With the Ravens sporting a 3-1 record going into the bye week, there is a lot to be impressed with at the moment. But one thing that's stood out for me through four games is just how many hits the Ravens are getting on quarterbacks this season, and how effective it has been covering for some obvious holes in their secondary.
If you're looking for a common thread in the Ravens' three victories in 2011, it's that they absolutely mauled the quarterback. They went after Ben Roethlisberger, Sam Bradford and Mark Sanchez like the Visigothic army spilling over the gates of Rome. And even on plays where they didn't drive the quarterback into the turf for a sack, they smacked him around as he was releasing the ball. That either makes it harder to throw an accurate ball, or at the very least it leaves behind a reminder that you'd better rush your throw next time or you might not be so lucky.
I don't really believe intimidation plays a big role in professional football, but I will say that it has to hurt like hell to get blasted by Haloti Ngata or Terrell Suggs. There just haven't been too many guys in the history of the NFL with the combination of that much size and speed. And that's why it's so important for the Ravens to create havoc up front. Quarterbacks remember that sting. When you're constantly worrying about blocking Ngata up the middle and Suggs on the edge -- which the Jets obviously were Sunday night -- that creates plenty of opportunities for a play-maker like Ed Reed to create a turnover.
John Harbaugh said at the end of 2010 that one of the reasons the Ravens didn't blitz as much under Mattison is because he just didn't feel comfortable leaving the Ravens corners alone in single coverage. That's understandable, but sometimes it makes sense to take risks, even if you get burned, because of the physical and mental wear and tear it puts on a quarterback. At one point in the fourth quarter, Sanchez actually tried to duck as he was throwing the football he was so weary of getting hit. That's how in his head the rush was.
It will be interesting to see how Baltimore looks against Houston in two weeks, especially if they have Jimmy Smith back, because Matt Schaub can handle pressure and the Texans have a good offensive line. I'd still blitz like hell if I were Pagano. (Especially if Andre Johnson's hamstring isn't 100 percent.) Schaub might burn you a few times, but he'll be woozy by the 4th quarter. When Sanchez threw the interception that Lardarius Webb turned into a 74-yard touchdown, he was trying to throw a short pass in the flat with a three-step drop. The Jets stopped calling patterns with five- and seven-step drops because he was getting hammered. That's the kind of wear and tear the Ravens can put on a quarterback.
After the game, Harbaugh called it the greatest defensive performance he'd ever seen. I don't know that I'd go that far, but I think the Ravens are now grasping that it's always better to be aggressive instead of passive.
2. Every time the Ravens line Ray Rice up at receiver or put him in motion, I feel like good things happen.
The Ravens offense obviously wasn't great on Sunday, especially after the first quarter. I think it felt so good to press the ball down the field last week against the Rams, Flacco and Cam Cameron tried to do that a bit too much in this game. It seemed like Flacco had little interest in finding guys coming open underneath, and despite the fact that the Jets run defense has been soft this year, the Ravens sure did call a lot of passes in the second and third quarter.
But one thing I continue to enjoy watching this year is seeing the Ravens line up Rice in a number of different spots. Teams can try to key on him and shut him down, but they have to find him first.
Rice is just too smart and too difficult to handle when he's matched up on a linebacker, and if you put a cornerback on him and Rice catches it, a corner is typically going to have a hard time tackling him. Rice even works well as a decoy too. The Ravens called a play in the first quarter where Rice was split out wide and the Jets sent a defensive back with him. Flacco looked Rice's way, then zipped the ball over the middle to Ed Dickson for a first down.
It's true that Flacco's one interception did come on a miscommunication between he and Rice, but that pattern started with Rice in the backfield. The Jets saw how much damage Rice has done this year catching check downs and screens, so they had a linebacker spying him for much of the game. But when you mix things up and occasionally put him in the slot, most defenses have no idea what to do.
3. The Jets were fortunate to even be in this game at all. In fact, I'm going to go ahead and predict they don't make the playoffs this year, especially if they don't get back to running the ball.
I don't quite understand why the Jets think it's in their best interests to put the majority of their offense in the hands of Mark Sanchez, but it should be obvious he's not ready for that kind of burden. I'm starting to wonder if he ever will be.
I'll give him this: He's tough, he has a quick release, and he's had a few decent playoff games. (He's had a few awful games too, we should point out.) But his accuracy continues to be a problem. He sprays the ball all over the field, and he has been doing it for years. He also doesn't have a big enough arm to let him get away with some of the throws he makes. Sure, he looks great in a GQ spread with his shirt off, but if he wasn't a good-looking guy playing in the media capital of the world, I don't know that people would rave so much about his potential.
The Jets are like the Ravens in many respects. They both have offensive coordinators who want to mold a young quarterback into an elite passer, and so they've tried to throw the ball more to speed up that process. But both quarterbacks are clearly better players (at least right now) when they're asked to make plays within an offense that has a strong running game. It's a difficult balance to strike, but both teams might benefit from reeling in their coordinators a bit.
It's obviously fun to argue the merits of the NFL's young quarterbacks. We pick them apart every week, we group them into meaningless tiers, and we debate whether or not they'll ever be "elite" as if there is some invisible threshold they'll cross when everything they do from that point on will be perfect. If you turn on talk radio, sometimes that's all you hear. "Is Flacco a top 10 quarterback yet? Does Mark Sanchez have the most upside? Who would you rather have, Matt Ryan or Cam Newton or Josh Freeman or Matt Stafford?"
In the end, it's sort of meaningless. I think Flacco has the potential to be a lot better than Sanchez, even though both of them weren't any good Sunday. Trent Dilfer -- who I really, really like a lot as an analyst -- disagrees. That's OK, because neither one of us really knows the answer. It just has to play itself out.