Tag Archive | "Tom Brady"

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Ravens, Patriots both hope red zone doesn’t mean “stop” on Sunday

Posted on 19 December 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It’s the dirty little secret that can’t be overlooked despite a four-game winning streak that’s put the Ravens in control of their path to a sixth consecutive playoff appearance as they welcome the New England Patriots to Baltimore on Sunday.

While improving on a 4-6 start to move two games above .500 with their Monday win over the Detroit Lions, the Ravens have gone 4-for-14 inside the red zone over their last four games. Finishing drives inside the 20 with a touchdown just 42.9 percent of the time, coach John Harbaugh and his team know they can’t continue to depend on good fortune and 61-yard field goals to overcome the league’s 29th-ranked red-zone offense.

But fixing the problem is easier said than done at this late stage in the season.

“There are things that we’ve come up with that we’ve noticed that we have addressed and will continue to work on,” Harbaugh said. “That’s as much as I would like to share with you at this time.”

Of course, the Ravens coach doesn’t feel like broadcasting the details, but a simple look at the offensive personnel makes it easier to explain. A strong running game is clearly ideal once you push closer to the goal line, but the Ravens’ struggles in that department are nothing new by now.

The Ravens’ passing game largely depends on the speed of receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, but the red zone is constricted and depends more on size and precision, two areas in which there have been deficiencies this season. Until the recent return of tight end Dennis Pitta, the Ravens have lacked a big receiving target inside the 20 beyond rookie Marlon Brown, who has made plays but needs to run more precise routes to be a consistent threat.

And while veterans Dallas Clark and Brandon Stokley — the latter now on injured reserve — earned reputations as brilliant route-runners earlier in their career, their declining speed neutralized their ability to find windows in coverage near the goal line this season.

Those shortcomings along with some untimely penalties have added up to a small margin for error that quarterback Joe Flacco has often been unable to overcome, forcing the Ravens to depend on the right leg of kicker Justin Tucker to convert field goals. In their 18-16 win over the Lions, the Ravens were 0-for-3 on trips inside the 20 and needed a franchise-record six field goals to pull off the victory.

“Just little things, one thing here and one thing there,” Flacco said. “When you don’t take advantage of the one play that you get down there to score a touchdown or if you are giving yourself one play to do it, if you have one little slip up, then you are putting yourselves in a tough situation to really convert and put the ball in the end zone. That is kind of what happened to us the other night. We didn’t take advantage of some of the good opportunities we had and left ourselves in bad situations and then didn’t convert.”

The Ravens hope that Pitta’s return will boost their shoddy red-zone play over the final two weeks of the regular season and beyond, but the play-making tight end wasn’t targeted once in their three red-zone trips against the Lions and finished the game with only two catches for 24 yards.

His 6-foot-4, 245-pound frame and reputation for running exceptional routes should help considerably on both third down and near the goal line, but Pitta acknowledged that Detroit used some bracketed coverage to neutralize his dangerous abilities.

The book is certainly out by now on his reputation as Flacco’s favorite target on the current roster.

“It just depends on who is open, what coverages they deploy, and how we respond to them,” offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. “That could change up. Some guys are going to have big games; some guys are not going to have a great game. We usually have somebody that shows up week after week.”

Of course, Sunday’s game will provide a major test in future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, but the Patriots have been dealing with their own offensive struggles with the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski to an ACL injury and the recent absences of rookie wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson.

Entering Week 16 ranked 16th in the league in red-zone offense, the Patriots were 1-for-4 inside the 20 in their loss to Miami last Sunday — their first game since Gronkowski’s season-ending knee injury — as Brady was forced to throw to 5-foot-10 Julian Edelman and 5-foot-11 Danny Amendola inside the 20. The two are talented route-runners and productive receivers, but they are targets unable to go up and get the ball in traffic like the Pro Bowl tight end Gronkowski.

With the 6-foot-3 Dobson back at practice this week, he and talented receiving back Shane Vereen are likely to see opportunities when New England moves inside the red zone, but neither should be considered an easy fix to the Patriots’ offensive problems.

That said, the 10-4 Patriots have found success throughout the year despite Gronkowski missing all but seven games this season. Much like Flacco adjusting to life without Pitta and departed wide receiver Anquan Boldin, Brady has continued to succeed without the likes of Gronkowski, former slot receiver Wes Welker, and tight end Aaron Hernandez this season.

“When they haven’t been full-strength, they have found ways to win football games,” Flacco said. “I think we’ve had a lot of those same situations, and we’re just now starting to capitalize on them and win them. Earlier in the year, we probably weren’t able to win quite as much, and these guys have.

The casts have noticeably changed on each side of the ball, but Sunday’s contest is still likely to come down to which quarterback makes more plays as Flacco has gotten the best of Brady over the last few meetings between the teams, including last January’s AFC Championship game.

It’s apparent that neither offense is clicking on all cylinders with the end of the season quickly approaching, putting more expectations on each signal-caller to carry his team on his back. The Ravens have essentially been in must-win mode for the better part of a month while New England still needs one more win to lock up its fifth consecutive AFC East championship.

The battle inside the 20 will be critical like always, but the Ravens will be facing the league’s 21st-ranked red-zone defense while the Patriots must deal with the fourth-ranked unit in those situations and Brady has often struggled against Baltimore’s defensive schemes throughout his career.

Both Flacco and Brady will need to be at their best to give their flawed units a chance to succeed in what figures to be another classic matchup between the Ravens and Patriots. But with so many changes everywhere you look on these rosters, the spotlight will be even brighter on the quarterbacks than usual.

“Being able to execute under pressure, being smart, knowing the situation, keeping their poise, knowing how to handle [adversity],” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “[It’s] all the things — the play, the defense, clock management — [and] just good situational football. Each situation is a little bit different, no matter how much you practice it or how many situations you practice. [It’s about] being able to adjust and have that gamesmanship, poise and intelligence on the field to make good decisions at critical times.”

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The 15-7-0 loves unicorns and show ponies but hates Tom Brady comebacks

Posted on 14 October 2013 by Glenn Clark

15 positive observations from the weekend of football, seven not so positive observations and we acknowledge a “zero” from outside the world of football. A reminder, there’s never any Ravens game analysis here. We do plenty of that elsewhere. It’s a trip through the weekend of football via videos, GIFs, memes, pictures, links, Tweets and shtick.

True story. Tom Hanks only took the starring role in “Captain Phillips” because he was turned down for a similar role in a movie musical version of the 15-7-0. We parted amicably after negotiations, so truthfully I have not cared for some of the things he’s chosen to say in the media during the blitz for the film. I’ll take the high road…as always.

15 Positive Observations…

1. Tom Brady’s final drive was so good Sunday it might actually HAVE involved unicorns and show ponies.

Yes, Tom Brady threw an amazing game winning touchdown…but…ummm…

Let’s check in with Rob Ryan for his thoughts.

Remember that time Brady played John Harbaugh to Julian Edelman’s James Ihedigbo?

Just a guess, but I’d imagine this didn’t happen after THIS play…

2. So long, Virginia. Will be awfully nice to not have to pretend to have any idea what a Wahoo is in the future.

We won’t miss you.

Boston College toyed with Clemson for awhile elsewhere in the SEC, I assume for this reason.

Further elsewhere in the ACC, Syracuse should probably get their medical experts on this.

3. I don’t know if I feel “good” for Penn State, but watching that game Saturday night made me happier than Dikembe Mutombo blocking a shot.

I made a trip to Pennsylvania this weekend to see the Coyotes ground the Flyers and was treated surprisingly well. I imagine Michigan fans probably got the same in their visit to the Keystone State?

In the loss, credit Dennis Norfleet for…survival?

Elsewhere in the Big Ten, Tevin Coleman is why Indiana can’t have nice things.

4. The Cincinnati Bengals are in first place by themselves. Reports say Satan got the better end of the deal.

Ladies and gentlemen, Gio Bernard.

5. Joseph Fauria > Christian Fauria > overpaying for EA Sports’ most recent underwhelming effort.

But we’re probably getting dangerously close to Fauria jumping the shark…

Remember when Brandon Weeden suddenly remembered he was Brandon Weeden?

I know the Browns lost the game, but is there really any loser when you attend a game and get to witness this?

(Continued on Page 2…)

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The 15-7-0 is unseasonably hotter than the Patriots’ offense

Posted on 07 October 2013 by Glenn Clark

15 positive observations from the weekend of football, seven not so positive observations and we acknowledge a “zero” from outside the world of football. A reminder, there’s never any Ravens game analysis here. We do plenty of that elsewhere. It’s a trip through the weekend of football via videos, GIFs, memes, pictures, links, Tweets and shtick.

If there ever is a Fall in the great state of Maryland, don’t worry about having to pay to heat your home. Just read the 15-7-0 and your heart will be warmed for seven whole days*!

(*This is a fact proven by science**.)
(**Even if you don’t think this is a proven fact there’s nothing you can do about it because there is no government so no one can say otherwise. HAHA, jerks.)

15 Positive Observations…

1. Peyton Manning is better at real football than Tony Romo is at fantasy football. There is perhaps no more significant thing that can be said about someone.

Both quarterbacks were awesome Sunday; but one was victorious while the other was picked by Danny Trejo. You probably already know which is which.

I like to think that Peyton Manning threw an interception in this one because he desperately longed to know what the other side felt like.

There was also a moment where he did this.

In a related story, what the sh*t is this man doing?

2. Ohio State has been tested in each of the last two weeks and came up aces. Did anyone check to make sure they didn’t tattoo the answers on the inside of their eyelids?

Something weird happened at the end of the game. I’ll let Brent Musberger explain.

College Gameday was in Evanston before this one, and someone brought a giant Mr. Feeney head, so obviously Gameday should never be anywhere else.

3. At the end of the Navy/Air Force game I had a strong desire to give every Midshipman a hug. And also to punch every Congressman in the nads.

And if it’s a Navy win, that means it’s a Navy motivational video!

Also, I wasn’t able to get one of these at the game Saturday. I would REALLY like it if someone else got me one.

4. If you didn’t have Peyton Manning or Tony Romo on your fantasy team this weekend, I believe the next best bet was Mason Crosby.

And unfortunately if you own Brandon Pettigrew, no points for hurdles.

You DO however get points for James Jones making big plays.

Also Brad Jones did…something.

5. After all of the embarrassment and shame Paris brought upon their family, you have to feel good that young T.Y. has given the Hiltons something to be proud of again.

You think “TY” stands for “Time (to) YOLO”?

Little known fact: the Colts’ Mario Harvey HATES PUNTERS.

(Continued on Page 2…)

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Don’t buy into Brady contract as savior to Flacco negotiations

Posted on 25 February 2013 by Luke Jones

You could imagine the comments from many Ravens fans as soon as news broke Monday of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s three-year, $27 million contract extension that will take him through the 2017 season.

Were Joe Flacco and his agent Joe Linta paying attention to those figures?

If Brady will take less money for the team’s sake, why won’t Flacco?

I wish Joe would be a team player like that guy in New England, who is twice the quarterback he’ll ever be.

While it’s true that Flacco and any other quarterback due for a major payday in the next year or two will take a hit in the public eye because of the perception created by Brady’s reworked deal that clears cap room for the Patriots in each of the next two seasons, there’s really no comparison between Brady’s situation and the one for the current Super Bowl MVP.

First and foremost, the Patriots essentially turned the remaining years of Brady’s current contract into a five-year, $60 million contract with all money guaranteed, according to Albert Breer of the NFL Network. It’s a sweet deal for a veteran wanting to finish his career with the Patriots, a team notorious for cutting veteran players with escalating salaries and declining skills. And while the numbers don’t sound as sexy as the recent deals signed by Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, the $60 million in guaranteed money sounds nearly as good as Brees’ contract even if it means Brady won’t make quite as much money over the entire life of the contract.

That much guaranteed money for a quarterback entering the final years of his career is a major accomplishment.

Second, Flacco is at a completely different stage of his career as the 28-year-old seeks his first large payday after completing his rookie contract signed in 2008. Brady will be 36 prior to the start of the 2013 season and just worked out the final contract of his career. Let’s not forget Brady signed a four-year, $72 million contract with $48.5 million in guaranteed money at the start of the 2010 season to become the highest-paid player in the NFL at the time.

Even if Brady presently remains the superior quarterback — though Linta will remind you his client outplayed the Patriots signal-caller in each of the last two AFC Championship games — the expectations over the next five years for each player differ. Flacco is projected to be entering the best years of his career while Brady will try to hold onto what he is right now for as long as he can.

Brady negotiated the extension knowing the Patriots have made a habit of purging veterans near the end of the career. He may have done the Patriots a favor from a cap perspective, but it also ensures that he won’t be kicked to the curb at some point over the next few years. In contrast, Flacco and Linta know they have all the leverage in the world over general manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens, who have no choice but to re-sign the quarterback with no other real option available to them.

Finally, Brady’s hometown discount that reduces the cap numbers but leaves the Patriots on the hook for a ton of cash over the next five years doesn’t eliminate the other quarterback deals signed over the last couple years. The good news for the Ravens is that Brady’s restructure reduces his 2013 cap number to $13.8 million, which is projected to lower the exclusive tag number to just under $20 million if the Ravens ultimately elect to go that route without a long-term deal in place by March 4.

The reality is that one player taking a deal like this doesn’t mean others will — or should — follow suit. And while Brady’s extension might linger in the back of Flacco’s mind when it boils down to the final minute details of how to structure the contract, it’s not going to have any substantial impact in moving the meter in terms of guaranteed money.

Total money is typically what makes people react, but guaranteed money is the substance of any NFL contract and Brady’s $60 million guaranteed is a very nice five-year retirement plan for one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history.

It has very little impact on the Flacco negotiations.

To suggest otherwise is just wishful thinking.

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Flacco’s “elite” mind is taking him — and the Ravens — to New Orleans

Posted on 23 January 2013 by Drew Forrester

There’s nothing in sports better than proving people wrong.

It’s one thing to win.

But, it’s far better to do so when folks said you couldn’t or wouldn’t do it.

Lots of baseball fans said Alex Rodriguez would never sport a championship ring.  He proved them wrong.

Plenty of folks opined that Peyton Manning was great in the regular season, but wasn’t quite “tough enough” to win the whole thing.  Manning quieted those people in Miami back in January of 2007.

Hell, we, here at WNST, have been proving Baltimoreans wrong for the better part of decade.  A few years back, after the station made several on-air changes, a bunch of “experts” who listen to talk radio went on our web site or other cyber-space venues and predicted our imminent demise.  “That’s the end of ‘NST,” they wrote.  “They’re circling the drain,” others said.  Not only are we alive and well, we continue to kick everyone’s ass in town when it comes to quality content and a full-service media offering that no else in Baltimore comes close to duplicating.

I take great pride in that, personally, because I was well aware that people in town thought we were going to fall apart.

We owe our sponsors a great debt of gratitude for sticking with us and, of course, we owe our loyal listeners and readers a huge group hug for always supporting our media efforts.

But…if I’m thrilled with the fact that we’ve proved people wrong here in Baltimore, you can only imagine how Joe Flacco feels about his impending trip to New Orleans.

Joe Flacco had doubters in Baltimore.  And Boston.  And Dallas.  And Washington, DC.  And Los Angeles.  In fact, just about every major media outlet in the country plus a bunch of national talk radio shows and NFL Game Day “experts” questioned Flacco’s ability to play at a high-level in the NFL.

I wonder if those goofs like their crow plain…or marinated in a marsala sauce?

************************************

Joe Flacco isn’t a perfect quarterback.

In fact, that person probably doesn’t exist. If you ask someone with a real discerning eye for quarterbacking, they’d probably tell you the two men in the NFL who most closely resemble the “perfect quarterback” are Tom Brady – the guy Flacco just ousted from the post-season on Sunday night – and Aaron Rodgers.  Brady is the guy who will slice you apart in the pocket but not use his feet much to beat you, while Rodgers has an accurate, rifle-arm and the ability to move around and make plays with his legs.

Neither of them made the Super Bowl this season.

Flacco did.

And he’s far from perfect.

Well, he might actually be perfect in ONE way.

And that’s why he’s going to New Orleans next week despite the fact that lots of folks in Baltimore and around the country didn’t think he was capable of doing that.

Every Sunday from September until January 20, the comments flew fast and furious on Twitter, Facebook and on blogs all across the nation.  The calls came in to talk radio every day, every hour.  You might have been guilty of authoring one of those remarks about Flacco.

“I don’t care how good that defense is, Flacco will never take the Ravens to a Super Bowl.”  Heard that one before?  Yeah, me too. About ten thousand times.

“Flacco isn’t an elite quarterback. We better start thinking about drafting someone this April.”  How many nutjobs in Baltimore wrote or said that during the regular season?  Right.  A-freakin’-lot.

“I sure hope the Ravens don’t sign this guy to a long-term deal.  He can’t win the big one.”

He had some believers, of course, but the critics were loud.

Oh, and as it turns out, the haters were dead wrong.

How did it come to pass that Flacco proved himself to everyone?  Because he has “the perfect mind”, that’s why.

**************************************

The truly special athletes in the world all have one common trait.

Woods has it.  Federer has it.  Brady and Manning(s) have it.  Jordan had it.  So did Gretzky and Lemieux.  Justin Verlander has it.  I’m sure there are plenty of others I’m not listing who have “it” too.  Martin Brodeur might have it better than any active athlete right now.

And Joe Flacco has it too.

What is “it”?

It’s the ability to forget what just happened — good or bad — and worry only about what lies ahead.

The greatest-of-the-greats were never afraid of the moment in front of them because they believed they were going to deliver the goods.  They didn’t always make the play, of course, but that didn’t stop them from trying to do it the next time the opportunity presented itself.

There was a great Michael Jordan story, back in the glory days, when he was 0-for-11 in the second half of a critical regular season game against the Pistons.  With seven seconds left, the inbounds play went to him and No. 23 hoisted up an 18-footer that found nothing but net and the Bulls won.  Afterwards, reporters asked him why he would take such a shot when it was clear with his 0-for-11 shooting half that it just wasn’t his night.  Jordan explained: “I just assumed there was no way I could miss twelve shots in a row.  I don’t think I’ve ever done that before in my career, so I figured I’d make it.”

That’s the difference between a guy who would have passed on that shot and someone who wanted the game in his hands.

(Please see next page) 

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The Five Plays That Determined The Game: Ravens/Patriots

Posted on 22 January 2013 by Glenn Clark

Following every Baltimore Ravens game this season, Ryan Chell and I will take to the airwaves Tuesdays on “The Reality Check” on AM1570 WNST.net with a segment known as “The Five Plays That Determined The Game.”

It’s a simple concept. We’ll select five plays from each game that determined the outcome. These five plays will best represent why the Ravens won or lost each game.

This will be our final analysis of the previous game before switching gears towards the next game on the schedule.

Here are the five plays that determined the Ravens’ 28-13 win over the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in the AFC Championship Game…

(Note: not all pictures are always of actual play)

Glenn Clark’s Plays…

5. Nate Solder called for holding, negating Danny Woodhead 4 yard run on 3rd & 2 (3rd quarter)

4. Stephen Gostkowski 25 yard field goal after Patriots called third timeout (2nd quarter)

3. Tom Brady pass intended for Wes Welker incomplete on 3rd & 8 from Baltimore 34 (3rd quarter)

2. Dannell Ellerbe intercepts Tom Brady pass intended for Aaron Hernandez, tipped by Pernell McPhee (4th quarter)

1. Arthur Jones recovers Stevan Ridley fumble forced by Bernard Pollard (4th quarter)

(Ryan’s Plays on Page 2…)

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Ravens enjoying AFC Championship moment, but thinking ahead for more

Posted on 21 January 2013 by Ryan Chell

Owings Mills-It’s been a crazy 24 hours for the Baltimore Ravens, the media covering the team, and for the fans cheering on the team in Charm City.

Less than a day after coming back from a 13-7 halftime deficit to beat the New England Patriots in Foxboro to win the AFC Championship and earn a chance to win Super Bowl 47 in New Orleans on February 3rd, the Ravens were back at work Monday working as if they would be taking on the next opponent-in this case the San Francisco 49ers.

“We’re going to work,” Ravens center Matt Birk said in between meetings today. “With all the side stories- if you’re not playing in the game, you can enjoy all that. I think as players we’re just going to hunker down and focus in on the task at hand.”

“We’re going out there as a team trying to get where we’re at,” quarterback Joe Flacco said, who threw for three touchdowns in the Ravens’ 28-13 victory over last year’s AFC Champion Patriots. “We’ve got to win one more. ”

Despite the workmanlike attitude, Flacco however still says some of what happened Sunday night feels like a dream.

“I think we’re still on a little high from the game,” he said. “I don’t think anyone’s quite believed it yet.”

His companion on the offensive line agreed.

“I’m just kind of numb to the whole thing. Slowly it’s coming, but hopefully you realize and appreciate the moment,” Birk noted.

But Birk couldn’t say enough about all the hard work and persistence the Ravens have shown over the season  pay off for a chance at a Super Bowl title.

“It’s great. That’s your goal,” Birk noted.  “That’s your dream. That’s why you play…with the closeness of this team and how far we’ve come my last four years getting close and finally breaking through, it’s pretty special.”

Certainly for the 15-year veteran in Birk, he admitted that he wouldn’t be in this situation if he felt like didn’t have a shot at reaching the Super Bowl, which is the first appearance for the 36-year old center.

“At this stage in my career, losing takes a lot out of you. When I came back, I thought there was a legitimate chance that I felt like I could help the team.”

Meanwhile, Flacco, who is in his fifth year in his journey as an NFL quarterback, has hurdled Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, and now Tom Brady in the quest for his first Super Bowl.  It seemed as if overnight, he made himself one of the best quarterbacks in the league, put himself on the map as an elite quarterback in the NFL, and has been the topic of discussion across many football circles.

But what has Joe Flacco been asked the most since winning the AFC Championship?

Super Bowl Tickets.

“Tickets are going to be limited,” Flacco joked. “There’s been a lot of text messages, and everyone’s really excited about it.”

Flacco said the quicker he can put those distractions behind him, the better he’ll be going up against Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, and the rest of the San Francisco defense.

“You have to get all the mayhem that goes with the game out of the way and take care of that first,” Flacco said, “so when you focus on the 49ers, they have your full attention.”

Bernard Pollard reacts to Tom Brady slide and kick

One day after calling Patriots QB Tom Brady’s leg kick into Ravens safety Ed Reed, “bull-crap”, fellow Ravens safety Bernard Pollard backtracked a little saying that the NFL needs to call flags “both ways.”

Right before the end of the first half Sunday night with the Patriots up 10-7 with 0:26 seconds left before the break, the Patriots were knocking on the Ravens door threatening to score.

Brady, flushed out of the pocket by Paul Kruger, scrambled down to the Ravens’ 7-yd line with Reed barreling down on him. Deciding to give himself up, he took a slide-but not before sticking his right leg up, hitting Reed in the groin and tripping him up.

No flag was called with the side judge standing right next to the play, but several Ravens defenders petitioned for Brady to be penalized. A fine could be coming.

Pollard told CSNNE and other outlets Sunday night, “You’ve got to keep those legs down. We all know and understand what’s going on there. As a quarterback, when you go to slide, we’re taught we can’t do anything. When you come sliding, and your leg is up in the air, trying t kick someone, that’s bull crap.”

Today, Pollard was a little bit more reserved, but kept the same message.

“He knew what he was doing,” Pollard said. “I’m the kind of player where it has to go both ways. Hopefully the NFL will do something about it. If not, that’s fine if they do. For me as a player with all the emotions on the field, we’re going to say and do things. But when it’s all said and done,  if you want the game clean and you want everything to be moving forward in the right direction, everyone needs to be penalized for their actions.”

Follow WNST on Twitter for your Ravens Super Bowl News! WNST-We Never Stop Talking Baltimore Sports!

 

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Ravens-Patriots: Five predictions for AFC Championship

Posted on 19 January 2013 by Luke Jones

Coming as close as they possibly could to reaching the Super Bowl last season before heartbreak occurred in the form of a Lee Evans drop and a Billy Cundiff missed field goal in the final seconds of the AFC Championship, the Ravens return to the scene of the crime in Foxborough as they again take on the New England Patriots.

Defeating New England for the first time ever in the regular season by way of a 31-30 final in Baltimore back in September, the Ravens will now try to win their second postseason game at Gillette Stadium in the last four seasons. Aside from their 33-14 blowout victory in the wild-card round of the 2009 season, the Ravens are used to seeing their meetings with the Patriots come down to the wire as each of their other four meetings in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by fewer than seven points.

The Ravens will again hope to extend the career of inside linebacker Ray Lewis by one more game and advance to their first Super Bowl since Jan. 28, 2001. And for Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco, a win means taking another step toward elite status at their respective positions in the National Football League.

Of course, standing in their way are Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the two men who have been at the top of their respective classes for the last decade.

Here’s what to expect as the 12-6 Ravens try to punch their ticket to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII …

1. The Ravens won’t have to deal with Rob Gronkowski, but Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez will cause major problems over the middle of the field. It’s no secret that slot receiver Wes Welker and Hernandez are the most dangerous weapons at Brady’s disposal, and they each provide difficult challenges to the Baltimore pass defense. Corey Graham is the clear choice to match up against Welker in the slot as the Ravens will run the nickel package extensively, and the cornerback is playing with more confidence than ever after intercepting two Peyton Manning passes last week in Denver. Welker will get his yards, but the Ravens are confident that Graham can prevent the Pro Bowl wideout from having a monster game. Hernandez will be trickier to cover as defensive coordinator Dean Pees will likely lose a combination of linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and strong safety Bernard Pollard in trying to mix up coverages against Brady. I have my doubts that either player will be able to stick with him as the middle of the field has been a problem all year long. Hernandez will produce 80 receiving yards and a touchdown.

2. With the Patriots focusing heavily on Torrey Smith by matching Aqib Talib against the speedy receiver, Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta will combine for 160 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Smith has been a major thorn in the side of New England as the second-year wideout has produced three touchdowns and 209 receiving yards in two contests against New England. The Patriots could use Talib against Smith exclusively – the Baltimore receiver usually lines up on the side of the field on which Talib plays anyway — but they will likely offer safety help as well if they were paying attention to what Smith did against Champ Bailey last week. Deep safeties will allow more room for Boldin and Pitta to work the middle of the field as the Patriots ranked 29th against the pass this season. Though still mixing it their spots to be aggressive with the vertical passing game, the Ravens will try to use Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce on first and second down to create third-and-manageable situations in which Flacco loves to use his tight end and possession receiver. The Patriots will do everything they can to stop Flacco’s deep balls to Smith and Jacoby Jones, meaning the quarterback will instead choose to attack the intermediate portion of the field more frequently.

3. As he has for much of the season, running back Stevan Ridley will add another dimension to the New England offense that will wear down the Ravens in the second half. Pees downplayed the significance of his defense playing 87 snaps in each of the last two games, but you have to wonder how much more a group that’s already less than 100 percent can take if they’re on the field for extended periods on Sunday. Ridley rushed for 1,263 yards this season as the Patriots had the seventh-best rushing attack in the league. The New England offense still centers around Brady, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a heavy dose of Ridley in the second half to see if the Patriots can tire out the Ravens’ front seven, thus neutralizing any potential pass rush in the process. Inside the red zone, the Patriots won’t hesitate to use a quick-snap approach if the Ravens aren’t set and will hand off to Ridley before the defense even knows what’s happening. Any defense spends so much time studying Brady and trying to dissect him, so it’s easy to overlook the New England running game in the process. It will pay dividends in the second half for the Patriots, especially if they have a lead.

4. The team that wins the battle inside the red zone will come away with the AFC title. The objective is clear against the Patriots — even if it’s a difficult one. You know they’re going to score points, but if you can hold them to field goals on at least a few scoring possessions while you score touchdowns on your trips inside the 20, you’ll typically find yourself within striking distance in the fourth quarter. It will be a test of will in that area of the field as the Patriots scored touchdowns on 70 percent of their trips inside the red zone (best in the NFL) while the Baltimore defense was second in the league by allowing touchdowns on only 43.4 percent of opponent’s trips inside the 20. Conversely, Flacco and the offense must come away with touchdowns when they’re knocking on New England’s end zone. This is where Boldin and Pitta will be critical against the league’s 13th-ranked red-zone defense. If you want any chance of beating New England on the road, you cannot trade field goals for touchdowns or you’ll find yourself in a hole early. The Baltimore offense is playing at a high level and shouldn’t have any reason to believe they can’t move the ball against the Patriots at will, but they need to finish drives with touchdowns. Barring an inordinate number of special-teams and defensive scores – like the Ravens win in Denver last week, for instance — the team that prevails inside the red zone will be the one advancing to New Orleans.

5. Joe Flacco will continue a tremendous postseason with 250 passing yards and two touchdowns, but the Ravens will again fall excruciatingly short in Foxborough with a 31-27 loss. The Baltimore quarterback is playing the best football of his career over the last month and will have another strong performance against the Patriots on the second-biggest stage the NFL has to offer. However, Flacco needs to advance to the Super Bowl to truly receive the recognition he deserves. As was the case last week, the Ravens are matched up against a better overall team, but they have every opportunity to win against the Patriots, who have some clear deficiencies unlike the Broncos. Regardless of what happens on Sunday, this season should be viewed as a success considering the number of injuries this team has sustained and how badly it was struggling just over a month ago. In the end, however, the Patriots will just have a little too much offensively for the Baltimore defense to handle and for the Ravens offense to overcome. This one could very well come down to the final possession of the game, but I just can’t bet against Brady and the Patriots in the conference championship, a game in which they’re 5-1 in the Belichick era. It won’t come down to a devastating dropped touchdown or field-goal miss, but the Ravens will fall short yet again despite a terrific effort in New England.

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Ravens hoping T. Smith continues big production against Patriots

Posted on 17 January 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Much has been made about the acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib and the effect it’s had on the New England secondary, but you’ll forgive the Ravens and wide receiver Torrey Smith if they aren’t overly impressed.

Of course, Baltimore wouldn’t share such a sentiment publicly about the Patriots’ 29th-ranked pass defense, but a 38-35 victory over the Denver Broncos in which Smith shredded All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey for two long touchdowns won’t exactly cause you to fear New England’s underwhelming unit. Talib has provided a boost to New England’s defense, allowing the Patriots to move cornerback Devin McCourty to free safety, but they still struggle against the pass.

In two career games against the Patriots, Smith has caught nine passes for 209 yards and three touchdowns. His Week 3 performance in which he reined in two touchdowns less than 24 hours following the tragic death of his younger brother was one of the most inspiring efforts in the NFL this season.

“It’s not that there’s any difference against those guys,” Smith said. “I just play the game. I just happened to play well against them the past few times. It’s not like I have their number or anything. I just go out there and run our offense. I’ve been able to be OK against them – hopefully, it continues. But it’s going to be tough.”

During the regular season, the Patriots allowed a league-worst 74 passes of 20 yards or more, which should leave quarterback Joe Flacco licking his chops as the Ravens completed 62 passes of at least 20 yards and have repeatedly gone vertical in each of their two postseason wins this month.

Acquired for a fourth-round pick from Tampa Bay on Nov. 1, the mercurial Talib has stabilized the New England pass defense, but it’s difficult to imagine offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell shying away from the Patriots’ No. 1 corner after the Ravens went after Bailey repeatedly in the divisional round. In six regular-season games with New England, Talib made 19 tackles, broke up two passes, and intercepted one.

Labeled a “riverboat gambler” by Caldwell, Talib will likely be entrusted with slowing down Smith or Jacoby Jones in the vertical passing game, but the Ravens proved once again last Saturday that they won’t hesitate to attack any cornerback in the league.

“You don’t always go into a ballgame [with the thought] in mind that you are going to go after this guy or that guy,” Caldwell said. “You try to spread it around and look at what they do from a schematic standpoint and see where you can attack what best suits your offense. That’s kind of how we look at it more so than anything else.”

In other words, if Smith or Jones is matched up in single-man coverage against Talib with no safety help, you can bet Flacco will be ready to take a shot vertically.

Pees hiring hit man?

Asked how to make life uncomfortable for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees offered a humorous but candid suggestion about the man he watched closely in his days as a New England assistant to Bill Belichick.

“Hire Tonya Harding,” said Pees as he laughed. “If they were getting off the bus, I’d spray water outside the bus and hope it freezes. He is who he is. I went against him up there in practice for six years. He’s as competitive of a person as I’ve ever been around.”

In addition to trying to pressure Brady inside the pocket, Pees explained how critical it is to mix up coverages against New England’s many talented weapons, ranging from Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez to Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen out of the backfield.

Welker operates almost exclusively from the slot as he was targeted 125 times for 1,040 receiving yards from that position, according to Pro Football Focus. Cornerback Corey Graham will draw the daunting task of staying with Welker as the Ravens are expected to play the nickel package extensively, with Graham sliding inside as No. 3 cornerback Chykie Brown enters the game to play on the outside opposite Cary Williams.

“He is a very quick guy. He catches the ball well,” Graham said. “Brady is looking for him a lot, and he makes a lot of guys miss with fakes and things like that, so he is a complete receiver. I have my hands full in the slot, but I am up to the challenge.”

The Ravens will not have to deal with the matchup nightmare that is tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was placed on injured reserve Thursday after re-injuring his forearm against Houston last Sunday, but Hernandez also provides a unique blend of speed and athleticism at the position. Such an athlete at that position creates matchup problems as Pees must decide whether to use a linebacker such as Dannell Ellerbe or strong safety Bernard Pollard in coverage.

The answer will vary depending on the situation while facing a Hall of Fame quarterback, according to Pees.

“You can’t go in there and say, ‘The whole game, OK, I’m going to put a strong safety on this guy.'” Pees said. “That’s not going to take Brady very long to figure that one out, nor is it going to be the same if we end up putting a linebacker on him all the time. The key is to let them have to figure it out after the ball is snapped, who’s on him, and then you just can’t keep doing the same thing over and over with Tom, or he’ll gash you.”

Bouncing back from “special” kind of nightmare

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Brady standing in way of Ravens’ redemption run to Super Bowl

Posted on 16 January 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have made no secret about their satisfaction in seeing the New England Patriots once again on the same stage in which they fell painfully short last January.

With few believing they could reach their second straight AFC Championship game after being left for dead just a few weeks ago, the Ravens are embracing the opportunity but also know the truth about Sunday’s game in Foxborough. The game they’ve worked toward over the last 12 months only has one acceptable outcome in their eyes.

“Nothing matters unless we’re going to win in New England this weekend,” linebacker Ray Lewis said. “Then we’re back to the same position we were in last year.”

As compelling as their run has been to watch, the same man is once again standing in the way of their first Super Bowl appearance since the 2000 season. While the Ravens were finally able to topple Peyton Manning, future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady has goals of his own, mainly atoning for last year’s Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. The most successful quarterback of this generation, the 35-year-old hasn’t won a championship since the 2004 season and has twice fallen in the Super Bowl since then.

Leading the top-ranked offense in the NFL in yards and points scored, Brady will try to do what Manning couldn’t do in Denver last Saturday. And the Baltimore defense will try to pick up where it left off in the divisional round when it held Denver’s explosive offense to just seven points in the second half after the Broncos returned a kickoff for a touchdown to begin the third quarter.

Even with every reason to be confident, the Ravens know that Brady will be waiting and ready after the Patriots scored 41 points against a tough Houston defense last week.

“He is a smart guy. We all know that is the reason he is probably a Hall of Fame quarterback,” cornerback Corey Graham said. “He is smart with the ball. He makes great decisions. He looks for matchups, and we have to just go out there and make plays.”

The Ravens’ multiple-look defense has given Brady difficulty over the years compared to most units as the Patriots were held to just 23 points in last year’s AFC Championship. The New England offense fared better in the Ravens’ 31-30 win in Week 3, but Brady acknowledges how difficult it is to play against a unit led by Lewis and free safety Ed Reed. In five career regular-season games against the Ravens, Brady has thrown five touchdowns and three interceptions and has posted an 83.3 passer rating, a modest mark for such a decorated quarterback. He has posted worse ratings against only four other teams over the course of his 13-year career.

His playoff loss to the Ravens on Jan. 10, 2010 was the worst performance of his postseason career as he threw three interceptions and lost a fumble in the 33-14 final.

Of course, the Baltimore defense hasn’t been the dominating unit this year that it was for more than a decade, but the Ravens were able to create pressure and force Manning into mistakes in the second half as the Denver quarterback turned the ball over three times in defeat. Instead of their simple “bend, but don’t break” performance, the defense made countless big plays in the second half to keep Joe Flacco and the Baltimore offense within striking distance.

“It’s not like you beat this team 50-0,” Brady said at a press conference on Wednesday. “It’s always a tight game, there’s tight coverage, there’s tight throws, there’s tough reads, because schematically they do quite a few things.”

The discussion last week centered around the countless chess matches between Lewis and Manning, but the Ravens’ battles against Brady have been just as compelling. New England won’t hesitate to use the no-huddle offense and quick snaps on occasion to catch the Ravens on their heels, especially after Baltimore played a total of 174 plays and 77:38 on defense over the last two weeks.

The Ravens take pride in disguising their schemes and changing up coverages, the latest example coming on Denver’s final offensive play when cornerback Corey Graham and Lewis flipped coverage on wide receiver Brandon Stokley and baited Manning into throwing a critical interception. However, New England will try to use similar tactics in hopes of creating a mismatch with its wide array of offensive weapons.

“They switch it up. When they make plays, they hurry up to the line, and they speed the game up on guys,” Graham said. “If you’re not ready, if you’re not prepared for it, it will catch you off guard. They have been catching a lot of guys off guard, a lot of guys not set up and prepared for the play.”

Even when the correct matchups are identified, defensive backs and linebackers must play disciplined as Brady will try to look off receivers and make defenders pay for the softer coverage they typically employ to prevent the big play. The Patriots also won’t hesitate to go against the grain such as when they sent backup Shane Vereen deep on a 33-yard touchdown out of the backfield against the Texans.

The Ravens’ best chance in slowing Brady is to make him uncomfortable in the pocket like they did to Manning in the second half in Denver, but even then, the task in the secondary is daunting against the likes of Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez in the short-to-intermediate portion of the field — an area in which the pass defense has been vulnerable all year. In many cases, the ball simply comes out too quickly to get to the veteran signal-caller when he employs three-step drops.

“We have to have great eyes. We can’t stare him down in the secondary,” safety Bernard Pollard said. “We have to be on our men. They have great receivers and running backs. We have to go out there and play our game.”

Unlike past seasons when playing the Patriots, the Ravens must also account for the New England running game as starter Stevan Ridley rushed for 1,263 yards this season. The offense is one-dimensional as it’s been in the past when you could simply count on Brady to throw it 50 times with an ineffective rush offense behind him.

The Ravens were clearly content in keeping plays in front of them against the Broncos, evident by using Reed and Pollard in two-deep coverage for much of the game, but it will be interesting to see what defensive coordinator Dean Pees dials up against New England. Brady attempted only 19 passes that traveled more than 30 yards in the air all season and lacks the deep threats that the Broncos possessed in both Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, but the Patriots are never afraid to change things up.

Baltimore is in store for another chess match, again playing one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game. And while the Ravens have been described as a team on a mission, there’s no arguing that the Patriots are motivated to not only get back to the Super Bowl but to finish the job after last year’s narrow loss.

Even though the Ravens beat the Patriots in the postseason three years ago and were one end-zone catch away from doing it again last season, they also know Brady is 5-1 in conference title games. As was the case last week, it won’t be easy to survive and advance for the underdog Ravens.

“That does not scare us,” Pollard said. “We’re going to go out, and we want to outhit you and outplay you and we want to go to the Super Bowl.”

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