Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Ravens Look Formidable in Final “Dress Rehearsal”

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Bad Ass O

Someone tweeted last night something along the lines of “if this is the New York Giants’ dress rehearsal, they had better hope for a whole new wardrobe come Week 1.”

Well, if that was the case for Tom Coughlin’s team, then the exact opposite rings true for John Harbaugh’s squad. The Ravens came out firing on all cylinders in Week 3 of the preseason (save for the opening drive 3 and out), ultimately disposing of the Giants by a final of 24-10. While each team’s starters were in the game though (the entirety of the first half), the Ravens outscored Eli Manning and company 17-3. It probably should have been worse, as the dominant display put on by B’More would have seemed likely to result in greater than just the two touchdown advantage.

While Cam Cameron’s game plan in every contest this preseason has obviously been to hone the passing game of his starters, for the first time in three games that plan was finally executed to his, and Ravens’ fans’, satisfaction. Joe Flacco was 21-34 for 229 yards and 2 touchdowns. He spread the ball around very efficiently, using all parts of the field. Todd Heap was the Ravens’ leading receiver, looking like a half-decade younger version of himself while hauling in 6 passes for 69 yards and Flacco’s second score. Derrick Mason had five catches and Mark Clayton made just one, but for a 20-yard gain.

Flacco’s newest weapon, Anquan Boldin, also had his most impressive showing as a Raven to date. Boldin caught 4 passes for 52 yards and the team’s first touchdown, a brilliant catch in which he bailed Flacco out a bit. Joe made a beautifully executed read at the line of scrimmage, calling an audible to check out of the original play call on 4th-and-3 from the Giants’ 9. Flacco dropped back, looked the safety off nicely, and Boldin had two steps on his man headed to the end zone when Joe Cool’s gaze returned to that side of the field. Flacco, though, put the ball a bit behind Boldin, who adjusted his body to make the catch anyway.

Boldin also showed the dimension he brings to the Ravens’ WR corps that had been completely absent: a physical, yards-after-catch element. On the first play of the Ravens’ second drive, Boldin caught the ball near the sticks with two Giants closing quickly. No disrespect to Derrick Mason or Mark Clayton, but those two are hit-or-miss to get the first down in that situation, likely to go down to the first defender to get a hand on them.

Not Boldin.

Q stiff-armed and dragged his way for an additional 3-4 yards, leaving no doubt that it was time to “move those chains.” A beautiful thing to watch.

To show just how focused the Ravens were on the passing game, look no further than the fact that Flacco also led the team in rushing yards against the Giants. Joe looked much more mobile than we remembered from the last half-dozen or so games of 2009, when he was dealing with the much talked-about hip/leg bruise. He avoided pressure nicely several times, and while he won’t be confused with a Drew Brees or Tom Brady yet when it comes to pocket presence, the third-year quarterback is far from the immobile water buffalo back there that injuries made him during times last year.

When Ray Rice finally was called upon to tote the rock, he looked a bit rusty at times, while also appearing to struggle a bit with the new playing surface at M&T Bank Stadium. He also dropped a pass down the seam that Flacco dropped in beautifully, which, had he caught it, would have set the Ravens up with a 1st-and-goal at about the 5 yard line. I’m not terribly concerned about #27, and it is pretty obvious from his lack of carries in game action that the coaching staff isn’t either. Rice also seemed to hear the coaching staff’s “ball security” message loud and clear this week, securing the ball nicely on each of his 9 touches. The same cannot be said for Le’Ron “Pain Train” McClain, who fumbled after a nice gain on one of his only three touches. Not exactly great ammo for his “MCCLAIN 4 RB” campaign moving forward.

On the whole, the Ravens offense was very impressive. They showed that opposing defenses will not be able to focus on just Ray Rice or Derrick Mason in 2010, as Flacco seems quite comfortable with all of his weapons entering the season. Once they actually start game-planning for teams, and putting together a more balanced attack (which they most certainly will), this offense just might have a chance to live up to the hype.

One area they will certainly need to improve though, is on 3rd down. They were just 4/15 on the night, although they were an impressive 3/3 on fourth downs.

As for the defense, they had an up-and-down first half despite holding the Giants to just the three points. New York running backs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw combined for 63 yards on just 13 carries in the first half, including a 29-yard scamper by Jacobs. The Ravens missed several plays on defense due to poor tackling, which everyone from Haloti Ngata to Jarret Johnson to Dawan Landry was guilty of at times.

One play that will have Ravens fans talking this week was Bradshaw’s seemingly innocent 12-yard scamper midway through the first quarter. On the play, he appeared to be bottled up in the backfield before eluding Johnson and then running away from Ray Lewis in a way that made the 35-year old linebacker’s age show like it rarely, if ever, has before. It was a play that Ray has made countless times in his career, and one that he may have even made last season. You hate to take too much from any one game, let alone one PLAY, but it was a painful reminder that #52′s best days are getting further and further behind him, and us.

Of course, knowing Ray, he’ll simply log that play in his mental playbook, adjust his angle appropriately next time, make the tackle, and all will be appear to be right in Ravenstown. You have to admire the way Lewis continues to use his knowledge of the game and film study expertise to prolong his career, but his football IQ won’t make up for his diminishing physical abilities forever. Just something to keep an eye on.

On a more positive note, the Ravens’ much-maligned secondary played very well. Fabian Washington whiffed on one wide receiver screen, but was all over two others. Chris Carr recorded a sack and was not really picked on at all by Eli Manning. Tom Zbikowski was beat badly over the top on the Giants’ second drive by Steve Smith, but Manning underthrew him; overall though, Zibby had another solid night. He had better watch out for Haruki Nakamura though. His fellow third-year safety was all over the field, picking off one Manning throw and nearly getting another. “Rooki” is making a strong case for more playing time, and looks to be completely healed from his nasty broken leg suffered against Cleveland last season.

Even those wide open men over the middle that were there for the Redskins a week ago seemed to disappear this week. I expected Giants’ tight end Kevin Boss to have a field day, but he had as many catches as you and I did. Boss was making his first preseason appearance of 2010 after offseason ankle surgery, and probably had some rust. Still, the gaping holes in the Ravens’ coverage that were there last week appeared to have been addressed, at least for one night. Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe dropped into coverage impressively and was able to tip the pass that was ultimately intercepted by Nakamura. Despite Jameel McClain again getting the starting nod at inside linebacker next to Ray Lewis, I still think more and more that Ellerbe will be the team’s best option moving forward.

One final note from last night comes from the injury front. Donte Stallworth suffered a broken foot late in the first half, and will need surgery. According to John Harbaugh, the team does not expect to have Stallworth back until at least the Bye week. It’s a shame, as Stallworth was having a strong camp in his attempt to return to the NFL after missing all of 2009, but it’s not a completely devastating blow to the Ravens’ offense. While Stallworth was the team’s purest “deep threat,” he was nowhere to be found when Flacco was doing all that above-mentioned passing all over the field. Stallworth did appear to be the team’s first option at punt returner, but Mark Clayton seems to have secured his spot as the #3 wideout. With Stallworth out, Demetrius Williams and Marcus Smith see their chances to make the roster and impact the team increase, and we have to hope they embrace the “next man up” philosophy and make the most of their chances. Smith admitted that he was energized in the second half last night after watching Stallworth go down earlier (I read that somewhere, but can’t find the quote right now).

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