Ravens opener – the one that got away

September 14, 2015 | Dennis Koulatsos

After the Ravens’ bitter 19-13 loss to the Broncos, it was clear that this was a game that they could have won, but it just got away from them.  It got away because of Joe Flacco’s back breaking interception.  It got away because the defense couldn’t get the Denver offense off of the field for nearly 11 minutes – in the 4th quarter to boot.  It got away when WR Steve Smith Sr.  let one slip through his fingers – in the endzone. It got away when second year tight end Crockett Gillmore had his hands on the ball – in the endzone again – and couldn’t haul it in while tightly covered by two Broncos defenders, including former Raven safety Darren Stewart, who ultimately came down with the ball.

There were other factors that led to the outcome, but those were the ones that stood out.  We saw Joe Flacco under duress by a fierce Denver pass rush the entire game.  Flacco never looked comfortable in the pocket, hardly ever set his feet, and frequently threw off of his back foot.  This is what happens when teams can’t run the ball in the NFL. When defenses like the Broncos’ and the Ravens’ completely take away the run, they limit the offenses, make them one dimensional and by and large predictable.  Credit Dean Pees and Wade Phillips here, as clearly they got the best of their counterparts, Rick Dennison and Marc Trestman.

Then there was the season ending injury to Terrell Suggs, the Ravens’ 6 time Pro-Bowler and arguably the team’s defensive leader.  For a defensive minded team that the Ravens are, this is a huge loss.  The Ravens have obvious limitations on the offensive side of the ball, and if they are going to sniff the playoffs this year, it’s going to have to be on the strength of their defense. Suggs was not only a fierce pass rusher off of the edge, but also stout against the run. Plus he’s a much more cerebral player than given credit for.  His teammates said that numerous times during yesterday’s game, he would tell them where the ball was going and/or what play was coming. Replacing his production is something that the Ravens are going to really have to take a long hard look at.

Courtney Upshaw  and Za’Darius Smith (who was inactive for yesterday’s game) are the obvious choices to fill Suggs’ spot.  The team may also pull up Brennen Beyer from the practice squad.  The 6’4″ 260 pound former Michigan Wolverine was transitioning from DE to OLB, and he will get a long look this week.  Plus Brent Urban will be coming off of the injured reserve list mid-season, and will give the Ravens a boost.  They may be able to overcome the injury to Suggs, but they simply cannot afford any more season ending injuries to the rest of the starters.

Back to Joe Flacco.  The awful, telegraphed pick-6 that he threw to Aquib Talib was about as demoralizing a play as one can be.  I know that Peyton Manning threw a pick-6 as well, but it wan’t as horrible of a throw as Jimmy Smith had to really work for it.  Smith made one heck of a play as he broke on the ball, tipped it into the air and took it to the house.  What made Flacco’s interception so bad, is that we have seen him – pre snap – lock onto his primary receiver, while seemingly giving no thought to what the defense is doing in regard to alignment. Talib said from his film study, he knew exactly where Flacco was going with the ball, as he undercut Steve Smith’s route and brought the ball back 51 yards for a TD.  Elite QBs don’t determine where the ball is going pre-snap. They line up, scan the defense, drop back and go through their progressions.  I know that Flacco didn’t have a lot of time to get his passes off yesterday, but on that particular play the line held; he had ample time to make the correct read prior to releasing the ball.  That’s the book on Joe – if you pressure him he will make mistakes, and he made a critical one yesterday.

The offensive line got overwhelmed by Denver’s defensive line, plain and simple. James Hurst was serviceable, as he replaced Eugene Monroe, who left the game in the first quarter due to a concussion.  They just couldn’t get any push, and the combo of Justin Forsett and Buck Allen had difficulty picking up yards.  The receivers and tight ends were unremarkable, as they got little to no separation from the Broncos’ secondary.

The Ravens defense played well as a whole.  They made Manning look ordinary and pedestrian.  He missed a couple of deep balls as he overthrew open receivers, and just didn’t look like the Manning of old.  “Old Manning” may be a better characterization of him at this point of his career.  The defense did have a let down at the worst possible time, as they let up that 11 minute 4th quarter drive.  Manning found success with some intermediate passes, as did RB Ronnie Hillman with some trap draws between the tackles.  The Ravens defense was obviously gassed on that drive, and were aided by a Broncos’ time out at about the 3 minute mark.  Had time out not been called, the Broncos would have probably scoreed a touchdown instead of a field goal.

It is the first week of the season and we are all very aware of that. It is not a time for a team – or a fanbase – to get too high or too low based on the results/performance of game one.  Defense wins championships and if these two teams can improve on offense, they will both be in the running for a spot in the playoffs 15 weeks from now. The only certain thing is that the Ravens will finish somewhere between 0-16 and 15-1.  The road trip continues with a stop next week at Oakland.  QB Derek Carr injured his hand in the Raiders’ loss to the Bengals, but should be cleared to play.  It will interesting to see if the Ravens can bounce back and avoid starting their season 0-2.  It is very much a must win game.