Week 12 Thanksgiving Edition III: Sibling Rivalry

Look up sibling rivalry in a 2011 NFL dictionary and you would find these two teams at the top of the list. Fro the first time ….what?? No we’re talking about playing rough and tumble smash mouth football, supplemented by stout defense not brother coaches. Come on they won’t take the field. Now where were we… The surprising 9-1 San Francisco 49ers have run up a gaudy record while playing physical lights out football and are on the verge of tying the 1988 Buffalo Bills as the earliest division winner in NFL history. Standing in their way is the team that has made playing football in a traditional sense a way of life: The Baltimore Ravens. Since the 2000 season the Ravens have been the vanguard of playing football from a defense first perspective. Presently the Ravens sit 7-3 and atop the AFC North as we head toward the stretch run. So who will win tonight’s game??

As we take a look at the 49ers the first thing that pops out is how strong they’re running the football. Right now they are averaging 4.3 yards per carry led by Frank Gore who’s averaging 4.6. In his 9 starts he has slashed his way to 870 yards and 5 of the 49ers 9 rushing touchdowns. Beneficiary to all of this running are both quarterback Alex Smith and a rested defense. Do you realize the 49er defense hasn’t given up a rushing touchdown all year and are #1 against the run?? Alex Smith is enjoying his best season ever with 13TDs to only 4 interceptions. He looks much more sure of himself and that has to attributed to former quarterback Jim Harbaugh. The Niners are waiting for Michael Crabtree to break out also. Aside from TE Vernon Davis there really isn’t a home run hitter on the team that defenses fear.

However when it comes to games like this and of this magnitude, the Baltimore Ravens are ready. When they see a game against a fellow heavyweight coming they rarely lose. Before we get into the players performance…do you realize the Baltimore Ravens are 5-1 against teams with winning records?? Where San Francisco fields the 8th best defense in pro football, Baltimore fields it’s 4th best. With Ray Lewis status still unknown it’s hard to pick against this defense. They performed well in his absence in the 31-24 lead to take the division lead away from Cincinnati last weekend. The pass rush, which at one time was just Terrell Suggs (6 sacks), has been supplemented by young rushers in Paul Kruger (4.5 sacks) and Pernell McPhee with 4. In fact there is a tie between 3 teams with 31 sacks and it’s the Ravens who are 4th in all of the NFL with 29 sacks. Yet oddly enough the Ravens are -2 in the turnover ratio over the last seven weeks. They rarely force turnovers against teams they don’t know well.

So it comes down to which quarterback will be able to get their passing games off the ground. At a loud outdoor palace we have a hard time seeing Alex Smith bringing his “A” game with him. In his 6 years, this is really the biggest game he’s played and he hasn’t had to face fire breathing defenses out in the NFC West. With a pedestrian set of receivers the Ravens should be able to handle TE Vernon Davis. By the third quarter the Ravens on pass defense will have 9-10 men within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage since they can’t get deep. Consequently Torrey Smith (29 rec. / 590 yds / 5TDs), Anquan Boldin (44 rec. / 684yds /3 TDs) are both headed to 1,000 yard seasons. Ravens wide receivers?? Seriously quit laughing.

So there you have it…we pick the RAVENS in this one. We’re not entirely sold on Joe Flacco, but with a last second touchdown throw to beat arch rival Pittsburgh, he can prove himself further with another big win. As for Alex Smith, he better pray that Frank Gore and the running game can get underway or he’ll be running for his life.  Keep in mind the Ravens are the 5th best in defense against the run. Michael Crabtree you’re up!! Time to be the receiver that held out for all that money when you came in. If you’re going to do it, it had better be tonight. Just don’t think the Ravens pass rush will allow Smith time to find him.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Enjoy the games, good food, and remember to share the article…will ya’??

 

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NFL Week 2 AFC North: Season of Change Seems Like the Same Old Thing, or Is It??

When we were putting our annual previews together this summer we stated this division was about to see some change. This was clearly the last year the Ravens and Steelers would be head and shoulders above the Bengals and Browns. Its been well chronicled about the age of the Steelers defense and we have to see which was more indicative of where they will play as a unit. Was it the 170 yards they gave up on the ground to the Baltimore Ravens in week 1 or the 31 yards last week to the Seahawks?? Speaking of the Ravens… What was that egg you guys laid in Adelphia Coliseum last week in losing to the Titans?? Are you serious?? Finally get that big early season win over the Steelers to put them in the rear view and then stub your toe the next week and catch you in the standings. You’re running out of time to get Ray Lewis another ring before he retires.

As for Marvin Lewis and his Cincinnati Bengals, who knew that he’d be only a few plays away from a 2-0 start after losing Chad Ochocinco and recovering from the Carson Palmer odyssey. With rookie QB Andy Dalton playing well these first couple of weeks and Bruce Gradkowski as insurance if there is a drop, time to unload Palmer. An in-season trade to help fortify the defense and get your team to totally rally around the quarterbacks that want to be there. Would go a long way in solidifying your locker room. Keep feeding the football to Cedric Benson. His 180 yards rushing in these first two games has been the difference between going 1-1 as opposed to 0-2 and resting your defense. Face it you stole one from the Browns who should have had that game. You get a win however you can though…

AFC NORTH W L T PCT HOME ROAD DIV CONF PF PA DIFF STRK
Cincinnati 1 1 0 .500 0-0-0 1-1-0 1-0-0 1-1-0 49 41 +8 Lost 1
Baltimore 1 1 0 .500 1-0-0 0-1-0 1-0-0 1-1-0 48 33 +15 Lost 1
Cleveland 1 1 0 .500 0-1-0 1-0-0 0-1-0 1-1-0 44 46 -2 Won 1
Pittsburgh 1 1 0 .500 1-0-0 0-1-0 0-1-0 0-1-0 31 35 -4 Won 1

As for the Browns, hopefully it’s the ties that bind that will bring the coaching carousel to a close. Coach Pat Shurmur is the nephew of the late Fritz Shurmur, who was the defensive co-ordinator for present Brown GM Mike Holmgren when he coached in Green Bay. The Shurmur/ Holmgren relationship was forged during the late 80s when Mike was the offensive co-ordinator for the World Champion 49ers and the hardest defense in their division year in and year out was the Los Angeles Rams defense under Fritz. That’s the coaching pedigree. Right now he doesn’t have to draw up any exotic blitzes, just has to have his defense not give up over 100 yards a game rushing on defense. They already have the perfect antidote in having Peyton Hillis pound at rival defenses to keep opposing teams off the field. He needs a little more help from Colt McCoy, who is completing only 56.3% of his passes. He has to show some growth in this season or Hillis could break down late in the season from overuse. They need him down the stretch where 3 of their last 4 are on the road. They absolutely need a receiver to emerge, to have Hillis as the leading receiver shows the ball is getting dumped off too much. Hillis isn’t Marshall Faulk running intricate routes. Come on Massaquoi and Josh Cribbs…

When it comes to the Steelers,. this team loves to run, but their defense is going to similar to every NFL team and see a defensive slip this year. That lack of conditioning and age will have the Steelers giving up points this year and placing the game in Roethlisberger’s hands. Face it he keeps plays alive and makes things happen and with his size never gets knocked out of the game. With Emanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown able to get deep, it should open up the intermediate routes for Hines Ward, Heath Miller, and Mike Wallace. So here we would suspect you’d ask why aren’t we saying Pittsburgh should run. We don’t because we know they’ll run yet the defense may put them in a few jams where they will have to come from behind or score late. Something they have not had to put up with in the Roethlisberger. The Steelers will be a passing and bubble screen team much like they were in 2003, its a transitional year. They get a break and take on the Manningless Colts this week so the stats won’t look bad on this defense.

Well after last year’s playoff loss to the Steelers we called Joe Flacco a beta quarterback and not an alpha. We took a lot of flack for that yet it’s reared it’s head in just two weeks of this season. Lets face it, it was the 170 yards rushing on the Steelers defense as the  reason they won that game. Where Flacco has to become a more polished quarterback and more of a field general was in a game like last week. They’re losing to a team they should really be ahead of. It’s those games that you see the best quarterbacks put their team on their back if they have to and pass them to victory. Dating back to last year’s Monday Night loss in Atlanta to Matt Ryan and the Falcons we have had our eye on this. He has the chance to change our CEO’s mind in two weeks when he takes on the New York Jets then two weeks later the Houston Texans as well. He will at least be home for these games and has to come through. He’s the AFC’s version of Tony Romo, just without the big mistakes. It’s time for some absolute field generalship from him. He needs to channel his inner Unitas.

2011 Baltimore Ravens Preview

Well, well, well…. How much did a forced fumble alter the course of the Baltimore Ravens franchise??  It was late in the fourth quarter and the host Ravens were up 9-3 in a tough, tough football game.   It was week 13 with the AFC North on the line during a Sunday night tilt with their hated rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers.  A win would lock up the division and probably the number 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, setting themselves up for a legitimate Super Bowl run.  With less than 7 minutes left in the game; Flacco drops back and doesn’t read the blitz,  Troy Palamalu comes unblocked and….

Quarterback: There are reservations about Joe Flacco.  There were some points of improvement but there are times he just doesn’t pass the eyeball test in the big games.  I’ll have to go back to that fumble by Joe Flacco no matter how hard it pains Ravens fans.  That was one where he needs to read the defense and get rid of the football within 3 steps.  In his 3rd season, all as a starter, he should been able to detect a blitz as the Steelers were getting into desperate times.  That fumble could have been the difference between this team playing in Super Bowl XLV and watching it.

Going into his 4th season, Flacco has improved steadily each year and in  2010 was the 7th rated passer in the NFL.  He completed 62.6% of his passes for 3,622 yards, 25TDs and only 10 interceptions.  He did have a game winning throw to T.J. Houshmanzadeh against Pittsburgh in week 4 but let face a few facts:  Against playoff teams in 2010, Flacco had a 2-4 record against playoff bound teams.  In 3 of those games the offense could only muster 10, 14, and 10 points while averaging 17.5 points against playoff teams.  With the signing of Anquan Boldin and Dontae Stallworth a little more firepower from Flacco was expected during these games.  He showed up in games against Buffalo with a 3 TD performance in an overtime win yet could only throw for 1 TD against the Steelers in both games.  He disappears too often against  strong competition and needs to show he can win games and not just rely on the defense. Has to become a leader.

His game lacks confidence and has to go downfield and use his receivers more.  Too many check down throws to Ray Rice.    Quarterback in Baltimore is average at best.

Running Back: The Ravens parted ways with Willis McGahee who has slowed down in recent years.  Ray Rice could use some help with the overall workload yet had an outstanding year.  The fireplug ran for 1,220 yards on 307 carries and was also second on the team with 62 receptions and another 556  yards.  With nearly 370 touches could only reach the endzone 6 times (5 rushing / 1 receiving) and could burn out like Wilbert Montgomery from overuse.  Although he is a willing warrior it would be in his best interest if the Ravens drafted some help here for him.  There could be additional carries for LeRon McClain #33 who is a straight forward running fullback.  He may have to step in and replace the 6 touchdowns McGahee ran in from short yardage.

Right now Ray Rice is a chain moving first down machine who averaged 4.0 yards per carry. If Flacco doesn’t develop further, teams can gang up on him and the mounting hits could slow him down.  Its imperative that they get him some help and possibly more of a break away threat.  Ravens are solid at running back

Receivers: Last year they brought in Anquan Boldin and Dontae Stallworth to bolster this position which produced minimal returns.  Although Boldin led the team with 64 receptions, his 837 yards and 7 touchdowns, were less than Raven fans had hoped for.   A physical and tough receiver who will catch the tough passes over the middle had too few passes thrown his way.  Stallworth was a disappointment in only catching 2 passes in an injury plagued year.  Yet Derrick Mason was there to pick up the slack with 61 receptions for 802 yards and 7 touchdowns to match Boldin.

The Ravens need a boost in the arm here and needs a deep threat at receiver to stretch the field.  The departed Houshmanzadeh, Stallworth and incumbent Boldin and TE Todd Heap are all intermediate threats.  This allowed teams to gang up on all pass routes 20 yards and under which was one of the reasons the ball was checked down so much.  Definite upgrade needed to develop as an offense and there has been talk that the team is going after Santonio Holmes.

Offensive Line: A mixed review for the offensive line in 2010.  For a running team this team had problems pushing the ball into the endzone with only 11 touchdowns on the season, which ranked 18th in the NFL.  Further issues arise when you look at the numbers for Flacco’s passing. Although Flacco ranked 13th in passing attempts with 489, he was sacked 40 times and hit 79 times.  Each of those numbers ranked 23rd in the NFL and they need to improve on those clearly.  Compare that to Peyton Manning who passed 679  times and was only sacked 16 times or rookie Sam Bradford who threw 590 times and was sacked just 34 times. The question is: What does this line do well??

When it comes to power rushing plays on 3rd /4th and 2 or fewer?  This team converted less than 50% of the time running to the left or the right.  They were able to plow forward for the 1st down 75% of the time going up the middle.  The line gets blame for this because if the blocks are performed up front, even a marginal back should get 3-4 yards where the good back can get beyond that.  Matt Birk, is the elder statesman of this line entering his 13th year and anchors the Ravens at center.  At LG and LT is Ben Grubs and Michael Oher respectively, each need to play lower to get more push in the running game.  The same can be said for RG Chris Chester and RT Marshall Yanda who being on the strong side need to provide the impetus to convert those 3rd and 2s coming off tackle.

This line is young with every player on the line aside from Birk all with less than 4 years in the league.  Yet the coaching staff need to get these guys on the 7 man sled and get low and root out the opposing defense.  They play too high which tells us at Taylor Blitz that they spend most of their practice time passing the football.  With a little luck, Harbaugh will push his offensive line to get more in the running game and rest a Super Bowl quality defense.  Offensive Line is slightly below average right now.  Could see a draft pick or two coming to light a fire under these players.

Defensive Line: Lets face it, in the 3-4 defense its these men that have to hold their ground and not be pushed off the ball allowing the inside linebackers to make most of the tackles.  Mission accomplished with Ray Lewis and Jameel McClain combining for an astounding 236 tackles. It starts up front with 6’0, 310 lb. Kelly Gregg at NT.  He ties up blockers with his low play allowing the aforementioned Lewis and McClain to scrape into punish ball carriers.  Ends Haloti Ngata and Cory Redding are also hard to move off the ball aiding in the Ravens overall ranking of 10th in the NFL and 5th against the run.  Redding and Ngata also combined for 8.5 sacks also. At 6’4 and 335 lbs., Ngata is in his prime, has made the last two Pro Bowls along with the distinction of being voted 1st team all pro.

Now don’t forget this team last year drafted 6’4 370lbs. Terrence “Mount” Cody from 2009 National Champion Alabama.  He played some during his rookie year and I expect to see him hit the field even more this year to spell Gregg.  In two years at Alabama they were ranked 2nd in the nation against the run! If he replaces Gregg that gives the Ravens 700 lbs of immovable object in he and Ngata…yikes! Ray Lewis could chase down runners another 5 years behind that.


Linebackers:
Again the heart and soul of the defense is Ray Lewis, from the U, is the NFL’s best ever Middle Linebacker.  Although he is going into his 16th season, he has shown exceptional range in the passing game as well as defending the run.  The majority of it is he rarely takes a false step and his exceptional film study has him a step ahead of the offense.  Amazingly he is still the emotional sparkplug of the defense which is a rarity in a player who is an elder statesman.  Again he led the Ravens with 145 tackles, had 2 sacks and 2 interceptions.  He forced 2 fumbles and recovered 3 more.  The only question is when is this future Hall of Famer going to slow down.   He has to be on borrowed time…How long can he play at such a high level??

Which brings us to Terrell Suggs. The Ravens pass rushing ace once again led the team with 11.5 sacks and was terrorizing Ben Roethlisberger with 3 sacks and a forced fumble in the playoff loss to Pittsburgh.  The heir apparent to Lewis’ emotional leading mantle for Baltimore is in the prime of his career and is in perfect position to mentor young Sergio Kindle from Texas.  Suggs is entering his 9th season, has made the Pro Bowl 4 times, is second in all time sacks for the Ravens franchise with 68.5.  He could benefit with another strong pass rusher on the other side and not command so many double teams.  If Kindle can come in and provide that, a 15 -18 sack season for Suggs isn’t out of the question.

Which brings us to Sergio Kindle…Kindle missed his entire rookie season due to injury.  At 6’3 and 250lbs, Kindle could give the Ravens the best set of outside linebackers this side of Pittsburgh if he can rush the passer.  He was a defensive end in college so the transition should be a smoother one with Suggs to show him the ropes.  Kindle was a 5 star blue chip recruit going into Texas yet has had a few injuries.  He was the Texas Longhorns defensive star in the 2009 National Championship Game opposite Alabama’s Cody.  If, and thats a nice sized if, he can hit the field running this team can really bolster its pass rush.  Not to be pushed aside is Jameel McClain #53 at the other inside linebacker spot, who was a solid tracker and recorded 91 tackles in a breakout season in 2010.  Throw in a developing Dannell Ellerbe #59 and you have Super Bowl quality linebackers as they are.  Improvement with Kindle will turn this group into a special unit.

Secondary: Sigh… How in the hell do you give up a 59 yard bomb in the 4th quarter of a playoff game when the Steelers are facing 3rd and 17?? Would like to see the Ravens use a few draft picks here.  Dominique Foxworth, Chris Carr, and Fabian Washington at corner.  Improvement is needed here for the defense that ranked 21st against the pass and get a jam on the receiver on 3rd and 17!!  This team is still hasn’t replaced Jim Leonard who moved on with Rex Ryan to the Jets.  Dawan Landry is a faster and stronger SS yet doesn’t get any interceptions.  He is stout against the run as evidenced by his 111 tackles which ranked 2nd on the team to Lewis, yet didn’t pick off a pass.   He defensed 3 passes but couldn’t corral 1 interception.  That number needs to improve and should with an improved pass rush.

Which brings us to future Hall of Famer, former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and former NFL Defensive Rookie of the year Ed Reed (from The U).  This tremendous talent missed 6 games and still led the league with 8 interceptions and is creeping up on the all time interceptions list with 54.  He is 46 interception return yards from breaking the all time record by Rod Woodoson with 1,483 yards. He has tied or broken 5 NFL records including the two longest interception returns in league history with 106 and 107 yard returns. A seven time Pro Bowler who is going into his 10th season is getting better with age.  He is cagey and fools quarterbacks into throwing into regions that look uncovered and Reed swoops in and turns those plays into instant offense for Baltimore.  As for 2010 he finished with 39 tackles along with his 16 passes defensed and 1 forced fumble.

As a secondary there should be improvement in Landry’s third season as a starter yet this team needs to get their hands on a few good cornerbacks.  They need to play the younger corners and see what they have or draft a few more.  Weak at the corner and monster at the safety makes this an above average secondary as long as Ed Reed can make plays.  Although the wear and tear is mounting on Reed who had hinted at retirement before the season.

Overall: A golden opportunity slipped away last January in the form of Antonio Brown’s 59 yard reception late in the fourth quarter in the playoffs.  This team had a few key drops by their recievers in Boldin and the 4th down drop by Houshmanzadeh.  The offense couldn’t run the ball with consistency against Pittsburgh.  These issues manifested themselves clearly in the playoffs.  Improvement is needed in these key areas for this team to return to the AFC elite.  They have another year where they are among the top definitely, but this is the last year for this team to get Ray Lewis another ring.  Belichick is about to rebuild on the run with 6 draft picks in New England and this team along with Pittsburgh should fall behind the Jets also this year.

Offensive firepower is needed to offset this tremendous defense in case there is a slip in Reed or Lewis’ play.  What is interesting is that in 2010 there was a youth movement with 10 rookies that made the team as compared to 1 in ’09.  Yet much of that talent is unproven including Sergio Kindle and Terrence “Mount” Cody.  Well we shall soon see what they do with next months draft.

Next Up: Philadelphia Eagles

Steelers best Ravens again

Steelers 31-24

Steelers beat the Ravens in the playoffs again, this time a 31-24 defeat in the divisional round.  The Steelers solidified they are the better of the two by winning a second time against their rival in the playoffs in three years.  What became evident as the game moved into the second half was the difference in the quarterbacks.  Ben Roethlisberger’s stature grew at the critical juncture of the game where Flacco seemed to wilt as though the game was too big for him.   Even when the Ravens were leading his throws were short and were quick dump offs to Ray Rice.  He challenged downfield a few times each throw was late and the defender was right there.  Once Ike Taylor was right in Derrick Mason’s hip pocket and the other Mason had to stop to break up what would have been an interception by William Gay.  Where was Anquan Boldin? 

The real issue was the stature of Ben Roethlisberger and how the magnitude of the event doesn’t phase him, in fact he thrives in it.  Anymore late game heroics its time to talk about him in the John Elway mold.  He’s won late games in the regular season, playoffs, and the Super Bowl XLIII pass to Santonio Holmes with seconds left is one of the greatest throws in history.  Yesterday as the Steelers got the ball back, I joked on my facebook page; “If you want to know why I voted Ben Roethlisberger #2 behind Tom Brady, watch this”.  Its become that common place. You saw the confidence in his eyes as he walked onto the field.  The epitome of swagger, and in his body english, spirit, and words engenders confidence in his teammates.  As Coach Tomlin said ‘he doesn’t blink and his teammates follow him’. Enough said…

So where does Baltimore go from here? They need a quarterback exchange.  A trade for Kevin Kolb would be the ideal situation.  The Steelers aren’t about to go anywhere.  They are one of the oldest teams in football but look at this young , speedy recieving corp they are putting together. Ben is still young and most of the defensive stars are in the middle of their career.  Flacco’s confidence hasn’t improved and in a league with Aaron Rodgers coming of age yesterday, Matt Ryan, Sam Bradford, Josh Freeman, Mark Sanchez and all these young quarterbacks coming on, he needed to have shown more improvement. Yet his confidence even hampered the way the Ravens coaches with the play calling.  Ray Lewis is near retirement and new leaders have to emerge and Flacco struggles there as well.  You have to get another quarterback, Ravens I hate to say.

A friend of mine told me that I might be over reacting and then I had to remind him of David Woodley.  A young quarterback for the Miami Dolphins who took his team to Super Bowl XVII. Even though he had his issues that had coach Shula replace him on occasion, he had a lead at halftime yet could only complete 1 pass in the second half in a 27-17 loss.  Now he could have stayed with Woodley, instead he drafted Dan Marino 3 months later.  Know when you have seen enough.  When it comes to Joe Flacco I have.