With the Ravens enjoying their customary Tuesday off before turning their full attention to the New England Patriots on Sunday night, I offer some thoughts from the beat through the first two weeks of the regular season …
> One of the few defensive bright spots of the 24-23 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday was the play of outside linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Albert McClellan. Drawing the start in place of the injured Paul Kruger at the strongside linebacker spot, the rookie Upshaw did a solid job setting the edge on run plays and was one of the few players to pressure quarterback Michael Vick with any level of consistency.
Compared to his preseason performances in which he seemed sluggish and hesitant in his defensive responsibilities, Upshaw displayed a good motor in backside pursuit and finished with six tackles with one going for a loss. He wore down a bit in the second half after receiving his most extensive action to date and still looks uncomfortable when asked to drop into pass coverage, but Upshaw looks to be in much better shape and is finally starting to show the potential general manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens saw in him with the 35th overall selection in April’s draft.
McClellan was one of the best players on the field for the Baltimore defense against the Eagles, finishing with six tackles with two going for losses and breaking up a pass in coverage. Though undersized at 6-feet-2 and 245 pounds, McClellan did an excellent job setting the edge as the Eagles averaged just 3.1 yards per carry.
With Upshaw showing signs of improvement and Kruger’s struggles at the strongside linebacker position going back to the preseason, it wouldn’t be surprising to see defensive coordinator Dean Pees settle on McClellan and Upshaw as his starting outside linebackers and move Kruger to the situational pass-rushing role he held in past seasons. McClellan hasn’t shown an ability to get to the quarterback, so it might be in the Ravens’ best interests to replace him on third down with Kruger and allow Upshaw to line up at the other defensive end spot in obvious passing situations.
> Speaking of passing plays, much has already been said about the Ravens’ decisions in short-yardage situations on Sunday with few supporting the calls of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
The Ravens were faced with six situations in which it was third or fourth down and two or less yards to go and the offense elected to pass every single time. Running all six plays from the shotgun formation, the Ravens failed to convert on any as the final two offensive plays with less than a minute remaining drew the most scrutiny.
Whether observers want to admit it or not, third-and-short has become a passing situation more often than not in today’s NFL. The Ravens aren’t the only team in the league to throw the football in those spots as it’s become a more wide-open game than what we watched in the past.
That said, it’s perplexing to not only watch the Ravens throw exclusively on that down and distance but also do it from the shotgun formation, a package in which your choice of running plays is more limited. Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice said it best following Sunday’s game when reminding everyone that the Ravens have arguably the best fullback in the league in Vonta Leach. It seems wasteful not to at least present a bigger threat of a run in those situations by having quarterback Joe Flacco line up under center, with Leach and Rice behind him. Even if the Ravens still elect to throw, this simple alteration might keep defenses guessing more in those short-yardage spots.
Coach John Harbaugh said it best Monday when reminding everyone that hindsight is 20-20 and that any play call looks great when it works and foolish when it doesn’t, and it is worth reminding everyone that Flacco missed an open Dennis Pitta on that third-and-1 play on the game’s final drive. However, the Ravens’ 0-for-6 showing in short-yardage situations on third and fourth down screams that it might be time to change up their philosophies a bit.
> Through the first two weeks of the season, it’s no secret that Flacco has picked up right where he left off late last season in targeting Pitta frequently in the passing game as the pair has connected 13 times for 128 yards and a touchdown. Seven of those catches have gone for first downs as the third-year tight end has been a go-to target when the Ravens need to move the chains.