Monday, November 30, 2009

Pure Thriller, No Vanilla

We have seen some crazy last-second passes this football season.  One of them was certainly Brett Favre's pass to Greg Lewis to beat the 49ers a few weeks back.  Another was Brandon Stokley's "immaculate reception" to beat the Bengals. None, however, competes with Vince Young's game winner to Kenny Britt to beat the Cardinals last night.  What separates this play is the gravity of the completion - it was the culmination of a 99-yard two-minute drill during which Young converted three fourth downs to keep the drive alive, including the touchdown pass as time expired.  The touchdown was the capstone to a 387 yard performance during which Young completed 62% of his passes, including 10 completions on the comeback drive. Young threw zero interceptions and, excluding the final play of the first half (during which he was sacked as the half finished), consistently demonstrated the poise and escapability that are absolutely vital to any quarterback's survival in the NFL.  The win is the Titans' fifth in a row after losing their first six games; all of the wins have come with Young at the helm, but this is the first in which Young took matters into his own hands rather than relying on others to make plays.  I don't know if it is too soon to say VY has arrived, but it's pretty difficult to think of any other way to describe such a performance.  These Titans are legitimate heavyweights, too - second-year running back Chris Johnson leads the league in rushing and compiled his sixth straight 130-yard game, and rookie wideout Kenny Britt demonstrated his worth by catching seven balls for 128 yards, including the victory strike.  Being a Titans fan by association, I will surely be pulling for Tennessee the rest of the way, and if the Ravens somehow fail to make the playoffs, I think it would be spectacular to see Young lead this team to the postseason again.

Lost in the gleam of Young's pyrotechnics was the first good performance regular season performance by Cardinals QB Matt Leinart in more than two years.  Leinart (21/31, 220 yards) didn't do anything highlight-worthy, but he didn't make mistakes and he was able to lead his team on a nine play, 80-yard lead-changing drive in the fourth quarter to put the Cardinals up by four.  I still believe both quarterbacks, former combatants in the 2006 BCS National Championship, can be starters in the NFL, but LP Field sure looked a lot like the Rose Bowl on Sunday.

Now to more important things: Ravens 20, Steelers 17, final in OT.  They did it! They saved the season, and they did it in much the way I suggested before the game.  Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall (95 yards rushing) was able to alleviate some of the strain placed on replacement QB Dennis Dixon, but it wasn't quite enough.  Although they were not able to sack  Dixon, they did put pressure on him all night and eventually forced his only mistake, an overtime interception, through the use of Pittsburgh's own zone blitz.  Dixon played incredibly well for someone who had previously attempted one pass in his career. His final line (12/26, 145 yards, 1 TD/1 INT) does not speak to how well he handled himself in the pocket.  He consistently was able to extend plays with his legs and, on two occasions (one of which was negated due to a penalty), scrambled for more than twenty yards in a manner which can only be compared to Michael Vick.  Kudos to him for playing a pretty damn good game in a tough atmosphere.

On offense, the Ravens did a great job of balancing distribution.  WR Mark Clayton caught seven passes for 129 yards (including a sweet 54 yard vertical completion), RB Ray Rice had 5 for 62, and wideout Derrick Mason pulled in 5 grabs for 67 yards, including a very athletic leaping grab on a fade route to the endzone for the Ravens' 2nd touchdown of the game.  Backups Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee carried a combined nine times (compared to Rice's 19) for a total of 46 yards and one touchdown (compared to Rice's 88 yards and no scores).  Billy Cundiff made the game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter and came up just 3 yards short on a 56-yard attempt at the buzzer, which he had previously admitted was not in his range.  He redeemed himself with a 29-yarder in overtime to win the game, courtesy of rookie Paul Kruger's interception, a fantastic play for someone who has only played in portions of three games this season.

As if the NFL action were not enough, Texas A&M went blow for blow with Texas until the Longhorns pulled out a late Turkey Day victory to preserve their undefeated season.  On Friday, the Iron Bowl proved an important test for SEC West leader Alabama, as it squeaked by Auburn with a late touchdown to keep their national title hopes alive.  To add to the fury, Tiger Woods got in a car accident early Friday morning which some are calling a domestic violence-related incident.  While Woods is stone cold on the course, this shakeup in his personal life has surely damaged his image as an ambassador of the game and upstanding human being.  Whatever happened, Woods appears OK and has not sustained any serious injuries. Let's hope we can say the same thing for his marriage.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ravens-Colts Pre-Game Notes

By Tyler Springs

Injuries (includes only those players who are unlikely to play)

LB Terrell Suggs (Out)
TE Todd Heap (Questionable)

S Antoine Bethea (Questionable)

Significance: Heap is not a big deal, at least not compared to others at his position who will be key performers in this game (i.e. Dallas Clark).  He's had less than five catches in each of his last three games and has been held under 50 yards receiving in all of them, so don't expect hm to have much of an impact.  He hasn't scored since week 2, but saying that he's due to have a TD is optimistic.

Bethea's having a banner season thus far (64 tackles, 3 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles), so it would make things a lot easier on the Ravens' receivers if he were on the sideline.  With backup Aaron Francisco officially listed as "out" on the injury report, losing Bethea could be a real blow to the Colts' D if he were to aggravate his foot injury.

Suggs is the real concern on this list.  His stats aren't great this year, but he's a focal point of the Ravens' pass rush, and without him, Jarret Johnson and Trevor Pryce will have to work harder to free themselves in pressure situations.  The Colts have the best passing offense in the league, and damage control should be Baltimore's primary concern against the headcase that is Peyton Manning.  If they can keep the Colts under 30 points, they will have done their job.

Other Concerns

It worries me somewhat that defensive coordinator Greg Mattison doesn't think the defense needs to do anything special to combat the Colts' prolific air attack. In games against pass-heavy teams so far this season (Chargers, Vikings, Patriots), the Ravens are 1-2.  Manning hasn't lost to the Ravens since 2001, including a 2006 playoff battle with the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.  However you slice it, this situation doesn't look favorable to John Harbaugh at the moment.  It's about time that Ed Reed and Fabian Washington rose to the occasion: if they don't contribute when the Ravens really need them, they'll have difficulty helping the team much at all for the next six weeks.

Prediction: Colts 34, Ravens 23.  Billy Cundiff hits 3 field goals in his debut, and the Ravens manage to save face offensively in a game that was otherwise a forgone conclusion at kickoff.  The Bengals play Oakland and the Steelers face the Chiefs, so if there's gonna be a change in the standings this week, it will be the Ravens falling farther behind. Let's hope they make a decent game of it and nobody gets hurt.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Quick Hits

1) I'm not sure whether it's the system, the hype or the player, but Darrius Heyward-Bey has to change something, and quick.  The No. 7 overall draft pick has only 6 catches in 9 games and has yet to break 100 total yards for the season, much less have a 100-yard game.  I know everybody said he was drafted too high when the Raiders took him, but I hate seeing him disappoint like this.  I watched him play against my high school when he was a senior, and unfortunately, I saw what a lot of people saw: he was fast, sure, but for he got outjumped by a 5'11" kid (DHB is 6'2") and never showcased the homerun capability that he actually displayed for a little while at Maryland.  Maybe he's not being used the right way; Maryland got him the ball on a lot reverses and trick plays that let him use his speed in the open field, and I haven't really seen that in Oakland. Maybe he doesn't quite click with Jamarcus Russell, but you would think they would get along, a strong-armed passer with a fleet-footed receiver, both of whom are under a lot of pressure.  Whatever it is, he's not gonna have a j-o-b if he doesn't start putting up numbers soon.

2)  This whole business with protecting the quarterback is getting out of hand, especially considering the things quarterbacks are now doing to opposing players. Consider Brady Quinn's low block on Terrell Suggs on Monday Night Football. Yes, Quinn got flagged and fined, but only after consider commotion from Ravens players who were understandably irate when they found out that Suggs had partially torn his MCL and couldn't play this coming Sunday against the Colts.  If we're talking about protecting people, defenseless receivers should be the ones keeping coaches awake at night.  They're the ones skying for balls ten feet in the air without being able to see who's coming to hit them.  They're the ones whose eyes are always tracking a moving object, tracking, tracking, tracking.......til BOOM! They're on the ground courtesy of the opposing safety.  Ask a player whether he would rather run a pattern across the middle or drop back in the pocket, and I bet you he takes the pocket most of the time.

3) Watch out for Memphis basketball this season. And no, I'm not living in the past - at least not that past.  The "past" I'm thinking of is Josh Pastner, newly appointed savior/coach of the now Calipari-less program.  Coaching as the head man in only his second game ever, Pastner managed to walk away from #1 Kansas with a two-point loss, which is pretty good for a team that looks nothing like the ones of the previous two years that have made deep runs in the NCAA tournament.  Pastner is enthusiastic, experienced and effective.  He's been coaching since he was 16 (he coached an AAU team to a national championship as a teenager), he's already recruited a top three class of seven players for next season, and his optimism is so overflowing it borders on the ridiculous.  What's not to like?  If guys like Pierre Henderson-Niles and Roburt Sallie can contribute on a regular basis, the Tigers will dominate Conference USA as if nothing changed between last spring and now.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Too Legit to Quit: Baltimore Ravens Midseason Report

For lack of better phrasing, this is awkward.

Clearly, the Ravens were not expected to be sitting in third place in the AFC North at 4-4 heading into Week 9.  The offense has been unexpectedly good; the defense, unexpectedly bad.  At times it seems that fate has conspired against John Harbaugh's team: Mark Clayton's hands were just a little slippery in New England; Steve Hauschka got a bit nervous in Minnesota; the officials may have been overzealous with their flags in the first Bengals game, although that wasn't necessarily the determining factor in the outcome of the game.  There have been moments where second-year players Joe Flacco and Ray Rice have looked spectacular, and others where they have disappeared or been flat out bad.  These are uncharted waters for a team that is used to relying on its defense to preserve games.  The offense is ranked in the top ten in the NFL in points per game and yards per game, but the normally top five defense has been less than impenetrable, falling all the way down to 19th in pass defense and 13th in average yards allowed.  Still, as much as Baltimoreans everywhere wanted to shoot their television sets during last Sunday's game in Cincinnati, there is reason to believe that things can turn around.  I was a skeptic like many others.  But having tried to analyze what happened to a supposedly good team in the last few games, I've found evidence that, although improvement is needed, this team can still make the playoffs.  Save that cyanide for at least two more weeks - there's football yet to be played.  I'll start with an issue that may be the most obvious, but still needs to be analyzed.

Staying Grounded
In every win so far, the Ravens have compiled more than 100 yards rushing and held their opponents under that mark.  The only instance in which those statistics did not lead to a win was the Week 4 matchup against the Patriots, and it's not a reach to say that the Ravens could have (and probably should have) won that game.  Whatever happens in the upcoming weeks, it is absolutely imperative that the Ravens get the ball to each of their three running backs, even if that means only handing off to McGahee and McClain a handful of times.  Ray Rice has been the workhorse of the three, but it's important that he stays fresh so he can still be effective later in the season.  Rice has carried more than 15 times only twice this season, in wins against Kansas City and Denver. However, be careful not to misconstrue this as him being the focus of the offense correlating to Baltimore wins, as the Ravens are only 2-3 when he gets 20 touches or more. 

Balance is important, and it's Cam Cameron's job to find and maintain that equilibrium in sharing carries and mixing runs with passes, but running comes first. In the last few weeks, it's been difficult for Cameron to maintain the pounding ground attack that Baltimore thrives on because the Ravens have fallen behind early and have been forced to pass in order to get back in the game.  In every loss, quarterback Joe Flacco has attempted more than 30 passes.  In the brilliant season he had last year, Flacco averaged just over 26 attempts per game, and although he has played well for a second-year player, he's still young and given enough chances, he will make mistakes.  As dumb as it may sound, Cameron has to control Flacco's opportunities...rein him in, so to speak.  Those extra opportunities are the ones that get him in trouble - he's not yet good enough to carry the team by himself, and if he tries to force things and hope for the best (a la Brett Favre, on occasion), he will get in trouble.

I know that stats should not define an offensive gameplan, and I'm not qualified enough to assess Cam Cameron's tendencies as an offensive coordinator, but when it's not clear whether he should call a run or a pass (e.g. 2nd and 5, or something to that effect), it's not a bad idea to keep the ball on the ground. It's safer, and it seems to be more effective.  Of the remaining teams on the Ravens' schedule, only two have run defenses ranked higher than 15th: Pittsburgh (1st) and Green Bay (4th).  Those games will be difficult, but previous contests against the Vikings and Bengals have shown that Baltimore can at least be competitive against highly ranked run defenses.

On the other side of the ball, the Ravens have to take care of business against opposing running backs.  They sorely missed the presence of hole-clogger Haloti Ngata, who did not play in last week's loss to Cincinnati because of an ankle injury; consequently, the Bengals rolled up more than 140 yards on the ground en route to a win.  Ngata's mammoth size (6'4", 345 lbs) allows the Ravens to play with only three down linemen, which creates more blitz opportunities for the linebackers.  Without the big fella, Baltimore tends to use a four-man front, which has not been as effective in controlling the line of scrimmage.  Ngata is questionable for tonight's game against the Browns, but regardless of whether or not he plays, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison must find a way to keep Cleveland running back Jamal Lewis contained.  Regardless of what happens against Cleveland, Ngata's playing time needs to be monitored and, if necessary, limited in the coming weeks in order to minimize the risk of exacerbating his injury; it may be risky for the Ravens to keep Ngata on the sidelines on third and short situations, but unless the play occurs at a crucial momentum turning point during the game, it's better to hold him back.  I'm not an expert on the Ravens' defensive scheme, but in a situation where Ngata is not on the field, it would seem logical for Mattison to use five or six players to control the line, depending on the situation.  The Packers are the only team left on the Ravens' calendar who are ranked in the top half of the NFL in rushing, which bodes well for the defense.  They have a bigger (although related) problem to worry about.

Pressuring the Quarterback
The injury to Ngata and the lack of youth on the defensive line has prevented the Ravens from getting much pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season.  The defense has just 17 sacks so far, which is half the number accumulated to date by the league-leading Vikings.  In each of their wins, the Ravens have sacked the opposing quarterback at least twice, but that won't necessarily be enough to keep them in future games.  In games against teams who pass at least 30 times per game, the Ravens are 1-1 (lost to the Vikings, beat the Chargers), and four of their remaining opponents rank among the top twelve in the NFL in passing offense (Pittsburgh, Chicago, Green Bay, and Indianapolis). 

Whatever it takes to rattle the opposing passer, the Ravens have got to find a way to do it.  Clearly, the secondary is not as capable as those of years past, but playing more inept defenders in coverage is not going to help the situation.  This is where the D-line becomes vital to the survival of the team: if they can't rush the opposing quarterback's decision-making process, the Ravens secondary will look worse than a tomato going through a Cuisinart. Again, I can't say I have a bottomless knowledge of the intricacies of the Ravens defense, but given the personnel on the depth chart, it appears that the speedier linebackers and defensive backs would be the likely blitzers while the older D-line would serve to clog up the trenches.  The stats support this idea to an extent (Jarret Johnson and Terrell Suggs are among the top three sack leaders on the team), but Chris Carr is the only defensive back who has registered a sack this season.  Tonight's game against the Browns would be an ideal situation in which Mattison could test out a few blitzes that utilize the secondary, since Cleveland's offense is very weak (next to last in the NFL).  Dawan Landry has been a ghost this season, so why not use him and Carr to try and make an impact in some way other than defending the pass?

2nd Half Prospective
I've covered the two points that I think are most important.  Ravens fans are buzzing right now about Steve Hauschka's lack of execution, but I'm honestly not worried about him.  Harbaugh's a special teams coach, and he had faith enough in Hauschka to release the Ravens' all-time scoring leader before this season began.  The field goal against the Bengals was not as game-changing as people are making it out to be, and I think most of them will admit that.  The kicking will come around, and a game against the Browns should give Hauschka a good chance to get some confidence back with a few simple extra points.  Assuming he recovers from his recent woes, the plan for the rest of the season is plain, although not simple.  The Ravens need to go at least 6-2 in the second half, and that means running the table on non-conference opponents.  Basically, Baltimore needs to steal a win from Indianapolis or win one of their two meetings against Pittsburgh, neither of which will be easy.  But the Ravens got themselves into this mess, and it's time for them to mop it up, starting with Cleveland tonight.