Not Such a Happy New Year for Baltimore.

Baltimore Ravens

 

If you’re a Baltimore Ravens fan like I am, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Our team is a reasonably acceptable 10-6, especially when compared to any number of other quarterback-hungry teams in the NFL. Unless you consider that we are 1-4 in the last 5 games, including two divisional losses to the Steelers and Bengals respectively. Not a great way to end the regular season by any measure.

Usually around this time of the year, I’d be giving thanks to the football gods, whether or not they exist, for helping my team continue as one of the NFL’s elite when it comes to making the playoffs year in and year out. Only teams like the Philadelphia Eagles under Andy Reid(before this season), the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick, New Orleans and Indianapolis Colts(with Peyton Manning) could claim as many consecutive playoff appearances. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still giving thanks for not being a fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars or Carolina Panthers. Thanks for not having Kyle Boller as my starting QB, and thanks for having Justin Tucker instead of Billy Cundiff as our kicker. I don’t want to seem ungrateful but something just feels different this season. Kind of like having a dozen snakes crawling around in my stomach, telling me something is wrong with the greatest team to ever play professional football.

I know that sounds biased but since I don’t really care about any other team than my Ravens, I don’t really care. Taking a look at some of the other teams that are joining us in the playoffs, especially troubling are the Denver Broncos and the Patriots. We got beaten down like a red-headed stepchild a few weeks ago by Peyton Manning and Co., and it doesn’t look like our defense has figured anything out since then. Princess Brady is throwing like an MVP candidate again this season, and if we couldn’t seal the deal last year when our defense wasn’t ranked in the bottom half of the league, I don’t see how we will this year.

Sure could use a miracle right about now, God.

Until the past couple weeks, Houston and its brutish manchild at defensive end, J.J. Watt, looked like they could beat the snot out of  the rest of the NFL. They sure did when they played us earlier this season. They plain embarrassed us, winning by only around 30 points. Big deal, right? WRONG. For all the faith and bravado I usually have in my team, all the blustering in the world isn’t going to change the fact that we are having trouble on both sides of the ball. Even if we take a Mulligan on this week’s game at Cincinnati, I mean we did sit our starters, we still went 1-3, losing all 3 by a combined 12 points. I don’t feel like there’s a single easy win available on our playoff schedule. Especially not on the AFC side. At times like this, you really gotta dig down deep and ask yourself the following question: “If the Ravens play their absolute best on Sunday, will it be enough to win if __(Insert Team Here)__ plays their absolute best as well?” By now your probably getting that wiggly feeling in your stomach as well… if you didn’t already have it before and were just ignoring it.

I guess the only thing we can do this year is remember the good times we had over the past couple years. Especially last year. Both the Baltimore Orioles and the Ravens were amazing success stories in 2012. The Orioles performed way beyond my wildest dreams, even going so far as to crush those irritating Texas Rangers in the wildcard round. The Ravens came a Billy Cundiff untied shoelace away from possibly going to the Super Bowl. I know, I know, anything can happen on any given Sunday.

So do you really believe this team has a real chance to win a championship this season?

Here are a few final questions and thoughts:

Can Flacco not give up too many Saccos? (Note: That’s such a terrible line, yet it’s so catchy and everyone says it around here.)

Can Torrey Smith be consistently good for 4 straight games?

Can Michael Oher do anything other than beat up drug dealers in a movie based loosely on his life? (Zing!) Can Terrell Suggs regain his form that got him a defensive MVP award ?

Are Ray Lewis & Ed Reed too old to play solid Ravens football?

Can Justin Tucker, as amazing as he’s been in the regular season, keep his cool in the playoffs?

Can new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell run an effective offense with two weeks under his belt?

Read, React, Response and Comment. Oh, and ENJOY!

~Michael, WONG_83@HOTMAIL.com

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Something stinks like Bronco Manure in Baltimore.

You heard me right. Joe Flacco is stinking up the joint like he was Kyle Boller, circa. 2004.

I say this with love, hoping that the best Baltimore Ravens QB in franchise history somehow sees this(except for Steve McNair in 2006, but that was a fluke). As of today, December 17th, 2012, The hometown Ravens have dropped 3 games in a row, including 2 at home!  This is almost unheard of, especially not in the past few years.

Before the 20-17 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers that started this losing skid, against a 3rd string back-up that hasn’t played a meaningful down in the last decade, the Ravens had won 16 home games in a row. We took the Steelers game at 3 Rivers Stadium, we were perfect against divisional opponents, and had a chance to lock up the divisional crown before week 11. Everything was looking perfect, almost as if Joe Flacco and the Cam Cameron(I shudder as I type his name) led-offense were finally able to take over for our newly suspect defense.

…Yes, that defense. The vaunted Baltimore D that has finished no worse than 3rd in the league for the past decade. We were counting on our offense to finally take that next step, to finally join the elite offenses of the league. Like Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, Drew Brees and New Orleans Saints, or even Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers of 2009. Well that didn’t happen.

Our defense can’t get out of 1st gear, with notable injuries across the board. MLB and Defensive Captain Ray Lewis is drinking his magic ‘juice’ by the gallon, hoping to come back this season and actually have an impact. Even though he didn’t earlier this season when he was healthy, AND’ he’s almost 80. Pro Bowl CB Lardarius Webb is out for the season with a torn ACL,  DE Terrell Suggs is playing even though he’s not even fully recovered from his injury this summer, and DT Haloti Ngata is pretty banged up on the defensive line. You gotta give him credit for playing anyways.

If your not familiar with Baltimore football, just for the record, that’s 4 Pro-Bowlers, 3 of which are All-Pros, 1 of which is the reigning defensive player of the year, while the other has won multiple DPoY awards. I don’t care if you buy into the next man up routine or not, your defense has a 0% chance of playing at a higher or even equal level when you lose that many star players on one side of the field.

Pro Bowl S Ed Reed(shoulder), CB Jimmy Smith(abdomen), WR Torrey Smith(concussion), TE Ed Dickson(knee), S  Bernard Pollard(chest), FB Vonta Leach(ankle), DT Arthur Jones(shoulder), Pernell McPhee(thigh), Dannell Ellerbe(ankle) and Jameel McClain(neck), WR Jacoby Jones(ankle), and both starting running backs, Bernard Pierce(back) & Ray Rice(hip) round out the list of significant injuries.

So was I really surprised at how badly the entire team played last Sunday? Not really. It was like I was waiting all year for the other shoe to drop, and what better time to drop a stink bomb than against the reinvigorated Denver Broncos, led by Peyton Manning. Coming into the game, we already knew what would happen if we fell behind against a QB of his caliber, and we still let it happen. It was almost like watching a scrimmage between the Alabama Crimson Tide and a first year Pop Warner team. The Ravens were dominated, out-played, out-coached, and basically unprepared on both sides of the ball.

What I’d like to address, however, is the State of the Football Team. Consider this, we just fired our head offensive coordinator, Cam, who had been with Flacco ever since he got drafted. Our defense is completely maimed with injuries, while our offensive line wasn’t great to begin with, even worse now that Pro Bowl OG Marshal Yanda is hurt as well. Even when the team is relatively     healthy, Peyton Manning has beaten them 8 times in a row. Well 9 times in a row as of yesterday.

Personally, I’m going to reserve judgement for the end of the season.  Joe Cool has had his share of good and bad games this year, typically good at home, and bad on the road. The fact remains that he’s still the best option we’ve got, the best and most consistent QB in Raven’s history, and far too valuable to risk losing on the open market. Desperate teams like the Cardinals, Chargers, Raiders, Jets and Bills will be more than happy to toss a tall stack of hundreds at him. Hopefully the play calling gets better on both sides of the ball.

Dean Pees, this is my opinion. Get your act together. If your players can’t tackle, and they can’t defense against the run or pass straight up, your probably going to need to gamble to win the game. Take some chances, the worst thing that happens is you give up some extra points. That’s already happening so you might as well try to do something differently. If too many starting defensive players are injured, go sign some free-agents. It’s not like our team doesn’t have the money. Just stop making excuses and adapt your game plans.

Jim Caldwell, I heard your really good at working with quarterbacks. Maybe you aren’t cut out to be a head coach, but it’s time you take a relatively smart, strong, athletic, young QB like Flacco and turn him into a Manning or a Brady. We’re not asking you to work miracles, I’ll be happy to accept 2 passing touchdowns per game, along with 0 fumbless and 0 interceptions. Also, can you please tell Joe not to hold the ball so damn long? It’s hard to watch when he has that furrowed brow/slack jaw expression, right before he throws a pick-6 from inside the red zone. If he can’t find anyone open, tell him to dive ahead for 3 yards, or throw the frickin’ ball at someone’s feet.

With the Steelers losing last night to the Cowboys in overtime, the Ravens still look good to win the division. If Flacco & Company manage to win their remaining 2 games against the New York Football Giants and the Cincinnati Bengals, we’re pretty much guaranteed  a home game and even a possible bye week. We own the tie-breaker over the Patriots, so we still control our own destiny.

Let’s keep it that way, one game at a time.

 

~Wong_83@Hotmail.com

Who’s “Running” the Show in Baltimore???

Something stinks in Baltimore, Maryland.

I’m not talking about the discarded crab shells, Domino sugar factories, or boarded-up row houses. The Baltimore Raven’s defense reeks of something terrible this year. This is the Baltimore defense, for god’s sake. The heart and soul of our team, the cause and reason for our lone Super Bowl win, the one thing we could always count on. Through all the years with Vinny Testaverde, Chris Redman, and especially Kyle Boller at QB, we always knew one thing. Our defense would bail them out, or at least keep the score respectable so we didn’t have to hang our heads in shame. Even after we drafted Joe Flacco, our defense was as good as advertised, helping the rookie QB guide our team to the AFC Championship Game. So what exactly changed this year?

I mean it’s not like Ray Lewis isn’t roaming from sideline to sideline, pounding running-backs into the dirt. Ed Reed is relatively healthy, still destroying wide receivers too stupid to stay off his side of the field. Haloti Ngata‘s still smacking offensive linemen left and right, while Lardarius Webb is blanketing receivers and pressuring the quarterback. So why is our defense, perennially ranked in the NFL’s top ten, suddenly ranked 22nd out of 32 teams?

Sure we’ve had a few players leave during the free-agency period or get injured, but every team has the same problems. Losing Terrell Suggs, the reigning defensive MVP, definitely hurt our defensive front. We’re also still trying to replace a couple of our more talented defensive backs. S Haruki Nakamura and S Tom Zbikowski were unsung heroes in our aggressive 3-4 defense. So was our slot-corner Chris Carr. Cary Williams doesn’t get physical enough and our 1st-round pick CB Jimmy Smith seems a little lost sometimes.

Playing solid defense depends on knowing the plays, recognizing offensive formations and reacting instinctively, all in the span of a few seconds. Our defense has been so successful over the years for being more physical and by playing sound, fundamental football. You just can’t do that when your always thinking about what position to be in, or whether or not you have  coverage help down field.

Just as an example, MLB Ray Lewis has been with Baltimore for 17 years now. Most players have retired by this age, spending most of their time doing guest-appearances on ESPN, or making commercials for a charity fund. When a player gets to his age, the cumulative effects of a football career start to take their toll. Joints hurt, old injuries throb, ligaments, muscles and tendons become worn down. Memory fades, the result of years of concussions and helmet to helmet tackles. A nearly 40-year old football player shouldn’t be able to keep up with players barely half their age. What it comes down to is a form of premonition, otherwise known as being able to see into the future.

I’m not talking about magic or psychics here. Combining a knack for play-recognition with superior instincts and muscle memory makes it seem like Ray-Ray knows where the ball is going and how long it will take to get there. This allows him to make split-second decisions, moving and utilizing his considerable strength to blow up the opponent’s play before it even has time to develop. To a true football believer such as myself, seeing these moments are what we live for.

Getting back  to the point, I believe our major deficiencies lie solely upon the Raven’s defensive players stopping the run. Since we can’t seem to stop anyone from running on us this year, offenses aren’t making nearly as many mistakes as normal. Usually our defense forces teams into 3rd and long situations, which is a lot easier to handle than 3rd and 2. Our single loss this year, to Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles, happened because our defense allowed Vick to run and pass his way straight down the field. At the end of the game and under 2 minutes no less.

Against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, we nearly lost again due to defensive issues. The problem was not the replacement officials. When the defense gives up 31 points, you’re gonna have a hard time winning games, unless your Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. I don’t think the Ravens will give up that many points on a regular basis but you never know.

Luckily our offense is holding up it’s side of the bargain for once in like, ever. Maybe that’s the problem with our D, they aren’t playing as hard now that they think it’s no longer necessary. A man can only hope that’s all we have to worry about. Then our season wouldn’t depend on Paul Kruger, Sergio “My Mind is Somewhere in Texas” Kindle, Courtney “Things were Easier in Alabama” Upshaw,  Pernell Mcphee, etc.

~MSW, WONG_83@HOTMAIL.COM

The author has written articles on the Baltimore Ravens, Baltimore Orioles, and Philadelphia Eagles for Bleacherreport.com. He also scribbles sporadically, either on WordPress.com, or on Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace(note: a long time ago).

Ravens looking to BBQ in Kansas City [Baltimore/Kansas City Preview]

Don’t underestimate the Kansas City Chiefs.

To all the fellow Ravens fans out there reading this post, PLEASE, PLEASE do not underestimate the Chiefs. Here are the facts. Yes the Baltimore offense is 2nd in the league, 4 weeks into the season. Yes the Baltimore defense looks solid on paper, still led by LB Ray Lewis and S Ed Reed. Yes QB Joe Flacco‘s arm is helping us win games so far this year, providing aerial support for the running game. Yes if everything goes as planned, the better football team, I mean Baltimore, will come away with a win in Arrowhead Stadium this Sunday afternoon.

With that being said, anything can happen on any given Sunday in the National Football League.

The Baltimore Ravens have a very hard time staying focused, often failing to play to their full potential against opponents they consider freebies, teams with a bad regular season record or starting a rookie QB for example. Last season this team won 100%, 8 out f 8 games, against teams with a winning record as of the match-up. The 4 games we lost were against the Seattle Seahawks (7-9), the Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11), the Tennessee Titans (9-7) and the San Diego Chargers (8-8). It doesn’t look that bad if you look at their combined win-loss record now but I promise, nobody in a 50-mile radius of the Inner Harbor thought these teams had a fighting chance before the losses actually happened. What makes it even worse is that directly before each loss, the Ravens had just won against a superior team.

This brings us back the Baltimore/Kansas City game coming up on Sunday.

Let’s make this abundantly clear, the Chiefs should NOT win in week 5. Chiefs starting QB Matt Cassel does not strike fear into the hearts of defenders; He lacks both decisiveness and the big, accurate arm to stretch NFL defenses down the field. Even though it’s not a necessity to have a huge arm to win in the NFL, his accuracy on short and intermediate throws isn’t good enough to make up for his obvious deficiencies. Personally speaking, I never thought Cassel was the answer in Kansas City. He wasn’t the answer when he played in New England and he’s proven over the years that he isn’t going to play like Tom Brady just because he backed him up for a season or two. At least that’s what I think. I could be potentially biased however, I am after all a high priest in the Church of Baltimore.

So what skilled players do play for the Chiefs?

Well first there’s RB Jamaal Charles. After missing most of last season, Charles is showing flashes of his former talent; he ran for 1467 yards and had 8 total touchdowns  in 2010. Even though he’s not huge, Charles has repeatedly shown he can play in the NFL. He has above average speed & quickness, is a decent receiving option, and good elusiveness in the open-field. He is a danger to go the distance of every play, as he did against the Saints earlier this season. If for some reason Baltimore’s defensive-line forgets to set the edge, take good angles or take the screen-play into account against him, he will make them pay for it dearly.

WR Dwayne Bowe is a very good receiver. He’s big, fast, strong(6-2, 220), and accounts for a large portion of his team’s total yardage each year. Over the past 5 seasons he’s averaged nearly 1000 yards and 7+ touchdowns a year, meaning he will definitely be a part of Baltimore’s defensive game-plan. Above all else he’s a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver, regardless of whether Matt Cassel is the one throwing him the ball. Baltimore’s secondary has definitely had trouble stopping talented receivers all season, CB’s Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams will need help covering him. Actually let’s not talk about Cary Williams since he has trouble covering anyone.

On the defensive side of the ball, S Eric Berry is probably one of the best defensive backs in the league, at least when healthy.I remember watching him play for the Tennessee Volunteers a few years ago, and thinking to myself that he looked a lot like a younger version of Ed Reed. There was a lot of hype during the draft, reasonable considering how much Kansas City improved during his rookie year. That’s the main problem however, he’s only played one full season in the NFL. He blew out his ACL last September, and it’s difficult to tell how players coming off major knee surgery will do the first year back. Look at RBs Frank Gore or Willis McGahee.

The other problem is that Berry’s not getting a lot of help, either from the defensive line or in the secondary. DE Glenn Dorsey, LB Tamba Hali and LB Derrick Johnson have talented, they just aren’t playing stopping anyone for some reason. CB Brandon Flowers has had trouble staying on the field due to injury; without him, the rest of the Chiefs secondary just isn’t getting the job done. Through 4 games, the Kansas City defense has given up 136 points, an average of 34 points per game. They couldn’t stop a senior citizen from getting into the end zone, let alone a professional football player. If they can’t figure out a way to stop offenses and soon, they aren’t going to win 5 games this season.

Other than these players, there aren’t a lot of recognizable names(for me) in Kansas City, with the exception of T Branden Albert, TE Kevin Boss, Back-up QB Brady Quinn, WR/QB Dexter McCluster, and WR Steve Breaston. Some I have heard of or have seen on other teams in the past, Boss with the Giants, Quinn with the Browns, and Breaston in Arizona. The others, McCluster at Ole Miss, Quinn at Notre Dame, Albert at Virginia, I watched play college football. I’m sure there are other reasonably talented players on the roster, they just haven’t done anything big in the past that warranted national recognition. Most people outside of Kansas probably haven’t heard of them either. Breaston is a solid 3rd receiver, Albert is a Pro Bowl-caliber offensive tackle while McCluster has shown flashes of potential as a kick returner and slot receiver. The problem is there just isn’t enough talent across the board. Someone on this team is going to have to step up and make some plays for the Chiefs to end up 8-8.

Now let’s look at Baltimore and the new look, no-huddle offense.

RB: Ray Rice is playing great football at the moment. He looks fresh thanks to Flacco’s passing game, and to a lesser extent newly minted rookie Bernard Pierce. Both running-backs have different running styles; Ray Rice is quick, hard to bring down or even see behind bulldozing FB Vonta Leach, and arguably the best receiving running-back in the league. Bernard Pierce is also hard to bring down, with a north-south running style that has him smashing between the tackles, consistently falling forward for an extra yard or two. Both RBs are extremely fast, with Rice running a 4.42 and Pierce a 4.49 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. They should have little trouble against the Kansas City defense.

WR/TE: For the first time in the Ravens history, there is enough options for the offense to carry the defense into the postseason. Torrey Smith is now considered one of the premier receivers in the game, a constant threat to go deep while continuing to improve his short and medium routes. Anquan Boldin is as good as advertised; He continues as Baltimore’s best possession receiver and is rarely brought down without gaining a few extra yards. Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson are better than average options at TE, while newcomer Jacoby Jones has been a solid free-agent addition as a slot receiver. As stated earlier, Rice has some of the best hands in the business, providing a safety-valve in the backfield, flat, and short-middle area. For once, I can actually rely on, and be proud of, Baltimore’s passing game as an asset on the field.

O-Line: If there is a weakness on this side of the ball, it definitely has something to do with the offensive line. C Matt Birk is often a detriment during pass-blocking, and doesn’t get a push consistently during run-blocking. Considering he’s the oldest player on the line, I expected this while hoping for more. At least he plays smart, doesn’t mess up calls very often, and rarely fumbles the snap. I’ve never been the biggest fan of T Michael Oher… you’d think having a movie called The Blind Side would mean you played well on the blind side. G Kelechi Osemele and G Gino Grawkowski are both talented but green, they will get better with time. Marshal Yanda is our only surviving Pro Bowler on the O-line. Baltimore fans are hoping and praying everyone else, including Bobbie Williams and Bryant McKinney, will hold up against premier pass-rushing defenses such as the Giants and Texans.

As for the defense, the linebackers and defensive backs are still led by All-Pro LB Ray Lewis and All-Pro S Ed Reed respectively. All-Pro DT Haloti Ngata still runs the defensive line while Pro-Bowl CB Lardarius Webb continues to improve on a weekly basis. Reigning defensive player of the year LB Terrell Suggs continues to rehab his ACL in preparation for hopefully a return in November. LB Sergio Kindle, LB Paul Kruger and DE Pernell Mcphee need to get better at pass-rushing in a hurry. Kruger’s personal foul gave Browns another chance to win, while their inability to consistently get pressure on opposing QBs has led to a steep drop in the defensive rankings. One of these games, our offense is going to struggle; Flacco & Co. won’t put up 35 points every single weekend. 2nd-year CB Jimmy Smith and Slot CB Cary Williams need to play more instinctively whether that means watching more game tape or not over-thinking plays.

At least Cary Williams had that pick-six last week against the Browns.

The special teams play has been as good as I’ve ever seen since Matt Stover retired a couple of years ago. Justin Tucker is an upgrade from Billy Cundiff; I’m greatly relieved he’s kicking field goals for the Redskins this year instead. Especially after last week, when Cundiff missed 3 against the Buccaneers and almost cost them the game. Sam Koch is having a career year at punter, averaging nearly 50 yards per punt. Our coverage team has been good, not great, having given up a few long returns but no touchdowns as of yet(cross your fingers!!). All of our kick returners have good hands(Webb, Jones, Williams, etc) but are no Devin Hester. No one is though, so I’m not particularly worried about that.

In summary, things look good for the Baltimore Ravens, at least on paper. If everyone plays the way they’re supposed to that is. If the Ravens can keep the turnovers to a minimum and don’t give the Chiefs any easy points, they will have to play from behind, something that doesn’t bode well for any offense led by Matt Cassel. This will not be a 50 point blowout by the Ravens but nor will it be a last second nail-biter with a chance for the Chiefs to win.

I predict John Harbaugh’s Ravens to continue their winning ways, dropping a quarter and a dime on Romeo Crennel and the Kansas City’s defense.

Baltimore over Kansas City: 31-17