1. You know what we learned this week? We learned the 2010 Ravens aren't the 2009 Ravens.
Now, if you read that sentence literally, it's ridiculous. Of course the teams are different. Different players, different coaches, different schedule. But for much of the day, it felt like we were watching a re-run of 2009, a game where the Ravens would play just well enough to break your heart. Great defense (except for a few big plays), a few frustrating penalties, flashes of good offense undone by head-scratching play calls, poor execution in the red zone, and usually one big mistake in the final minutes that proves to be the difference against a good team.
But this game may turn out to be the big win that exorcises those evil demons, and as a result, my head is spinning like Linda Blair's. It wasn't a perfect win, and maybe you could argue that the Steelers come out on top if they have Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback instead of Charlie Batch, but at some point, give credit where it's deserved. A win like this may help the Ravens more, in the long run, than a blowout victory would have. Not only did the Ravens prove to themselves they can win in a hostile environment, they showed that their quarterback has the poise and the confidence to make a big throw that wins the big game. For all the debate Flacco has inspired this year (and last year) this was an example of real growth. This was all anyone (his critics; his supporters) wanted to see from him.
Yes, it was a team victory. No doubt. If the defense doesn't stuff the Steelers with two minutes remaining, it's another disappointing defeat remembered for red-zone blunders. But people in this town have come to expect that kind of play from the defense. The standards for that side of the ball have always been high. Instead, we'll remember it for the great protection that the offensive line gave Flacco (both Todd Heap and Ray Rice also made great blocks), the beautiful pump fake, and perfect throw on the post pattern to T.J. Houshmandzadeh for the win.
Did you see Flacco's euphoric howl after the touchdown? Don't believe for a second this was just another good win, no more important than any of his career. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, that was a barbaric yawp that could be heard over the rooftops of the world -- including those back in Baltimore. 2. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron got the game ball from John Harbaugh after that victory. How do we put this delicately? He should probably saw it in half and give part of it to the defense.
There is no question Cameron called some great plays at the end of this game. The routes Houshmandzadeh ran on the two plays prior to his touchdown catch were the perfect set up, and cornerback Bryant McFadden was completely suckered in. Cameron, in many respects, has always been at his best when the Ravens are spread all over the field. He sees angles and tendencies that a lot of coordinators don't. He's clearly forced Flacco to recommit to the proper mechanics and when Pittsburgh decided to take away Boldin early in the game, he called plays for Derrick Mason, knowing the Steelers couldn't take away both.
Now, all that said, his penchant for calling pass plays on 3rd-and-short is a definite head scratcher. You can kind of tell it's not exactly the way Harbaugh would go about it if he were calling the plays by the chuckle he gave before answering when asked about Cameron after the game.
"We can all be frustrated about this or that, but Cam doesn't let that bother him one bit," Harbaugh said in the post-game news conference. "He lets it roll right off his back. He's very aggressive and he's going to call the plays that give us the best chance to win."
But part of what makes Harbaugh a pretty good coach in this, his third season, is that he trusts his coordinators even when things aren't perfect. This is true of Greg Mattison and Cameron, both of whom have taken heat from fans. Fans are so reactionary at times. They live and die with every play, and that's OK. But NFL teams need stability. I think Cameron should probably try to pick up more short conversions on the ground instead of the air, but if Harbaugh believes similarly, the time to emphasize that is during the week. During the game, he mostly needs to let Cameron go with his gut, and that seems to be his approach.
Does Cameron fall in love with Flacco's arm a bit too much? Of course. I can't figure out why he likes throwing fades to the corner like the one Flacco threw to Boldin on 4th down inside the 5-yard line, mainly because Flacco throws an awful fade and always has. He has a cannon, not feathery touch, and that may always be true. (Besides, had Boldin run an out on that play, it would have been an easy throw for a touchdown.)
But in the end, the defense gave Cameron and Flacco another shot, and they showed they can put together some beautiful football if given enough chances. Yes, the offense needs to score more points. But with three running backs injured, this was a big win.
3. If Haloti Ngata's not the best defensive tackle in the league right now, then I'm Ernest Hemingway.
Seriously, trying to block Ngata right now is like trying to get between a Grizzly bear and a piece of prime rib. Doesn't matter if you put two guys on him at this point, he's going to be around the ball. You know what separates Ngata from other defensive tackles right now? He's relentless. Yes, you might get him blocked initially, but I'm not sure there is anyone in football who starts the play with his hand in the dirt who runs harder after the ball.
His first-half sack of Batch is a great example. Ngata was double-teamed, and not a factor initially. But because the coverage was so good (the Ravens were rushing only three) Ngata had time to keep working, keep his legs churning. He spun to his left, chucked a blocker, then was suddenly coming after Batch faster than the boulder in "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
Back when Ngata was a rookie, I flew out to Salt Lake City shortly after he was drafted and hung out with his sisters and his uncle for a feature that's still one of my favorites during my time at The Sun. It was an emotional interview, talking to the family about how both Ngata's parents died before he finished college. Ngata is absolutely as he appears, a soft-spoken, gentle giant of a man who could break you into pieces with his bare hands if he wanted to. Be grateful, Baltimore, because he's a good one -- on and off the field.
4. Watching a game between two teams that really do dislike one another is so much more fun than watching one where everyone is friends.
There is a reason why this is probably the best rivalry in the NFL. There's real animosity between the two teams. Yes, there are smiles and handshakes and genuine respect when the contest is over, but there is something wonderful about two teams that truly do rub one another the wrong way. I still believe the lackluster defensive performance against the Browns was more about effort than execution. That was never going to happen against Pittsburgh because the Ravens are driven a little bit bonkers by black and gold.
I know what we're supposed to tell our kids when they start playing sports: you respect your opponent, you play hard, and then congratulate them after the game if they're the better team. I know that is the adult, mature, reasonable approach. But the best rivalries in sports always have a little something extra, a genuine dislike that doesn't result in hugs and dinner plans when it's over.
5. Lardarius Webb may not be all the way back yet, but he's still scary talented.
The play where Batch went deep to Mike Wallace should have been a touchdown. If any other Ravens cornerback was covering Wallace, it would have been a touchdown. But Webb made an unbelievable play, closing the gap while the ball was in the air, then ripping it out of Wallace's hands as he went to the ground. You couldn't really appreciate how good it was until you saw the replay from the end zone camera that showed Wallace basically possessing the ball and Webb refusing to let him haul it in.
I admit, I thought it was going to take Webb much longer to get healthy enough to contribute, but my estimate was obviously a bit too conservative. I don't know that he's ready to be one of the Ravens starting corners just yet. Chris Carr is still playing well, and Fabian Washington has been a lot better this year than he was last year. But Webb has all the speed and body control and aggressiveness to be really good. And soon.
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