1. If the Ravens really want to get the most out of Joe Flacco, maybe they should stop trying to mold him into something he's not (a drop back passer) and start playing to more of his strengths. That means putting him in the shotgun, increasing the tempo of the offense, and getting him into a rhythm with short, quick throws.
It was certainly an interesting week in Owings Mills. Flacco and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron were under the microscope more than I can ever remember, and I think it would be fair to describe the team's dealings with the media this week as "tense."
Even though the main problems in the first half when the Ravens fell behind 24-3 were the offensive line and the special teams, I briefly wondered if Cameron might not actually be employed by the Ravens come Monday afternoon. I've been saying all season I didn't think the Ravens would fire him during the season under any circumstances, because there doesn't appear to be anyone on staff who could call plays and improve the offense, but I kept picturing Steve Bisciotti sitting in the owner's box with a Bud Light in his hand and steam coming out of his ears.
Let's give Cameron some credit though. Maybe it was ingenuity, or maybe it was desperation, but either way, his decision to put Flacco in the shotgun and make him hustle the offense to the line of scrimmage changed everything about this game. It slowed Arizona's pass rush, it gave Flacco a boost of confidence, and raised the energy level of the entire offense.
I'm not going to pretend I have even a sliver of the football knowledge that Cameron does. But I will say, and I think the Sun's archives would back me up here, that I've been arguing for three years that the Ravens needed to put Flacco in the shotgun more and pick up the tempo of the offense. I don't know why exactly, but he just sees the field better. And when you get him to the line of scrimmage faster, with more time on the play clock, I think it's obvious he has more time to survey the defense and anticipate what they're going to do.
We've spent so much time this year talking about Flacco's flaws -- he's slow when he drops back, he doesn't throw anticipation routes very often, he's occasionally too laid back -- we probably don't talk enough about what he does well. He still has a big strong arm, he's tall enough that he can create his own throwing lanes, and he isn't afraid to get hit as he's releasing the ball. Those are all qualities that seem to come out when he's in the shotgun. Maybe he plays better in the shotgun because it's similar to the system he learned in college at Delaware, and maybe he's just more comfortable doing it because it takes him so long to set up when he drops back from under center. It doesn't really matter why it works, just that it does.
"I think we react well to the hurry-up," Flacco said. "I think it can put a defense on their heels a little bit. I think we can wear them out a little bit. It's tough to rush the passer, rush the passer, and really hold up and continue to get a good pass rush. I think that was a big part of it."
Maybe it won't work in the playoffs, and maybe it won't even work against the Steelers. But the idea that running your offense out of the shotgun and calling out plays at the line of scrimmage is somehow less "manly" and not a "smash mouth" approach worthy of the AFC North football -- I'm just anticipating two tired criticisms here -- is silly. The Steelers run plays out of the shotgun all the time. And if we go outside the division, so do the Patriots. So do the Packers. Tempo, tempo, tempo. I've resisted writing about Flacco's confidence all season, but it soars when get him some easy completions.
The Ravens offensive line still has major, major issues with pass protection, especially on the left side. But for whatever reason, they picked up blitzes better with Flacco in the gun on Sunday. Bryant McKinnie told me the Ravens simplified some protections in the second half and tried to make blocking less complicated. Flacco just looks more comfortable and confident in that formation. (I think it was the best shotgun-related performance in Baltimore since Omar and his crew took down the Barksdale stash house in Season 1 of The Wire.)
It might be time for the Ravens to ride it for awhile and see where it takes them.
2. Terrell Suggs might be the most complete defensive player in the NFL.
I already wrote a little piece about what Suggs' personality means to the Ravens, so for today, let's focus on how good he is technically as a football player. Sure, if you want to nitpick, you can point out that he missed a few sacks on Sunday. But he's proven to be so effective against the run, and so hard to block with just one guy, he's a nightmare for offensive coordinators. I don't think it's a stretch to say this game -- 13 tackles, a sack, four tackles for loss, and a hit on Kevin Kolb that forced an interception -- was definitely one of his best performances as a Raven.
Part of what makes Suggs so good is that he doesn't let offensive lineman get their hands, or their shoulders, into his body. He sheds blocks as well as anyone I think I've ever seen. Ray Lewis ran right by people in his prime, and was so fast, he was virtually impossible to block. Suggs obviously plays a different position, but when blockers try to take him on, he typically just throws them aside. His club move, his rip move, and his swim move are each a thing of ferocious beauty. And for someone so big and strong, he moves down the line of scrimmage like a jungle cat stalking its prey. Then he hammers ball carriers.
My favorite thing about watching Suggs, however, might be the opportunities he creates for others. He's extremely good at locking up a tight end or a tackle, stringing a play out wide, and forcing a ball carrier to abandon his initial cut. Those plays don't show up in the stats, but that's one of the reasons the Ravens are so good at stopping the run. The string plays out to the sideline, and the guys on the edges who responsible for keeping contain rarely get suckered up the field (and have a runner slip underneath them, and they rarely get hook blocked. Suggs does this as well as anyone in football. And he still rushes the passer incredibly well.
Some day Ray Lewis is going to retire. And for Ravens fans, that's going to be sad, and probably a little surreal. But watching Suggs run to the sideline and rip his helmet off after Jameel McClain's interception, and then watching him run practically into the stands to high-five the fans, made me feel like this will be his team someday. And that will be just fine.
3. The left side of the Ravens offensive line is having a ton of problems.
To be perfectly honest, Flacco actually didn't play all that poorly in the first half. He missed some open throws, sure, but a few of his passes should have been caught, especially the one turned into an interception when it went through Torrey Smith's hands.
The main problem was the Ravens couldn't block anyone up front. If you watch the replay of the play where Flacco was sacked and fumbled, you'll see both Bryant McKinnie and Andre Gurode got beaten badly, and the Cardinals defensive line sandwiched Flacco like he was the meat between two pieces of bread.
Gurode, in fairness, is doing his best to help the team at a position he just isn't athletic enough to play anymore. Dallas didn't just get rid of him because he was making too much money. He's not the athlete he used to be, and when you combine that with the fact that he's doing stuff he's totally unfamiliar with -- like putting a different hand down when he gets in a stance -- it's no wonder he's struggling. If Ben Grubbs were healthy, Gurode would mostly be just an insurance policy in case of an injury to Matt Birk. But with Grubbs' toe injury showing no signs of healing anytime soon, he's the Ravens best option.
McKinnie, I can't really figure out. Sometimes he looks really good, and other times, he struggles with speed rushers. I thought his conditioning would be his biggest weakness this year, but really it's his lateral quickness. (They could still be related.) The fact that neither LaMarr Woodley nor James Harrison will likely be 100 percent next week (if they play at all) is a fortunate break for Baltimore.
4. Ray Rice's unsportsmanlike penalty for "taunting" is a prime example of how uptight and controlling NFL has become. Football players should not be expected to behave like corporate robots. It's a joke.
I'm about to sound like an old man yelling at a group of kids to get off my lawn, but flag thrown on Rice today was one of the most ridiculous flags I've seen in a long time. And I would say that just as quickly if it happened to Larry Fitzgerald. In fact, I have no real problem with the unsportsmanlike penalty called on Bernard Pollard. But what Rice was flagged for was absurd.
When I was a kid, Bo Jackson was one of my favorite players, not just because he was an astonishing blend of speed and power, but because I loved his six-shooter touchdown celebration. Kansas City defensive end Neil Smith and his "home run" sack dance are something I'll never forget. The thought of Deion Sanders high-stepping and tap dancing after an interception return still make me smile. The fact that Barry Sanders simply handed the ball to the referee after a score was great too, because it made him unique in his own classy, understated way. But I never once wished that the entire league behaved like Barry Sanders.
To review, in a game that was tied 27-27, Rice caught a 4th quarter pass from Flacco and made what was essentially a video game spin move in the middle of the Arizona defense. He was eventually tackled by Cardinals rookie David Carter, who flexed his muscles at Rice when he got up off the ground. Rice, laughing at the fact that he'd just been taunted by a man he'd nearly spun in a circle, returned the gesture. That was it. And suddenly the flag came out and the Ravens were facing 2nd-and-17. They had to punt three plays later.
"I didn't curse, I didn't cuss," Rice said. "He did a 'Woo!' and I looked at our sideline and did the same. I wasn't even really paying attention to him. The refs have a job to do, and I'm never going to blame the refs in a game where we came out a winner. They have a tough job."
Rice was being diplomatic, but I won't be. It was a bogus call, especially at that juncture in the game. And if LaMarr Woodley plays next week and he sacks Joe Flacco at a crucial moment in the game, no referee should care if he pumps his fist or thumps his chest. If I wanted polite celebrations, I'd watch more golf.
5. It's OK for the home crowd to voice their frustrations from time to time. It might even have been a good thing on Sunday.
According to the Ravens, there weren't really any dramatic halftime speeches in the locker room with the team trailing 24-6. Vonte Leach said a few words, and so did Flacco, but no one screamed or panicked.
The Ravens did, however, get a little bit of an extra charge out of the storm of boos that poured down on them from the home crowd at M&T Bank Stadium. Cam Cameron, of all people, said he actually respected the fans for booing. And he absolutely understood that a lot of it was being directed at him.
"Our fans are brutal when we play like we did the other night [against Jacksonville] and rightfully so, because they're so passionate about what we do," Cameron said. "Maybe I'm getting goofy here, but I appreciate the brutal-ness of our fans in a way because it's so important to them. And I have no problem being a target because I know I've got great guys."
Flacco did Cameron one better. He said if he was in the stands watching, he might have joined in.
"I don't go to a lot of football games [but] I'd probably be wanting to boo if I was in the stands, too," Flacco said. "We weren't looking too good, and we weren't playing too well."
It wouldn't be a good thing if booing the offense became a habit in Baltimore. Flacco was quick to point out that, as much as players say they don't listen and don't care, they absolutely absorb it it happens. They can't ignore it.
"I can affect us," Flacco said. "It really could affect our guys. We have to stay strong and stay mentally tough and not let it get to us. It didn't really feel good when we weren't successful out there. But what was there to lose really?"
6. (Bonus) Anquan Boldin is still one of the fiercest competitors in the NFL.
You can read a separate story I wrote about him, and his incredible day, here.
Got a rip or a rave? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter: @KVanValkenburg