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Five Things We Learned In the Ravens 26-21 loss

1. After tonight, if you think the Ravens defensive problems are limited to who is calling the plays, you're kidding yourself.

This is the first year in approximately 11 seasons that the Ravens defense has looked truly vulnerable in big moments. (Three times already this season, they've blown fourth-quarter leads.) And as a result, there is a lot of frustration right now within the fanbase, and a lot of it is directed at defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. I've read all the complaints, and many of them are legitimate. The basic Mattison complaint goes like this: His calls are too passive, his schemes are too basic, his defenses don't produce enough takeaways, his penchant for rushing only three players at times is infuriating. If someone else were calling the shots, the defense would return to the style the franchise was built on.

Well, guess what? Mattison is too easy of a target. He may not be the right defensive coordinator for this team -- and honestly, I don't know that any of us understand NFL defensive schemes well enough to truly make that determination -- but after watching the Ravens lose to the Falcons Thursday night, I think it's obvious the issues are much bigger -- and much more troubling -- than which plays are being called.

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It's always easier to blame the coaches when things aren't going well, especially coaches who haven't been around that long, because the players are the reason people actually watch the game. No one wants to admit that it might be the players' fault, that they might be getting old or that they might be overrated, because then the issues don't seem fixable. We want the fix to be easy, when in fact it's almost always more complicated.

The Ravens' problem right now is they don't have enough playmakers, especially in the passing game. (Of the Falcons 20 first downs, 16 of them came through the air.) Their cornerbacks, no matter who they are, can't seem to win enough individual matchups. Their outside linebackers don't scare anyone. One of their safeties is constantly occupying no man's land in coverage.

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Haloti Ngata, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis are still capable of changing the game, of winning their individual matchup and forcing the offense into a mistake. Suggs actually had one of his best games in years against the Falcons. But when is the last time someone other than those four made what we would consider a "Wow!" play? The kind of play where the other team's offensive coordinator says "Wow, I never expected him to make that play." It's been awhile, especially on third downs. The Falcons converted 12 of 20 times on 3rd down.

"That's the key right there," Reed said. "Instead of us getting off the field, they converted when they had to. Against a good team, you can't do that. They've seen your looks, and they start to maneuver."

Sure, the schemes haven't always been great. On Matt Ryan's touchdown to fullback Jason Snelling, Jarret Johnson was blitzing on the play, which left Snelling all by himself as an outlet. It was unclear who was supposed to pick him up. Maybe no one was supposed to, and the pressure was simply supposed to get there in time. Either way, Snelling plowed his way into the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown, running right over the top of Dawan Landry. Lardarius Webb was despondent in the locker room after the game at the way he played. Ed Reed kept gently encouraging him, telling him not to beat himself up, but Webb wasn't ready to let this one go yet.

Greg Mattison can't be blamed when guys don't cover and tackle. He can't go out there himself and collapse the pocket. He's not going to take five years off Ray Lewis' legs. Those problems aren't going away. The defense will probably play better next week against a really bad Carolina Panthers team and all will be forgotten for the moment, but those issues are very real. The Ravens defense has been so good for so long that people seem to take for granted that it will always be a great defense. Lately, it looks like very average defense. Not terrible, just average.

Sure, they could benefit from better play calls and better game-planning. But ultimately it's on the players. They need to make more plays. With the game on the line today, they should have closed this game out, penalties or no.

As Ray Lewis always says, that's the bottom line.

2. I hate it when people whine excessively about penalties, especially when it's accompanied by complaints that the Ravens never get any calls. (They got almost every favorable call in the season opener against the Jets.) But the arm-bar that Roddy White gave Josh Wilson on the game-winning touchdown, and the Terrell Suggs personal foul late in the game were two really bad calls.

For reasons I never quite understood, WWE stars Shawn Michaels and Triple H were on hand inside the Georgia Dome prior to the game. They were given a microphone and got to ramble on about something I had no interest in paying attention to, but I thought at game's end their presence on the Falcons sideline was fitting. I'm all for physical wide receiver play, but when you toss a guy to the ground on what turns out to be the game-winning touchdown, it's a bit like hitting a guy with a folding chair when the referee has his back turned.

Suggs' personal foul for a facemask was equally ridiculous because Suggs actually got his own facemask yanked on the play by Snelling. It looked accidental by both players, but Suggs' head got twisted much more severely than Snelling's. The idea that an offensive player can't facemask a defensive player is absurd, but illegal hands to the face gets called far less frequently.

The pass interference penalty on Tavares Gooden was tough but fair, I thought. He was making contact with Gonzalez's body before the ball got there. And the catch by Michael Jenkins was probably the right call too. It was close, but there wasn't enough evidence to overturn that call.

But the other two calls? Awful. Even White seemed to admit he got away with something.

"We were actually trying to get the ball to Tony [Gonzalez]," White said. "They were double covering him. It left me wide open, with one-on-one coverage. He tried to grab me, and I just pushed him down."

John Harbaugh clearly agreed, but he didn't want to get fined for expressing that opinion so he gritted his teeth and kept his mouth shut after the game. Maybe he needs to have former Ravens cheerleader and WWE wrestler Stacey Keibler drop by practice and teach the defense how to get away with some of this stuff.

3. This team is going to need to win games in the second half of the season with its offense, and for that reason, they can't keep getting off to slow starts like this.

This is how the Ravens three first half possessions went: Five plays, 29 yards and punt; Six plays, 22 yards and punt; Five plays, 26 yards and punt.

When you add in the fact that Flacco threw an interception on their first possession of the second half, that's a truly dreadful start. Even though they were able to dig out of that hole and take the lead late in the game, the Ravens have to figure out a way to make it easier on themselves going forward. It's almost as if they need to be reminded they're a pretty talented offense with a ton of weapons, including two of the best players in the league at their position, Anquan Boldin and Ray Rice. But until Boldin chewed out the entire offense after Flacco's interception, it looked like they were going to sleepwalk through the entire game.

"He's a vocal leader," Rice said of Boldin. "And sometimes you need your leaders to give that kind of spark. When you've got a guy like that [giving a speech], you ain't got no choice but to step up."

It was clear that Atlanta wasn't going to let Ray Rice beat them by catching passes out of the backfield the way the Miami Dolphins did. They had someone acting as his shadow on almost every pass play. In theory, that should have created more opportunities for Todd Heap and Boldin early in the game over the middle, but Flacco didn't find him either of them until midway through the third quarter.

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"This game all boiled down to execution," Rice said. "We only had one drive in the second quarter. And we were still in the game. That's all I can think about. We got what we wanted against them. I don't want to take nothing from that team because they play hard, they hit hard, they're fast, they make plays. But at the same time, we have to keep our defense off the field. There was no balance there."

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Give Cam Cameron some credit for finding creative ways to get the Ravens offense out of neutral. (The two end-arounds to Donte Stallworth were a new element to the Ravens offense, and they need to figure out ways to use his speed, especially since he's not integrated into the passing game just yet.) But at the same time, Cameron has to get Flacco thinking quicker early in the game. I still think, against a team like Carolina, it would be really interesting if they started the game running the no-huddle, spread offense. Probably never going to happen, but it would be interesting to see if Flacco plugged into the game quicker.

4. Flacco is obviously a better quarterback when he gets solid protection, but he could do his offensive line a favor now and then by stepping up into the pocket instead of trying to avoid pressure by running to the edges.

The offensive line flat out blocked better in the second half, and the Ravens were able to call some better routes against Atlanta's defense, but Flacco also helped out with the protections by trusting the pocket was going to be there. One of his worst habits as a quarterback is drifting sideways when pressure comes off the edge, because it's almost an automatic sack. He seems to believe he's a bit more elusive than he really is on those plays, when a lot of times he should step up instead of sideways, and let Michael Oher or Marshall Yanda run his guy past.

He did that a few times in the second half, which created opportunities for plays to stay alive. He overthrew Derrick Mason -- who had two steps on his man -- on a long throw into the end zone, but that was actually a positive play for Flacco because he created that opportunity by stepping up and making a defender miss.

He's pretty easy to tackle when he's going sideways because he has big awkward strides. But he is very dangerous when he buys a little time by moving towards the line of scrimmage. It's a little scary to step toward those defensive tackles, but that's what the great ones do unless they have Michael Vick's foot speed. They buy time by moving forward, not back or sideways.

5. The return game is still causing all kinds of problems for the Ravens.

The Ravens are currently averaging 6.0 yards per punt return, which is dead last in the AFC. They have the second-most fair catches in the AFC with 13, which tells you they're not blocking very well at the line of scrimmage either, because the returners have decided they don't have much of a chance. The kickoff return team is below average (21.4 yards an attempt) and it too often shoots itself in the foot with penalties.

Every week, it seems like there is some problem with the return game, whether it's a fumble, a blown fair catch, a penalty on a long return, or a botched exchange.

Even though Webb fumbled against the Falcons, which cost the Ravens three points, he should still probably be the guy back there, if only because the Ravens have cycled so many guys through that spot, it's got to be hard for any one player to feel comfortable at this point. I used to think it was a risky proposition to have either Webb or Stallworth back there in case they were injured, but it's obvious the Ravens don't have that luxury.

Yes, the Ravens made a flashy and heads up special teams play against the Dolphins when Sam Koch threw a pass to Cary Williams. But that one play shouldn't overshadow the real lack of consistency the Ravens have shown on special teams outside of Billy Cundiff. Jerry Rosberg is supposed to be one of the best special teams coaches in the game, and John Harbaugh has a special teams background too. I'm sure this is driving them nuts, but eventually, some answers need to be found.

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