over the course of the game’s final 37 minutes the Ravens had possession for 14:57 and 2:34 of that the Ravens and Flacco were in kneel down mode. A better team than the Dolphins could have challenged a tired Ravens’ defense. Cam will have to do better against the Titans if the team hopes to advance.

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Bench Ed Reed

What can you say about Ed Reed that hasn’t already been said? The second half of his season has been flat out stunning and the contrast in his play from the first half to the second nearly on par with Clark Kent and Superman.

Right around the season’s quarter pole, I made the suggestion that maybe Reed should sit. My rationale was simple – if he was so hurt that he couldn’t tackle and he was playing warning track depth in centerfield to avoid contact and simply prevent the big play, wouldn’t he be doing the team a favor by resting and healing?

After the Ravens lost to the Titans back in October, I was even more convinced than ever that Reed should sit. Tackling Titans’ tight end Alge Crumpler seemed to be about as appealing to Reed as a lunch date with Madonna would be for Mrs. A-Rod.

Since my momentary lapse of reasoning of gargantuan proportions, Reed has 10 interceptions and 3 returns for touchdowns and he has been a more physical presence than earlier in the season. Somewhere along the line, Reed learned to play with the injury more efficiently or it has healed markedly. Or maybe he was just setting up opposing quarterbacks (and me) for the stretch run.

That said, this is one piece of humble pie that I find incredibly delicious!

Ed Reed is in a zone! He’s like the hitter who crushes 95 mph lasers on the black like they were beach balls featuring Rosie O’Donnell’s picture. We’ve heard it before and it bears repeating, two-thirds of the Earth is covered by water. The other third is covered by Ed Reed.

Photo by Sabina Moran

Ravens get no respect

Ravens fans and even Ravens’ players to some extent are card carrying members of the Rodney “I Get no Respect” Dangerfield fan club. Turn on SportsCenter and you see few Ravens highlights. Listen to the former Pro Bowl quarterbacks gone TV analysts (Young, Esiason, Simms, Marino) and the looks on their faces when they describe the Ravens is like that of a toddler just after Grandmom plants a wet one on them.

This is nothing new for Ravens fans or their team and it really isn’t hard to understand. A couple of season ago I wrote a column called Sex Sells. Nothing has changed since then. Highlight shows and fantasy football and statistical banter are generally geared towards offense. And as for now, the Ravens still win with defense.

To make matters worse after experiencing a beat down courtesy of Rex Ryan’s gang, you typically hear Ravens’ opponents gripe about not playing their game and the tone is more on line with them losing the game versus the Ravens winning it. To a certain extent, yesterday’s beat down was no different.

''This really wasn't our style,'' linebacker Akin Ayodele said. ``We win games in the fourth quarter. We don't turn the ball over. We come up with big plays. And that didn't happen.''

The Ravens didn’t win, the Dolphins just lost.

At least Dolphins’ CB Andre Goodman gets it…

“[The loss] felt damn near embarrassing, for one. We were in our backyard, and we felt like we got dominated. Right now it just feels too disappointing.''

The Ravens have a knack for getting opponents off their game and then playing theirs. And like most carnivores they strike quickly once they recognize their opponent has weakened they go for the kill while reducing opponents to lamb-like status. They become sharks in bloody water.

Keep on playing with that chip fellas, it fits and does you well.

It's us against the world!

More on that later...

Friday, January 02, 2009

Dolphins' blogger feeling the heat?

Interesting tidbit provided this week by The Sun’s Ray Frager…

“Pittsburgh had the NFL markets' highest rating Sunday, with 43.2 percent of the audience. Keep in mind this was for a game, though against the rival
Cleveland Browns, the outcome of which was meaningless, yet Pittsburgh out-rated cities whose teams were playing for playoff berths, including San Diego (37.4), Minneapolis (34.7) and, yes, Baltimore (33.3).”

I’m wondering what the other 66.6% of Baltimoreans were doing or watching? Speaking from experience, they may have been boxed in by traffic on I-95 North between O’Donnell Street and White Marsh…

This week AOL’s The Fanhouse reached out to get our thoughts on Sunday’s game. Here’s what they asked and how I responded along with Brian Miller from a Dolphins’ fan site called PhinPhantatic. Obviously Brian’s brain is a victim of South Florida heat stroke…

From AOL…

As we get ready for the Wildcard Weekend matchup of the Dolphins and Ravens, Brian Miller from
PhinPhanatic and Tony Lombardi from ProFootball24x7 were nice enough to offer some insights on their teams for this week's Behind Enemy Lines feature.

Sportz Assassin: How do both of you feel about how your teams are playing heading into the playoffs?

Brian Miller (PhinPhanatic): I like the fact that no one is giving us any real credit for getting there. Jim Mora says on air that the best AFC East team is New England and there has been little "props" for winning the division as most of the kudos surrounds simply the turnaround. The Ravens are 3 point favorites in this game and the Phins are getting tired of feeling second rate.

Tony Lomabardi (ProFootball24x7)(ah excuse hard is it to spell Lombardi?): The Ravens are really beginning to gel in
Cam Cameron's offense and now they are getting contributions from Mark Clayton and Willis McGahee. Joe Flacco has come on strong since the last meeting with the Dolphins and has the third highest road QB rating among NFL quarterbacks. And of course the team's defense is always dependable. The Ravens could be a dangerous post season participant.

More here…