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.
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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.
4. We've talked a lot about how much the Ravens improved their team by cutting Todd Heap and Derrick Mason, but we haven't talked enough about how much better off they are with Vonta Leach at fullback.
I don't want to bury Le'Ron McClain, because I definitely liked him as a person, but I think Leach is a much better fit with the Ravens this year. He doesn't care about getting the ball, he just wants to bend someone's facemask and create space for Rice, and that's invaluable. Do me a favor and watch him in short yardage next time the Ravens are playing. He just destroys linebackers.
I know McClain was praised frequently for his blocking by the Ravens coaches, but to me, it's not even close. Leach not only understands his role, he embraces it. He isn't going to lobby for carries and be quietly disappointed when he doesn't get them. Instead, he's going to throw kick out blocks and open giant holes and celebrate when Rice or Ricky Williams scampers into the end zone.
5. The Ravens probably won't miss Domonique Foxworth too much this year on the field, but it was shameful the way some Ravens fans celebrated the decision to put him on injured reserve.
I'm still not sure what to expect out of Cary Williams this year, but at times, he does look like he can be solid player. He didn't play well against Tennessee, but he has improved the last two weeks. Who knows how long Chris Carr's hamstring injury might linger, or when Jimmy Smith's ankle will be 100 percent, so one way or another, the Ravens are going to need Williams to play a big role.
But let's close this week's Five Things with a brief comment about Foxworth. I haven't spoken to him since the Ravens decided to shelve him for the year, but I can almost guarantee he's heartbroken. I still can't quite understand why the Ravens didn't put him on the PUP to start the year. It didn't make a lot of sense at the time, and it makes even less sense now looking back. I would be stunned if he's back with the Ravens next year.
The vitriol spewed at Foxworth, however, was really disheartening. If you were one of those people who called him "Foxworthless" and blamed him for the Ravens losing Josh Wilson, or called him the worst signing in Ravens history, then do me a favor and don't bother reading this column ever again. I'm serious.
Foxworth is one of the most honest, stand-up guys I've ever met, and he personally sacrificed a lot this year to help iron out the current labor agreement. He knew negotiations were making it difficult for him to properly rehab his knee, and that it might jeopardize his NFL career, but he also knew there was a bigger picture that was important.
I asked him once why getting involved with with the Players Union was so important to him, and he said it was because he really admired players who put the greater interests of the game ahead of their own. People always complain that NFL players these days are too aloof, and the don't hang out in their communities anymore and they don't care about anything beyond their next contract. Fans long for the days when you could bump into John Unitas at Club 4100 and buy him a drink. Well, Foxworth was one of the few players who you really could bump into at the mall and have a conversation with. (I know because I did.) Being a part of Baltimore actually matters to him.
Did the Ravens overpay him when he signed a $28 million contract three years ago? Of course they did. The market for corners was thin that year, and the Ravens took a chance he was about to blossom into a good player. He got off to a shaky start, but played well in the second half of the year in 2009. I'm surprised how many people forget the pass he picked off and returned for a touchdown against the Steelers late in the year. (Terrell Suggs clipped 25 yards behind the play, negating the score but not the pick, which is why I guess people are able to say Foxworth never made a single play with the Ravens.)
His knee injury, however, made it difficult to evaluate him beyond that. Cutting him, by the way, would not have meant the Ravens could have kept Josh Wilson. It just would have meant the portion of Foxworth's signing bonus slated to count against the 2012 cap would have been accelerated to count against the 2011 cap. So if you blame him for the Ravens losing Wilson, you need to have a better grasp of how the salary cap works. The Ravens could have saved some money, but not enough to keep Wilson.
I don't know if he'll ever get back to 100 percent, but I wish the Ravens would have been realistic about how to use him this year instead of putting him on Kenny Britt in single coverage. Foxworth, though, understands the NFL is about results, not what kind of guy you are, so I'm sure he'll be at peace with whatever comes next. If you're one of those people who dropped the phrase "Foxworthless," well, enjoy the next 10 years of prosperity that the NFL is about to enter. That may be his parting gift to the Ravens. Nothing worthless, not in the least, about that.