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Five Things We Learned From The Ravens 10-9 win

Let's get right to it. For those of you who may be new to this, each week Kevin Van Valkenburg (hey, that's me!) will break down five aspects of the Ravens game, win or lose, and try to offer a little analysis mixed with opinion. Since this blog is free, we at The Sun are happy to offer you our Satisfaction Guaranteed Special Offer. If you don't agree with what's written here, we're happy to offer you a refund of zero dollars. Now let's break down the Ravens Week 1 victory.

1. This is exactly the kind of game the Ravens couldn't win last year. The fact that they hung in there and pulled this one out -- on the road, no less -- is a sign of real progress.

Think back for a second to 2009. Recall what happened in the Minnesota game. The Colts game. The second Steelers game. All those contests were against good teams, and they were all games where the Ravens struggled, had a chance to win, but ultimately folded in big moments. That didn't happen Monday against the Jets, and that means something over the long haul. The next time Joe Flacco throws an interception, he'll be less likely to dwell on it because he'll have the confidence the defense will bail him out. That didn't always happen last year, but it happened against the Jets.

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It doesn't really matter that this one wasn't pretty. What matters is the Ravens got hit with a haymaker punch right at the start of the game, and their knees may have briefly buckled, but they didn't go down. Instead of committing a slew of foolish penalties and giving the other team numerous opportunities to get cheap yards and points, the Ravens defense was able to limit the damage done by turnovers, and give the offense enough time to gather itself and find its footing.

That's almost literally what happened, when you think about it, because I suspect Joe Flacco's head was ringing a lot more than he let on after that first-drive sack. And the Jets, instead, looked like the Ravens of a year ago, racking up pass interference penalty after pass interference penalty in key moments. I think I finally understand why Antonio Cromartie has so many kids. The man can't keep his hands off anyone.

We harped on John Harbaugh a lot last year in this column for his team's lack of discipline, so let's give credit where it's deserved this week. Although the Ravens offense didn't look sharp — especially up front — the whole team kept its composure and hung in there on the road. Of the 15 games played so far this week (I'm writing this as the Chiefs-Chargers game is on-going), only four road teams came away with wins. That's a telling stat.

2. Anquan Boldin is as tough, and as good, as advertised.

People think playing wide receiver in the NFL is all about speed. They're wrong. It's about body control. Boldin isn't blazing fast running in a straight line, but he's remarkably quick coming out of his breaks and really knows how to go up and get the ball at its high point. That's such an underrated skill in the NFL, because there's no way to measure it and compare it to other wide receivers, but Boldin has it.

Several times against the Jets, he used his body to create just a sliver of separation, and then at full speed he changed directions and went after the ball. And when he caught the ball, he did it with his hands, not his body. The Ravens don't need him to catch 20 touchdowns or rack up 1,700 yards receiving. What they need him to do is consistently beat his man on 3rd-and-6, and this team will be really successful.

For years, that's what this team has been lacking, a clutch playmaker who moves the chains and gives the offense (and the Ravens defense) a chance to breathe. In a way, Anquan Boldin can make Ray Lewis better, because the more third down catches Boldin makes, the more rest Lewis (and the rest of the defense) gets for tired legs at the end of games.

3. Speaking of the defense, this one can still dominate — especially if the other team can't throw the ball.

Old school football fans, and cliche-spewing football coaches, love to remind us that you have to be able to run the ball to win football games. And that's still true — for the most part. But a team like the Jets, which run the ball as effectively as anyone in the NFL -- but pass it like someone just told them on Thursday the forward pass was legal — is just playing right into the Ravens strengths.

You have to be able to throw the ball effectively in the NFL these days because there is so much speed and size now at every position, good teams close on the ball carrier like an angry nest of hornets, and the rules are written to encourage throwing it down the field.

The Jets weren't even looking down the field, which allowed the Ravens to rush four (and sometimes three) defensive lineman and still be effective. Let's give some credit to Greg Mattison, especially considering Ravens fans were calling for his head after three games last season. He and Rex Ryan are very different when it comes to defensive strategy. Ryan is blitz, blitz, blitz, attack, attack, attack, and Mattison is about attacking in key moments, and forcing teams to drive the field to beat you. And both defense were very good tonight. But it's hard to quibble with giving up just six first downs, and essentially not allowing a single third down conversion. (The only one they got came on the final play of the game.) That's just a humiliating beat down. Lewis' brain-rattling hit at the end on Dustin Keller was a fitting end to a masterful defensive performance.

I still think Mattison's defense is vulnerable to really good quarterbacks, the guys like Peyton Manning who can throw the ball deep and to the outside, away from the safeties. But really, what defense doesn't have trouble with those routes against a Manning, Tom Brady or Drew Brees?

For all the talk of the Ravens cornerbacks being a weakness of this team, I'm starting to wonder if they might be OK back there. Chris Carr is a better player than people give him credit for. He's not big, but he's tough, fast and smart. He and Fabian Washington might as well have enrolled Braylon Edwards in the witness protection program for all he did.

4. Joe Flacco is getting better, and he's going to make strides this year and be a solid NFL quarterback. That said, he's still maddening to watch at times.

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As I said above, this was a really good Jets defense, so keep that in mind when you grade Flacco's performance today. In the first half, it was rough. The sack where Shaun Ellis hit him like bulldozer and caused a fumble was entirely on him. It was a three-step drop with a primary route and a check down, and he held the ball for nearly six seconds (I watched the replay and counted). That's a good way to get hurt. He's lucky he didn't get a concussion there. (He certainly looked a little woozy after the hit.)

However, he did seem to find his legs a bit in the second half. He made several great throws to Todd Heap and Boldin, and when he could see where the blitz was coming from, he showed a lot of toughness hanging in there for an extra second so he could get the ball down the field to Boldin. You can definitely see that he doesn't want to rely on dump offs (or check downs, or whatever term you prefer) to Ray Rice as much this year, especially when he has guys who can make plays down the field. I think the Jets also tried to take Rice away, knowing how effective he was for the Ravens last year catching the ball, and Flacco made them pay for it.

Flacco also made two smart throws to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, which resulted in penalties. Yes, Flacco missed a touchdown to Le'Ron McClain and yes, the throw that Cromartie picked off was both a terrible read and a floated pass. But he showed some signs that it's starting to click. I still think he's most effective when he's throwing out of the shotgun, when he can see the field and make decisive reads. Cam Cameron probably realizes this but knows he can't rely on the shotgun exclusively.

I'd still like to see the Ravens run more no huddle with Flacco and take advantage of the fact that he reads coverage better when he doesn't over-think it, but that's probably why I write an Internet column and Cameron gets paid handsomely to call plays. (Still, even I don't know what to say about the play-calling at the very end of the game.)

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5. The Ravens really need to figure out what to do about a punt returner.

Tom Zbikowski was a very good punt returner in college at Notre Dame, but his crazy decision to catch the ball inside his own 10-yard line (I'm pretty sure he caught it at the 5-yard line in fact), and then run backward into the end zone, easily could have cost the Ravens this game.

It's sort of an unwritten rule that you don't field punts inside your own 10, and if they happen to go coffin corner or down it at the 1-yard line, you tip your hat and congratulate the other team. You certainly don't try to make a big play in a game where any mistake can cost you the game.

To be fair to Zbikowski, that was supposed to be Donte' Stallworth back there, but a broken foot forced him into action. I still think the Ravens need to rethink it. With Ed Reed out for six games, they can't afford to lose Zibby to a special teams injury. They need him to play defense.

Is there any chance David Reed might get a shot back there? I know he's a rookie, but I'm watching the Kansas City Chiefs whip the San Diego Chargers while writing this, and the Chiefs have two rookie punt returners, Javier Arenas and Dexter McCluster, who are electric with the ball in their hands. Reed showed that the Ravens made a wise decision over Demetrius Williams when he forced a fumble on punt coverage, but I'm wondering if he might contribute in other areas too after Zbikowski's wild adventure Monday night.

6. (Bonus item! 100 percent free! Though not a Ravens-focused item!) A lot of silly people are going to mouth off about how the Ravens made Rex Ryan eat crow, and how the Jets appearance on "Hard Knocks" was a distraction, and that Ryan is all talk. Please ignore them.

The Jets didn't play well last night, but it didn't have anything to do with Rex Ryan's mouth or HBO's cameras. If they had a decent quarterback, they could have easily won this game, and the Ravens may see them again in the playoffs. Ray Lewis' "war of words" with Ryan was nothing more than Lewis trying to motivate himself with an alleged and mostly imagined slight. Ryan is one of the best coaches in the NFL, and Lewis owes him a lot. (Had Ryan decided to give Lewis the money he gave Bart Scott, I suspect Lewis would be singing a different tune.)

People love to slap down a genuine character like Ryan as soon as the opportunity presents itself because as much as we deny it, we crave conformity. We want boring coaches, because the minute they're not boring, we hammer them for motivating the other team with bulletin board material. (Which is silly. Execution matters way, way more than what you say, as any NFL player will tell you.) The reason the Jets made a run deep in the playoffs last year was because Ryan made them believers with all his bravado, but also because he's a defensive genius. If they're good again this year, it will be for the same reasons.

Sun Photo: Lloyd Fox

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