1. If the Ravens could play against Cleveland's atrocious run defense every single week, Ray Rice might rush for 2,500 yards.
I don't want to denigrate the Ravens victory against the Browns. It was encouraging to see them prove, for the first time since they played St. Louis, that they can grind out a win against a bad team in a business-like manner on the road. I honestly think they're poised to play some pretty good football down the stretch. If they can win out and snag home field advantage, I think they're going to be really difficult to beat.
But I'm not sure this game gave us a lot of insight into the Ravens. I don't think it established any kind of identity. I'm going to put this bluntly, because it's the only way to put it: Cleveland's run defense was an embarrassment on Sunday. Rice made some good reads, but the holes he was able to cut back and slip through were frequently the size of a small canyon. That doesn't mean the Ravens didn't block well. They certainly did. Vonte Leach was destroying guys. Marshall Yanda looked like snowplow the way he was moving lineman and linebackers out of the way. Anquan Boldin did a excellent job down the field, helping Rice pick up extra yards.
But the Browns had almost no backside pursuit the entire day. They were completely undisciplined as far as gap responsibility. Here is how a number of plays unfolded: The Ravens would run a stretch play to one side, the Browns would get very little, if any penetration, all three Browns linebackers would flow toward the ball, their defensive end would fail to seal off the backside and take himself out of the play, and Rice would then cut back and be scampering through Cleveland's secondary before he was even touched by a defender.
I'd love to tell you Rice was able to do that because the Ravens running game has finally clicked, and the offensive line is now working as a cohesive unit. But the truth is, Cleveland is just really bad at stopping the run. Rice had 75 yards on his first eight carries. He failed to get 75 yards total in seven different games this year. I still think D'Qwell Jackson is a pretty good linebacker (when healthy), and Jabaal Sheard looks like he could be develop into a poor man's Terrell Suggs if he works at it, but the rest of Cleveland's front seven is the weakest I've seen in the NFL this year. They just don't hold ground, slip blocks or stay on their feet. I makes you appreciate how valuable a player like Corey Redding is, to be honest. Cleveland doesn't have anyone like him, a guy who will hold the edge, force plays back inside, and get almost no credit when someone else makes a tackle.
Runs that probably should have gone for five yards frequently went for 10 or more on Sunday because the Browns either didn't want to stand and fight, or they aren't coached well enough to know what to do. The Browns made a nice stop on the 4th down run the Ravens attempted in the first half, but that was about it as far as defensive highlights go. When the Ravens ran misdirection pitch to the outside a few times, the Browns interior defense could barely be bothered to give chase.
None of what I just said should be viewed as a knock against the Ravens. Cam Cameron got a little too cute a couple of times when all he really needed to do was keep feeding the ball to Rice and Ricky Williams. And Baltimore probably should have put the game away a lot sooner. But the Ravens were wise to mix in some passes, just to stay sharp. In the NFL, a lot of the time, you win ugly and move on. This isn't the BCS, where style points matter. It's been kind of a frustrating season for Rice, so every Ravens' fan had to enjoy watching him rack a career high of 204 rushing yards. But I don't think this means the Ravens are going to be a dominant running team going forward. They still need balance against a good defense. They still need to figure out a better plan of attack for the red zone.
2. It's time to start catching the ball more frequently when it's thrown to you, Anquan Boldin.
If you're a regular reader of this column, you know that I've held Joe Flacco to a pretty high standard over the years. I've never quite figured out why his apologists believe the world is out to get him. CBS' Bill Macatee whined during the game that Flacco "never gets any of the credit when the Ravens win, and all the blame when they lose" which is just ridiculous. I think people should hold him to a high standard, frankly, because he's obviously very talented. It's OK to have high expectations for him. Saying he's a good player, but not a consistently great player, is hardly the insult people like Macatee make it out to be. But I'm going to stick up for Flacco for a second and point out that it's become clear his low completion percentage this season isn't entirely his fault.
Ravens receivers have dropped way too many passes this year, and while Torrey Smith's inconsistent hands are somewhat understandable -- especially considering he's a rookie and he's got a lot going on in his head -- Boldin's inconsistent hands have inexcusable. Just like Flacco, Boldin should be held to a higher standard. He's supposed to be the Ravens best receiver, and to be honest, I'm not sure he is this year. It's time for him to start making a higher percentage of tough catches, or at the very least, stop losing focus on balls he should catch.
There is no denying what an important player Boldin is for Baltimore. He's a vocal and emotional leader on the field, he's a fierce competitor, and he's one of the toughest guys on the team. I truly believe the Ravens would not have beaten Arizona this year if he hadn't taken over in the second half. His down field blocking efforts this year have been superb. But for $28 million, he needs to help his quarterback out a little bit more. I would say this is the third game this year where he's dropped multiple passes. If Flacco is going to have every aspect of his game picked apart and analyzed each week, then it's more than fair to expect a more consistent performance from the Ravens No. 1 receiver. He's part of the reason Flacco had to listen to a storm of criticism in the off-season, something a lot of people tend to forget. If Boldin catches what was really a perfectly thrown pass from Flacco in the AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Steelers, people probably view the Ravens quarterback much differently.
3. The majority of Billy Cundiff's misses this year have been pushes to the right from the right hash mark, and now it seems like those kicks are in his head.
Obviously, Sunday wasn't the kind of day Cundiff will remember fondly. It's been a pretty magical ride for Cundiff the last few years, and it's actually not that surprising that he hasn't been able to duplicate that same magic this season. Kicking a football is an art, not a science, and there are going to be seasons when you're just not striking the ball perfectly and you can't figure out why. It's a lot like golf, actually. Cundiff's driver hasn't been great this year, but his mid-irons and wedges have been as good as ever.
That was true prior to Sunday, at least, but not after Cundiff pushed a 34-yard attempt wide right from the right hash, then pushed a 41-yard attempt wide right minutes later. Those misses appeared to get in his head so much, he yanked an extra point and nicked the upright later in the game.
In fairness to Cundiff, the weather was pretty miserable in Cleveland on Sunday. But the fact that Cundiff seems to be consistently pushing kicks wide right whenever he's kicking from the right hash mark seems like the problem should be correctable. Don't overlook the snap and the hold too when you criticize Cundiff. I've seen a couple less-than-perfect snaps this year that led to misses. Either way, he needs to get some of the kinks worked out over the next four weeks because he's going to be extremely important come playoff time.
I do find it somewhat laughable that a small contingent of Ravens fans seems to think the Ravens should "get rid of Cundiff" because the kickoff rule change has taken away some of his value, and they don't trust him in a big moment after a few misses this year. (Cundiff is still 14-for-14 in the fourth quarter, by the way.) For starters, anyone the Ravens could get at this point off the free agent scrap heap isn't going to be an upgrade. Second, Baltimore can't light money on fire every time a player has a stretch of mediocre games. It's another example of why Ozzie Newsome makes football decisions and you don't. He doesn't overreact, or get emotional the way fans do. (Or Dan Snyder does.) The Ravens signed Cundiff to a 5-year, $15 million deal prior to this season. It's unclear how much of that was guaranteed money, but whatever it was, you can't just eat it based on a few bad games and start trying out new kickers, especially when you might end up with a worse player.
A lot of Ravens fans were spoiled by Matt Stover, I think. Stover was the most accurate "outdoor" kicker in NFL history. Just because Cundiff has missed a few kicks this year -- most of them from beyond 50 yards -- doesn't mean he's no good anymore.
4. It's a little scary to have your best cornerback returning punts, but when you see the way Lardarius Webb can affect the game when he gets the ball in his hands, you understand why the Ravens are willing to take that risk.
It's not hard to figure out why Lardarius Webb has become a fan favorite this year. Not only is he a very personable, warm person who wants to connect with fans, he's an electric player.
I didn't know this until
, but Webb was such a good athlete in college, when he was at Nicholls State, the Colonels coaching staff played him regularly on offense in addition to defense because he was so much better than everyone else. He even played quarterback for stretch. He's the only player in NCAA history to be named Offensive Player of the Week, Defensive Player of the Week and Special Teams Player of the Week for his conference in a single year.
The past few weeks, it really felt like if Webb could just catch the ball with a little bit of space between himself and the guys on the coverage team, he was going to break one. And that's exactly what happened against the Browns, a touchdown return that essentially put the game away. It's easy to forget he did almost the exact same thing in the playoffs against the Steelers, only to have his return called back on a phantom holding penalty called on Marcus Smith. He's a dangerous player when he gets the ball in space.
I think it's obvious Webb is playing corner at a Pro Bowl-caliber level right now, but I'd be surprised if he was actually voted to appear in the Pro Bowl. It's just too hard to earn that kind of recognition your first year as a full-time starter, and I would suspect Webb might be the victim of some Ravens fatigue with the voters. You know Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are virtual locks to be selected. What voter would have the conviction to also vote for a fifth player on the Ravens defense?
The one way Webb might make it happen, however, is by forcing people to pay more attention by scoring touchdowns, either on special teams or defense.
5. There is absolutely no reason for Ray Lewis to play against the Indianapolis Colts. In fact, if he tries to play, the Ravens should lock him in the training room prior to kickoff.
I never, even for a second, believed Lewis was going to play this week, even though the Ravens went through another week of song and dance where they listed him as questionable. I would bet that we'll hear similar reports this week, and that the team will insist he has a legitimate chance of playing right up until an hour before kickoff when they announce that he's inactive yet again. I'm sure Lewis really wants to play, and he might even be able to talk the Ravens medical staff and coaching staff into letting him play if he really tried hard enough, but what's the point? Indianapolis is awful. They seem to be more committed to finishing 0-16 this year than they were to finishing 16-0 a few seasons ago. If the Ravens can't beat the Colts at home without Ray Lewis, then they don't deserve the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
The earliest Lewis should play is the San Diego game. And they'll need him for that game too, because as awful as the Chargers have looked this year, they have a ton of talent on offense. As much as Philip Rivers has struggled this year, he's still the kind of quarterback who can put a lot of pressure on the Ravens linebackers (who aren't strong in pass coverage) and secondary. Lewis isn't particularly good in pass coverage either, but is an effective blitzer and he still reads defenses as well as anyone in football.
The Ravens have made it through a tough stretch of games without him, and even if you believe he's almost ready to return, forcing him to sit one more week is only going to help you down the road, when you really need him.